Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Photo: Manufactured Housing Village.
Willow Pines mobile home park in Kaysville, Utah. An empathetic woman makes the manufactured housing parks she manages truly homes.

At a manufactured housing park in Utah, as Cathy Free reports at the Washington Post, one woman is making a huge difference in residents’ sense of security.

“Pat Blake, who manages two mobile home communities in Utah, began to notice some of the children who lived there seemed hungry after parents came to her to inquire about food assistance. Blake was one of seven siblings raised by a single mom. She knew hunger personally.

“She started using some of her own money to pick up extra jars of peanut butter, cans of soup and bread at the grocery store. Then she let her residents know to come to her office and help themselves.

“ ‘It doesn’t matter whether a child lives in a mobile home or in a fancy apartment — they all deserve to be fed,’ she said, explaining that there are 120 families in one community and 45 in another at the mobile home parks in Davis County. …

“With rent increases hitting most mobile home communities in recent years, more families are finding it difficult to afford groceries and housing, she said.

“ ‘I started bringing food in for people, just a little at a time,’ said Blake, who has been managing the two parks since 2020. “And then I realized that I had a huge room behind my office that wasn’t being used, and I could do more.’

“Blake, 79, lives in a mobile home in Apple Acres, one of the communities that she manages. She said she asked a friend to help install some shelves in the large room at the second mobile home park, Willow Pines, so she could turn it into a pantry.

“Then she stepped it up a level. She contacted the Bountiful Food Pantry, which collects donated food and distributes it throughout Davis County, including in Fruit Heights City, where she lives. They started coming twice a month to offer groceries to residents.

“Blake stocked the shelves of her pantry with some of the donated items, and she told her tenants they could come by on Thursdays to pick up any extra staples they needed.

She used her savings to buy a refrigerator to hold meat, cheese, eggs and gallons of milk, she said.

“Almost three years later, she said residents at Apple Acres and Willow Pines now have enough to eat, regardless of their family size or financial circumstances. …

“Linda Wilson lives at Willow Pines and is among those who have felt the pinch of rising food and housing costs. Three years ago, Wilson, 75, took in her daughter and three grandchildren when they were going through a difficult time, she said. They are still living with her in her mobile home. …

“ ‘I’ve lived in several mobile home parks over the years, and I’ve never run across a manager like Pat,’ she said. ‘She helped me with some rental assistance, and she takes the time to get to know every resident here and what their needs are.’

“Before Blake became manager of Willow Pines, Maribel Urquizo said she often struggled to buy groceries for her three children in the week before her husband, who works with granite countertops, received his regular paycheck.

“ ‘It was a little hard sometimes to make ends meet,’ said Urquizo, 29. ‘Now we can go to Pat’s office, and she gives us what we need to get us through. Milk, eggs, snacks for the kids — she has it all.’ …

“Blake said she understands the struggles of many of her tenants because she’s been there. She dropped out of school at 13 to help look after her siblings and bring in extra money from babysitting kids in her neighborhood, she said, noting that she eventually received her high school diploma at age 29. …

“Besides keeping food in her residents’ refrigerators, Blake said she makes sure they have Christmas presents every year and that children have backpacks and school supplies.

“The families she helps often thank her by bringing her casseroles, cookies and jars of salsa made with the free groceries they pick up every other week.

“She said she can go to sleep content at night knowing that nobody at Apple Acres and Willow Pines is hungry.

“ ‘Needing groceries is nothing to be ashamed of,’ she said. ‘We could all use a boost sometimes. These families need someone, and I’m happy that I can be that person to help. More at the Post, here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that protection from rising rents at mobile parks is often best tackled by joining with neighbors to become a Resident Owned Community. Read about how to do that here.

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Photo: Suzanne’s Mom.

Dolls were an important part of my childhood, figuring prominently in what I called My Little House, a neglected corner of our third floor, and later in My Little School. So I was interested in recent research my husband saw about a role dolls can play in any child’s life.

Hannah Devlin reported at the Guardian, “Playing with dolls encourages children to talk more about others’ thoughts and emotions, a study has found.

