Empathy – a key element for systems change

Several weeks ago, I joined SiG@MaRS as a summer intern. It’s been an enthralling ride, being ingrained in a radical environment that serves as a catalyst for both whole systems change and monumental social innovation.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a workshop on Deepening Community for Collective Impact, presented by Paul Born– President of the Tamarack Institute and a senior Ashoka fellow.

At first, I wasn’t quite clear on how attempts at deepening community fit into the efficacious and potent world of systems change. It is abundantly clear that creating resilient, inclusive communities is a necessity in our global conversations…as fear is running rampart in our society, dictating our political and economic landscapes. However, I was still uncertain how these two topics fit together.

To me, community has a loose definition, that strikes a different image for everyone. Some define their community as a weekly hockey game with co-workers, while for others it is group of Ugandan farmers partnered together in microfinance loans, and some may derive their sense of community from gang associations. Paul does not believe that a common definition is effective for community, as the experience of engaging with communities is highly contextual, individualized and richly diverse. That said, there is a word that epitomizes any community…which is belonging.

“Community has the power to change everything. No amount of innovation, individual brilliance, or money can transform our broken society as effectively and sustainably as building community.”

– John Kania, Managing Director, FSG; founder of the Collective Impact Movement.

As the day progressed, we shared our stories and aspirations for what a strong community can be, and what it can bring. An appreciation was emerging as we were understanding the radical systematic shifts that could arise from not only creating, but deepening community.

community

Source: Pixabay

Creating community is about building inclusivity. It’s about hearing the voiceless, and ensuring that they are understood. The conversation can’t be monopolized by the strongest or most visible; everyone needs a chance to be heard. A community becomes truly resilient and innovative when it recognizes, understands and embraces the diversity and vulnerability of its population.

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

– Jane Addams, Author; Nobel Peace Prize winner (1931)

Some may simplify deepening community to the golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In grand discussions of systems change and policy innovations, some may believe deepening community doesn’t belong in the same dialogue. If such is the case, perhaps we need to recognize a key outcome of deepening community is empathy. Can’t empathy be thought of as the fuel for the zealous efforts that change makers relentlessly exert when cultivating substantial policy changes and massive cross sector partnerships? Empathy gives us that deep understanding of the world beyond our peripherals, and enables and motivates us to build something better, together.

“The role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the twenty-first century.”

– Arianna Huffington, Co-founder, the Huffington Post

Of course, empathy is not new to the toolkit of social change. Radical, transformative social change calls for collaborative action – which inherently requires empathy. Empathy as a tool has its own restrictions; it should not be our moral guide, but rather used to guide us towards respect and understanding. It enables us to engage one another with multiple truths, and move through our biases to combat complex issues together.

ashokaThe importance of empathy has been identified long ago and cultivating it has been a major endeavour – lead by the likes of Roots of Empathy Founder, Mary Gordon, and Ashoka.

Empathy fostered through deepening community can lead us to that inflection point, where faceless statistics become our neighbours, community members…and ultimately the very people who motivate and inspire us. Empathy is a choice we make to extend ourselves, and to understand the world at large.

“We need the skill of applied empathy – the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response – to succeed in teams, to solve problems to lead effectively, to drive change.”

– Ashoka

Learning to strengthen and create resilient communities is an integral part of our systems thinking discussion – especially with the prevalence of fear in our current world. Deepening communities enables us all to be advocates of change, and to understand our vulnerable populations. It shows us that we all have a role to play in community; sometimes as leaders, sometimes as followers, and always as someone who belongs.

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Neil Gangal About Neil Gangal

Neil is currently finishing his Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Ottawa and has worked with MaRS, the Government of Canada, and the Consuelo Foundation.

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