The Power of Empathy

Throughout our day, there is a common yet unseen level of disconnect between interactions that we experience and contribute to. We oftentimes choose to be a bystander rather than speaking against injustice. In Speak, we realized a major factor in this culture of passivity is our lack of empathizing with others.


When we empathize with other people’s experiences, when we step into their shoes, we can better understand their struggles and difficulties, which oftentimes motivate us to speak with compassion and respect. In order to foster empathy within the students we interact with, we created a lesson with a focus on prejudice and understanding the difficulties of the people around us.


In this lesson, we define prejudice and discrimination, explaining that we all have our own prejudices that we must work against. Next, students are asked to respond anonymously to the prompt: Can you remember a time when you felt prejudice aimed towards yourself or someone you love? How did that feel? The anonymous responses are read to the class so that the students can be given a forum to empathize with narratives other than their own. These responses will range from girls on the playground not being passed the ball to being with an innocent parent pulled over by a cop as a product of our institutional racism. Many students find this to be the most powerful part of the lesson, because it opens them up to the many experiences they did not realize existed. In our closing circle, we will hear responses such as, “ I never knew people in my own classroom went through that.”  


We conclude with the message that everyday we have choices on how we interact with others, but knowing our impact can dictate those decisions. When we empathize, we are actively working against our prejudices, and we are more likely to speak out against hate and injustice. When we all improve ourselves, we create a cultural shift from ignorance, fear, and passivity to knowledge, acceptance, and justice.


Empathizing with and respecting others experiences has been a great difficulty for societies across the world, but experiences like this lesson take a step towards understanding each other. The inspiring open-mindedness of the students shows the possibility of a better future, one where hate is not tolerated and the value of empathy is celebrated.