Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

Beyond the Tried and True Empathy Skills pt. 3

At this point, we understand that each person enters the world with a unique frame of reference; and sometimes, we’re led to division - operating within echo chambers of likeness and rarely building empathy across difference. Actualizing a fully inclusive society can’t be an “us vs. them” issue. No one is disposable in a functioning, thriving community.

We know some of the tried and true approaches toward empathy (create brave spaces, lean into discomfort, listen to understand rather than to inform, validate others’ feelings and experience, etc.) but there are other, often more challenging skills to develop - especially as allies taking risks for communities that experience oppression:

  • (Re)Build a sense of curiosity. At one point in our lives - often, as children - most of us experience insatiable curiosity. While venturing into adulthood, the desire for knowledge and understanding about everything narrows and may even diminish. The benefits of a strong sense of curiosity? The drive to ask questions and embrace humility - understanding that we have much to learn from those around us.
  • Find common ground and share stories. It’s easier to establish relationships through connection. Work to find a mutual foundation (however big or small) to build from. As different as we may be from another person, chances are you have something in common. (i.e. You would eat breakfast burritos for every meal, too?! or I’ve never met someone else who had a bowl cut until the age of twelve!)
  • Decenter yourself by turning off your alarm system. Yes, triggers are real. And they’re entirely valid. When we’re constantly on edge - ready to pounce on a misspoken word, phrase, or idea that strays from the realm of a socially just world - we may miss out on an opportunity for growth and understanding. It’s a heavy responsibility, but in order to practice true empathy, we must assume best intent - responding with patience and compassion. This is hard, and it can be hurtful - so make sure you’re as physically and psychologically safe as you need to be too.
  • Make space for your emotional processing. Working for empathy across difference - especially when issues are so personal - is taxing. We don’t need to push aside our own beliefs or feelings in the process. Make time to take care of yourself by finding camaraderie for support and relief or your own best practices for recuperation.

The reality is, empathy is a skill much larger than “putting yourself in someone else's shoes.” Consider this a reminder (and a challenge) not to take the easy way out by staying in our communities of likeness, but instead, taking the difficult path of expanding our communities across difference. Borrowing from Audre Lorde, “Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

We will not be free until we are all free, and no one is left behind.

The Danger of the “New Normal” pt. 2

No matter what you believe in or how you identify, people are naturally drawn to communities of likeness. This isn’t condemnable, it isn’t unreasonable, but it is notable - especially when you consider the reality that active citizens are interested in thriving communities for all people.

In social justice education, at some point we all learn that our world is socialized. Consequently, we’re responsible for unlearning notions that were once normalized and reinforced by individuals, systems, and culture. That knowledge gained expands our frame of reference.

The time and effort it takes to attain a new understanding of the world also happens to distance us from the realities of where we once were. And as we settle into distinctive communities of affinity, we go through a new sort of socialization. This micro-socialization regulates a particular language, code of ethics, and culture.

This “new normal” has allowed us to antagonize those who hold differing beliefs or levels of understanding. This distance often results in the difficult undertaking of practicing patience, assuming best intent, or hearing someone with a differing viewpoint.

To mend the apparent polarized divide, the majority of people (including us) bestow the same advice: practice empathy. Easier said than done, though. Naturally, how we talk about empathy is often selective: folks interested in justice work will lean toward feeling empathy for marginalized communities and stop there. Those with a worldview limited to their own lived experience may tend to lean toward feeling empathy for their specific communities or those similar. There’s an invisible disconnect between who we’re willing to feel empathy for - a truth that ultimately furthers our misunderstanding and divide.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her most recent book Strangers in Their Own Land, described this phenomenon as an empathy wall or “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.”

This week, consider which communities you more naturally feel empathy for and others where you feel the empathy wall may exist. In our next blog post we'll tackle specific ways to apply this knowledge to expand our capacity for empathy.

Starting with Self: Considering Frame of Reference pt. 1

After the recent election - divisions in our country laid bare - justice seemed to turn into an us vs. them issue. There was a sudden assumption that whether or not you cared about social justice could be determined by your political alignment. However, we know a few things to be true: 1) justice is a strong value of active citizenship, 2) anyone can be an active citizen, and 3) active citizenship means prioritizing your community. Is there a disconnect between who sees themselves fitting within the bounds of active citizenship and the conversations surrounding justice? If so, how do we bridge those gaps?

With social justice education, we’re taught that introspection, personal identity development, and active work are critically important. Before taking the step to enter into conversations across difference, we must consider not only what our values and beliefs are, but where they come from and why they’re important to us.

Who we are, what we believe, and what we know to be true is influenced and enforced by everything around us - from the people who raised us, to the neighborhood we grew up in, to the media we consumed. Name almost anything, and it has likely contributed to shaping who we are today. To put it in more formal terms - this is how our frame of reference is built and our identity is developed. This occurs, in part, through the Cycle of Socialization.

If we were to take a handful of people, it’s impossible that two of them would have had the exact same experiences or influencers - some overlap may exist, but there would definitely be difference. While we’d hope it would be celebrated, often - as we all know - difference unfortunately becomes synonymous with division.

To have productive conversations across difference, it’s crucial to be able to honestly speak from a place of feeling or personal experience and to engage the other person (or people) from that same place, as well.

What has influenced our thoughts, values, and behaviors? What sort of internal questioning would it take for us to come to know and understand our frame of reference? What questions can we ask others to understand theirs?

Before we enter into spaces of dialogue (that will inevitably involve difference), we should focus on our own experience and identity, work to understand where our opinions and values came from, and consider how our frame of reference impacts the way we interact with the world. Thus, recognizing that our lived experiences and identities are different from our neighbors’ and there’s a way to communicate that comes from a place of understanding. Community and justice is for everyone and needs everyone; within these realms, there isn’t room for a gaping divide.