World-renowned Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), long beloved for bringing its vast collection of world art to everyone via free admission, launched a ground-breaking new program in 2017 exploring the relationship between art and empathy. Its stated mission: “Mia is collaborating with museum colleagues as well as social scientists, artists, educators, and others to research and explore practices for fostering empathy and global understanding through the power of art and to share these findings with the field.”
In describing their goals and the reason this initiative is so important now, they say: “In our increasingly divisive world, polarized by issues regarding politics, racial inequities, marriage equality, global warming, income disparities, and immigration policies, it becomes clear that our failures to understand other people’s feelings are exacerbating prejudice, conflict, and inequality. If we wish to develop not only a more equal society but a happier and more creative one, we will need to look outside ourselves and attempt to identify with the experiences of others. This critical skill is called empathy, which, according to Roman Krznaric, an expert on empathy, ‘has the power to transform relationships, from the personal to the political, and create fundamental social change.’
“Art museums, with their collections filled with stories of humanity from across the globe, are well-positioned to play a vital role in helping people understand each other. Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) champions the power of art—and the responsibility of art museums—to spark curiosity and creativity, connect people across cultural differences, and engage our individual and shared values.”
We often talk about the power of literature and the written word, both through fiction and non-fiction, to expand and enhance people’s empathy. We don’t as often think about the power of artistic expression in general–through music, dance, and the visual arts. But think about the spontaneous graffiti, the murals, that appeared after George Floyd’s murder, and how much they both expressed the feelings and experiences of those who created them, and furthered all of our understanding and empathy. The art in and around George Floyd Square in Minneapolis is powerful. Interestingly, Mia did an exhibition, featured on the page for Empathy and the Visual Arts Center, two years earlier after Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, near St. Paul, called “Art and Healing: In the Moment June 17, 2018 – July 29, 2018.”
And if you’re near Minneapolis, check out the museum itself. Their incredible art collection, spanning thousands of years and world-wide cultures, always has something that will expand your understanding, appreciation, and empathy. The artwork presented here, titled “Rocking Chair,” by Nellie Mae Rowe, is from an exhibition titled “In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art.” If you’re not near Minneapolis, check out whatever art museum you are near, and let the visual arts expand your empathy.
Sandy Hook Promise: Start With Hello initiative
Sandy Hook Promise has developed a new program for educators to use in schools to promote social-emotional skills, called Start With Hello. The stated goal: “Teaching empathy and empowering students to end social isolation by following three easy steps.”
The simple but powerful premise is that violence and bullying can be reduced by helping students to feel empathy for one another.
For Grades K-5, “Start With Hello Elementary is a digital program that includes an interactive storybook, videos, activities and projects. You’ll also receive an educators’ guide with lesson plans based on social-emotional learning to help students build empathy, healthy relationships, and social awareness.” We are excited to add that the Empathy Symbol is being used as part of this program, in a coloring sheet designed by ArlieSpeaks Media, LLC. Arlene J.M. Grant is a Promise Leader for the Sandy Hook Promise organization, as well as being an activist, artist, attorney, author, educator, humanitarian, podcast host and the Creative Director of ArlieSpeaks Media, LLC.
December 2020 is the 8th anniversary of the devastating Sandy Hook school shooting, when 20 young children and 6 educators were killed. It is unconscionable that we are 8 years out from that, and so little has been done to prevent gun violence. In fact, there have been many horrific mass shootings since then. There are several avenues to reduce gun violence, including legislative. Start With Hello is a very promising new way to get to the root of the problem. We hope all schools use this program to promote empathy and other social skills in children.
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter is an activist organization that is “committed to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.” it was created from the outrage over the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 by a white “neighborhood watch captain,” and has since grown into a world-wide movement. BLM has recently furthered a huge awareness across the United States–and in the rest of the world–of the extent that police and and other governmental institutions use systemic racism and oppressive tactics and policies against Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color (BIPOC).
The blatant murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers sparked this new empathetic awareness. Floyd’s murder happened not long after Breonna Taylor, a Black woman sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, was shot to death by invading police, and Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, was shot by white vigilantes.
So why are we calling Black Lives Matter a promoter of empathy?
The increased awareness of these issues among white people following George Floyd’s murder has spread around the world. White people are asking, with genuine concern: what can we do? And the answer, from so many Black people, is LISTEN.
White people are being asked to turn on their empathetic hearts and minds; to be quiet and reach out; to open up; to listen.
To try to feel and understand something of what the Black experience in America is like.
