Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Empathy and Social Action

Empathy and Social Action

Most Changemaker Campuses, including the University of San Diego, state that promoting empathy is one of its goals.  But what is empathy and why is it important?  Why is it something that is stressed at other Changemaker Campuses and at USD?  I started thinking about this more after reading Nicolas Kristof’s op-ed about empathy and then rereading David Brooks’op-ed on the same topic. 

There are many different definitions of empathy and it is a concept that has drawn the attention of numerous academics.  Indeed, there is a great deal of research, from a variety of disciplines, on the concept of empathy.   In addition, it is an idea that has found its way into our political discourse and policymakers often invoke it as a positive quality (remember when President Obama stated that he wanted to appoint a Supreme Court Justice that would empathize as well as be a sound legal thinker?). 

The most common definition, and the one that both Kristof and Brooks use in their op-ed articles, states that empathy is the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions.  Or to put it slightly differently, it is the ability to “put oneself in another person’s shoes.”  Most of the definitions I found stressed that empathy is about feeling what someone else may be going through.  It is often contrasted with sympathy, which is sometimes defined as feeling sorry for someone else’s condition – but not necessarily understanding what they are going through.  Over the past few months, I have been involved in numerous conversations with colleagues who always stress that USD programs, such as community engagement or changemaking, should promote empathy rather than sympathy.

For the most part, I agree with this.  I would much rather provide experiences for students, faculty, and staff so they could learn to empathize with others rather than simply sympathize.  To do this, however, it requires that we provide for experiences for members of the USD community to interact with each other and with other communities, that we understand the history of those communities or individuals we are interacting with, and that we appreciate the cultural, political, social, and economic contexts in which people make decisions.  Empathy, then, requires that we take seriously many of those courses that we currently find in our Core Curriculum and in our majors or minors, such as, those offered from history, literature, sociology, political science, art and art history, and ethnic studies (just to name a few).  As both Kristof and Brooks agree, empathy is a good quality for someone to practice.  But why?  To what end?

More specifically, why should USD as a Changemaker Campus promote empathy?  As I have discussed in a previous blog, the key aspect of changemaking is taking actions that promote social justice, common good and positive social change.  So, does having empathy actually result in these types of actions?  Kristoff would argue that positive social actions and empathy are intertwined.  In particular, he argues that service immersion trips are one way for students to learn about empathy.  He suggests that these trips create individuals who are much more likely to lead lives where they are engaged in promoting social justice.  Brooks, however, argues that “[e]mpathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”  He goes on to say that “[e]mpathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.” 

While we can debate whether giving a homeless person a dollar is the type of “social action” that we want to promote, Brooks’ larger point is one that we should take seriously.  Does empathy in fact promote social action?  I am not sure and I only have anecdotal evidence to offer in response to these questions.  I do think it is possible for people who do not have empathy to still take positive social action.  I also believe that it is possible for someone with empathy to take actions that may not produce the positive consequences he or she intended.  Still, through my experiences in South Africa, Uganda, Linda Vista, and City Heights, I am convinced that students, faculty, and staff are much more likely to take action with respect to a social dilemma if they have had an experience which enables them to empathize with the community with whom they are engaged.  I will discuss these specific instances in more detail in a subsequent blog, but for now, I simply wanted to raise the issue of empathy and present some arguments as to whether it is critical to our changemaking mission.

What do you think?  What experiences have you had where you empathized with others?  Did this motivate you to act?  The journey of becoming a responsible, active citizen, who engages with his or her community to promote social justice, requires continual reflection and adjustment.  As a colleague recently reminded me, social change is never linear and it is never inevitable.  If you are on this journey, I encourage you to share your ideas, to take action for those issues that you believe in, and to do your best to understand the historical, cultural, and contextual characteristics of the communities you are immersed.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

Magic and Resilience: Students Take Service Immersion Trip to New Orleans

This reflection was written by Celina Gonzalez ‘12 (pictured top row, far left) who traveled to New Orleans over spring break on a service immersion project back in 2012. Gonzalez majored in liberal studies with a concentration in mathematics, and took part in the teaching credential program for a special education and multiple subject credential.

A group of 11 young, female USD students and three faculty leaders embarked on a service immersion trip to New Orleans for spring break. A service immersion trip is unique such that it incorporates service learning and primarily focuses on creating relationships with people in the community to learn about their culture, their history, and their social justice issues.

