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Activating Generation-A(ctivist) with Empathy

“I think we are only seeing the beginning. I think that change is on the horizon and the people will stand up for their future.”

“I think we are only seeing the beginning. I think that change is on the horizon and the people will stand up for their future.” These words were said by 16-year old Greta Thunberg in a recent interview. Greta is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in climate change.

We are living in a time where people are paying more attention to the worlds issues than ever before – and are youth is no exception. Between organizing protests, voicing personal opinions through social media, and even leading 7 week-long school walk-outs (like Greta did), we’re seeing ripples of social change emanate from younger generations. So how can we ensure these energized and optimistic young activists have the tools available to them to create, and ultimately sustain change that is imperative to this world? Moreover, how do we inspire those who haven’t found their cause just yet, to act?

I believe the key is in empathetic education. When you teach young people to empathize, you remind them how powerful their feelings are, and impactful their actions can potentially be. I’ve learned through personal experience, that, if you harness the capacity of the heart at the same time as the mind, it can ignite a spark that won’t let you sit idly by; you come into action. This is what happened to me. After traveling extensively through the developing world with organizations like the United Nations and witnessing some of the worst human atrocities firsthand, my heart and mind were educated and activated in a way that sparked something in me. I felt compelled to get involved at the deepest level. I cycled across Cambodia, and started hosting annual skydiving fundraisers recognizing and raising money for women’s rights and anti-sex trafficking groups. I started awareness campaigns, and hosted dinners to start conversations, anything I could do to bring awareness to what I had seen and felt.

As the years went by, I built my artistry through acting alongside my world awareness and I saw that I had a public platform to bring light to a spectrum of social issues. I understood the critical importance of my education – both through school and my ability to travel, and also recognized that not all children have access to the experiences I had. I saw how education opened my eyes and heart and it inspired me and I wanted that for everyone, so I co-founded Deedly, the not-for-profit organization that takes an evidence-based approach to develop curricula meant to increase civic engagement among youth.

I truly believe that no matter how independently successful we are, or how many obstacles we’ve individually overcome, we’re still inextricably connected to every person on this planet. We need to know and understand one another enough to be compelled to initiate positive change – not only for humanity’s sake, but our world at large. I believe the best way to do that is education. Here are four ways I found that help to teach empathy to future generations.

1. Spark curiosity

Curiosity instills a deep, genuine interest to make sense of something, and oftentimes, you follow through with action. Like imagination, curiosity presses you to explore beyond your horizons. My parents taught me that I was (and am) a global citizen – that we all are – and traveling to new places and unearthing knowledge about each of their distinct cultures can open up new perspectives.

Through Deedly’s curricula, we task students to explore a host of social issues around the world (all without having to leave their classroom) and from there, pique their curiosity to learn more, and find ways to get involved. To become global citizens themselves.

This process can be adopted at home or any public domain.

2. Do what you can where you are

Giving back is not just a monetary donation – it’s the start of a conversation, a post, a repost, taking the time to listen, share, and create. A donation of time, energy and personal experience that can go a very long way. No matter the circumstance you are in, there is always an opportunity to create change around you, and within.

This awareness not only helps youth take more initiative to take positive action, but builds up an authentic feeling of empathy that people innately experience when they do something for someone else. It also allows them to understand the power they have, from reducing their consumption of single use plastics to recognizing that every dollar we spend is a vote towards our future world.

3. Walk the(ir) walk

Empathy is the fundamental understanding of another – and understanding is strengthened through first-hand experience. Walking in someone else’s shoes is the perfect example of this. As part of Deedly’s curricula on the world water crisis, students are asked to watch a short 5-7 min video which shares a story of a 12yr old girl who has given up her education to walk 3 miles each day to collect water in a 40 lb Jerry can for her family. To allow our students to better understand this young girls circumstance, we get them to literally, walk with Jerry Cans across their campus integrating the experience mentally, emotionally and physically.

This deepened understanding strengthened the connection students felt to the world water crisis – even if it isn’t something that impacts them directly. Other experiences and activities for youth can yield a similarly (if not, the same) impactful result.

4. Give them tools

As environmentalist David Brower said, “we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” This couldn’t ring truer for today’s young activists. We need to make sure we always link our own success with that of another, and that can only happen if youth are educated and activated. So we must provide younger generations with the education and tools to fix what it is we have yet to resolve. It’s a large task, but one that we know youth are ready to take on.

While being a resource for youth is important, providing a menu of resources for them to access is arguably equal. Pay attention to what’s grabbing youths’ attention. Ask them questions, engage, see if there are any platforms for them to elevate their voice on a larger scale. Experts or causes on-hand that can directly address the issues about which they feel most impassioned? Offering these opportunities for them to act on their thoughts and feelings can soar their empathy to great heights.

Overall, empathy and education go hand-in-hand, which is why we must encourage youth to lead with strong hearts and minds. When we submerge ourselves into the deepest parts of our hearts, we become better-equipped to understand ourselves – and motivated to learn about other people. When we expand our knowledge through exploring our curiosity and creativity, we receive access to the thoughts and feelings of other people, places, and ideas. That information is invaluable, and tapping into it unlocks our greatest human potential to catalyze change.

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