Last week, RW’s own Kelly Lynch wrote Volunteering as a Means to an End: My Disorienting Dilemma. She took us through her experiences with culture shock abroad and a conflicted afternoon being a “voluntourist” in the Dominican Republic. This blog is its followup, which more deeply explores the human path towards (or sometimes away from) empathy. Start with part 1 by by clicking the link above.
Time and time again, when considering what [volunteerism] can do to help us reach beyond our economic status, our race, our sexuality, our gender, and our nationality, I keep coming back to The Brain’s Empathy Gap, an article which follows the research of scientist Emile Bruneau. This section introduces the tension Bruneau’s research seeks to resolve by analyzing subjects from different sides of varying longterm, culturally entrenched conflicts around the world:
“So far, the link between f.M.R.I. data and behavior has been tenuous. Many f.M.R.I. studies on empathy involve scanning subjects’ brains while they look at images of hands slammed in doors or of faces poked with needles. Scientists have shown that the same brain regions light up when you watch such things happen to someone else as when you experience them or imagine them happening to you.
To me, that’s not empathy. It’s what you do with that information that determines whether it’s empathy or not. A psychopath might demonstrate the same neural flashes in response to the same painful images but experience glee instead of distress.”
And so the question becomes, when you can feel another person’s pain, what do you do with it? I think there may be two “empathy gaps” in question here:
The gap we create when we empathize heavily with our “in-group,” repressing empathy for “out-groups.”
The gap between feeling and acting. What causes you to bridge the gap between you feeling that person’s pain and then acting on that feeling? Your neural pathways can “light up” when you resonate with the pain you see, but it’s what you do with that feeling that defines your character, your interactions with others and, within the context of volunteerism, the extent of your social impact.
In transformative volunteering, there’s the concept of creating proximity to the beneficiary which can be achieved through face-to-face interactions like I had in the Dominican Republic, or it can be just as effective through a photo and a story. It’s creating a relatable narrative to an individual or group that you can either see or visualize – really, the beginning of empathetic feeling.
There’s really no getting past the fact that empathy is a highly emotional human experience.
But what is it about feeling empathy for the individual that brings our attention to the bigger picture, or to the issues surrounding that individual’s suffering or oppression? And is there a right or a wrong way to show your empathy? Paul Bloom, in his article, Against Empathy, says that empathy is biased. And to a certain extent, I think he’s right.
“Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’ Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.”
There’s really no getting past the fact that empathy is a highly emotional human experience, and that emotion can be blinding; strong empathy for one group can create an underlying psychological bias against another group that does not hold similar values. But it is not impossible for humans to hold strong empathy for one group and feel the same for what’s perceived as the opposing side. I would even argue that it is the strength of the emotion behind empathy that fuels this possibility, this ability to balance opposing sides.
In The Brain’s Empathy Gap, there is a focus on Bruneau’s research around the resistance to integration of the Roma into Hungarian society. In an earlier study of Israelis and Arabs living in the Boston area, he had found that “Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.” But, there were three outliers “who held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.” These individuals were Israeli peace activists.
… it seems to come from disorienting dilemmas where they have experienced shame, pain, or suffering put upon them by others.
While in Hungary, Bruneau met up with Gabor Daroczi, Executive Director of Romaversitas Foundation, and Kornelia Magyar, Director of the Hungarian Progressive Institute. He asked what made her, an educated white woman, take up the Roma cause? This gave Magyar pause. After a brief silence, she explained that she grew up in a city close to the Austrian border and that she always felt like an outsider when her family would cross over to go shopping.
Daroczi couldn’t help interjecting. “After the fall of communism,” he said, “Hungarians crossed the border in droves, mostly to purchase basic goods. It was written in Hungarian on the walls of the shops, ‘Hungarians: don’t steal!”’
“It felt shameful,” Magyar added, nodding. “I think that really affected me.”
This wasn’t the first time Bruneau had heard a story like this. There’s no scientific evidence (or if there is, please send it my way) that delves further into this phenomenon, but it’s striking to me from the perspective of our work at Realized Worth. At some point in their lives, many of these activists have had what we would call a transformative experience. And it’s not an experience rooted in a positive, safe space; but rather it seems to come from disorienting dilemmas where they have experienced shame, pain, or suffering put upon them by others.
Using volunteerism and volunteer space as a mechanism, as a means to an end – to develop empathy for an “out group” or an “other” – has more potential for success when a volunteer is guided by an experienced leader like we saw in José [as referenced in part 1]. Volunteer space becomes almost like a controlled environment and a safe space to unearth individual psychological bias and make sense of it. Identifying and accepting unknown or unacknowledged psychological bias is probably one of the hardest parts of an individual’s journey toward self awareness, toward becoming more socially aware and prosocial. A part of me wonders about the effect these activists have on people who volunteer to support their cause – if their leadership can inspire, if their empathy becomes a model for others.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from Bruneau:
“… if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So, I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.“
Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via email@example.com. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.
The following is part 1 of a 2-part blog. Click the link at the bottom to see part 2.
