The Power of Empathy

If you read my post last week, you’ll remember that I am working with a group of wonderful young adults who are learning to navigate the challenges of equity, diversity, and inclusion that they – or their colleagues – will face when they enter the workplace in the coming years.  And no matter how well-intentioned they are, they are humans who have only lived their own experiences at this point in their lives.  For this diverse group of individuals, their lived experiences differ from one another based on factors such as when their families immigrated to the US, the cities or regions in which they were raised, the degree to which they grew up going to school with a diverse versus homogenous group of people, and the belief systems of the adults in their lives.   

While they were a little more comfortable opening up to each other in small group discussions the past few weeks, their participation in our large group conversations to this point has been fairly guarded. Not surprising – it takes time to build trust with a group of strangers, especially with the topics we are exploring.  My hope for our time together last week was that it was designed in a way that would not only encourage but require everyone to join a conversation with both courage and empathy – courage to tell their own stories and empathy to listen to and try to understand others’ stories.  The stories would be focused on the way(s) in which they had either positively or negatively been affected by racism and white supremacy.  The shared definitions we used were racism = prejudice + power of legal authority and institutional control; and white supremacy = a sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white.  We included a brief lesson on the impact of redlining as an example of the way racism and white supremacy affect generations of Black and people of color differentially than their white counterparts.

What happened was a beautiful thing.  As each of the individuals shared their experiences – first in a small group and then to the group as a whole – we heard rich and insightful stories.   They took risks in describing personal (sometimes difficult) experiences with people from a background different from their own; of realizing that an adult in their life held racist views and beginning a conversation with that person; of learning the truth of why major highways were built through their own cities; of the discomfort of being the only Black student in a majority white school, or the only white student in a majority Black school; and of realizing that differences in groups’ achievements over generations had far more to do with racism than it did with effort or skill.  They listened.  They appreciated.  And they HEARD.

Creating readiness and space for this kind of conversation is what is needed in our world today.  We will not be able to address and solve our significant issues such as racism, poverty, disparities in healthcare and housing, and the climate we all share unless we can build the skills to listen to and empathize with people whose experiences are different from our own.  Only then will we be able to say Oh! I. Get. It. Now!  May we all follow the lead of this group of young people…

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