Fostering Empathy



It was a Tuesday morning, and I was staring out at a sea of children. More than 700 little heads, ranging in age from five to 12 faced forward toward a podium. Most of the kids were sitting on Spring Mill Elementary's gymnasium floor while the fifth grade -- the oldest students of the school, aka "the leaders of the pack" -- was sitting at some of the round lunch tables near the back of the space that doubles as the school cafeteria. School officials, Washington Township Board members and some parents flanked the sidelines. It was the school's first convocation of the year along with my son's first-ever convocation at the school. After our household move into a different school township last March, we were new to the school this year, but felt right at home with the topic being addressed that morning. The buzz word behind this gathering was deserving of all the buzz, and it's been buzzing in my head for a while now.

I have written about the term empathy before. Exploring the term "radical empathy," I covered Joel Lovell's article The Tale of Two Schools (May 4, 2012) in The New York Times Magazine. His narrative explored how two very different New York City schools in the way of socio-economics come together to promote an understanding amongst its two very different student bodies, one at a prestigious private high school and the other at a struggling public high school. What is it about this word, so challenging to say correctly (must ... enunciate ... ) and even more difficult to define? It's one of those words that seems soft, the kind you hear overused in a therapy session or at least a hot yoga class. Kind of vague and hazy at the edges, you know? If you get it right though, it's a heavy hitter. It's a game changer.

Empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. Evidence that we are homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation and mutual aid is pushing aside that old view and belief that we are self-interested creatures. I don't know where I learned this, but for the longest time I always thought that the quality of empathy was something you could only be taught. In other words, it wasn't something already coursing through your electrical pathways. To my way of thinking, it was a bonus character trait, an add-on. Extra credit if you had it, but no deduction if you didn't.

Washington Township's Spring Mill Elementary School was recently invited to join the Changemaker Schools Network through the Ashoka's Empathy Initiative. Ashoka was started by entrepreneur Bill Drayton more than 30 years ago because he believed that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy was the key business survival skill. It underlined successful teamwork and leadership, and Ashoka identified and supported leading social entrepreneurs who brought new solutions to difficult problems. Now, along with business leaders, educators and college campuses, elementary schools are involved in the organization with Ashoka's Start Empathy initiative, where the goal is for every child to master empathy in their own lives and communities. It isn't a single program, a curriculum or a pre-cut bulletin board students will walk by daily and think just because they see it, they do it. It is more intangible than that, unfortunately, in an age where we like to measure and grade and quantify.

This recognition was given to this school because the students, teachers and parents are already practicing empathy. From supporting causes such as the Gleaners Food Bank to caring about their school families in need in the form of the parent-driven school-wide accessible Community Closet, the school community is placing themselves in many different shoes and is able to recognize what hunger feels like, need looks like, and hard times seem like. Subha Balagopal, Principal of Spring Mill Elementary, is thrilled with the recognition, saying if she were to die tomorrow, life would be complete because Spring Mill is filled with this way of living and thinking that will cause real change in both personal lives and society.

So why do I choose to write about the concept of empathy, an elementary school that encourages it along with an organization that recognizes it on a website that at its core is about the arts in our city and beyond? With ideas and feelings, art allows people -- all people -- to build relationships across time and space. We can feel as close to a piece of music composed centuries ago in another land as an Indie rock song generated by a local band in the nearby city of Bloomington. In this creative process, we share our process -- our products produced after our personal mountains are scaled. And it's in sharing our process that we are most vulnerable. We expose what and who we are, and empathy is one of the key pieces in allowing for this to happen. Because although the creative process involves a leap of faith along with a leap of talent, deep-down we know that we are able to take those leaps because we know there is support and understanding.

For art to materialize, we need empathy. We need to be able to feel safe enough to explore our feelings through movement, brush, pen and instrument and -- aha, the bonus! -- place ourselves in what others are feeling and explore that to. Change happens when that takes place both in the person (or artist) and the action (or art). Like I said, the diminutive word empathy can be a heavy hitter. We need more change-makers in this world because with them, they'll blow the tops off both the artistic and human ceilings we have created for our children. And that is extra credit for everybody.

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