My experience, as I am sure many of my group members will agree, is difficult to express in words without losing the authenticity of insight to the concepts we learned and activities in which we participated. However, three words that most effectively capture the essence of the service immersion trip are magical, resilience and kinship.

New Orleans is magical in its richness of music, food, history and second lines (a parade-like festivity), slow-paced comfort, and most importantly its people. The constant tune of the jazz brass bands on street corners provides a rhythm, to which one cannot resist dancing. The second lines demonstrate a community celebration of liveliness, music, food and an opportunity to be part of something larger than oneself. The specialties of the food, nowhere to be found but New Orleans, is part of learning the culture and socializing with people; the food brings the community together.

We experienced a snapshot of the history of New Orleans with a tour of St. Louis Archdiocese Cathedral, a Vietnamese community in East County and the Katrina and Beyond Exhibit in the Louisiana State Museum. The museum, in particular, helped broaden my perspective as I gained insight to personal stories, suffering and the glimmer of hope people retained. The jazz brass bands’ rhythm, the delicious Southern food of po’boy sandwiches, and the history represent New Orleans, but our  trip opened up our minds and our hearts to something beyond these attractions and into the true gem of New Orleans: the people.

A closer look into this magical essence reveals a resilient community with its ability to keep moving forward despite Hurricane Katrina, the loss of loved ones, the frustration caused by injustice and racism, and the violence ever so present in the community. Beyond these challenges, there lies this beauty and hope in the hearts of the people. The people were so willing to share their history and experiences. Each of them recognized how even in what appears to be a devastating situation or when you are ready to quit, something comes into your life that keeps you moving forward.

They share these frustrations but also share so much celebration of life through laughter and gatherings, their history and their desires to improve their community. The bonds of this community (maybe judged as fragile community by outsiders) demonstrate nothing less than strength, courage and love.

The word kinship resonates because our group was not only welcomed into this community with open arms but we too, extended our arms, opened our hearts and our minds to fully engage in these interactions and develop authentic relationships to learn, to love and to try to gain an understanding of New Orleans and its people. We met new people and learned from them as we painted at the Community Book Store (CBC), explored other communities, and developed a mutual trust and understanding. More than ever, we wanted to learn from those in the community and work with them to create a mural that projects the beauty, hope and resilience of the community.

Even within creating the mural, we developed more relationships and participated in a variety of
interactions, some challenging to the group but all the same because we took something away from each contact and experience. By the end, the finished mural and symbols on the outside of the CBC exceeded each of our expectations and projected several messages which depict characteristics of the community and our NOLA group, such as trust, resilience, and community.

We experienced the power and energy that coming together, whether in a small group, within a larger community, and/or a combination of the two can have in creating a representation of a community through shared experiences and interactions. These lessons learned promoted our personal growth as leaders and as a group, for our group dynamic was strengthened as we endured challenges in addition to learning experiences.

Participating in kinship was the heart of of my experience, for the community enriched my life, and in turn, I learned more about myself and my passion for service. Forever in my heart will I have this experience to share with our NOLA group and the people we had the privilege to meet and develop relationships within New Orleans as I continue to live a life of service-learning. I share our experience so that others can recognize the importance of community and service-learning and to provide a glimpse of the wonderful values and beauty the community of New Orleans has to offer.

As part of the NOLA group, I know that we left a part of our hearts in the “work” we did on the mural alongside the community and with the people we met. However, I also recognize that we each brought a part of New Orleans back with us through this shared learning experience which will impact the rest of our lives in unique ways. Learning to take time to see what people and communities have to offer as well as the mutual benefits of giving and receiving are important lessons to remember as we participate in future interactions and community involvement.

It is not only that we gave a part of ourselves to the community, but rather it is that we received more in a variety of ways than we could have ever imagined to give.

— Celina Gonzalez ‘12

Monday, March 2, 2015

Baseball and the Civic Life

By Dr. Mike Williams

I love baseball.  I love watching baseball, listening to baseball on the radio, and playing baseball with my kids and my friends.  Curiously, I was never a particularly good baseball player and I decided to forgo my senior year on the team in order to take a role in our spring high school musical – Damn Yankees! [a play that is about baseball nonetheless].  The closest I have come to being a real baseball player is working as a “balldude” with my dad for the San Francisco Giants.