To hear Black celebrities, athletes, politicians, university professors, esteemed writers and artists, and so many others, testify about getting stopped by the police for no reason (often, because they “looked like a suspect in a robbery”–even when the only resemblance was that they were Black), and knowing that one wrong move or word, or nothing at all, could be a fatal turn in the encounter.
What does that feel like? What does that do to people going about their everyday lives, with that awareness in the back (or forefront) of their minds? White people are called, at this time in history, to truly listen and be empathetic to all of this.
On a personal note, we visited the memorial site where George Floyd was killed, and it was tremendously moving. It was impossible not to become overpowered by the awareness that this is where this man died, crying out until the end that he could not breathe. The emotional impact slammed us. Sometimes empathy creates a feeling that is almost more than we can bear. But it is important not to turn away from it.
Black Lives Matter.
Actor Alan Alda, star of the TV series “M*A*S*H, as well as host of the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers, also turns out to be an author who is interested in how people can communicate with one another more effectively–and especially, how empathy contributes to meaningful and effective communication and connections between human beings. He realized, several years ago, that scientists and doctors often have difficulty communicating with their audience, whether that means an auditorium, or a single patient. He started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
This book is the fascinating, and very readable, story of how he got there, and what he has learned along the way. He says, “As we helped scientists be clear to the rest of us, I realized we were teaching something so fundamental to communication that it affects not just how scientists communicate, but the way all of us relate to one another. We were developing empathy and the ability to be aware of what was happening in the mind of another person. This, we realized, is the key, the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”
Alan Alda clearly has a fascination with all things scientific and all things human, and so he takes us on the journey with him as he explored how meaningful communication and empathy develop and can be increased. He shares some surprises with the readers–such as the value of improv! He talks about a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum, and how doing improv exercises helped them. Improv forces people to pay close attention to the other person, reading their faces, listening to the emotions they are conveying, and paying real attention to what they say and do. Simple improv exercises, such as mirroring another person wordlessly, are highly effective. In fact, once the person who developed this program realized how much it was helping the kids on the autism spectrum, he and his colleagues published a rigorous study that measured their improvement in empathy, showing significant results. There is now a program called Spotlight, using these improv techniques, which serves over 350 kids in Boston every year.
This highly readable book ranges far and wide, with many interesting stories (in fact, there’s a chapter called stories, where he shows how we connect with one another via our own stories, sharing them and listening to others.) After you read this book, you will put Alan Alda on your list of people you’d most like to have dinner with. And if you did have dinner with him, you can bet that he would listen to you closely and with true attention and empathy!
Doctors Without Borders
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) is the widely respected organization that offers medical care to refugees and the oppressed around the world. Its doctors volunteer at great personal risk to themselves, out of a strong feeling of empathy for the suffering people of the world.
Not only do they do this valuable medical work, they also have as part of their mission educating people about the needs and lives of the dispossessed. In other words, they work to increase our empathy for the 68.5 million displaced persons in the world. As they say: MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics, which means that we have a duty to provide care for those who need it, no matter who they are or where they are. Bearing witness and speaking out about extreme needs and unacceptable suffering are at the heart of our mission.
On their website, you can go to pages that further explain the lives and experiences of those affected, whether it’s the migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean, or the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, or the South American migrants heading north. Not only do they work to provide medical support, they also seek to “tell the stories” of these people. In 2018 they developed an interactive, live traveling exhibit to tell and show people directly what the lives and experiences, hopes and fears are like for the displaced of the world. This included a virtual reality experience of going to refugee camps and meeting and hearing from refugee families. This traveling exhibit will be offered again in 2019. You can check the MSF website for dates and places in 2019.
All Are Welcome Here
All Are Welcome Here is a grassroots movement that started in Minnesota in the aftermath of the 2016 election, in response to expressions of hate and racism that happened at the high school which the founder of AAWH had attended. She felt compelled to do something, to speak out against this growing atmosphere of tolerance for hate speech. So she made a sign and put it out in her yard. From that one simple, heartfelt sign, the movement has grown. Now you see the signs all over the metro area of Minneapolis/St. Paul. People are putting their support for tolerance and inclusion out at their homes and at their businesses and at their schools in many states. Harvard Dance School welcomed new students this fall with the signs.
Listen to the words to of a Somali high school student who is new to our country and wears a hijab: “When I went to visit my friend in Minneapolis and saw so many ‘All Are Welcome Here’ signs in people’s yards, and all the “Black Lives Matter” signs, for the first time, I felt like I could really relax. I felt like I belonged.”
