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Why Empathy is Important for Social Change

Almost three years into the pandemic, Americans have seen unresolved civil unrest, millions struggling to survive a mismanaged global health crisis, the unraveling of rights, and anti-trans and LGBQT+ legislation. The waning of political and social conscience suggests that Americans are experiencing an empathy deficit, something President Obama said was more pressing than the country’s federal deficit (The Guardian). 

“As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier,” President Obama said in a 2006 commencement speech (YouTube). “There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle…[but] what I found in my life is that my individual salvation depends on our collective salvation.”

TAKE ACTION

Read or watch David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement speech on becoming less self-centered and more self-aware and empathetic to those around you.

• Consider: What does it mean to lead with empathy? What sacrifices am I willing to make to ensure that the world is more equitable for everyone? Is my activism done out of feeling sorry or pity for others or solidarity and empathy for change?

Empathy is understanding what it’s like to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. However, empathy is more complex than emotions. It forces you to be and not just feel. It requires you to look beyond your perspective, appreciate someone else’s, connect without judgment, learn, and stay present. Empathy allows us to bond with “people whose life experiences or identities are vastly different from our own” (Washington Post) without erasing the identities of those experiencing social and racial disparities. 

So how can we become more empathetic to support social justice?


Check your bias

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we all carry biases and prejudices against other groups and are more likely to empathize with people who look like us and less prone to intervene on behalf of those who don’t (Medical Education Online). These biases can be unconscious or explicit and manifest across differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, class, age, weight, and cultural dynamics. They stand in the way of collective action, and we must challenge them in ourselves. 

It’s important for those in positions of power and those who benefit from systematic disparities to acknowledge their complicity and be prepared to recognize and give up some of their advantages (NPR). 

A big part of removing these biases is finding out what they are and understanding our privileges. Researchers behind Project Implicit created the Implicit Association Test you can take to see what implicit attitudes and stereotypes you hold towards groups of people. The “What is Your American Dream Score” test measures the external factors working for and against you to help shape who you are. 


Set aside the “I” mentality

A misconception about being empathetic is one must relate or have experienced a similar trauma to empathize. However, “empathy should not be contingent on our proximity to suffering or the likelihood of it happening to us” (Buzzfeed News). 

It’s more about stepping outside yourself, your experiences, and your ideologies to hold space for someone else, especially concerning social justice issues that indirectly benefit you. In leading with empathy, we see how change is predicated on rejecting self-aggrandizing behavior and eliminating the “othering” of social issues that we perceive as not directly affecting our lives. It’s crucial to start thinking of all injustices as something that we collectively work against, not just the plight of a particular group, even if that means dismantling oppressive systems that benefit us


Center marginalized voices

Listening is one of the basic tenets of empathy (American Psychological Association). While sharing your experiences and asking questions, when appropriate, be prepared to be quiet and be willing to learn. This means no interruptions, no unsolicited advice, and if you are not a part of the bereaved or marginalized group, no downplaying or denying their experiences. This is the time for you to be attentive and open to the input of others with firsthand experiences. 

As it relates to advocacy and social justice, this means allowing those directly impacted by injustices or social/political issues to share their experiences and lead the way. Writer Alison Fields wrote a great piece on the importance of centering marginalized voices when advocating and organizing for change that I suggest reading.  


Get involved with your community

Simply being an ally is more than a label and gesture. Allyship requires commitment and solidarity, even when incidences of police brutality and other injustices “fade from the news cycle” (The ARD). Performative allyship like posting a black square or resharing an anti-racism post on your Instagram stories is used as a substitute for direct activism. It is often the result of passivity and superficial involvement. That’s why engaging with our communities, digitally and locally, is important. You are less invested when you don’t know what’s happening in your community or even the people who compose it. 

“It’s much easier to inflict harm on people whose pain you never see. It is much harder to have a meaningful conversation if what you’re used to is 140-character tweets,” Helen Riess, the chief scientist of Empathetics and author of “The Empathy Effect,” said (Ted Talks). “When we empower others, we can collectively come together to bring our best selves, to solve the world’s biggest, smallest, and most vexing problems. That is the power of empathy.”

Donating to grassroots organizations specifically helping marginalized people and issues, bail and mutual aid funds, and food pantries are great ways to show up for your community. Actively getting involved with underserved communities and committing to social movements are just a few ways we can show up for others.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Social and racial injustices affect us all. 

• Lasting social change requires moving beyond self-centeredness.

• Empathy deficit prevails when people reject their social responsibilities to uphold oppressive systems and institutions that benefit them.

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