One of the activities I do with young people is called speed dating. It’s an empathy building exercise because, I have found, we actually have to practice talking to each other and really listening. I ask the kids to form two circles facing each other. Each pair gets a healthy chunk of time to address a question I pose. We talk about reading each other’s body language and facial expressions and asking follow-up questions that get the partner to light up. Then I move one of the circles and with a new pair, we do it again. At the end of each session they ask when we can do it again. “You can do it any time,” I challenge. “You are just talking to each other.” In our fast-paced living and screens, it helps when an adult carves out time for young people to listen and connect with others to whom they may not otherwise talk. Sometimes peacemaking looks as simple as reaching out to the person next to you to ask an interesting question.
At home, I love using picture books to build compassion and empathy with my kids. Books offer access to people all around the world who may think, act and live differently than they do. Often, my kids make me stop on a page early on in the story so they can decide which character they’d like to be. As the story unfolds, my kids get to spend time in the shoes of another person or animal, looking at the world with a new perspective.
Sofia: A Young, Empathetic and Compassionate Peacemaker
Sofia Valdez, Future Prez is the story of a second grade girl who courageously ventures to City Hall to request that a trash heap in her neighborhood be converted into a park. She starts a petition and ultimately rallies the community to transform their shared space. The story, written by Andrea Beaty, has a lively rhyming cadence, and David Robert’s pictures are entertaining and vivid.
I love reading this book to my kids in part because of the story’s compassion and empathy— two key characteristics of peacemaking. Sofia’s abuelo walks her to school until one day he trips on the trash heap and hurts his ankle. Sharing her grandfather’s pain motivates Sofie to see Mount Trashmore as a problem to solve. What if we place the pain of our community members at the heart of our work for a change? After getting sent all around City Hall— from the Mayor’s office to the Department of Cheese— a woman in the basement finally tells Sofia she is too young to build a new park. Refusing to take no for an answer, Sofia turns the tables and says, “If you were me, and if I was you, and he was your grandpa, what would you do?” She is requesting compassion and empathy. The woman pauses, thinks, and rallies her colleagues to hear Sofia out. The employee takes a moment to stand in the shoes of Sofia. That moment changes the momentum and trajectory of the whole story.
Questions Toward Action
Who in your family, your work or community would benefit from your compassion and empathy? Who in your life is willing to dwell with you when things get hard? What does that person do well to help you feel heard and accompanied? When was a time you sat in pain with someone and lamented with them— either through words, tears, art, or simple presence? How would you articulate the difference between peace keeping and peace making? Which is harder for you?