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International Online Conference on:
How Might We Build a Culture of Empathy?
Permanently Ongoing

Index: Panel 001-A
Date:  2011-11-01
Time: 10 am PST

Panel 001-A: How to Build a Culture of Empathy

Video: 60 min
Video of Post Panel Discussion: 35 min

  Moderator: Mutima Imani
    Mutima is a teacher, workshop leader and member of the Empathy Curriculum development team.
   Ilene Fortune
    Ilene Fortune is a school teacher and member of the Empathy Curriculum development team.
  Sherry McCreedy
    Sherry McCreedy is a school teacher and member of the Empathy Curriculum development team.
  Edwin Rutsch
    Convener:  Edwin Rutsch is founding director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. See his full Bio here.


We video tape many interviews and empathy conference panels. It's helpful to have a transcript of these videos since it makes it easier for viewers to quickly access the contents We invite you to help out. Visit this page for instructions on how to do it. You will be contributing to the viewers ease of use and personal growth, as well as, helping to build a culture of empathy and compassion.  We are grateful for your help!
(Much gratitude to Roshni Trehan Ladny for doing the transcription)

The first panel with some members of the empathy curriculum development team. We tested out the panel process and talked about how we can build a culture of empathy.

  • Edwin Rutsch

  • Mutima Imani

  • Sherry McCreedy

  • Illene Fortune= IF

0:00  Introduction from Edwin R: This is the very first panel. It is a trial run with members of empathy curriculum team:

(Edwin) introduces Mutima Imani:

 (Mutima) I have 2 distinguished panelists with me: Sherry McCreedy and Illene Fortune

Topic is: How to build culture of empathy

I would like each panelist to discuss” What does empathy mean to you? Share a short story. What brings you to topic of empathy?”

1:50   (Sherry) Empathy means to me: Being in a place within myself where I have space  to be connected with myself, and people I am with, in a way  where I can see my  own humanity and humanity of others.

There are a number of times I have experienced that in various ways.

(SM shares her story of what lead her to embrace the topic of empathy)

One of the sweetest memories I have is working in the  classroom with 12 and 13 year olds teaching a Spanish language learning class. I began to consciously start to think about what I was wanting and also about what students were wanting from human point of view.

 This is different from using structural authority as teacher and seeing what students ought to be doing as students.

I started communicating what I was feeling to students and why. There was something within me that I was wanting.  We looked at this together. For example: What are you feeling? Do you need to take a rest?

4.00  Learned words for what we were feeling in Spanish.  I was feeling frustrated one day. Everyone was tired,  and all the books were on floor. I expressed feeling frustrated. Students asked “Are you needing order”. They then put their books away!

I felt companionship among us all.

4:55  (Sherry) Thank you for sharing.

You experienced empathy with students in the classroom

Illene would you like to share?

5.00 Illene’s story of what lead her to embrace topic of empathy

(Illene) Mine is also school related: It is connected to my childhood. I was a quiet sensitive little girl. I felt I did not have a place to fit in. I learned how to be invisible so I would not be a target by the time I was in school . I was that way all through school career.

In college I started to do mediation work with students. Learning about empathy, connecting to people on basis of feelings. I came across a mediation program in San Francisco.

 I came across Marshall Rosenberg’s work on non-violent communication.  This was a concrete version of empathy. Connecting with people from the heart. As humans we have a common collection of needs. Need for order, need to belong, need for respect. We may have different ways of meeting needs, but  we have the same goal of meeting them.

Being who we are and fully accepting people for who they are in the moment is a part of empathy. Being able to hear each other without judgment and keeping our hearts soft.

 I brought this work into elementary schools. I worked with kindergartners Talking about how we could take experience we had together of safety and acceptance and hearing each other out into the world. One little girl in the school said:, If give that experience to one person, they give it to one person, and those people give it to other people, just think of what would happen in the world. I see how open kids are to it. I want to bring the work to them.

I thought, you are just five  years old and it took me to now to understand that.

(Sherry)  Thank you. Beautiful story

 We are looking at how to build a culture of empathy

What is the importance of this?

(Edwin)  Mutami, can you share your story of what empathy means to you?

8:59 MI shares her story of empathy.

