Empathy and Social Justice

A couple weeks before the year-end holidays, I fell down and injured my knee and wrist. While not the first time I’ve had serious injuries, it was the first time an injury caused me serious mobility challenges. For over a week, I could barely walk and didn’t go out much. The experience was humbling. When in a crowded store, an elderly woman lightly touched my arm and gave me a knowing glance and head bob. When I looked puzzled, she pointed to her cane then to mine, as if to say, “See? We’re sisters.” I realized I am usually is such a hurry, I rarely see the challenges many people with long-lasting or permanent mobility restrictions face going about their daily lives. The experience has deepened my empathy for everyone who must go slow and pay close attention to every crack in the sidewalk to avert disaster.

Image by michaklootwijk, iStock

Because my leg is still healing, I was unable to join last Saturday’s Women’s March. I loved being part of the first one last year. This time, I missed the excitement, the camaraderie and sense of being a part of something important. I wanted to be there, marching with hundreds of thousands of others around the world, women and men using their bodies and voices to demand social justice for all oppressed groups.

I especially wanted to join those calling for an end to sexual abuse and gender inequality in all forms. I’ve been profoundly affected by the news of long-awaited reckoning for powerful abusers in all sectors of society. While not surprised by the backlash to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I am gratified that finally a large segment of Americans see these behaviors as unacceptable and agree it’s high time the cultural norms and economic policies that not only permit but encourage them be replaced with more equitable ones.

I feel strongly about this, not simply because I’m a woman, but because I know first-hand how workplace sexual harassment feels. Long ago, when I was very young, I worked at a San Francisco nonprofit. I didn’t know what to do when my boss, the executive director, cornered me from time to time to flirt and ask me out. I talked to friends but not to anyone at the group, where no one was trained in HR and rumors of a prominent board member’s sexual misconduct abounded.

I ended up writing a letter to my boss, explaining my desire to remain “friends” and asking him to please stop asking me out on dates. He did stop harassing me for awhile–then started again. Eventually I left the organization, as so many others who’ve experienced this kind of thing–and other much more serious harassment and assault–have done.

I share these personal stories to illustrate the important role empathy plays in the work we all do to shed light on the experiences of marginalized peoples and bring about greater social equity. Just last week, I was leading a theory of change session when the topic of empathy for the group’s beneficiaries surfaced. The group agreed that without non-judgmental, empathetic staff members, the organization had little hope to lift low-income families out of poverty and into stability and well-being.

Recent articles touch on the importance of empathy in social sector work. This blog post by the Leap of Reason folks reiterates the ways empathy is a mission-critical factor in “successful” nonprofits.

Related to the importance of empathy is the need to examine white privilege and how it, for decades, has unconsciously undermined the social sector’s efforts to bring about racial and other forms of social equity. In The Huffington Post, Kathleen P. Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), argues that the sector needs a “new definition of effectiveness.” She talks about how the concept of effectiveness has primarily been defined by white people in foundations and large consulting firms. A mea culpa of sorts, the piece announces GEO’s new commitment to redefining a core concept for the organization through a racial and social equity lens.

Inspired by Enright’s piece, Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, penned a somewhat humorous and more impassioned post called “How the Concept of Effectiveness Has Screwed Nonprofits and the People We Serve.” In it, he says, “If we measure the “effectiveness” of a karaoke session by the singing, then we miss out on capturing the camaraderie, community-building, friendships, memories, and other benefits that extend beyond the beer-fueled sessions. Unfortunately, this is how our sector has been thinking about nonprofit effectiveness, and it leaves out so many critical voices and renders us less effective. That needs to change, if we hope to make actual progress on the issues we’re working on.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Drop me a line if you want to start a conversation about empathy.