For the past three years, I have been a coach for my son’s baseball teams (tee-ball and rookie ball).  This year, I am “the manager” of his CAPS baseball team.  While volunteering as a coach and manager is time-consuming, and there are aspects of the job that are frustrating, it is without a doubt one of the most satisfying things I have done in my life.  It also relates to changemaking.  Let me explain.

Each February, all coaches are encouraged to come to the little league field on a Saturday to “clean up” the field before opening day.  This usually happens one week before the season starts.  At our little league facility, we have two fields – one for the 4-8 year olds and one for the 9-12 year olds.  There are usually thirty of us who come out and spend most of the day working on the fields.  We paint, we pull weeds, we clean out the dugouts, and we cut back bushes.  The first year I volunteered I spent about five hours pulling weeds on the warning track of the upper-field (the one for 4-8 year olds).  It was hot and it seemed as if I would never finish – but eventually, I did.  The warning track looked fantastic.  I was so proud of myself when I imagined my son chasing a ball to the warning track and being able to retrieve it without any weeds or grass in his way.  Better yet, I thought, when he hits the ball to the warning track, the ball will roll to the fence without being slowed down by anything.  It only took one week of games for me to realize, however, that there was no chance of any of our players to hit a ball to the warning track.  The fence was over 200 feet away from home plate and there was simply no way any four year old was going to hit a ball, off a tee, to the warning track.  At first, I was disappointed, but then I realized the bigger picture.

I did not volunteer my time only for my son.  Of course, the fact that he was playing in the league is what convinced me to coach, but I was coaching many other kids as well.  Also, while none of the four year olds would hit a ball 200 feet, there might be an 8 year old who could do it – so the warning track might actually get some use by another group of kids.

But this was not it either.  The real reason I spent those hours pulling weeds off of the warning track was because I wanted the players – all of them – to walk onto the field on opening day and feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves.  I wanted them to imagine they could be major league ballplayers who competed on magnificent fields.  I wanted them to have pride in the field because the field was a representation of their community – our community. 

One of the features of the process of changemaking is imagining the type of world we want to live in and then taking actions to make it happen.  This rarely happens when we act alone.  No one person had the time or energy to clean up two fields on one Saturday.  It took a group of us to get it done.  I remember how nervous I was when I first came to the field to volunteer because I did not know anyone except for my other two coaches.  Also, let’s just say that I am not a “handy man” at all and I was nervous that I would be asked to do something that I did not know how to do.  But what if I had decided to stay home because of these fears?  What if everyone would have stayed home because of these fears?  Obviously, if this were the case, the fields would not have been cleaned.  It was only through working together than we were able to accomplish our goals. For me, this is an important lesson about the process of changemaking – it only happens when you work with others in a collaborative fashion.

The other point relates to why any of us were out there in the first place?  Were each of us there only for our kids?  Were we each pulling weeds because we imagined “our kid” benefiting from a clean field?  Perhaps.  I know that I was motivated to go at first because my son was in the league.  But there was more to it than this.  I was also there for the other members of the team.  I was there for the players who we would play against.  The truth is that I was there both for my son and for others.  Tocqueville, a French social scientist and philosopher, coined the term “enlightened self-interest” to explain why people do things not just for themselves but for others.  The truth is that it made me “feel good” to “do something” for the broader little league community.  It was about my son but it was also about something much more.  I remember coming home from Saturday clean up exhausted, hot, dirty and very proud.  I told my son what I had done.  I was excited for him to see the field on opening day.  In other words, the process of involving myself in the community actually made me a happier person.

The practice of changemaking involves working with others for a larger purpose.  While the reason for your passion about a topic or issue may be based on some level of self-interest, I bet that you also care about something larger than yourself – about somebody other than yourself.  What is your passion?  How can you work with others to have an impact on a broader community?  These are the questions that changemakers ask of themselves and others.

This will be my third year in the league and my first year as manager of my son’s team.  Unlike my first year, I now know what to expect.  I actually look forward to clean up day because I know how I will feel at the end of it.  More importantly, I now have a better understanding about why I am coaching.  It is not just for my son.  I envision myself coaching even after my son is too old to be the in league.  I like being involved in the community.  I like educating young people about teamwork, sportsmanship, and dedication.  But there are aspects of the league that may need a fresh perspective and some changes.  This is the next step in the process that I will return to in a future post.  For now, let’s be thankful that pitchers and catchers have reported for spring training, that clean up day was last Saturday and the field looks great, and that the first game of the little league season is this weekend.  Play ball!