This is the mission of AAWH: “Our mission is to support an inclusive, non-partisan, and positive environment for All in the state of Minnesota and the broader United States. We believe diversity makes Minnesota and the United States great, and we are committed to taking concrete actions to support our mission and vision.”
Check out their Facebook Page to see interesting posts about how people are working to help all people feel welcome.
Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University who has studied empathy extensively. He recently made a fascinating episode for NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast, titled Empathy Gym. He talks about the variations of empathy–how cognitive and emotional empathy are different; and how we can develop our “empathy muscles” in various ways, including reading fiction. He relates his own development of empathy from his experience as a child of immigrant parents to the U.S. from two different countries, and how their divorce actually increased his empathy.
He has also written a book titled The War For Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. The book description says, “In this groundbreaking book, Jamil Zaki shares cutting-edge research, including experiments from his own lab, showing that empathy is not a fixed trait—something we’re born with or not—but rather a skill that can be strengthened through effort. He also tells the stories of people who embody this new perspective, fighting for kindness in the most difficult of circumstances. We meet a former neo-Nazi who is now helping extract people from hate groups, ex-prisoners discussing novels with the judge who sentenced them, Washington police officers changing their culture to decrease violence among their ranks, and NICU nurses fine-tuning their empathy so that they don’t succumb to burnout. Written with clarity and passion, The War for Kindness is an inspiring call to action. The future may depend on whether we accept the challenge.”
9 Essential Habits that Provide the “Empathy Advantage”
Michele Borba has written a powerful new book about the decline in empathy in our children, and what to do to reverse that. Have you seen all the “selfies” that young people post on social media these days? That’s what the title refers to, and she says it directly relates to the 40% drop in empathy that researchers have seen over the last 3 decades. “Self-absorption kills empathy, the foundation of humanity, and it’s why we must get kids to switch their focus from ‘I, Me, My, Mine’ to ‘We, Us, Our, Ours.’”
As I read this book, I marked page after page to come back to. It is rich with insights and ideas. Let me share some of Borba’s wisdom here:
“Above all, remind your child: ‘Just like when you practice guitar, soccer, or your multiplication tables, the more you work at being kind, the kinder you’ll be.’”
“We live in a plugged-in culture. The single best predictor of healthy emotional interaction is a lot of face-to-face communication… Staring at computer screens, texting, tweeting, and IMing do not teach kids their emotional ABCs. … The average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged into a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day.”
Borba discusses extensively how parents can foster empathy, and it is clearly parents who are the driving force here. In a study of people who rescued Jews from Nazis, the most determining factor was that their parents instilled in them “a strong identity based on caring values and an ethic of social responsibility.” She cites another study that found “children whose parents used induction–who discussed how a child’s misbehavior made them, the parent, feel–showed higher levels of empathy, perspective-taking, and prosocial behaviors than kids whose parents relied heavily on power-assertive discipline such as taking away privileges, or on physical punishments like spanking.”
Borba has tons of practical advice, for both parents and teachers, on how to help kids be more empathetic (something that she says is not well-valued today in our culture of promoting self-esteem and achievement), including reading more, making and modeling kindness as a family and classroom value, helping children learn self-regulation, and giving children more opportunities for open-ended free play with a variety of friends.
The New York Times has begun a new project, which it asks people to contribute to, edited by BAYETÉ ROSS SMITH, pictured above. In response to politicians who lump groups of people–blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and so on–into a single box, they are asking people to send in their own pictures and stories to say, for example, “This is who a black woman is, this is my experience, this is me.” This series will tell both sides of the empathy coin: We are all different, and we are all the same. That is to say, every individual is unique and should not be stereotyped, and most people have similar feelings and desires.
As Mr. Smith says, “In media, in marketing and in life, it’s all too common to see large, multifaceted groups of people defined by a single narrative. #HereIsMyAmerica — a project we’re launching here and on Instagram — is an attempt to counter that simplistic approach. We’re inviting you to help build a more nuanced national portrait.”
