Empathy Fellows

Ashoka Fellows are developing powerful mechanisms to nurture and advance empathy in individuals, in schools, and across entire communities. And we don't just mean one or two: there are literally hundreds in the US and around the world who have chosen to put empathy into action in unique and powerful ways.

For a glimpse at how they're doing it, take a look at the quick snapshots we've compiled below.

We also encourage you to check out the principles and strategies that cut across their work, and that can apply to any context. We hope you'll consider their efforts a source of inspiration and a starting point as you begin to embed empathy into your own lives and environments, whether your home, your school, or your everyday attitudes and actions. 

A few examples: 

Molly Barker, Girls on the Run

Creating a social movement that will provide quality, life-changing experiences for girls and women, by building their self-esteem, resilience, and empathy.  

Molly Barker’s Girls on the Run is out to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living. Through an after-school program for girls in grades 3-8, GOTR offers an alternative to the “Girl Box” culture, in which preadolescent girls face sudden pressure to conform to social norms. The three-part program begins with a series of lessons around life skills, ranging from how to be a good listener, to values clarification and employing a positive outlook, all of which are taught through a combination of running games and reflective dialogue. The program includes a community service component in which girls identify a problem they care about in their community and implement a solution, and culminates with a 3.1 mile running event. And because empathy begins at home, Molly is now launching a voluntary curriculum for parents. The program leads to dramatic improvements in girls’ self-esteem and cooperative skills, and has produced a powerful effect on school culture, leading to less bullying, more and more girls running for student council, and academic improvement.


Vicky Colbert, Escuela Nueva

Using proven pedagogical techniques, Vicky Colbert is building a stronger relationship between schools and the communities they're a part of, and is fostering strong values, democratic attitudes and civic participation among young people in the process. 

Through Escuela Nueva, Colombian Fellow Vicky Colbert has set out to transform classrooms into places of participatory and cooperative learning, and in the process, to change the very way we conceive of, prepare for, and institute teaching and learning. Recognizing that learning involves far more than the teacher alone, she has systematically embedded empathy into teacher training, instructional materials, and even classroom design. Children sit at modular tables, looking into one another's eyes rather than the backs of their necks. Teachers act as catalysts rather than conveyors of information, and learn via the very same experiential processes as their students. Escuela Nueva's own line of textbooks are part workbook, part teacher guide, and part conversation facilitator, designed to develop students' abilities to dialogue. Students take on autonomy through a participatory governance structure that works both in the classroom and the school at large. Parents may likewise receive training, and are invited in as active participants in the process. The model has been integrated into Colombia’s national education standards and evaluations of teacher performance, with the result that nearly 20,000, largely rural, schools in Colombia now operate according to the Escuela Nueva model. It has been adopted in a host of other countries in Latin America and beyond, and any educator anywhere may take advantage of her materials.


Eric Dawson, Peace First 

Partnering with Pre-K-8 schools to build safe, effective school climates where children learn how to be engaged and active citizens.

In the face of skyrocketing youth homicides in the early 1990s, young people were largely treated as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Preferring a proactive approach to one that was inherently reactive, Eric began Peace First as a college student. Aiming to build a new generation of peacemakers, Peace First developed a curriculum that follows students as they move from kindergarten through 8th grade. For one hour each week, students learn communication and conflict resolution skills through experiential activities, acting out the conflicts they see in their neighborhoods and exploring effective responses. They are then tasked with putting those practices into action, designing projects to make their neighborhoods and schools safer. Past projects have included kindergartners who launched recycling programs, 2nd graders who reclaimed brownfields, and 8th graders who taught workshops for their teachers on sexism. The curriculum is integrated into the academic framework, and is accompanied by techniques designed to transform the school’s overall climate and culture. 



Alisa Del Tufo, Threshold Collaborative

Developing local solutions to deep social challenges by revealing and supporting assets that enhance well-being, while bringing light to issues that impact survivors of trauma, poverty and other forms of societal and political exclusion.  

Alisa Del Tufo has changed the debate on how we address social challenges by shifting attention and resources to root causes and empathy for igniting change. She is committed to the development of community engagement strategies using narrative and participant driven solutions to the challenges we face. Founding Threshold in 2008, with a mission to build a more caring, just and engaged society, Threshold distinguishes itself by focusing on deep human connections that are developed and nurtured through the use of narrative and participant driven strategies. Threshold’s work amplifies the voice and ideas of community members, building pathways that create indigenous and sustainable change. Using narrative, opinion gathering and civic engagement, Threshold seeks to enhance empathy and action, helping to make individuals and communities more peaceful, strong and healthy. After founding Sanctuary for Families in 1983, she began using narrative as a social change strategy. Del Tufo founded CONNECT (1993) to end family and gender violence by transforming the beliefs that fuel abusive behavior and empowering those closest to the problem to come together to find solutions. CONNECT encourages the development of positive community and individual narratives to break the cycle of violence. She has continued to refine and develop community engagement and narrative approaches to serious social challenges through Threshold Collaborative, which addresses issues as diverse as education and school failure, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, food sustainability, economic disparity and child abuse.


