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Danielle Goldstone Teaches Us To Be More Empathetic


Why is empathy so important, anyway?

Those are but some of the question we posed to Danielle Goldstone, the Change Leader at the international social business firm Ashoka, where she heads up the international organization’s Start Empathy Initiative.

The mission, she explains, is to create a world where every child masters empathy. That is, they foster the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others and to use that understanding to guide their actions.

A collaboration of social entrepreneurs, educators, parents, and key players in the media, business, and academic sectors, Ashoka’s ultimate goal is to make empathy as essential as reading and math in early education.

“We’re not building a program, or a curriculum, or a silver-bullet fix,” she explains. “Rather, we’re working to unleash demand for empathy as a core 21st century skill. We are building the case for why it matters, identifying key practices and principles needed to cultivate it effectively, and putting those principles into action.”

In October, we sat down with Goldstone at Ashoka headquarters, on the 20th floor of a building just outside of DC. From here, she and the other changemakers have a birds eye view of the nation’s capitol—a place where empathy isn’t always the focus. But Ashoka is trying to change that.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us a little bit about the Empathy Initiative. Why is it especially important for kids, and business leaders, to be empathetic?

Danielle Goldstone: As Ashoka founder Bill Drayton explained in your interview with him, the world is changing faster than ever before. Our success—as individuals, institutions, and society—increasingly depends on our ability to be changemakers, equipped with skills and mindset to create solutions where others see only problems.

Ashoka has the mission of “everyone a changemaker,” trying to create a world where every person, literally every person, believes that they can have their own ideas. They can use these ideas to take initiative and drive change in the world. We believe that this is essential in a world where change is as rapid as it is today and getting more so.

In Ashoka’s work with social entrepreneurs around the world, we have homed in on empathy as a foundational skill in one’s capacity to be what we call a “changemaker” in the world. If one doesn’t understand the feelings and perspectives of other people, it is difficult to be able to see through problems to solutions. That is how we define empathy. We talk about it as, “the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others and to guide one’s actions accordingly.” There is an active component of that and it is how you apply empathy in order to be a changemaker.

Be Inkandescent: Not everyone is born being empathetic?

Danielle Goldstone: There is more and more science and research on this topic. It shows that empathy is an innate capacity we all have as human beings, but like any other skill or capacity that we are born with, if you don’t develop it or practice it on a regular basis, then you are not going to be very empathetic. It takes treating it as a skill so you are growing up learning it, practicing it in order to develop higher abilities.

Be Inkandescent: I would imagine that in some communities, or even in some households where there is some patriarchy or violence, kids could see being empathetic as a dangerous quality.

Danielle Goldstone: Yeah, I think that’s right. And that is why we need to work closely with schools, but we are trying to draw parents in as much as possible because obviously parents have the biggest influence on their kids. In terms of a social change strategy, it is more difficult to get into every home in the country than it is to get into every school.

The schools that we are working with have ways of engaging parents and families and communities in their work. It is not just kids spending a school day in this isolated space and then going back to homes that may not be empathetic homes. It is something that we do have to be aware of: parents play a real critical role here. We have to help parents understand why this is so important and how they can develop their own capacity for empathy so they are modeling it for their kids as well.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give us a few tips for parents? What can we do for our kids to make sure that they have this important skill?

Danielle Goldstone: We have developed a website, startempathy.org where we are putting a lot of these tips for both parents and educators. We are gathering these tips from Ashoka Fellows, educators, and other parents and people who really have a lot of experience in this.

A few of the trends that come out of that: listening, very simple and very obvious. We have one Ashoka Fellow, David Castro, who has an empathy experiment where you just spend eight minutes listening to somebody. This could be a child, this could be somebody you work with, this could be anybody; you just spend eight minutes really listening. Without interrupting or trying to solve their problem, just really listening and trying to hear what their perspective is and trying to understand their feelings.

That is a very simple one. Another thing, with parents in particular, being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your kids, instead of asking how their day was, you talk about your own day and some of the things you experienced and some of the feelings you experienced during the day: being open about that so they see you expressing your emotions. This will make them feel more comfortable doing that as well.

Be Inkandescent: That is interesting because I know a lot of parents feel that would be bad parenting to let your kids know too much of what goes on in your life, because you’re not protecting them then for instance. An interview that we did in the September 2012 issue of Be Inkandescent with Dr. Lisa Boesky, author of When to Worry, talks about that. How do you address this concern for parents?

Danielle Goldstone: Obviously there are boundaries that are important to have. And I disclaim right now that I am no parenting expert. But for a lot of folks we talked to, vulnerability becomes an important aspect of creating empathetic cultures generally in the workplace, home, and schools. We don’t allow people to bring their emotions into the workplace or into school. If we are going to build kids’ ability to be empathic, then that needs to be a part of the conversation. A lot of our fellows and other experts whom we’ve talked to stress that as an important aspect. And yes, of course, there are definitely boundaries to what you say to kids.