Listen to some of the the first participants. From Teri Johnson, a black woman: “I’m the fifth generation in my family to graduate from college. And out of everyone that I know, I don’t think I’ve met a person — African-American or Caucasian — who can say that. I come from a family that believes a lot in education and believes a lot in helping civil rights. … Not just as African-Americans, but as humans we all want the same things. We want love, we want happiness, we want financial stability, we want to be able to have great experiences, from travel to education to going to great restaurants and seeing great shows.” And from Jessica O. Matthews, also a black woman: “I run a hardware tech company that makes energy-generating products. I am a black woman, and our company is based in Harlem. We have Fortune 100 clients, we do business globally. We have 15 patents and patents pending covering really exciting iterations of our technology. … My parents are immigrants from Nigeria. They both grew up in the same tribe in the same state in Nigeria, but they met in Brooklyn. That’s what makes New York amazing.My mom watched Oprah constantly and decided that we could be anything. I went to an Ivy League school.”
Bookmark the site, and check it out frequently, as hundreds of pictures and descriptions of beautiful Americans are added.
An exciting new initiative is gaining a lot of followers in schools, among parents and others concerned with creating a positive future in which today’s children grow up learning and practicing the vital skill of empathy. As they explain it, “Start Empathy, an initiative of Ashoka, is a community of individuals and institutions dedicated to building a future in which every child masters empathy. “We urgently must-see young people as changemakers and help them develop the skills they need to be empathetic, ethical actors who will positively impact their own lives, their communities, their schools, their companies, their countries and the world, now and throughout their lives. “Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative is expanding and leveraging Ashoka’s network of social entrepreneurs and other changemakers to drive a movement to make empathy a priority skill for all children. We seek to accelerate society to a tipping point at which this idea becomes inevitable because a new framework has taken hold.” A growing number of schools are becoming what Start Empathy is calling Changemaker schools. Check out Start Empathy’s explanation on how these schools are fostering empathy skills in their students, and see which Changemaker schools are in your area.
You can connect with Start Empathy at its website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Conversations about divisive issues can sometimes be emotional, pick-a-side and fight-it-out discussions that leave us feeling worse about the people we disagree with, and sometimes worse about ourselves. But there is a way to talk that feels open, honest and impartial, where you can actually be heard and learn about the people with whom you disagree.
Respectful Conversations are designed not to change minds, but soften hearts.
Respectful Conversations are gaining steam. Since 2012, over 2,000 Minnesotans have participated in over 80 Respectful Conversation on a variety of divisive topics including:
The amendment defining marriage
Guns in Minnesota
Differences between urban and rural government leaders
Racial implications of religious art
Muslims and Christians on global security
Jews and Protestants on Israel/Palestine
Divisive internal organizational issues
The results speak for themselves: On average, 70% of participants report that “I have a stronger sense of empathy for those whose viewpoint is different from my own.” Over 95% agree that they felt listened to.
The Making Caring Common Project from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
The mission statement of the MCC states: “Making Caring Common (MCC) aims to strengthen the abilities of parents and caretakers, schools, and community members to develop caring, ethical children. We’re working to make these values live and breathe in the day-to-day interactions of every school and home.” To that end, it offers many thoughtful and helpful ideas based on excellent research. A particularly useful resource is their 5-point plan called “How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children.” bit.ly/1rWBS1mThis guide offers clear and practical ways to help children become more empathetic, with “try this” ideas for each one. They are:
1. Empathize with your child and model empathy at home. 2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations. 3. Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy. 4. Expand your child’s circle of concern. 5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively. A recent New York Times article featuring this new and important project.
The city of St. Louis Park, just west of Minneapolis, organized a Meet Your Somali Neighbor Forum in February 2014. The free event attracted a crowd many times larger than organizers had expected, indicating that people from different backgrounds and cultures are eager to learn about each other and connect with each other in an empathetic way. Somali food was served, and Somali-American community members spoke both in an informative talk and in a friendly Q & A session. The evening ended on a beautiful note with an original poem read by a senior at St. Louis Park High School, who is becoming renowned already for her poetry. Since we in the audience had learned earlier in the evening that poetry is profoundly important in Somalia, this was especially meaningful.
Here are a few things we learned that evening:
For Somalis, if you can’t get along with your family, you are not respected.
There is a great deal of sharing between neighbors. It would not be unusual for a Somali woman to go to her neighbor to borrow some salt in the middle of the night.
Somalia is essentially 100% Islam, which is a way of life that guides everything. For example, Somalis must give 25% of their income to charity. And Somalis have a harder time buying houses here in the United States because Islam forbids paying interest.
In Somalia, parent involvement in education is not encouraged; it is up to teachers to educate and discipline children at school. So Somali parents do not expect to be called in to schools to be part of their child’s educational process, which can lead to misunderstandings between teachers and parents.