A little over a year ago, our team was fortunate enough to travel together to the Dominican Republic on a work retreat. And while we were there, we volunteered. If it sounds like a pretty privileged thing to do, that’s because it is. It was the first time I had participated in any kind of volunteerism outside of North America, and it was the first time I started to understand both the opportunities and the dangers of travel tourism. It was also the first time I started to understand that transformative experience can happen anywhere, and in many kinds of circumstance – it was one of the most striking examples of a volunteering experience resulting in a shift in my understanding and values. What’s interesting is that volunteering is a means to an end in this case. But we’ll get to that.
Being able to travel to faraway places is a profoundly privileged activity that I too often take for granted. After we volunteered in the Dominican Republic, I was reminded of my first foray into travel.
I was 19 the first time I went to a different country. I had finally convinced my parents to let me travel on my own to Ireland and the UK. I had a friend living in Belfast, so I left the salty shores of the east coast of Canada and began my initial explorations abroad.
I had learned about The Troubles in high school, but it was only a passing part of the curriculum. My Irish friends would make occasional reference to it, but there always seemed to be a deep caution around the topic. I was afraid to inquire about something I didn’t understand for fear of offending or hurting others, of saying the wrong thing. So with the clear-eyed naiveté of an entitled young person, I landed in Belfast with no real understanding of its complex history, and no true appreciation for the seemingly ever-present rawness of that history.
“Do you know why we laugh, Kelly? Because if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.”
I remember being driven from the airport and seeing lots of brick and history. The huge, beautiful Victorian buildings housing the botanical gardens, endless roundabouts (so many roundabouts), driving on the other side of the road. But I also remember barbed wire in places I didn’t expect, and more politically charged graffiti than I’d ever seen (my hometown in rural Nova Scotia isn’t exactly an epicenter of politically charged street art, mind you).
My first night in the city we went out for a group dinner. One of my dinner mates was a police officer who told several stories about witnessing or trying to stop altercations between opposing sides of the religious, political and socioeconomic divide, some of which were quite violent. He told them with a dark humor that made everyone at the table laugh. Except me. When he noticed that I couldn’t, he reached out and lightly touched my arm, kindness and understanding in his face. He said, “Do you know why we laugh, Kelly? Because if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.” I looked around the table that had suddenly gone very quiet and saw somber nods before someone else made a joke to clear the air.
But that comment, and the thirty seconds of humming electric sadness, intense gravity and tension that I felt afterward felt almost like shock. I had no response; I was not prepared for the hard simplicity of a truth that is what I now understand to be a string undercurrent in Northern Irish culture. This is an example of a disorienting dilemma. This was the first time in my life that I felt truly small, truly out of my depth. It was only a few minutes, yet it made me fundamentally question my values and my understanding of an issue. I felt this way again after Realized Worth’s volunteer experience in the Dominican Republic, though with a significantly better awareness and understanding of what I was feeling.
I think what we did that day had elements of voluntourism, and I felt the weight of the white savior complex.
One of the first things José of Fundacion Mahatma Ghandi said to us when the team gathered for a onsite brief was, “You are not needed here.” We had come as a group to a community close to where we were staying in Las Terranas, where some of the houses were made from concrete with walls and gates surrounding them; but most of the houses in the community were put together with aluminum siding or from the wood of the ubiquitous palm trees across the island. We had come to paint two of these humble houses. José assured us that anybody could do this job, and that the real goal was to interact with the people in the community, with the homeowners. To try and make connections we may otherwise not have made. The author of this Forbes article on slum tourism touches on it, quoting Fabian Frenzel, a professor at the University of Leicester:
“Slum tourism is happening,” Frenzel began, “people are actually going on three hour tours in flavelas, then many more politically inclined travelers would say ‘That’s horrible, how can you do this? Obviously that’s voyeuristic,’ and so on. [But] if you decide to do this you are at least showing some interest in the fact that there’s inequality, and that is something that, fundamentally, is a good thing in comparison with people who go to Rio and say, ‘I will not look at this,’ even though it’s clearly there.”
I think what we did that day had elements of voluntourism, and I felt the weight of the white savior complex. I felt awful afterward. But we are fortunate to have two team members who speak fluent Spanish (as I certainly do not), and they were able to translate what the home owners were saying to us as we painted and as they walked around the house to check on us, to make sure we had everything we needed, to help us clear away brush. They expressed genuine gratitude for us coming into their community that day and for painting their homes, and I was really pleased to hear this. But the thing that really stuck with me, what really moved me, was when one of our team members got sick and started throwing up at the side of the road. Before we could react, the man whose house we were painting immediately went over with water and squatted down, patting my team member’s back as he was ill. It was to me the most human moment of the day, and the moment that illustrated how simple and easy connection and kindness can be.
We enjoyed a talk over drinks with José after a long day of painting.
