On empathy at the National Youth Justice Summit

Learn to live your life with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and love all humankind as you would love yourself.

Youth group on a walking tour of the South End and Dudley Square neighborhoods during the National Youth Justice Summit

Photo by the UU College of Social Justice

This summer I traveled to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s headquarters in Boston to attend the inaugural National Youth Justice Summit (NYJS), the first program put on by the new Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice. The week-long training was full of wonderful educational workshops, service learning opportunities, and hands-on practice in the logistics of activism and community organizing; the curriculum, as I would explain it, began with exercises to contemplate the nature of suffering, then understand the specifics of oppressive structures that perpetuate suffering, and finally work to dismantle those structures in our communities and society at large. I think the most important thing I took away from the trip was a renewed outlook on the overwhelming transformative power of empathy and storytelling.

Toward the beginning of the week, we were lucky enough to have a workshop led by Rev. Bill Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and former Amnesty International USA Executive Director. Our group of ten youth was only starting to bond, and in retrospect I see Rev. Schulz’s workshop as the turning point of the week at which we really came together as a group and started to relax a little bit. Rev. Schulz focused on the power of storytelling in social justice work, and shared with us several of his own experiences that shaped his activism. Then, we each shared some of our own stories about when we first became aware of suffering or injustice in the world. The story I told was one I remember vividly.

When I was in second grade, a classmate of mine approached me while we were waiting in line for a mandatory class bathroom break. She wasn’t just any peer – she was one I strongly disliked at the time because she often was loud or disruptive in class and I was a bookish and easily annoyed teacher’s pet. When she asked me to buy her a new pair of shoes, I was shocked. The fact that I lived in a world where little girls just like me didn’t even have shoes that fit them, and couldn’t afford to get new ones, terrified me. I had maybe 20 pairs at home. Poverty was only a concept I had read about in books – I remember favoring those historical novels written for early elementary students about the trials and tribulations of the American frontier or wartime long ago – not something I expected to find in my own elementary school. I didn’t even know what empathy meant yet, but I started seeing my classmate a little differently. Maybe she acted out because her feet hurt. The next year, I changed schools and never saw the girl again. Despite that, I’ve often remembered that day, and tried to imagine, quite literally, what it would have been like to walk in her shoes.

Not only were the stories we shared often instances of an awakening of empathy for others, the act of sharing them brought us closer as a group. The week, while magnificent, was at times emotionally and physically exhausting, so a big part of our time at the Summit focused on learning and modelling spiritual practices and self-care. One such practice was an exercise in which we created our “river stories,” the unique landscapes, paths, and turning points significant in the development of our identity and spirituality throughout our lives. We drew our river on a piece of poster paper, with illustrations and text added to symbolize specific people and experiences that were significant to us. Moving into small groups of three, we spent the rest of the worship service that night discussing and sharing our river stories. Although the events of our lives varied greatly, there were times when we described feeling almost exactly the same pain, joy, and worry. I was overwhelmed by the sense of comfort and acceptance I found in talking about the similarities of our diverse experiences. Had I not found that feeling mid-week, I don’t think my experience of the Summit would have anything like it was.

Four youth participants in the UU College of Social Justice's inaugural National Youth Justice Summit

Photo by the UU College of Social Justice

The week in Boston really served to contextualize and put in to action all the social justice literature and critical theory – yes, this is what I read for fun – that I had read up until that point. An incredible day for me was that when we traveled to Haley House, a non-profit organization that works to alleviate hunger and poverty in Boston’s South End. After a brief tour of the organization’s facilities and training session with Sister Linda, Haley House’s volunteer coordinator, our group got to work setting up and distributing food at the organization’s soup kitchen. Most of the people receiving food there were elderly immigrants who spoke little English, but even without a shared language, their immense joy and gratitude was obviously apparent to us; one woman was so excited to have a place close to the front of the line that she sang and danced when she got her number. I think it was an important experience for all of us, to humanize “the poor” and “the hungry,” effected by the systems and structures we had been learning about at NYJS.

Our time at Haley House, however, also taught a great lesson in the importance of empathy and understanding to the logistical side of a social justice project. Many of the people who are helped by Haley House’s soup kitchen are immigrants from China; as the staff at Haley House told us, if the organization distributed foods like watermelon and peanut butter, chances are at least some of the people who received those foods wouldn’t actually be helped by them, because they aren’t necessarily ingredients they would know how to use. Instead, the day Justice Summit participants helped distribute food, onions, carrots, blocks of tofu, and other vegetables common to Chinese cuisine were available. After we finished our volunteer session, Sister Linda walked with us to Haley House’s second location, a community bakery and cafe, stopping along the way to explain the neighborhood’s history and current issues that affect it. One stereotype about neighborhoods like Roxbury, that are populated by many people of color and people living in poverty, is that the neighborhoods are decrepit or dirty, and there was a lot of trash on the ground in the areas we walked through. Sister Linda pointed out both the stereotype and the root of the trash problem: on our entire walk from the Haley House headquarters to the cafe, we passed three trash cans. Two of them belonged to restaurants and were only available for use by their patrons. If, instead of judging the people or the neighborhood by the trash on their streets, people would listen to their needs and desires, an effective solution could be thought up.

I am so happy I got to spend time at the Justice Summit this summer, because of the unique perspectives and experiences it gave me that continue to inform and shape my social justice work. Empathy and compassion, I think, are the root of both broader social justice work and that specifically involving interfaith issues and tactics. The openness to understanding, even when we disagree or have diverging lived experiences, motivates us to work together to solve problems that effect all of us, and to stand with and support those who are suffering. We learned a song, the lyrics to which I shared at the beginning of this post, on the first night of the NYJS, before we had gotten to know each others stories and ideas. By the end of the week, singing it together felt completely different; we had truly learned to love and change the world we live in.

What experiences have you lived that have widened your understanding of the world?

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One response to “On empathy at the National Youth Justice Summit

  1. Pingback: Announcing the 2013 National Youth Justice Training! | Interfaith Youth Activist·

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