Finding the Center Review: Teaching Empathy at School and at Home

Finding the Center Action Commitment Updates: Finding the Center 2011 closed with an Action-Planning Session by Dr. Debbie Storrs and Dr. Traci Craig of the University of Idaho. Dr. Storrs and Dr. Craig explained the notion of the local superhero—a member of the community who takes selfless action within his or her personal spheres of influence to challenge inequality or incivility. Conference participants were asked to identify their own potential spheres of influence and to commit to a local superhero action in a written Action Commitment statement. We’re proud that seventy-four percent of our attendees made these Commitments. We will feature the progress of some of these superhero actions in each issue of this newsletter.

This article was written for the October 2011 newsletter by Cheryl Nance. Nance’s Action Commitment pledged to encourage empathy in her students as she completed a graduate assistantship and internship for WSU. This article was originally written by Nance for the Pullman Community Update newsletter when she was working as an administrative intern at Pullman’s Jefferson Elementary School in Spring 2011. Nance attended the Finding the Center workshops for Educators.

The Pullman School District is committed to maintaining a safe, clean, healthy, and inviting environment that respects individual differences, builds confidence, and fosters success. We promote, provide for, and expect family and community involvement. In maintaining that environment, we protect civil and human rights through awareness-building of bullying in both real and cyberspace, and by attending additional training sessions such as the workshops offered at Finding the Center Conference in April 2011. As we strive to educate students on respecting individual differences and human rights, we also recognize the importance of family in that endeavor. Finding the Center provided us with excellent empathy-building tools that may be used both in the classroom and at home.

On Saturday, April 9, community members of Moscow and Pullman gathered together for nine hours on one of the few sunny days of spring. High school students, educators, law enforcement officers, and city representatives sacrificed a Saturday out of their busy schedules to promote human rights, social justice, and equity in our community. Finding the Center—conducted at the University of Idaho—was organized into educator workshops, student workshops, advocacy workshops, and law enforcement workshops. The workshops for educators were conducted by Kitara McClure, who serves as Multicultural Director at Spokane Community College, and inspirational speaker Paul Wesselmann, who is based in Madison, WI. Ms. McClure’s workshop was titled Community Organizing 101 and Mr. Wesselmann’s workshop was titled FaceLinkTweet: Using Social Media Tools for Social Justice Work. In addition to workshops, all conference attendees heard Paul Wesselmann’s morning speech, Opening Hearts, Opening Minds: Finding the Center Without Losing Your Edge, and Kitara McClure’s lunchtime speech, Being the Change Agent.

Paul Wesselmann, known as the “The Ripples Guy” after his daily inspirational email “ripples,” is heavily involved in social networking and provided excellent tips on the positive use of social media. Using social media tools for social justice work includes utilizing three strategies: (1) model good behavior, (2) educate, and (3) engage.  The Ripples Guy encouraged a positive use of social media, noting that we cannot get on our soapbox all of the time if we want to engage people. He encouraged us to use social media sites as tools to our advantage, even if we are initially intimidated by them. He closed the session with a touching example of how social media can unite us globally: a 21-year-old Facebook member in Egypt posted a picture of himself holding a sign stating “Egypt supports Wisconsin workers: One World, One Pain,” referencing the protests that were taking place at the time in relation to the Wisconsin Senate bill that sought to restrict collective bargaining for tens of thousands of the state’s public worker unions. Paul was initially shocked and impressed by the photo and sent a message to the young person. The distant Facebooker did not understand Paul’s surprise, and replied with “We were made different to complete each other.” The two are now Facebook friends. If Facebook or Twitter is used in your home, encourage your children to use it positively rather than expressing fear of its use. Open your own account and post an inspiring status, or share important world news on your twitter account. It may seem that your child is not paying attention, but as we all know, they are watching our every move.

Educators also attended Kitara McClure’s interactive workshop emphasizing community involvement and leadership. Kitara encouraged self-reflection of one’s role as an individual, as a group member, and as a member of society. The workshop consisted of activities that could be used in the classroom or in other settings. One especially enlightening activity involved sheets of easel paper posted around the room. Each sheet of paper was titled to indicate that it represented a different part of the population: LGBTQ, African American, Students with Disabilities, Native Americans, Caucasian, etc. The workshop participants were randomly divided into each of the groups and asked to identity with the denoted populace. Three questions helped each group enter into the mindset of its new identity:

  1. What do you want people to know about your group?
  2. What would you never like to see, hear or experience again?
  3. What can your allies do?

What an engaging way to teach students about empathy! As adults, it was an eye-opening experience that made us face reality. Kitara encouraged us to modify the activity to fit our needs. For instance, the categories and questions could be reframed to educate about bullying. Categories could be cheerleaders, band members, honor students, etc. Often students—and adults—do not realize the stereotypes they have adopted about their peers. At home, this activity could take the form of a simple discussion. For your younger children, it could be a game of “pretend.” Have your children imagine being a princess, astronaut, or firefighter. Then ask questions about situations they may not consider. If you were a princess, how would you feel about so many people following you all of the time to take pictures? If you were an astronaut, how would you feel about your first journey to outer space? As a firefighter, how would you feel if somebody said your job was easy? Allow your children to pretend to be someone else and react and feel as that person might. These are the first lessons of empathy.

Imagine the change in our schools and community if we could engage others in considering human rights. We, as educators and parents, have a grand opportunity to affect that change within our community. Often we are skeptical of the impact of conferences and forums, where the dissemination of information and solutions does not transfer into direct action. I assure you, Finding the Center did not leave participants wondering about their next steps. All participants were invited to help build the Northwest Coalition for Human Rights, which is one of the long-term goals of the conference. Additionally, all attendees were asked to develop a follow-up Action Plan in relation to what they learned at the conference. The Action Plans were individual pledges meant to advance the progress of human rights at the personal or community level. I pledged to engage at least one student a week in a discussion about empathy. How inspiring it was to see residents of the Palouse take part in this endeavor. Although you may not have attended the conference I encourage you to reflect on your contributions to our society and make a commitment, no matter where you live. Each commitment we make in our individual communities will help the Northwest region of our country become a more inclusive and welcoming environment overall.

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About nwchr

The Northwest Coalition for Human Rights (NWCHR) exists to facilitate connections and communication among organizations and individuals who are engaged in human rights and social justice work in the Northwest region of the United States, with special focus on the Inland Northwest. The coalition, inspired by Bill Wassmuth's former Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, will give strength to those working at the local level by allowing them to share resources, information, and ideas, as well as making them part of a larger support system. The University of Idaho Office of Human Rights, Access, and Inclusion (HRAI) in Moscow serves as the administrative home for the NWCHR, and the Coalition strives to build strong membership from throughout Idaho and eastern Washington, as well as from other parts of the Northwest region. All are welcome to join NWCHR and give their input.
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