(Mutima)  I have been in situations in where I was always the odd person out. I traveled a lot when I was young. I was usually the first person of color that others saw.

I experienced empathetic connection with people who were totally different from me, people I could not communicate with in English language. This intrigued me. There is something beyond words. I think of the world as a place where there is an empathetic heart: moving beyond language. Report happens. I experienced this very young.

Field of diversity: I realized that in talking about valuing differences, acknowledges them. The core of my work has been development of self. Once person begins to develop self, there is an empathetic thing that excites oneself about other people. This has come up through my career.

I am glad to be a part of this movement to build a culture of empathy one million strong. That is my story.

(Edwin) Mine is more of a family related story.

I grew up a teenager in 60’s in 79’s. There was a generation gap, young against old. I grew up in conservative family.  I was caught up in generation gap. There was conflict in my family, with me being more liberal and progressive.  I now spend time listening to my folks, trying to get who they are. I find that my relationship with my family has gotten deeper, just by listening. I remember my parents trying to convert me to get back to religion. I just listened to what they were wanting. I reflected and empathized with them. This allowed me to see deeper into them. They see the world as a greedy self-centered kind of world.  To them, the only way out is religion. I had never really seen this before. I said to them it sounds like you think people are not empathetic to each other..  They said this is right. They told me they liked my work and could see what I was doing.

This has been a deepening of personal connections. That is one story that is very meaningful for me.  I was using empathy to get closer to members of my family.

(Sherry) Thank you for sharing that story.

15:00 Historically empathy is in every culture. Traditionally it has been limited to family. We are moving into an urban setting and people are living in large crowds. It appears it is possible and it is time for empathy to come here. Why is empathy important? How do we begin to create culture of empathy from where we stand in our world? From your personal place, why is it important?

Who would like to share first?

16:05 (Illene) We live in a culture that has an economic system that by its nature, creates inequality and inequity. It puts people against each other. We are fighting an uphill battle in this system. This system does not provide for everyone. If we are wanting to make change, learning empathy and acting from a place from empathy. No other way to do it.

(Mutima) I liked what you are saying. (Summarizes what IF said)

(Illene)  I heard that 30,000 homes have been foreclosed. 30,000 families displaced. In this climate that we live in, it is so easy to crate stereotypes of who those people are, why they put themselves in that situation to be evicted. This is an error in thinking. This is a result of the economic system. Coming together, speaking to each other, finding a way to connect is critical! The place to do that is with young kids in schools. These are skills that can be taught and learned. These skills are not modeled for us in society, in corporate media. WE as adults who have been raised in certain power structures do not model  it for our youth. If you go into schools and see the way it is structured: about keeping people in line, managing classroom, keeping it quiet. Empathy is not a focus, it is not modeled in school.

19.44 How do we teach it? We have to start with listening and speaking skills. Understand our social history that has brought us to where we are now. Should be taught in teacher education as well. Change can hopefully happen as well.

(Mutima) Thank you.  Sherry, how about you?

20:24 (Sherry) I think a culture of empathy is going to be inclusive. We are supposed to reach around 7 billion people in this world soon. There is a lot of people and other life. If we are disconnected with life, we are not going to have strong ability to be good stewards, of earth as well of our own lives. Super important fundamental thing.

This is a question of world view and how we practice that.

For me, it comes from a yoga practice. This allowed me to connect with myself. Be more present in my own life. Includes meditation practice and other types. This is an example of what contributes to me to a culture of empathy for self connection

22:01  In terms For interacting with rest of life:

How do we make decisions? Building community and making decisions together. I resonate with what Illene was saying: our culture has system in place. Someone else is in power. We either comply or rebel. I chose compliance with side rebellion, hoping no one would see.

We need to be more inclusive in how we make decisions together. I am really excited about the occupy movement of taking on government as a primary in decision making processes and  using consensus models.  This leads to more people being heard more deeply.  People will be more engaged in it instead of someone at top saying “do this and this and this”. We use our sense of community with that way.

The other piece is what to do when decisions come painful for us? Usually there is something in there that is very meaningful. In order to bring out that meaning, we need a more thought through process that is created by community. What I have really been intrigued/excited  by is “restorative circles” as a way to address conflict and other restorative practices in general. These also allow us to understand one another, see humanity in each other, take responsibility for our experience. We each contribute in some way.  A kind of empathy that will allow us to make decisions together about what we are going to do with whatever this painful conflict is.

