How Can We Build Empathy and Drive Change?

Americans have long been seen as distinctly willing to volunteer their time to build society and connect with each other in common cause. In his 1835 book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about how inhabitants of the United States would “seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact” to promote an idea or opinion. In the process, “they are no longer isolated but have become a power.” I don’t think we need to delve too deeply into the 19th century (or even the 18th century when Benjamin Franklin started a volunteer fire department) to find examples of Americans devoting their time, energy and resources to make life better.

In my own family, I have seen everything from volunteering time to encourage voting, to marching against war and for racial justice, to raising awareness door-to-door about the environment, to delivering food for the homeless, to gathering books and clothes for families in need, to going room-to-room with a beloved dog to spread cheer among sick hospital patients. This is not only about what we can do for others, it’s also about what those experiences can teach us—indeed, how we build empathy on the way to driving change. Decades ago I had the opportunity to teach reading and writing to inmates in a Philadelphia prison; it’s hard to overstate how much I learned from my time among those men whose misfortune or wrong choices had led them there.

This brings me to this weekend’s question: How can we build empathy and drive positive change? The need for this has always been there, but it feels particularly urgent these days. Please share your thoughts—and please do share your own experiences donating time, energy or money to touch the lives of others and make things better. As always, let’s be respectful of each other here.

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