Young Changemakers Put Empathy into Action: Our Favorite Stories of 2011

Submitted on Tue, December 20, 2011

Olivia Bouler2011 was a big year for empathy. Rats became the first non-primate to demonstrate pro-social behavior, forgoing treats in order to help their brethren in distress. Scientists uncovered what some are calling the empathy gene, a receptor for the brain chemical oxytocin, and which strangers can detect based solely on observing behavior. It was held up as a critical component of training doctors and MBAs, and touted as the defining force in everything from growing the economy, to surviving middle school, to combating the gridlock plaguing today’s public discourse. 

But best of all were stories of students from across the country and around the world who are putting empathy into action, refusing to wait for adults to fix the problems that so often leave us paralyzed, and calling on all of us to make way for a new kind of teaching and learning. If — as Roots of Empathy Founder Mary Gordon says — empathy is something that’s caught not taught, we believe these tales of empathy in action are the sign of much more to come. 

Here are three of our favorites. Have one of your own? Add it to the comments section, or ping us on Twitter or Facebook

10-year-old gives life savings to save teacher's job.

When Jocelyn Lam, a fifth-grader at Camino Grove Elementary, got wind that her Arcadia, CA school district was planning to lay off 60 teachers--including 10 at her school--she decided she had to do something. She brought in a thick envelope filled with the $1, $5, and $10 bills she had saved over the years, adding up to $300 in all. The act rallied her community to carry out an unprecedented fundraising campaign, bringing together students, parents, and educators alike. Realizing that empathy is unlocked not through numbers, but through stories and personal connection, Jon Ma, Student Body President of Arcadia High School, gave a speech in which he called out some of the teachers facing lay-offs. He and his fellow students raised nearly $300,000 as a result. All told, the Arcadia Educational Foundation raised $840,000, and with the help of staff furloughs and other budget cuts, saved all but one of the teachers’ jobs.  

Middle school students re-envision the future of the classroom.

One of our favorite stories of empathy in action came from a group of middle school students in Dallas/Fort Worth. In a short video produced for class, they spelled out the problem of education today--a model based on an industrial era of thinking, that’s gone unchanged throughout our modern history--and laid out what the classroom of the future should look like. It’s a classroom in which collaborative learning is at the core, where technology powers students’ ability to work together, rather than locking them behind computer screens. Empathy is about working hand-in-hand with others, and learning as much from differences as from similarities. It’s about channeling feeling into action. And it's about putting your user first: acting not on behalf of another or for another, but as the other. It's time we all took a cue from Mr. Fletcher, who handed his students the reins in constructing their own future.

Budding young artist becomes mini-Audubon, mobilizing peers for Gulf Coast recovery.

Olivia Bouler was 11-years-old when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. Having spent her vacations on the Gulf with family who lived along the coast, she was struck by the weight of the tragedy for the residents and its native wildlife. But she an idea: she wrote to the Audubon Society, and offered to donate any proceeds she made from selling drawings of wildlife affected by the spill. A year later, she has raised more than $200,000 for Gulf recovery efforts, and is still going strong. Her children’s book, Olivia's Birds: Saving the Gulf, was released this year on the anniversary of the spill, and she has organized a powerful action campaign for other young people ready to put their passion and talents to use. We believe it’s high time that schools take on the role of incubator for their students’ passion and ideas, enabling students everywhere to channel their energy toward similarly powerful ends. With Olivia and a steady stream of examples like her, that future may be closer than we think.