24: 52 Restorative justice is arising in this world. It is interesting that root of word justice is “uge” it is the same root word as in “yoga”. There is always a system in place. We don’t always think about it Right now we have inherited a retributive justice. I would like to see a restorative justice. I think it will create a world in which we can work together  more effectively.

 25: 54 (Sherry)- Thank you. Thank you so much, Edwin, how about you?

(Edwin) I was hearing that there is a notion that we have empathy mainly only for our immediate family and tribes… this is the  expanding  notion of empathy. I am a little skeptical of this view. I have seen plenty of families where there is a lack of empathy within family and more empathy for another outside of the family. I spent 10 years traveling across the world, (Indonesia, new Zeeland, India, Australia, Afghanistan, ) There were people that reached out and connected with me everyone. There is the notion through history  that we are becoming more empathic, but there were explorers like Marco Polo who traveled across the world. I am sure he connected with people all along that way. We have that basic human capacity for empathy.  We need to get away from fear that there is “others outside from us”.  I hear it here in America: “ It is a dangerous world out there, we have to be afraid”.

 It is about addressing the fear, that there are caring people all over the world that reach out. In Indonesia, people wanting to include me in their families.  They would see I was alone, by myself, invited me to come and have a meal with them.

I think it is just seeing our common humanity with people all over the globe, addressing the fears. (states quote: An enemy is someone’s story we have not heard”)

We all have that basic sense of empathy. It is not restricted to our friends and family. There are people who go on vacation and meet people everywhere they are connected with.  There is that capacity there. I am a little concerned with that world view that talks about the world view of empathy.

29:34 (Mutima)   Okay, well alright. Thank  you for sharing that

I have had similar experiences with people being open and connecting. I also feel that people become more empathetic  when they become  more self-aware. That starts with being able to reflect on what is going on with one self. I think one of the things. When people voted for Obama, United States was not ready, there was not enough connection around the racial divide, for America to vote in a black president. I was completely overwhelmed! There was more empathy and connection than I had imagined. As a person who does empathy work, it is like starting from ground zero.

With the U.S voting in an African American man as president, it is because of technology and new ways we are connected, internet, social network, there is more empathy. I think that this whole “occupy wall street” is an empathetic movement about joining people who are unemployed and have lost homes. It is a cry for the people in the U.S to say we need to take care of ourselves. There is going to be an empathy muscle that is developing and for the people who have decided to march out and realize that there are other people who have been marginalized because  there has not been a culture of empathy around indigenous people and people of color here in U.S.

So, did that make sense?

(Edwin) So are you saying that we have to develop self awareness for empathy? That empathy has to expand to parts of society that has not been empathized with.

(Mutima) Yes, yes,

(Mutima) It is about social responsibility and personal responsibility. Responsibility,  the ability to choose our response in the situation. To chose a response that is life giving and supporting of life around us, whether it is people, plants, animals, or mother earth. What you said reminded me of that.

(Illene) Lets us as a team decides where conversation should go next. It has been a really rich conversation. What would we like to talk about in the next fifteen minutes we have together?

A lot of what we talked about is this idea that we are nice all the time, or we act in a certain way,  in an altruistic way all the time. I wonder if it would good to bring in how empathy is also about healing breaches in relationships. This is often where the deepest connections happen. Sherry was talking about restorative practices and how that plays in.

(Edwin) So it is about empathy and conflict?

(Illene)  It is about how we connect through disagreement, conflict, and pain.

35: 25 (Sherry)   I have some experience in school environments and others where I have seen real shifts on walking through conflict, rather than avoiding it. What is meaningful to us, is what comes out.  Apparently it is something we tend to do in North America. I think we tend to be blind to whatever our own thing is. WE tell stories to share what is meaningful to us. To say how we are right now.

37: 18 (Edwin) I have done some mediation training and it seems like mediation is about getting people to empathize with others. The core of mediation is empathy.  If you can create an environment where both sides can empathize with each other. This seems to be a really big rich area, to use it for conflict resolution.

