An equitable and democratic society thrives on values. In an opinion essay, Robbie Robertson of Ubuntu Village in New Orleans says empathy is chief among them. Learn more in his essay that Marguerite Casey Foundation is sharing from Equal Voice Action.
Daniel Goleman once told the annual meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the nation’s oldest K-12 education group, that studies have shown “emotional intelligence predicts about 80% of a person’s success in life, while IQ only predicts four to twenty percent.” He emphasized that educators need to consider education differently for this intelligence because “different areas of the brain are involved.” Empathy can be thought of as the essence of emotional intelligence.
Empathy brings us a heightened sense of morality, justice and life’s purpose. Though the seeds of empathy are born within us, they must be grown through experience and example. Yet, too often today, we are taught that empathy is a weakness and that our own strength is derived by comparing ourselves favorably to others. We disparage acquaintances on social media; we read the news and comment on how terrible, or unintelligent, or depraved and very unlike us, those people are who commit crimes, or drop-out of school, or live in poverty.
Together, we have the power to create the world we want to live in, a world in which everybody is safe, has enough money to be comfortable and can actualize their goals. Yet exercising that power requires leaning into empathy. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Well-developed empathy and social intelligence characterize the psychologically healthy, creative person. They allow us to become our best, most authentic selves.
At Ubuntu, we work every day with people who have been afforded very little empathy by the people and institutions that surround them. Our parent navigators go daily to the juvenile courts to support some of our city’s most vulnerable parents and children. And they know that they are mocked and derided and treated as if their time has no value by the courts and government offices – their greatest losses covered in three-sentence throw-away articles in the Times Picayune as if their lives, and their children’s lives, meant nothing.
Sometimes, we are struck by the depth of empathy these individuals still have for everyone around them, their endless generosity toward other young people and families in the waiting room, the judges, and even the police. And other times, it seems as if their taps of empathy have run dry. But there is a place for righteous anger, too, among those who have been repeatedly and systemically wronged.
What would our city, or our country, look like if we focused on emotional intelligence and the importance of empathy? If we treated even those who have committed wrongs as the beautiful and flawed humans we all are? We believe there should be consequences for behavior, especially if that behavior harms other people. But we have nothing to lose by also having our hearts open and recognizing the humanity in everyone.
In school, we teach the importance of passing a test, working hard, making money and success. But what if we also taught our children the deep and transformative value of empathy? And what if that, counter-intuitively, actually led to a fuller, happier and more successful life for them all, and for us as well?
Robbie Robertson is a board member of Ubuntu Village, a New Orleans-based community organization that connects young people and families to resources and opportunities. Ubuntu Village is a partner and organizational member of Equal Voice Action, a family-led membership organization focused on building the voice and power of poor and low-income people. Learn more about the Ubuntu Village + Equal Voice Action partnership, The Village Project. This essay first appeared on the Equal Voice Action website.