Roots of Empathy classroom. Photo copyright Room to Grow MP. Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy

Building caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.

Canadian Fellow Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program is founded on the idea that children cannot simply be told about behaviors like kindness and sharing; they must meaningfully experience them. Aimed at reaching students on both a cognitive and an affective level, she works to foster perspective-taking and pro-social behavior in children and young people ages 5 to 13. For an entire year, an infant and parent, joined by a Roots of Empathy Instructor, visit a classroom every three weeks, participating in a series of activities tailored to each particular age group. Treating the baby as “teacher,” students observe the baby’s development and learn to label the baby’s feelings. In turn, they learn to identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The result is a lasting reduction in childhood aggression and increase in helpful behavior and attitudes.  


Darell Hammond, KaBOOM!

Giving every child the right to play, by bringing together communities and corporate volunteers to build play spaces where they are most needed.

With education funding cut across the country, playgrounds have largely become the responsibility of Parent Teacher Associations. In the absence of parents able to dedicate discretionary time to raising money, safe playspaces have thus become a luxury and not a right. KaBOOM! is out to change that by forging partnerships between local communities and corporations. Through its partners, KaBOOM! supplies 85% of the cash, while the school or community is responsible for raising the remaining 15%, and for volunteering on the day of the build. The result is far more than a gleaming playspace, and the ensuing benefits to kids’ health and social development: the approach has redefined the role of the customer, transforming a one-time recipient of goods and services into a participant and collaborator. By forging new alliances between community members and businesses across varying economic levels, the process—from conception to delivery—serves as the catalyst for continued community engagement and development.


Andreas Heinecke, Dialogue in the Dark 

Overcoming the barriers between “us” and “them” and putting an end to prejudice by immersing people in worlds very different from their own.

Andreas created Dialogue in the Dark as a means of removing the prejudices, clichés, and preconceptions that define our understanding of “the other.” For two to three hours, participants enter a pitch-black space, where they discover what it is to be blind. The blind become their guides: those who were once the objects of pity are suddenly the people with power, assurance, and capability, and those who can see find themselves disabled. Through this role reversal, participants learn to rely on their other senses to interact and communicate, and in the process, develop a different understanding both of their own limits and capacities, and those of others. Furthermore, Andreas has found that darkness itself is an ideal learning environment--among its benefits, it stimulates the creation of memory-inducing melatonin in the brain. He is now designing similar dialogue workshops in present and post-conflict zones, using the exchange of perspectives to establish improved social cohesion, respect, and trust.


Aleta Margolis

Investing in teachers to ensure schools make the most of children’s innate desire to learn; valuing students’ creativity, and intellectual curiosity as much as their academic achievement.

Aleta Margolis is the Founder and Executive Director of Center for Inspired Teaching, an organization working to transform education through innovative teacher training. Inspired Teaching is building a better school experience for children by helping teachers move from information providers to Instigators of Thought, classroom leaders who empower students to learn not just what to think, but how to think. Aleta previously served as a professor of education at American University, specializing in authentic assessment, science and math education, and curriculum reform. A former public school teacher, Aleta taught in both elementary and middle schools and designed and ran alternative educational programs for court-referred high school students. In 2011, Aleta helped launch the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, a DC public charter school that puts into practice the work of Center for Inspired Teaching. The school also houses the Inspired Teacher Certification Program, a teacher residency program in which Inspired Teaching Residents work under the guidance and supervision of Lead Teachers as they earn their certification.  


John Marks, Search for Common Ground

Transforming the way the world deals with conflict - away from adversarial approaches and toward collaborative problem-solving.

Unlike the leaders behind most conflict resolution organizations, Ashoka Fellow John Marks wanted to do more than bring two sides to the negotiating table: he sought to fundamentally transform the way the world deals with conflict. So he established the first NGO-run television and radio production company to tackle deep-seated cultural misunderstanding, and to replace adversarial attitudes with a commitment to collaborative problem-solving. Leveraging the world-wide popularity of soccer, each series typically tells the story of a soccer team, and their various relationships and adventures. The make-up of the 11-person team depends on the cultural context: in Kenya, writers chose to make the team half women; elsewhere, the themes may implicitly focus on religious, economic, or ethnic diversity. Today, Search for Common Ground Productions produces more dramatic content than anyone other than the BBC.  