We would encourage all communities with immigrant populations to organize similar “get to know your neighbors” events. To read more about this one, see Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum Attracts a Crowd. If you know of similar empathy-promoting events where you live, please let us know. We’d love to hear about them!
Chris Kluwe Former NFL Star
“Societies that don’t practice empathy, if you look at the historical record, every single civilization has failed. … And really, the root cause of that is not being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes. It’s empathy, it’s treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.”
Who said these simple but profound words? Not a politician, not a religious leader, not a syndicated newspaper columnist. No, it was a punter/pundit on Conan O’Brien’s show recently.
Chris Kluwe was a punter for the Minnesota Vikings when he wrote a letter to Deadspin in August 2012 criticizing a Maryland State delegate who demanded that the Baltimore Ravens silence a player who had spoken up in favor of same-sex marriage. The letter was well-reasoned, thoughtful, articulate and used very colorful language to make the point that the fundamental American values of free speech and equality for all were being threatened by this legislator’s attitude. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kluwe/an-open-letter-to-emmett-burns_b_1866216.html
The letter got a ton of attention, and catapulted Chris into the limelight. It took him everywhere: from helping with the fight to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota, to appearing on many talk shows, to being the Grand Marshall of the Pride Parade in Minneapolis in July, to writing and promoting a book of essays, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.
And always, for Chris, it comes down to empathy. Here’s what he says in an essay in the book entitled “For the Children”, wherein he refutes the argument that opponents of same-sex marriage use that they’re doing it “for the children”: “It’s about giving our children the tools to succeed in life-tools like empathy and kindness. …It’s about understanding that there are countless children and they’re not all going to be the same and that we should celebrate that diversity as they mature into adults.” (p 54, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.”)
We saw Chris Kluwe speak to a packed house on his book tour recently, and were impressed with his wit, his smart and rational approach to life, his down-to-earth attitude, and his good humor. Chris Kluwe gets it, that it all starts with empathy.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show bit.ly/14Urzf2Michele Norris, the National Public Radio host, was starting a book tour for her memoir, which explored racial secrets. Sensing a change in the atmosphere after the election of the first black president, and searching for a new way to engage and listen, Norris printed 200 postcards asking people to express their thoughts on race in six words. Thousands of submissions have poured in from the web, in the mail, by hand or via Twitter. Spend some time scrolling through The Race Card Wall. Click through to read some of the stories behind the six-word submissions. Send in your own six-word essay. Share this with your friends. Join the conversation.
Children’s Culture Connection is an organization that connects kids from America with kids who live in 12 different developing or war-torn countries. Kids form relationships with peers in these countries and learn to understand life from a new perspective in a very personal way. This learning about each other is a two-way street. Children’s Culture Connection also runs a summer camp program for middle school students. This past summer, students from several schools in Minnesota connected with students in Afghanistan. This is what CCC said about the experience: “The American students learned about Afghanistan beyond the headlines. They learned how illiteracy affects the ability of people to understand the world, and how easy it is to be brainwashed. Their participation in the camp and outreach to the vulnerable Afghan students allowed them to discover a new view on the world, and how human connectedness can bring hope to the most hopeless place on earth.”
Check out a wonderful book for young adults by David LaRochelle, Absolutely Positively Not.
Sixteen-year-old Steven DeNarski doesn’t know if he’ll pass his driver’s test or if he’ll ever understand his parents, but there’s one thing he’s sure of: he’s absolutely, positively NOT gay. He sets out to prove it by collecting photos of girls in bikinis, sitting at the jock table at school, and dating like crazy. “Absolutely” takes a humorous look at the life of a regular boy who’s finding out what it takes to be a real man.
This delightful book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Whether you are gay or straight, sixteen or sixty, you will enjoy the endearing characters and the story of Steven’s path to self-acceptance. David LaRochelle says that Steven is based on himself. He says, “Like Steven I was scared to death that somebody might discover I was attracted to men, and I did all sorts of ridiculous things to prove to myself, and the world, that I was absolutely, positively not gay. And like Steven, when I finally decided to be honest, I was a much happier person.” (from Daphne Lee’s interview: bit.ly/lTZL32)
In a recent interview David had for the Red Balloon Bookshop, he was asked, “If you were a superhero, what super power would you like to have?” He answered, “I would like to have the power to give empathy to others. It’s hard to hate someone once you get to know them and get a glimpse of what his/her life is like.” David added, “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’ The older I get, the more truth I find in this sentiment.”