Michele Bacon’s Empathy Challenge
Today author Michele Bacon joins us to talk about travel and opportunities to develop empathy. Her new book is Antipodes, out now. For Amanda’s review, hop over here.
Each year, my daughter’s school hosts Roots of Empathy, an international program that provides empathy-based education for children. Roots of Empathy provides each participating class with an experienced teacher: an infant. Through regular, positive interactions with this tiny human, elementary students—fifth graders, in our school’s case—connect with the baby’s humanity on a deep, meaningful level, thereby learning the essence of empathy at a young age. Roots of Empathy’s mission is to change the world by creating caring, peaceful, and civil societies.
I wish we could replicate it in every elementary school. Imagine how kind our society would be if we fostered emotional literacy in every citizen. In every leader. On the ground, every day.
As librarians, you do that. Steinbeck famously said, “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself,” and books are the most accessible way for most of us to do that. Book people know books build empathy. Stories transport readers so realistically that a character’s emotions feel real. We know reading Harry Potter—and his battle against pureblood Death Eaters—made high schoolers lest racist. Readers understand acutely that no matter where we’re from, no matter what we eat, no matter what language we speak, regardless of our abilities or creed, people are people.
Every time you recommend to a teen a book with characters who are living a different experience, you give that teen an opportunity to develop empathy.
The other surefire way to build empathy is to travel—not as a mere tourist, but as an engaged citizen of the world. When we engage others whose lived experiences differ from our own, when we connect meaningfully with those outside our culture, language, and privilege, we open our minds to learning and our hearts to empathy.
Around the world, I’ve befriended people who’ve solved the same problems I’ve solved, but in very different ways. Living outside my own culture forced me to compromise. Immersing myself in foreign societies opened my eyes to different ways of innovation.
People are people.
Travel solidified in my mind and heart the concept of humanity as a shared experience. I want that experience for everyone.
This summer, as you’re working endlessly on summer programming, I invite you to send your teens and tweens on travel. Challenge them to travel within the spheres of their reach. This travel may entail engaging neighbors on the other side of town or voyaging around the world.
Regardless of their means, invite your teens to cultivate genuine friendships with people unlike themselves. Challenge them to create meaningful connections with teens whose lived experiences are different than their own. Inspire them to know—really know—someone or something different than themselves. While I hope these interactions will be more meaningful than checking a box, I’ve made some boxes for you:
Michele Bacon’s travel bingo (click on link for pdf)
Perhaps your teens can tackle one item at a time together, as a community. Or translate one of these ideas into a meaningful program at your library. Or create one collaborative project. Or harvest this chart for discussion groups.
Regardless, here is one more tool for your toolbox. With very little effort, you can convert it to a summer-long bingo challenge. All you really need is a prize.
I’m so passionate about cultivating empathy, I’ll offer ten prizes. If you’re sending your teens “on travel” to cultivate empathy, let me know. I’ll send a finished copy of my new novel to the first ten librarians who take me up on this offer. When your program ends, identify a winner (whatever that means to you,) and I’ll inscribe my new novel for your winner. You can find me on Twitter @MicheleBacon.
I hope this will be a meaningful experience for you and your teens. However you choose to use this, I’m in. I’m happy to video chat with you and your teens about lived experiences. If sharing my travels or stories help, I’m in. If you’d like to share your related experiments with me, I’m in.
I’m determined to foster a society in which there is more empathy than greed. Can we work together to cultivate empathy?
How can I help?
Meet Michele Bacon
For the past many years, I have been writing and traveling (and, let’s be honest: chasing down small people who don’t like to wear clothes). I’ve traveled to all 50 states and dozens of other countries, always collecting pieces of characters and ideas for stories. I recently spent a year on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I may have left my heart at Ilam School. Now that we’ve settled back in the States, I’m writing for young adults and children, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and baking like a fiend. (You’d thinking baking would be the same everywhere, but it’s not. Something is different about kiwi butter.)
Outside of writing, I am a tabletop game enthusiast, passionate skier, and lover of prime numbers. I also am a mentor at the Moving Words Writing Clinic, and a freelance copy editor.
I live in Seattle with my partner and three growing children.
When Erin Cerise steps off her plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, she’s determined to overcome her losses of swim team captainship, her boyfriend Ben, and her reputation. Her mother is certain studying abroad will regain Erin’s chances of a good future. Once Erin meets her uninspiring host family and city, though, she’s not so sure.
Before Christchurch, Erin wasn’t always intense and focused. When had her priorities gone upside down?
Now, Erin balks at NZ’s itchy school uniforms, its cold houses, and her hosts’ utter inability to pronounce her name correctly. Christchurch does boast amazing rock climbing, gorgeous scenery, and at least one guy who could make her journey worthwhile—if she lets him.
With months ahead of her, Erin slowly begins to draw on the years behind her, one step back into her memories at a time. As she rebuilds herself from the other side of the world, she finds that although her life has been turned upside down and she’s far from home, every way she moves takes her closer to where she came from.
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About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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