What would you like for 2017? Empathy please.

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By Theresa Salzer


I vote for more empathy in the New Year, because I would like to join Roman Krzanric in his idea that “empathy is a catalyst for social change”. I’m aware that technically a new year can start at any given time, but having this constructed shift in years allows many of us to reflect on what’s happened, is happening and what we want to see change.

And so, I would like to reflect on my last half a year as part of the EqualiTeach team, working in primary and secondary schools, delivering workshops on topics around equality, diversity and inclusion and I would like to reflect on how the political atmosphere has influenced dynamics in classroom discussions. As a recent immigrant to England – I was welcomed by the pre and post dynamic of a constant conversational topic – Brexit.

It’s one thing to see the remarks and comments of the public and politicians on the on-going Brexit debate, be it on Facebook or the tabloids I pass on my way to work – another to understand how young people in both primary and secondary schools experience and comment on a post-Brexit Britain.

Brexit has appeared to create a safe and unsafe place for many. A ‘safe’ place for some to openly discriminate against immigrants, ‘foreigners’, the ‘other’, and an unsafe place for those who have openly become the targets of a shocking increase in hate crimes in the last half a year. Racist and religiously intolerant hate crimes aren’t new to this country, but it now feels like they have become more acceptable, allowable, even celebrated by many – finally without the ‘walls’ of ‘political correctness.’  Who better to look at for accepting this as the way forward and openly ‘refusing to be politically correct’ than the newly elected president of the US – Donald Trump? It’s a morbid story of success, and its effects have reached classroom debates and discussions.

‘Who do we really know’ activity with Year 9 students

Many pupils have voiced how Brexit and the US votes have woken up attitudes and moods in their social space – at home, within their friend groups and in school. As part of our Second Thoughts! workshop, we start off with an activity wondering ‘Who do we really know?’ for which we provide young people with the opportunity to air their opinions, ideas and thoughts that they associate with various groups of people, one of these groups is immigrants. The following comments are those that have come up frequently in our workshops: immigrants are ‘benefit seekers, don’t belong here, without manners, timewasters, want to stay in a country that doesn’t want them’ and some conclude ‘they are hated within the country’ and are ‘unnecessary’. When reading out the comments back to the class, it sometimes becomes a hard test to not react emotionally, but instead keep an open mind to all these voices, when really all I want to know is: When did people become unnecessary? Unsurprisingly, the need to look at the definitions and people behind these definitions becomes vital. When asked for a correct definition of who an immigrant is, young people often say that an immigrant is someone who is illegal and criminal, someone that comes into a country on a boat, in a truck etc. We help the young people to understand that, yes, an immigrant is someone that moves from one country to another to live – but the vast majority of immigrants travel legally, and do so because of various reasons, such as family, work, study, climate, culture and better opportunities. It remains to be essential to clarify terms, such as immigrant, illegal immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker, as well as all the assumptions around the terms. We explain that refugees are people that have to flee their country because of war or persecution. It does not follow that they are badly educated, terrorists or criminals. We explain that everyone has the right to seek asylum under Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14) and should war break out here, they would have the right to seek safety abroad. In addition to deconstructing misinformation and stereotypes with facts and clarifications, I would argue there’s an inherent need for students to learn to see beyond their own world view and imagine how someone in a completely different position might think, feel and understand issues. This is where empathy plays a vital role.

Therefore, in these moments of openness and honesty, at EqualiTeach we ask further questions, which help students move away from their bubble, and sees them confronted with new scenarios. Why does someone have to move or choose to move? What are the differences? How might it feel to suddenly have to move without warning? How would you want to be treated if that were to happen to you? Instead of ‘not wanting immigrants in our country’ (as a 9-year old proclaimed recently during a THINK! workshop), what could you do to welcome someone? If you think they may not speak your language, what could you do rather than excluding them by not inviting them to your home or to be part of your game during playtime? Many children will have all sorts of answers and ideas to these further questions, however often aren’t given the time and space to actually look at them, discuss them with people their age, and question their responses. In my eyes, from what I’ve experienced delivering workshops in schools in the past months, it’s asking these questions that allows young people to deconstruct any stereotypical ideas that they might have.

It’s at that point that our information pool comes into question. How do we treat information? Do we ever wonder where it comes from? Who wrote it? What their aim was? Where it was placed? Front page? Big headline? Small headline? With or without vivid images?  Facts /no facts? What is the evidence that it is true? … and so forth. It’s not easy, as we try and become aware of our own thinking, opinions, our own prejudice and stereotypical judgements, it becomes essential to also question and be aware of where our ideas are coming from. As humans we are born without any pre-existing ideas and are fed information as we grow. It is essential to recognise that our way of thinking is influenced by culture, politics, norms that society has created, because given the opportunity we can learn to stand on our own feet, filter what we hear and be open to all opinions without having to accept them, which more importantly means we can influence social change.

Empathy is a vital life skill that everyone needs to develop. Empathy is what I wish more people and social movements would focus on in 2017: whatever your political or personal views, empathy is required to create the social change that we absolutely need in our society. I believe that people working in the field of education who are trying to make a positive change need to help create empathy. It is about helping young people to develop “the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world through their eyes”. Educators also need to trigger their own empathic being. We need to understand the young people’s feelings, beliefs, ideas, convictions and allow outrospection to occur, alongside introspection. Young people in schools need to be given the opportunity to work on this fundamental life skill in order to become empathetic beings and recognise the feelings and experiences of other people, especially when forming opinions about other people who are in the centre of the many political discourses happening around the clock.

Roman pointedly says: “It is time to let go of our own egos and work hard to attune ourselves to the subtle contours of other people’s emotions and experiences” not only in the realm of private life but to bring the potential of empathy into public and political life – and I would like no less for 2017, please.

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