Creating an Empathy Movement

By Beverly Schwartz
Author Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World

How we relate to others has a lot to do with behaviors we see, what we experience, and how we perceive and interpret the environment that surrounds us.

As the world is forced to open its eyes to increased violence and aggressive behavior from the youngest children to the oldest nations, two questions cry out for attention.

What is fueling this closed-minded and aggressive (both physical and psychological) behavior? How can we deactivate the anger, the hatred, and the violence and instill, develop, and build tolerance in each person that carries forth over generations?

Lack of acceptance and understanding for the lives and emotions of others, and unwillingness to accept the differences between ourselves and our neighbors, are sadly becoming commonplace, whether fueled by religious intolerance, governmental aggression, extreme poverty, or other incendiary conditions. Anyone can name a million causes, but how many can name even one solution?

Mary Gordon, shown above, is one of those rare people who can name a solution.

As an educator, she was distressed by the taunting, bullying, and aggression that children exhibited towards their peers. She started “Roots of Empathy” in Toronto 16 years ago with the goal of building caring, peaceful and civil societies in the next generation by fostering empathy in children.

The year-long program is designed for children ages 5 to 13 and offered in classrooms from kindergarten up to grade 8. The program is predicated on the innocence of babies (around 6 months to 1 year old), who are brought into the classroom throughout the year to help the students accept people with different temperaments and to understand and relate to emotion and individual differences.

The students sit together on a green blanket to observe a baby’s movements and emotions, and their observation becomes a springboard that helps the students dive into their own emotions and feelings. After discussing why a baby might be feeling happy, excited, worried, anxious, or angry, the instructor then uses those feelings to reference the children’s lived experience.

When was a time that you felt frustrated like our baby? What did you do about it? When was a time that you felt so angry that you cried like the baby? The discussion turns ever inward. When did you feel like that? How can you tell when others feel that way?

As the children share their experiences and reflections on feelings, they come to realize that their deepest emotions are shared by others and they are not so different after all. The program builds the children’s emotional literacy; it builds their coping strategies, augments their self-knowledge, and shows them ways to self-regulate. It connects them, each to the other.

Throughout the year, each time the baby and its mother come to the classroom, the children watch the baby grow and develop.

For example, when babies crawl for the first time, children observe how proud they are of their new skill, and then they have a chance to reflect on a time they learned to do something new. In Roots of Empathy, children learn to identify a baby’s temperament and reflect on what their own temperament is like.

They learn about individual differences, and that it is okay to have a temperament that is distinct from others, just as it is important to understand and accept people with temperaments different from their own.

This reflective experience intensifies the richness of the discussions and the impact of the program on children’s emotional literacy.

Roots of Empathy’s aim is to change the world, child by child, and the program is now spreading widely and internationally. So far, about 400,000 children in seven countries have received Roots of Empathy’s programs.

The program has a large reach across Canada, where it began, but it is also growing in the United States, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and New Zealand.

In 2010, Gordon was asked to speak about emotional literacy as part of the United Nations’ International Literacy Day celebrations. It was the first time the concept of emotional literacy had been included at the event.

What Roots of Empathy has helped to launch is a world empathy movement that aims to create a shift in education—and beyond—so that empathy is nurtured as the most important trait we need to create in an “everyone a changemaker” world. “It’s about creating a more humane world,” says Mary. “This is about the human family—we all share this world together. But it is only through empathy that we’ll be able to solve the world’s problems.”

Portions of this post were reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World by Beverly Schwartz. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Marketing vp and “Rippling” author Beverly Schwartz joined Ashoka after spending years as senior marketing counsel at Fleishman-Hillard, an international communications agency.

At Fleishman, she built and helped manage its social issues portfolio. She also developed and directed Fleishman’s domestic and international social-impact portfolio and was project director of the non-advertising portion of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s “Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.”

Schwartz’ interest in social issues spans most of her career. In the mid-70s she was executive director of the Minnesota Association for Nonsmokers and was instrumental in passing the nation’s first state law banning smoking in public places.

Subsequently, at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she helped design and manage the first U.S. education/prevention campaign for HIV/AIDS, and simultaneously directed the Office on Smoking and Health’s public information function. At the Academy for Educational Development, she worked globally on the problem of education reform.

Schwartz is dedicated to promoting the field of social marketing. An associate editor of the Social Marketing Quarterly, she is also a Steering Committee member of the annual “Innovations in Social Marketing Conference.” Learn more here: www.ashoka.org.

Follow Schwartz on twitter@beverlyschwartz and Tweet about the article and become a Rippler! You can also fan her at Facebook.com/RipplingTheBook.