(Mutima)   Empathy does work in conflict resolution when you can get two parties together, give them equal times to hear each other and voice their opinions. What about structural racism? What about institutionalized racisms? What I believe is that as we begin to sense the places where empathy is needed, then there is going to be a chance for people who have self awareness and are clear about what they need and want, there will be a place to take some action and  o  really shift the mindset around who are the aliens, who are the other persons. To  begin to say we need to build humanity. As we move towards a 21st century in these urban environments, there are things we have taken for granted that are only okay for certain people to have. We are going to have to open the door so everyone can survive.  If the monetary system is going to stay with the dollar, then there should be equal distribution with the dollar. People should be able to buy what is necessary like food clothes, and shelters. There are so many people who have lost their homes.  I heard the statistic 30,000 in the last year, in Oakland. There are people who will never be able to think about buying a home, who do not have the security of buying the home, or who may even be homeless. Being homeless sometimes stems from the fact that they are cut out from economic means to secure home for self.  So, I am looking for empathy muscle that is big enough and will begin to reflect where  the disparities are and it is more than a personal reflection but a collective conscious shift. That is what I am counting on, that things like “occupy Wall Street is beginning of movement that is going to build empathy in a way that it is going to be inclusive.  I fell like even with this Even with this 99% and 1 % there has to be a way for even 1% to be included so we can solve the problem together. When people are in anger and pain, it is hard to include the “other”.  Right now  the other is 1% rich. If we are going to ask for equal distribution, they are going to have to come to the table sooner or later.

(Sherry) Otherwise it is more of the same, rearranging the roles.  I heard you say something about structural or institutionalized racism. I want to speak to  one of the challenges that are there that  maybe some of us don’t always see. One thing I have heard in doing  work with restorative justice is that most conflicts, if not all, at some point, if you go all the way out to the context in which conflict is occurring, it goes back to colonialism. I think one of the biggest challenges is, how do I say.  Some of us, like myself, I was raised as  a white person with certain ideas of ways that you fix things that get in the way of what I think is empathy. For example: I have a good idea. I think I will bring it into a community so that they will get fixed.  What I am finding is that I need to do a whole lot more listening which includes to the very people that are struggling the most. And also recognize that we are all contained in that. There is a way that everyone is impacted by colonialism as well. We need to do a whole lot of listening and understanding each other, which includes listening to the 1% whoever that is. I am curious, does anyone consider themselves to be part of the 1%? That would be interesting to find out. It is a lot of listening first, that empathetic listening. And recognizing the structure in which we find ourselves as an impact on everyone. I am wondering, Mutima, what you think about when you hear that. I am stimulated and curious by what you said.

I am in agreement with what you are saying. It is one of the reason  why building a culture of empathy is important. We are living in automatic. Our history has not been told to us in a correct way. We are living of assumptions and stereotypes  and prejudices that automatically exclude people. In my diversity work, when I am dealing with individuals, almost every individual  has a heart and wants to include others and are concerned,  but when we move from individual to the collective which is the collective consciousness, which history has set up. We then see the blocks.  If People were to take a moment to see where their investments are  like in the United states prison industry is the fastest growing industry, and their investments are plugged into that , they would be appalled. But because we live on automatic, we think I need enough money to retire, to go on vacation, to do this on, people are not checking on where are “they plugged in at”. So when people start to develop enough self-awareness to be concerned, not just about “I need to get mine, I need to do this and I need to do that, for me and my family”. Then an awakening comes. Where am I plugged in? This is very strange analogy. I use this one. “there is blood on my hands.” Where am I plugged in? That kind of review is going to come out of empathy. I believe that when people develop their empathy muscles, it is like a baby step but with that There is an empathy consciousness that they begin to reflect: We need to do this because we are destroying our earth,   we need to do this because we are poisoning our water.  We need to do this because we are directly supporting pipeline to prisons which is in some cases, “lack of education”. We can do that, we can provide quality education, and stop the pipeline.

