Empathy Without Borders: A conversation with Bernard Amadei

Submitted on Wed, February 15, 2012

Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders USA, has always had a need to help others. For years, as a professor of engineering, he sidelined as an assistant at the local homeless shelter or as a clown in the children’s section of the oncology ward. But it wasn’t until Bernard decided to merge the empathic impulse that’s “in [his] DNA” with the core of his every day work, that things truly clicked into place. In 2000, he founded Engineers Without Borders USA, essentially changing the college conversation around engineering and launching a new kind of engineer into the world – one equipped to integrate global issues and real-world technology needs with an empathy traditionally missing in the field. The organization now has some 12,000 members dispersed throughout hundreds of chapters in the US, joining a growing international community which is challenging the cold stereotypes that have often accompanied the profession. 

We recently spoke with Bernard to understand what's being done to arm today's engineers with the empathy they need to succeed. 

 

Ashoka: How do you understand empathy? 

Bernard Amadei: Empathy is not a pill that’s taken so you care about others; there are prerequisites. We’re all born with it, but our educational system makes us forget it. It’s about creating a level of cultivation and culture that allows people to remember it. For us, once we start working in the developing world, we remember it--whether we sustain it is a different story. 

What fuels empathy is the sense of belonging to a bigger community. It breaks your heart to see people like you hurting: women hurting because they don’t have access to water, kids hurting because they’re playing in sewage. The education system forces people to unlearn the empathy they’re born with. It’s a system based on always seeming strong, on contributing to the economy, on being number one. It’s about celebrating all of those superlative statements. Being number one is the rule of game, and how we relate to others is fundamentally dismissed.

 

Ashoka: What strategies do you consider most effective for cultivating empathy?

BA: Get people out of the world they know. We bring students into a situation where they’re the most uncomfortable they’ve ever been. I’ve seen students who’ve walked into a Bedouin community believing that we hold all the answers, and a day later they’ve changed. Once students have been exposed – and I mean physically exposed – to a situation, they never forget about it. And then you have more and more students who want to do that kind of work and don’t want to go back to traditional engineering. They don’t want to go back to linear education. They’ve tasted a different way of looking at the world, and they have a higher mindset. The impact’s profound. I’m educating engineers today who will be making decisions 10 years from now.

There are a lot of young people and older people who believe Boulder, Colorado is all there is – who see facts and figures on the news, and move on in their insulated lives. You can’t intellectualize empathy: sometimes you have to drink the same drinks and use the same bathrooms before you feel compelled to do something. Then you break free of the idea that you’re superior to anyone. Understanding others is critical to breaking out of that thinking. Development as we’ve known it has been based on making profit on the backs of others; it has not been driven by compassion and empathy. Look at any organization and see the quality of what’s being produced, what’s being said, and you’ll see it’s a true product of the mindset of that organization. Mindset dictates behavior, even in organizations. If you line yourself up with love, with caring, with action-oriented work, the universe will love you back.

 

Ashoka: What techniques do you use to cultivate that mindset?

BA: I start with a baseline in traditional engineering. I still want students who understand math and science: after all, we don’t want bridges to collapse, we don’t want tunnels to fall in, so that hasn’t changed. Our program is to be a supplement: a pill that we give to our traditional engineers so they become global engineers with experience in self-discovery, building up awareness, systems-thinking, and hands-on skills. I see a lot of young people who want to save the planet but who don’t have skills at all. We’re helping students to work in teams. I see a lot of people who have no idea how to run a project, so project management is something we cover. It has to supplement the education they’re getting today. 

Let’s not fool ourselves: solving the problems in the developing world is not about technology. It’s a whole subset of tools. Cultural issues, religious issues, social issues -- all of these things play just as critical a role. We’re developing this supplement better and better each year, but it’s a work in progress. You can’t do the work we’re doing if you’re not empathetic or compassionate, and there's no recipe or equation for empathy: it’s a state of mind. I believe most students are dissatisfied by the current system, and have the qualities they need, even if they don’t see it. 

We now have more students than we can handle.

 

Ashoka: Babies are born with this, and clearly you’ve found a way of cultivating this amongst 18 and 25 year-olds. How can we make sure to sustain empathy from an early age, in elementary school?

BA: First, it can’t just be in a school. It has to be at home too; we learn language by mimicking our parents. The question is how to start with a system where people don’t value love or empathy or compassion. Teachers have to follow a curriculum that’s been decided by others. You want to make sure the empathy inflow goes faster than the outflow. Put into the system extracurricular activities where young people see empathy in action, and can participate. Use field trips, working with others, and exercises, and eventually those kids will make this daily practice.

You don’t teach empathy: you make sure people remember they’re compassionate human beings. A young child born anywhere in the world has that quality of compassion. Each child is wealthy at birth. Our antiquated belief systems kill empathy, suggesting that love is not good for the economy of the planet. You help people to remember. That’s the key to creating a better planet. Otherwise, you watch dismissively and say business as usual.

Empathy is not what we see today: empathy is not 1.2 billion people who lack clean water; it’s not 29,000 people who die each day unnecessarily; empathy is not the pollution of the Yellowstone river; it’s not 1.6 billion people who lack electricity. What is it to you? Ask that question. We know what it isn’t, which gives us many definitions of what it is. It’s an open field for creativity.