As Angela Parker says in her blog, I think it was José’s framing of expectations that helped me walk into that volunteer experience with a clearer understanding of my privilege. That awoke in me the need to question and challenge who I was, and to educate myself so I could better understand the shame I was feeling – not to make it go away, but to understand it, and why I feel it. It was the same feeling I had had on my first trip abroad in Belfast. In this context, volunteering was a mechanism to break down some heretofore unseen psychological biases on my part – my whiteness and my economic privilege, to name a couple. While I don’t agree with many aspects of travel volunteerism, it was clear to me that the impact resulting from this experience came from having had the right leader in place to guide us through it gracefully, with the humility and the understanding of what was really happening. It was someone who had obviously seen the shift I have described, and what it can do to help us reach beyond our economic status, our race, our sexuality, our gender, and our nationality, and to just see and hear one another.
Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.
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Each year, YourCause hosts two fun-filled days in Dallas connecting, collaborating and communicating on how to make a greater impact in our companies and the world for clients and friends. We look forward to more information on this year’s event from Matt Combs and his team!
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The conference format is a mix of plenary sessions and forums.Plenaries are designed to present big ideas and provide inspiration.Forums are breakout sessions where participants share projects, partnership insights and best practices.”
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Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or email us via email@example.com. You can also connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
We all know the perception of webinars: dry and about twenty minutes too long. Now it’s your turn to host. Will you be dynamic and engaging or dull and lifeless? Is it possible to break through the awkward tech barriers to create a space where participants are truly engaged?
The one thing they all have in common? Human beings struggle in this environment. I mean face-to-face communication between humans is already fraught with potential misunderstanding. Bring sketch wifi, zero visibility, and bad audio into the mix and it’s a wonder anyone knows what anyone means via virtual meetings. Alas, this is the future so we have to adjust and figure this out.
Since we train and support teams of employee volunteer leaders at numerous companies from around the world on a weekly basis, we’ve taken some time to figure out what works best. We thought we would share that with our faithful readers in case you’re looking for some ideas that work. And honestly, we’d love to hear what works from you as well.
Imagine: you sign in to your meeting, running through the agenda one last time before the participants dial in. After some chit-chat, you begin. To your relief and delight, things are going well – people are laughing at your jokes, asking and even answering questions. Everyone leaves the call feeling invigorated and excited about what they’ve learned.
What would you need to make that scenario a reality? An energized audience? Lots of sharing? People asking questions? How about drama!?
It is up to you as the host to make that happen, and we are here to help. There are two key categories to setting up a successful webinar: structure and style (the sexy s’s).
Always have at least 2 facilitators. There are multiple reasons for this, but it helps with the impression of a one-way, longwinded talk.
Keep your agenda doable. If the agenda is too full, participant discussion will inevitably suffer for it. Share items in a pre-read or a followup when possible.
Review what you’re sharing from the participant’s perspective and ask, “what’s in it for me?” Understand the value of knowing what you are sharing from the participant’s point of view. If there isn’t a clear value, send it in a followup.
Prepping people to share before the call is brilliant, but be sure the participants understand why they are sharing. All content needs to connect with the purpose of your webinar.
Send out an email or set up an automatic reminder for participants before each meeting or webinar. Be sure to join larger webinars/trainings 15 minutes prior and test the settings.
Begin by introducing everyone. If there are more than 8 people, have them give their name, location, company, and an interesting fact about themselves in the chat box.
Announce the sequence of sharing or asking questions ahead of time to avoid over-talking.
Use the chat. We encourage comments there every 15 mins or so. If someone has a question about what’s being said, you can ask right away without coming off mute and talking across each other.
Talk to people and use their names. People will pay attention if they expect to hear their name (think less high-school-teacher-looking-to-embarrass, more attentive-host-welcoming-guests).
Ask participants to speak to each other. Creating space for these interactions alleviates the stiffness of virtual communications.
Always summarize a participant’s statements or comments after they are done sharing. It shows you were listening and helps with clarity for other participants.
Explain acronyms! Helen’s husband is now DOA. Has tragedy struck Helen’s family or was her husband promoted to director of accounting? No one knows because Helen didn’t explain. Don’t be like Helen.
While structure is the framework of the webinar and the formula to a smooth operation, it’s nothing without style. If “a house is not a home when there’s no one there to hold you tight,” then a webinar is just a well organized person talking when there’s no style.
Questions usually need answers, so make sure to pause and give space for response when asking one. When using the chat box, remember to stop and take time to go over the questions and comments.
Preparation is everything. A distracted host and an annoyed host sound the same, so be sure to turn the the call over to another facilitator when looking for something or taking a note.
Your energy influences the entire call. Even if it’s true, never say you’re feeling rushed or you’re going to speed through things or skip sections. If you give the impression what’s being shared isn’t important, participants will question the value of their attendance.
Introduce each agenda topic with a strong “why?”Why are we discussing this now? How does it relate to the overall purpose?
Resist the urge to over-explain. The “why?” for each topic should be clear enough to avoid superfluous detail. Allow participants to ask for more explanation before assuming it’s needed.
And just like that, you’re ready to plan and pull off a kickass webinar!*
*Don’t be discouraged if your meetings aren’t all equally engaging. There are some crowds Santa couldn’t cheer up. This is a process, and each situation is different, so don’t give up!
Realized Worth works with companies to take corporate volunteering programs to the next level. Reach out to discuss how we can improve and increase the impact of your program!