Be Inkandescent: I agree wholeheartedly that having appropriate boundaries is key. But I think it’s also about getting past your own fears, and helping your children not have those same fears. It’s really complicated for a lot of people—no matter how old you are.

Danielle Goldstone: Yes, I agree with that. And one great way to do that is to read books. Research shows us that this is a great way to develop empathy, because you are inherently putting yourself in the shoes of the characters you’re reading about. When we read to kids, and I do this when reading to my niece or nephew, a lot of adults ask kids about the “what” of the story, but don’t use that huge opportunity to ask questions like, “What are the feelings of the character?” and “What do you think she’s feeling in this situation?” By asking these questions, you’re developing your kids’ reading ability, but you’re also using that time as an opportunity to help them develop empathy.

Be Inkandescent: Excellent tips. While these tend be great ideas for your target group of kids 12 and under, do you have some tips on ways to help teens be more empathetic?

Danielle Goldstone: There are several Ashoka Fellows who work with teenagers, including Molly Barker, (pictured right), who founded Girls on the Run. Her program is a national phenomenon for it is physical and emotional training (running clubs, especially) to help girls challenge the status quo and see themselves as part of a healthy, well-balanced society. Since 1996, more than 400,000 girls have participated in the US and Canada. She’s created 191 active organizations in 46 states, and 37,000 volunteers were engaged in the program in 2010-2011 alone.

Eric Dawson’s Peace First program works with middle school students, as well as elementary-age kids. His program builds safe, effective school climates where children learn how to be engaged and active citizens. Often, participants are at-risk of dropping out, and of those who graduated from the program so far, 95 percent said they now understand how other people feel; 84 percent said they came to want to attend school.

Be Inkandescent: We understand that Ashoka also has a program called Youth Venture.

Danielle Goldstone: Yes, and we’re really proud of this program. It works with 12 to 20 year olds, basically to develop and launch their own social ventures in their school and communities.

We send kids to school and they go through that experience sort of passively, consuming knowledge and rules. But, it is such a great and critical time to really develop the skills to be creative, to figure out how to solve problems and to figure out how to work in teams to solve problems.

Our Venture program works with kids to do that. Young people in middle school and through college who have ideas and see a problem in their school or community and want to do something about it. We support them to basically create what we call a “venture” and build a team around it. They get other kids involved and help them lead that initiative. This is something that Ashoka has a program for, but it is something that the school and parent could do.

Be Inkandescent: Is this really an exercise in encouraging adults to get out of the way of kids?

Danielle Goldstone: It is! Often adults feel the need to control. When parents and teachers step out of the way, often the young people do amazing things. Obviously within the parameters and boundaries that young people need, but step out of the way and let them create while encouraging them to do that. I visited a school in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was a Catholic school and it was phenomenal the environment they had created there.

Basically, the school was responsive to what kids wanted to do. This is, mind you, a Blue Ribbon School. They are doing really well in all of the traditional standards, but they are creating the space for young people to take charge.

A teacher there told me a story about how she had a 6th grader come to her crying because he had been unable to come up with an invention for this project that they were part of at the University of Connecticut called the Invention Convention. He was upset because it was a day or a week before the convention and he hadn’t been able to come up with something. Well, he was in her classroom when her 8th grade social studies class came in.

Here is where empathy and change making came into play. Empathy was such a part of the culture at this school that instead of laughing at the kid crying in the room, they asked the teacher why he was crying. They were concerned and she explained. They said, “Well why don’t we help him.” She said, “Okay, so close your social studies books.”

She recognized it as a learning opportunity and she obviously had the freedom within the school to make that decision to seize that opportunity, and they spent that class helping the 6th grader develop some ideas he could then take and run with and create his thing. That’s the type of school that we really need because that’s the way the world works.

Be Inkandescent: Ah, the power of brainstorming sessions!

Danielle Goldstone: It’s true. It’s used in business, but these are powerful tools for teachers, too. And those are the opportunities that most teachers wouldn’t spot necessarily or if they did, and many of them do, they feel completely powerless. They need to teach social studies in that period. That is what they have been told they have to do, and they don’t have the freedom to make that choice and to seize that learning opportunity. That is a problem.

Be Inkandescent: It sounds like a real undercurrent for the empathy project is just letting people do what comes naturally to them and encouraging them to be the special person they are, the empathetic, caring kind of person who sometimes society beats out of us.

Danielle Goldstone: Right. In fact, there is some interesting research on how babies tend to exhibit naturally helping behaviors. There are these studies in which an infant and an adult are in a room. The adult drops something and pretends and acts like they can’t reach it. The baby will come over and get the pen or whatever the adult dropped.

They see and recognize that, “Oh, this person is struggling to reach this thing and I can go help.” That research suggests that this is very innate, that we are born with this capacity for empathy. The problem is that somehow we beat it out. Certainly the education system that we have, which was developed in the Industrial Age, was created to serve Industrial Age purposes, and doesn’t support necessarily that skill.