Ellen Moir, New Teacher Center

Accelerating new teacher effectiveness--and with it, student learning--by building the world’s first corps of professional education mentors composed of expert teachers.

Ellen Moir is filling the gap between teacher training and the skills and support teachers need to respond and thrive amidst the realities of the classroom. Through a comprehensive Induction program, new teachers receive one-on-one mentoring with highly trained veteran teachers, tailored professional development, and a Formative Assessment System designed to identify specific areas of need in their classroom, and to match those areas with learning goals and teaching tools that can be easily embedded into day-to-day practice. Recognizing that we value what we measure, she has created a clear set of performance standards for principals and teachers that rate their efforts to improve their schools’ social and emotional well-being. Principals are rated on their ability to put themselves in the teacher’s place, and teachers are evaluated based on their ability to do the same with their students. Having made mentorship for new teachers a core education policy in dozens of districts throughout the country, she is working with those same administrators to spread the tool.


Dana Mortenson, World Savvy

Preparing students for citizenship and leadership in the 21st century by closing the global competency gap within K-12 education in the United States. 

Whereas many schools and organizations today are encouraging teachers to participate in their students’ global education through extra-curricular activities, Dana is leading an effort to mainstream global competency in K-12 schools by integrating it into regular class time. Rather than treat global affairs as a separate subject, she works to enhance students' global competency through an interdisciplinary lens with applications in Math, Science, English, Art and History classes, among others. She is working with hundreds of educators each year to provide their students with project-based learning opportunities that introduce them to the outside world, help them relate to it and facilitate their transformation into global citizens. The business model behind her approach also makes it one of a handful of affordable global competency programs accessible to some of the country’s least-resourced public schools. 


Princess Olufemi-Kayode, Media Concern for Women and Children

Pioneering, promoting and practicing sexual violence response for young women and girls.

In Nigeria, it is estimated that one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen. Thanks to widespread stigma around childhood sexual abuse, individuals and families, as well as law enforcement and the medical community, often have little in the way of proper recourse: absent any public dialogue, resources are few and hard to find, and when available, often misleading. Princess Olufemi-Kayode is lifting the curtain on the subject by monitoring media coverage of cases, equipping journalists with reporting manuals, and rewarding balanced and progressive coverage. Her work doesn’t end there, however. Leveraging the ensuing public awareness, she offers victims practical tools for healing, including a counseling hotline, crisis centers, and a powerful referral network, made up largely of men and women who have themselves benefited from support. Volunteers and mental health professionals receive training to work with sexually abused children, and the public gains access to tools and effective response strategies through large-scale awareness campaigns. These services have opened the door to new services and attitudes within the law enforcement community, and the public at large.


Vishal Talreja, Dream a Dream

Challenging discriminatory attitudes toward underserved children and building their sense of self-worth and efficacy through the development of new life skills and action-oriented educational opportunities. 

Vishal Talreja saw that many of the teenagers coming out of India’s children’s homes lacked the life skills they needed to cope effectively with challenges, be they at work, in relationships, or simply through independent living. Faced with their first conflict, they would turn immediately to the streets and the world they knew best. So he and the team at Dream a Dream designed an after-school model using sports, creative mentorship, the arts, computer education, and career-based programs to bridge the gap between technical skills and life skills. He soon found that the presence of well-trained facilitators—ones who had themselves undergone the same transformative life experiences as the kids they were serving—dramatically accelerated kids' mastery of those skills. Together with Ashoka Fellow Charlie Murphy, he thus developed a powerful training model for the volunteers who serve as Life Skill Facilitators. Like the kids they work with, facilitators spend significant time on reflection, learning to ask better questions and to articulate how particular insights learned on a football field and elsewhere apply to other aspects of their daily lives. Volunteers are expected to serve as standard-bearers for a more empathic society, applying these same skills and challenged preconceptions regarding class, caste, and privilege to their home communities.


Jill Vialet, Playworks 

Cultivating safe early environments for play, enabling kids to learn fairness, positive conflict resolution and leadership development. 

Ashoka Fellow Jill Vialet works with low-income schools to foster a positive learning environment through play. Beginning before the first bell rings and continuing long after the school day has ended, trained coaches use recess, in-class exercises, extracurricular programming, and interscholastic sports leagues to teach games, fair play, positive conflict resolution, and leadership development. The result? In the 2009-10 school year, 88% of 1,900 teachers and administrators polled in Playworks schools reported a decrease in the number of disciplinary referrals, and 86% reported a decrease in the incidents of bullying during recess.