Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.

Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.

Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response. (more…)

5 Good Reasons to Consider Turning Down a Job Offer

Photo of sticky note courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo of sticky note courtesy of Shutterstock.

Over on The Muse I wrote about when turning down a job offer might make sense for you and your career. Just over a year ago I turned down a seemingly-perfect job because it didn’t seem like the right fit, and I haven’t regretted it a day since. You’ll want to consider mission, growth opportunities, warning signs, timing, and money. Read my advice here.

Sontag on Sympathy

“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent–if not an inappropriate–response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may–in ways we might prefer not to imagine–be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others 

Think Holistically–CSR and Change Depend on It

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We think about the parts instead of the whole, and it needs to change. Thinking about the parts translates into laws and policies that don’t solve problems because they aren’t addressing the issue holistically, and departments in organizations that don’t achieve their purpose because they were never given the mandate to do so. For example, when I hear that the marketing team is handling an organization’s social responsibility initiatives, I see it as a red flag that the organization isn’t prioritizing the work or thinking about social change as core to its mission.

As Cheryl Heller explains in her latest piece for Unreasonable.is, this problem may stem from our industrial mindset, and our tendency to work in silos:

“The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces us into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change.”

A must-read article from Pacific Standard, which explores the lack of cultural factors in social science research, shows that psychologically, industrial nations tend to have this siloed psyche.  (more…)

Is Experience the New Graduate Degree? (Huffington Post)

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post

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With news that the graduate Stafford loan rates will increase next year, and New York Times headlines like “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” you don’t need to look far to see that the higher education experience is broken. While MOOCs and other initiatives attempt to mend a failing system, some organizations like Watson UniversityEnstitute, and Experience Institute are hoping to create an entirely new educational system through experiential learning and personal development.

recent Pew study backs up the notion that more experience in education is desired. According to an Atlantic article about the report:

It found that, yes, a third of college graduates who majored in social science, liberal arts or education regretted their decision… But overall, when asked what they wish they’d done differently in college, ‘choosing a different major’ wasn’t the top answer. The most popular answer, given by half of all respondents, was “gaining more work experience.’ Choosing a different major was the fourth most popular response, after ‘studying harder’ and ‘looking for work sooner.’

Not everyone learns best in a traditional classroom. Experience Institute (Ei), which welcomed its first cohort last year, encourages its students to establish their own classrooms by undertaking three apprenticeships or independent projects while also completing five modules of curriculum designed specifically for the program. Ei’s curriculum is taught in the form of meet ups that take place in Chicago in-between apprenticeships and cover community building, self-awareness, storytelling, operations, and design thinking. The yearlong program offers the graduate school experience at a much cheaper than the norm price tag of $13,000. (more…)

Empathy on the 1 Train

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“I’m a single mother of two and I’m selling…”

I didn’t listen further to the woman stepping onto the 1 Train, assuming I knew the rest of her announcement.

As she made her way towards me—fruit snacks and chips packed neatly in a cardboard box—I averted my eyes to the ground, feeling guilty for rarely giving money. In the corner of my eye I see the graying man next to me frantically digging through his backpack. Scavenging through all his pockets as she continues towards us, I figure he’s looking for his wallet. “If he can’t find it, I’ll give him a dollar to give her,” I tell myself. I know I have one.

The woman stalls in front of us; three strangers united, waiting breathlessly. He finally grasps something with his hand…and pulls out a pack of Orbit. “He keeps his money in a pack of gum? That’s weird,” I think, certain he will be giving her money. He proceeds to pop a stick of gum in his mouth, physically sigh in relief, and do whatever we pretend to do on our phones. She continues on past us, repeating her speech, and my heart sinks.

I’m shocked and disappointed. No, I’m infuriated. What was he thinking? Where was his empathy?! I sat there, judging him.

And then I sat there, judging myself. Am I really any different?

Why Every Social Entrepreneur Needs to Read This Book (Huffington Post)

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Originally posted on HuffPost Impact.

Paulo Freire, author of the seminal 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, saw the world not as a given reality, but as “a problem to be worked on and solved.” That mindset is a quality we attribute to the greatest social entrepreneurs. Yet, when so many well-intentioned social ventures globally seem to leave individuals dependent on aid instead of empowering them, Freire’s book should be required reading for every social entrepreneur.

While many in the social enterprise space are now excited by what we call “empowerment non-profits,” “human-centered design,” and “co-creation,” Freire and others working in activism and participatory development have been advocating for working with, and not for, the oppressed for more than 50 years. Furthermore, our culture of glorifying the social entrepreneur through awards, praise, and aspiration is contrary to the values of liberation. Based on the understanding of oppression and liberation from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the role of the social entrepreneur would not be to act as liberator of the oppressed, but to work with the oppressed in the liberation of themselves and their oppressors. (more…)