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Want to Create a Changemaker City? Start with Empathy!

The Change Leaders of Washington, DC’s Changemaker Schools remind us that empathy is the first step to changing the world.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

March 25, 2013

On Sunday, March 17th, while many celebrated St. Patrick’s Day or enjoyed a lazy weekend afternoon, 14 principals, teachers, counselors, administrators and Ashoka Empathy team members gathered in Georgetown Day School’s library to discuss how every child in DC can become a changemaker.

With only three hours to spend together, our agenda was ambitious: introduce each other, learn from Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis, share and analyze stories of success, and identify clear action steps for how we can work together to ensure every child in our city has a changemaker education. Interestingly, perhaps the time best spent of the afternoon was during what I had organized as a break activity.

In order to help us connect more deeply with one another, Michelle Molitor, a Change Leader from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, led an empathy-building exercise. Michelle asked us to divide into groups of three with people we didn't know previously. Then each person in the group had two minutes to answer a question that Michelle read aloud. The other people in the groups could not comment or interrupt – only listen. I recall the first one being a “softball” to get us warmed up:

“Describe a time when someone was empathetic towards you.”

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Piece of cake, right? It actually took me a good 30 seconds to think of an example, but then I remembered a time recently when a colleague showed me empathy by comforting me while I was upset during a conference. The second question was more challenging:

“Describe a time when you could have been more empathetic toward someone else.”

This one was hard for people to explain within the two minutes we were allotted. However, the last question was flat-out impossible to fit into our time limit:

“Describe a way in which bias plays a role in the breakdown of empathy at your school.”

What most struck me was that the change leaders at these schools, who are already so committed to helping their students become changemakers, could so quickly identify and thoroughly describe the ways in which they want to improve. Furthermore, although as private, traditional public, and charter schools they are “supposed” to compete with each other, these educators were prepared and eager to collaborate to promote a different message of what education should mean to all of us.  At Start Empathy, we look forward to sharing their progress with you in the coming months and years!

Image attribution: aphasiafilms, Creative Commons