I left my California beach town vacation early to return to frozen New York for the democratic tradition and right of jury duty. For two days, I sat in a stale room with intermittent wifi with over 100 citizens from across socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a privileged and proud citizen experience turned out to be a futile, inefficient, and outdated process. I say this not to diminish the importance of diverse citizen juries, but to acknowledge the frustration I saw and heard from my fellow citizens in the room, and experienced myself. At the end of the second day, my peers and I cheered and sighed in relief as we heard that we are free from serving on a jury for the next several years. I was at once thrilled that I was done with what was a dreaded and annoying process, and saddened that most citizens would leave the court house with even less confidence or interest in their government.
“As a country, we haven’t invested in or changed the ways we engage with democracy; we’re interacting with 20th century institutions in the 21st century.”
A graduate student in public policy, I’ve been involved with government since high school. What struck me as I sat in the jury room is that while I’ve interacted with the government in many ways as an employee, student, and engaged citizen, for many in the room, this is one of the only times they’ll interact with the government this year, and they were left sorely disappointed in how it functions. (more…)
The latest issue of The Journal of Culture, Language and International Security includes an article by me on Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for International Security Actors. As Robert Jervis said, “The ability to see the world and oneself as others do is never easy and failures of empathy explain a number of foreign policy disasters.”
“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.
I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.
But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)
“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…)
“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.”
I recently read an incredible book–a series of non-fiction essays–called The Empathy Exams. Here’s an excerpt from the title essay. More thoughts on this book and empathy coming soon.
“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 something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
My friend solicited open letters to high school students for a project for work. Here is what I wrote last Friday afternoon. I found that I was really writing it as reminders to myself based on things I’ve recently been thinking about and learning, so in multiple respects it was a great and fun exercise.
We don’t know each other, but some of the best advice I’ve ever received has been from strangers. In fact, everything you’ll read here I’ve learned from others. There are things I think I know now that I wish I knew when I was in high school. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to really hear it, or I didn’t have the context for understanding its relevance. Here are some of the things I wish I started doing earlier, which are as much reminders to myself to do them now as they are advice to you.
Have empathy. You may have heard the phrase “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is listening to and learning about someone else, and acknowledging their experience as something real and valid even if it is different from your own or you don’t completely understand it. Empathy is not the same as sympathy—a proactive concern and desire to improve the situation of others. (This great animated video demonstrates the distinction between sympathy and empathy.) We should all strive to be more empathetic, and to be open–really open–to listening and learning from everyone around us. (more…)
What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback.
The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”
As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation. (more…)
In the past few months I’ve moved to a new city and started a new job exploring design for social innovation. Writing has fallen by the wayside. But I recently read three fantastic books that I hope to write more about soon. Check them out!
Note: If you are unfamiliar with systems thinking, I recommend reading them in this order as I did.
This video is inspiring. How can we help schools and teachers treat their students this way, and encourage empathy, critical thinking, and independence in the classroom? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, and it seems like this school is definitely on the right track. GOOD has more on the public Mission Hill School in Boston.