This is part one in a four-part series about our country and its relationship to what I perceive to be some of our greatest challenges. In this first installment, we will analyze what I call the empathy gap. As we move through the series, I look forward to your insight and thoughts. More than anything though, I look forward to hearing how we can work together to address the toughest issues facing our nation.
As Americans, our greatest challenge may be our inability to put ourselves in the shoes of others. Collectively, we donate more money to philanthropic causes than any other country in the world. To me, this means we are aware of the road traveled by the downtrodden, the hurt, and those lost in the proverbial sea. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, half of us made a tax deductible donation last year. Again, to me this means half of us have taken the first step in an effort to solve societal ills. The question that needs to be answered concerns our reasoning for giving. Is it born out of guilt, a desire to be seen as someone who cares, altruism, sympathy, or does it come from a place of empathy?
Another question needing to be answered focuses on donations. Are donations enough? As a fundraiser, I believe financial or in-kind gifts are passive in nature. They don’t require much effort on your behalf. Depending on the organization and the quality of their development staff, you may never meet those impacted by your support. Which means, all you’ve done is write a check and move on with your life. Sure, you’ve responded to a well-crafted ask in the form of printed materials and/or a face-to-face meeting. Perhaps you browsed through an agency’s blog or attended an event. Something tugged at your heart and you made an investment. Maybe you related to a story. Maybe you wished such things didn’t happen in the world. Maybe you’ve been there yourself and are working to ensure no one else has to endure the same sort of hardships. Even if all of these things are true, you didn’t do much to truly engage with those impacted by your gift. You were never asked to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You were never really provided an opportunity to empathize.
This is more important than you might think. In my opinion, our empathy gap is more important than the trade gap, deficit spending, or the national debt. A lack of empathy translates to turning the other cheek to homelessness. It leads to shaming of welfare recipients. It leads toward turning a blind eye to rape, torture, homophobia, xenophobia… The list could go on and on, but a lack of understanding for those experiencing hardships leads to bad public policy, damning, and demonizing. A country and its citizenry cannot progress if some are left behind and made to feel less than.
Without a doubt, there are always those who strive to take advantage of the system. For every person taking advantage of public assistance meant for the poor and disabled, there is another benefiting from corporate welfare. On both ends of the spectrum, we’ve created a welfare state. We absolutely need to reform both systems, but before we go about the business of removing millions from the welfare system, I ask that we work to know more than ourselves. In practice, what does this mean? Beyond donations, how does one achieve such a thing?
For obvious and logistical reasons, this is easier said than done. It is going to take time and a sense of commitment, but if we do a few small things, we can deepen our empathy, reshape public policy, and perhaps find areas where the system can be improved.
The best way to deepen your empathy is to volunteer. If you truly want to know the other, work alongside nonprofit employees who are committed to systemic change. Roll-up your sleeves and join long term volunteers. Ask for their guidance and their opinion. Volunteer directly with those impacted by services provided by both nonprofits and various levels of government. Working at a soup kitchen changed my view on homelessness. Spending time talking with youth who called the streets home, altered my view on runaways and a system meant to protect youth. Joining other volunteers to take a census of people who live on our city streets, inspired me to vote for politicians who understood and lobbied for affordable housing. Meeting people impacted by drug addiction, mental health, a failing economy, and a lack of housing changed everything for me. Without getting to know the other by volunteering, I don’t know how I would have been afforded this opportunity.
As I have discussed here before, in grad school I found myself deeply moved by those impacted by sex and labor trafficking. I began, as most others do, by reading some articles and books on the subject, but this alone didn’t do much to deepen my empathy. If I really wanted to shake off the comfortable, I needed to learn more. I needed to talk with survivors and those working on the front line. This lead me to an organization called “Seattle Against Slavery.” Attending various workshops, I was able to accomplish my goal. I heard from survivors of sex trafficking, police who run stings on Backpage.com, and nonprofit professionals doing the hard work of changing policy, advocating, and trying to change the mindset of the public. Once I heard their stories, it was hard to look the other way. It profoundly changed me. Now, I volunteer for Seattle Against Slavery. While I have never been trafficked and I don’t have any friends or family members who have known such horror, my empathy was tapped. I saw an injustice and something within me demanded change.
Volunteerism and public forums may lead you to advocacy and, maybe, more meaningful donations. I believe if we set out on a mission to know the other, it is virtually impossible to not have our worldview changed. I also believe it is impossible not to have our sense of empathy expanded. When these things happen, I think we have laid the groundwork to be better citizens and gentler human beings to our fellow men. This isn’t a radical idea. Every major religious figure who is worshipped the world over has preached such an idea. I am just continuing that call. “Judge not, lest thee be judged.” To which I would add, do not decide what is right for your fellow man without first walking a mile in his shoes.
Be good to each other,