That’s what we are basically seeking to change so that every child, as they are growing up and going through school, would be getting an education that is equipping them with empathy, team work, leadership, changemaking and this other set of skills that they need to be effective changemakers in this world.

Be Inkandescent: Sounds like a beautiful change. You also have a program that works at the college level?

Danielle Goldstone: Yes, our AshokaU program works with universities that are modeling social entrepreneurship education at the college level and thinking through in deep ways this changemaker vision and what role universities can play in advancing that world. There are several changemaker campuses.

We are building this link through the entire education system about how you educate people to be changemakers in the world. Of course, starting as early as possible, certainly elementary and even Pre-K.

Be Inkandescent: Amazing! Ashoka is also working with Harvard University?

Danielle Goldstone: We have been talking to some faculty up there, and they are working on a research project around distilling from evidence-based programs that cultivate empathy and other skills. What are the scalable strategies that any educator or parent could use?

Part of the problem is you have very expensive social learning programs out there, great programs, but pretty expensive for schools. There are principles in those programs that can be used by anybody. For schools that can’t afford it, what are the strategies that they can use to help cultivate these skills even without the expensive programs?

Be Inkandescent: Tell us about those principles.

Danielle Goldstone: The project is still in progress, so we don’t have the final report on that. But we are seeing even in our direct work with schools, and of course with our Fellows, three design principles that we think are important in creating an environment where empathy is developed as a skill.

The first, as I’ve said before, is that you treat empathy as a skill whether or not it is a skill. We have grown up thinking empathy is just a value, character trait, or genetic thing that only some people have. What we see Ashoka Fellows doing, and schools now, is treating empathy as a skill by helping kids develop it, practice it. Some people think of empathy as a soft skill, but it can be a hard skill if we define it simply by what skills you need to succeed in the world. So, treat empathy as a skill.

Then, there is a cultural aspect. How do you treat a culture for open exchange? That’s where the vulnerability and these sorts of things come in. How do you create environments of trust within schools? One of our first changemaker schools, Mission Hill in Boston, created an incredible culture of trust in the school among the teachers, and the teachers and the students, that makes developing these skills just part of their daily experience. So that culture is really important. What are the conditions in which empathy can thrive?

Finally, there is a systemic element. How do you create the systems that encourage and synthesize empathic action? Permission and development of teachers in schools is a critical synthetic aspect. If you don’t have teachers who have this set of skills and know how to cultivate them in kids, then it is not going to work, right? Are you building empathy into the profession and development of teachers?

This school in Bridgeport that I mentioned, by building a risk-free environment, allows young people to act on their empathy and use those moments. We have gathered a wealth of knowledge about the ways schools can develop empathy from the disciplinary part of the school. That is a key opportunity to whether you are going to cultivate empathy or not.

Be Inkandescent: Empathy begets empathy, it seems. This is true in business settings, as well. In fact, when we were chatting earlier, you mentioned a story about the Taj Hotel in India that reflected this beautifully.

Danielle Goldstone: Of course. And that’s the point about the Start Empathy Initiative—to create a world where everyone is empathetic, especially in the business community.

A great example is the Tata Group, a major corporation in India that has several subsidiary companies, owns the property and their hospitality company owns the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. When the hotel was attacked by terrorists in November 2008, a bomb set it on fire and employees literally risked their lives trying to get guests out of the hotel. Some of them did actually die trying to do this.

The interesting thing was that few people understood why the employees would risk their lives running into a burning building. So they did some research. It turned out that the Tata hires people based on their skills of empathy and related skills. They bypass the best colleges and universities in India or the top-scoring students in those universities to find the people who have a certain set of skills that they value as a company.

And those are exactly the kind of people who risk their lives to save someone else. So here, you have a major corporation valuing empathy, and using it in their recruitment process—bypassing traditional skills that are often sought after. The result is this amazing story from the Taj.

Be Inkandescent: That really captures the essence of empathy, and its power.

Danielle Goldstone: It does, and this is just the beginning. As humans, we are literally wired for empathy, but like any skill, it only flourishes if we nurture it. That’s why Ashoka has a three-part strategy that moves empathy from a nice-to-have skill to a must-have skill.

1. Accelerate social entrepreneurs. We are mobilizing Ashoka’s unique global network of social entrepreneurs to collectively realize the vision of a world where every child masters empathy. We are also identifying new Ashoka Fellows who are designing system-changing solutions that advance empathy in individuals, institutions, and communities.

2. Change the conversation. We are aggregating and amplifying voices from across society to help parents, educators, and others understand more clearly how essential it is that children grow up learning and practicing empathy. We’re also working with key influencers to help advance the public conversation about empathy.

3. Activate schools. We are collaborating with educators and building a leading network of schools that equip children to be changemakers, starting with empathy. We seek to inspire and enable all schools to clearly identify, and then assess, the habits and skills students and teachers alike need to be creative, solution-oriented, empathetic citizens.

For more information, visit StartEmpathy.org.

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