Enough arguing already: Create an experience & tell good stories.
A couple weeks back, we teamed up with the folks behind Insight Labs to try to crack just what it’s going to take to make empathy a norm in today’s education system. Tucked away in an industrial warehouse in Half Moon Bay, and joined by more than a dozen leading thinkers & doers from across a variety of industris—including design, advertising, media, and academia—we wrestled with the very same questions we’ve been asking ourselves for months: what exactly do we mean by empathy? And why exactly is it more important today than ever? And what’s it going to take to spread not a curriculum or a program, but an idea?
This was a group that wanted to believe that empathy was the next big thing, but wasn’t convinced as to why. So we spent nearly 2.5 hours trying to make sense of what empathy is and why it will matter more tomorrow than at any other time in history, at which point it wasn’t at all clear that we were going to get anywhere. It was then that someone said, “You can’t thrive without the 4th R: reading, writing, arithmetic, & relationships,” and that our job was to supply the tools for doing that. This quickly became the room’s ah-ha moment.
The end result was a set of takeaways that will help guide the next phase of Start Empathy. But looking back, they’re also takeaways that all of us who after for systemic social change would do well to keep in mind:
- Empathy is meaningless without changemaking, and changemaking is dangerous without empathy. We’ve come to realize that empathy carries too many associations on its own. A big part of our job is to unpack the term, remembering at every step that what we’re after is applied empathy, and a collective commitment to equipping kids with the skills they need to be life-long changemakers.
- It’s about relationships. We spent the first two hours circling around “what is empathy” and “why is it important?” It was only when a woman described it as “the 4th R” that it clicked for people. Relationships are something that everyone can see and experience themselves—through the growing number of friends you can connect with on FB and LinkedIn, the increasing # of people you interact with each day, etc. This also bridged the gap between cultivating empathy in students, and modeling it yourself, as you can establish the same goals for teachers and students alike. Working in isolation is no longer an option, whether you’re a designer, a scientist, or an educator: it’s all about the team-of-teams.
- Forget arguments: tell good stories. The turning point in the conversation was what we’ll describe as “the Molly moment.” Ashoka Fellow Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, and a key champion behind the Empathy Initiative, had flown in from Charlotte to join the day’s discussion. Molly described what they’d achieved through GOTR, reaching 190K girls each year and mobilizing 47K volunteers, and started to cry as she explained that there was something transcendent about that experience that’s impossible to put to words. Her opening up suddenly gave everyone else in the room permission to do the same, and to get away from all of the political back-and-forth of “empathy is this versus that.” It was at that moment that Nina Rappaport, founder of Kimochis, said, “it’s the 4th R,” and everything shifted. While flawless arguments and showcasing the evidence-base are important, in the end, it’s all about good storytelling.
- Start with the outcome. Toward the end, Hilary Hoeber, Public Sector Practice Lead at IDEO said, “You can design or relationships. You can’t design for empathy.” Empathy is fuzzy for most people, but any teacher can teach in a way that supercharges relationships. And a child or adult’s ability to forge relationships is something that you can (and often already do) measure.
- This must be experienced. Our charge now is to recreate everything that happened in that room over the course of three hours, in three minutes for everyone who finds us online or as members of our schools network. Everything we do—whether through an event, or an online videos—should lead to an “empathic experience,” or this will never fly. It’s time to recreate “the Molly moment” in everything we do.