Want Democratic Change in 2015? Try More Empathy and Creativity

by Julia Roig   January 8, 2015

As we begin the New Year, my Facebook feed, Linkedin, and email inbox have been full of hopeful predictions for 2015. For example, Carl Gershman from the National Endowment for Democracy gives us reasons to feel optimistic about the triumph of democracy in the world. I’m also sure that many of us received the checklist on how we can contribute to peace from the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. And then we were all shocked by the horrible terrorist attack in Paris. In my community of professionals working in international development, we seem to share a deep sense of optimism that positive change is possible. But in the face of senseless and tragic violence and such horrific strikes against fundamental freedoms, how do we stay motivated and keep going on with our work? As I reflect on my year ahead at Partners, I find myself focusing on what I believe is the essence of our work as change agents: to find and promote more empathy.

For the past several months I keep bringing up empathy in different contexts and conversations, and more and more I am convinced that it is the fundamental catalyst for both interpersonal and societal change. One popular definition by Dr. Bren√© Brown describes empathy as the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings. This idea is what fuels genuine connections that recognize and acknowledge diverse perspectives and emotions and is a fundamental concept underlying so much of Partners’ work in peace-building and democracy building:

    • Conflict Resolution requires empathy. All mediators and facilitators know that you must negotiate based on interests and not on positions. We are called upon as neutrals to help parties in conflict understand each other to satisfy each other’s needs and reach an agreement that works for everyone.
    • Advocacy requires empathy. As an advocate for a cause, if you have a blind spot and don’t understand those who disagree with you, how will you ever address their concerns sufficiently to minimize dissent and move forward with your agenda? When training in cooperative advocacy, Partners often leads activists through an exercise of putting themselves in the shoes of the “other side” to make their arguments for them and identify the facts that support those arguments.
    • Leadership requires empathy. Effective leaders in open, transparent, and democratic institutions practice empathy. They build broad teams by understanding different talents and identifying everyone needed to get a job done. But more than that, empathetic leaders do a lot of listening and seek ways to be the most helpful to those they manage to be successful.
    • Authentic partnerships require empathy. As an international NGO, we work in partnership with our local affiliates in all our programming. We obviously come from different perspectives, but to work together effectively we have to understand each other’s realities. Some of us are sitting at desks in DC, and some are working in the field in Aden, Yemen. Empathy allows our partnerships to be flexible and respectful.

If empathy is a distinctly human capability, why is it so difficult in practice? Power, ego, insecurities, and trauma all get in the way of experiencing empathy. This inability to practice empathy affects us personally, professionally, and as a nation, and we get stuck in conflictive, vicious cycles as human beings. In the U.S., how do we find empathy for Russians? For Iranians? For Central Americans? And how should that empathy inform our public policies?

Empathy through Creativity. So, one of the most important tasks in front of us in 2015 is to work to build more empathy in ourselves and in the world. And I am particularly inspired by the power of developing empathy through creativity. One of the most popular Ted Talks (ever) is by Sir Ken Robinson discussing how our educational system is beating creativity out of us and teaching kids how to be “right” and “wrong.” We learn to develop an internal voice that makes us judgmental of others and ourselves. He cites studies of musicians, dancers, and other artists that show that the parts of our brains that are triggered when we are creative are also actively suppressing judgment and self-criticism. We hold ourselves open to all possibilities when we are in a creative flow, and are more open to empathy.

Participants in Partners' Iraq Youth Program

Participants in Partners’ Iraq Youth Program

This rings true to me, as we know as peace-builders that using the arts is an important tool for building understanding, tolerance, and reconciliation. For example, in Iraq, Partners has a program working with youth in high-conflict areas that not only incorporates the arts and sports to establish relationships, teamwork, and leadership skills, but also lessons of empathy for those of different religious and ethnic affiliations.

Building Bridges for more Creativity. One of the ways for us to use more creativity in our work in the international development field is to seek out new partnerships with artists whose profession is to entertain and inspire through powerful narratives that touch us emotionally. The Alliance for Peacebuilding is spearheading just such an exciting initiative together with the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The Media and Peacebuilding Roundtable held its first gathering in Los Angeles last fall with representatives from the movie industry, gamers, world-builders, and other creative leaders to discuss potential for collaboration with peace-builders. What struck me the most after spending the day with these artists was how differently they think about the world and their work, and how their mediums don’t restrict them to pre-existing paradigms. They can literally create new worlds and construct new stories; the only limitation is their imaginations and their inspiration to touch an audience in meaningful ways. Reflecting with some of my colleagues from DC afterwards, one of our common refrains was “my mind is blown.” I guess that is what happens when you see the possibilities of making the world you want, while viewing different mediums to share that hopeful, better world with others.

One of the fruits of these new relationships was that Partners was able to participate at the end of last year in a creative new Peace Portals initiative sponsored by Shared Studios in Manhattan. One of our staff members entered into a shipping container that was outfitted as a studio and was able to see and hear the full body image of an Iranian citizen that walked into a similar shipping container on the streets of Tehran. They had an informal conversation for 20 minutes about life, his love of motorcycles, their jobs, and the weather, (a powerful experience straight out of Star Trek). Hundreds of ordinary people participated in the Portals and one by one they are building empathy for the citizens living in a country far away from their own reality.

Using these kinds of amazing technologies, and sharing each other’s stories in new creative ways will help us be successful in working for more peaceful democratic change in 2015. There is a lot of solidarity right now throughout the world for writers and cartoonists in particular. For the New Year, I wish for all Partners’ colleagues and friends to find a creative flow that allows you to find and promote more empathy.