How EYEJ Promotes Empathy in Youth and Volunteers

2016 was a year of division for many of us, culminating with the U.S. election results that made many feel marginalized. Many questioned, “Where did we go wrong? How did […]

February 21, 2017 // Carolina Sears // No Comments // Posted in Uncategorized

2016 was a year of division for many of us, culminating with the U.S. election results that made many feel marginalized. Many questioned, “Where did we go wrong? How did we end up so divided?” As I read social scientific and political commentary, a common theme is that we, as a nation, a human race, etc., have a lack of empathy, and we need to do something about it.

So, at the beginning of 2017, when I was asked to write a monthly blog about social and emotional learning issues, my first post was a no-brainer for me. I had to write about empathy and EYEJ.

Empathy has three key components:

  1. Seeing the world as others see it, also known as perspective taking
  2. Being non-judgmental about your approach
  3. Understanding each other’s feelings, and communicating it

When I think about about the work that EYEJ does in the Cleveland community, and my own experiences with the organization, it is quite clear to me that EYEJ implicitly and explicitly encourages empathy in youth and in its volunteers.

So, how do we do it? How does EYEJ promote empathy in all sides?

First of all, we expose the youth that we work with to a wide variety of perspectives. Local business owners, teachers, ex-convicts, college students, psychologists, bankers, retirees, and police are just a few who represent the many volunteers who come to speak at the schools. We understand that aside from job title, one’s identity influences one’s experience. So, we try to ensure that speakers are diverse in their racial background and gender. We hope that through hearing diverse stories from all sorts of Cleveland community members, our youth are able to increase their worldview.

And it may not seem obvious, but I know that we are widening the perspective and increasing the empathy of our volunteers, too. I’ve seen retirees recognize the troubles that our youth have to deal with in today’s modern world, and they actually feel for our younger population. I’ve also seen graduate students from privileged backgrounds try to understand what life is like in the inner city, by asking the youth to share their own day to day. When EYEJ representatives say that this organization is all about bridging worlds together, it is true. We are connecting the youth to the community with our discussion series. Everyone is learning about each other’s perspectives and emotions on the various topics we cover.

While I believe that having everyone come together for discussions each month is promoting perspective taking on all sides, I do not think it is the only catalyst for empathic connection. Our curriculum committee also works very hard to ensure that our volunteers have the right tools in hand for discussions. They provide our speaker volunteers with other people’s stories to share, intriguing questions that inspire contemplation and provoke deep conversation, and immersive group activities that teach mindfulness, privilege awareness, personal goal setting, and self-esteem enhancement.

After witnessing the curriculum in action, I can definitely say that each month, the materials hit all of the components of empathy. October’s stress and and the brain curriculum topic helped our students understand their emotions and what their fellow students are going through. It also provided them with language to describe their stress. November’s power and privilege curriculum topic helped our students understand the underlying constructs that either influence failure or success in society. So, instead of seeing outcomes in themselves and others as just pure luck, we hoped that by the end of November’s discussion, our youth would see the bigger picture of every person’s failure or success story.

In the end, the major goal of EYEJ is to create self-valued leaders in our youth. I definitely think that our discussion series and curriculum is a great way of achieving this goal, since the whole experience promotes empathy. And empathy is a necessary characteristic in any future leader, since it promotes assertiveness and courage, and is a top skill for future success as an adult. 

Carolina Sears is an EYEJ Marketing Team Member, providing video and social and emotional learning content for our social media platforms. She is also an EYEJ Millennial Board Co-Chair. Do you want to combat the decline of empathy in our younger generations and help EYEJ achieve its mission? Then e-mail her at carolina@eyej.org and sign up to be a Millennial Board Member!