(Illene)  Par of the challenge we are going to face in this new direction we are trying to move socially is, So when you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  At the bottom level are survival needs: home, food, shelter. When a huge portion of society does not have access to basic human needs, they are living in a constant state of stress which creates neurological, physiological state of being that actually transforms our brain and does not allow us to reach those higher levels of thinking, those higher parts of our brain where empathy lives. When we look at a culture where there is so much inequity, the haves and have nots. The haves seem to want to believe in the myth of “self responsibility, pull yourselves up by your boot straps. Why are you angry? Don’t’ be angry, be empathetic. I f those people would just change and come along with the plan, everything would be okay.” So when we are talking about empathy in an inequitable society, there is that challenge. We saw it occupy Oakland where a lot of anger was acted out at what the police chose to do.  That anger is going to come out before we get to empathy. We need to  be really careful that  we are not going to label people and  put people in little boxes because they are angry and have lived without access to what the 1% has had.

 49:26 (Mutima) I think a shift of consciousness of what we value in our lives is happening in the Occupy Wall street. The anger might now be “ I can’t have what the 1% can have so I am really mad. About it” I think we are at the brink of seeing that more houses, more cars, more things is not going save the planet.

 (Illene) And not so much that. We make those things about power, and we use it to divide people and to distract people from true human support and connection so I don’t think what I said came out quite right.

 (Mutima) I think what  you said was really right on. I think the next layer of it is that the shift of consciousness needs to be about what it is that we want. If we are all fighting that we want to be the 1%...

(Edwin)  I want to go back to want you were saying Mutima. What I was hearing you initially say is that we need to look at the social structures within society. There are kind of these patterns of behaviors and organizations that might not be maximizing empathy within very structure.  For example, you can have a meeting where one person is talking and all seats are lined up and everyone is looking at one person talking. And is that system kind of maximizing empathy within that room? Would circles and small discussion  actually work to maximize empathy. It is not an on and off switch. I see it as a dimmer switch in which we can raise the experience of empathy. It is like looking at the social structures and how we can modify them.  What I was hearing you say is that there is structural inequality in empathy in the system. What I was hearing Sherry say is one way to deal  with it, is the actual listening. It is listening more to people. It is like not going into an environment with the answers. Not “ I am going to fix you , I know the answers. I know how things should be. I am here to empathically listen to what are your needs, feelings, and what are your values. In terms of Occupy Oakland, I have been imagining having an empathy tent with banners all around. Have it say 100% empathy on the side of the tent. Make the point that everyone is included. There is a lot of pain, anger,  and resentment bottled up now. Especially in Oakland.

 53: 05 (Sherry) - When something is true in terms of being aligned, not in sense of true or false in terms of facts. Quote by Martin Shaw, when something true enters the room, it all falls silent.  So there is a way in that when we align we connect,  we realign. That is what restorative means:  To restore connection, to restore alignment. That is a container in which “ I will be able to see the blood on my hands”. In a way I can do something one, not just  sit  there with guilt and shame and defensiveness or whatever else That is why empathy is so important so that we all create these containers, within which we can  actually see where we are and be together. It is not necessarily always about being nice, or even feeling good even. But it is a powerful container that can hold us as we make decisions about what we want to do as we move forward.

54: 20 (Edwin) I hope this  panel discussion is one of those “containers” so that we can actually bring up these topics and start exploring them. I am excited about this circle that we are doing here.

(Illene) I am excited about Sherry’s  new tweak on idea of empathy as truth, where things align, so you aren’t having conflict and anger, and you are also not also having  some happy land that is unrealistic. It is a place of stillness almost.

(Sherry) It is not to avoid conflict and anger. It is a way to meet it, and be with it. It allows it to reach its fullness and the stillness is then there.

It is almost like it reaches this point of true balance where everybody’s needs are equally valued and every person is equally is valued. There is alignment. There is something very rich in that.

55:27 (MI )  It is a beautiful concept to hold out during these tumultuous times. I want to thank each of you for being a part of the panel on how to build a culture of empathy. As we have seen we can probably talk for another 3 hours. Every comment spins us off into  another realm, so this is a very big topic. I thank you for your time and insights today.  Any closing remarks from anybody before we sign off?

56:10 (Edwin)- Well I am really excited about his. This is our very first panel. We have been trying it out and it has been working out really well. I am quite excited about this. WE will have a debriefing after this and set up our next panel, our next topic. Thanks to everyone for taking part and to Mutima for moderating it.


Post Panel Discussion
We talk about the panel process and brainstorm ways to improve and develop it.

International Conference on Building a Culture of Empathy: Panel-1-A Post Discussion