“The research suggests that playing imaginary games with dolls could help children develop social skills … and empathy. The neuroscientist who led the work said that the educational value of playing with Lego and construction toys was widely accepted, but the benefits of playing with dolls sometimes appeared to have been overlooked.

“ ‘When children create imaginary worlds and role play with dolls, they communicate at first out loud and then internalise the message about others’ thoughts, emotions and feelings,’ said Dr Sarah Gerson, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University and the lead author.

‘This can have positive long-lasting effects on children, such as driving higher rates of social and emotional processing and building social skills like empathy that can become internalised to build and form lifelong habits.’

“The study, funded by the manufacturers of Barbie and published in the journal Developmental Science, involved 33 boys and girls, aged between four and eight who were given a collection of Barbie dolls and accessories such as an ambulance or horse to play with.

“They were left to play spontaneously, but their speech was monitored and they were also fitted with a specialized cap containing a form of brain imaging technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). The technique measures changes in blood oxygenation by shining light through the skull, which makes it possible to track brain activity while the subject is freely moving around.

“The study found that the children talked more about others’ thoughts and emotions, a concept known as internal state language, when playing with the dolls, compared with playing creative games on a computer tablet, such as a hairdressing game or a city-building game with characters.

“They were also more likely to address the dolls in the second person, talking to them directly, whereas the characters on the computer screen they tended to refer to in the third person. No difference was observed between boys and girls. …

“Benjamin Mardell, who researches the pedagogy of play at Harvard Graduate School of Education and who was not involved in the work, said: ‘The hypothesis that playing with dolls provides a scaffolding for young children to take the perspective of another, even if that other is inanimate, seems very reasonable.’ …

“Mardell added that the findings ought to apply to any kind of role-play toy, rather than being specific to Barbies. ‘I’d take a broader view of what a doll is,’ he said. ‘[It could be] any object that the child can invest a sense of other into – a stuffed animal, an oven mitt that talks to them, or even an imaginary friend.’

“Children typically start to show signs of internal state language around the age of four. At this age, they begin to voice their thoughts aloud, indicating that they are considering the thoughts, feelings and desires of themselves and others.

“ ‘These skills are really important for interacting with other people, learning from other people, and navigating a variety of social situations,’ Gerson said. ‘It becomes important for making and sustaining friendships, and how they learn from their teachers, and parents.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

I’ll just add that dolls or “role-play toys” can be important to a child for other reasons, too. When I was a teacher, a mother told me about my student’s hostility to the family’s new baby. The girl was acting out (calling for help) when she kept throwing a baby doll off the dollhouse roof. I myself probably cherished dolls as substitutes for the baby that left our home when I was four. Long story. The point is that dolls become real little people to a child, and the thoughts and feelings experienced with the little people are important.

You might also like this NPR story on the importance of free play in preschool, here.

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Photo: Political Blind Date
Toronto City Councilors Gary Crawford and Shelley Carroll, who hold very different political views, chat in a Toronto coffee shop during an episode of the TV show “Political Blind Date.”

What if each of us tried to reach across the divide? My brave friend Nancy does it in a class at the Council on Aging, where she actually talks politics. I’m not strong enough for that, but I really do work at nurturing the things I have in common with people whose politics are different. There are always things we have in common. After all, if Earth got invaded by hostile space aliens, we’d all be helping each other out without a second thought.

In Canada, they aren’t waiting for space aliens.

Sara Miller Llana writes at the Christian Science Monitor about a popular television show that has participants reaching across the political divide.

“When Gary Crawford confided to Shelley Carroll on TV that he has a daughter with a disability, the mother who raised a daughter diagnosed with autism replied instinctively, ‘Oh, Gary’ – conveying an empathy so obvious in just two words.

“It’s not that the Toronto city councilors didn’t know one another. They’d worked together in City Hall for the better part of a decade. But more often than not, they were dug in on either side of the chamber, battling over city finances.

“So this meeting, at a cozy Toronto coffee shop, was an intentional step away from those fiery legislative sessions, a way to help two rival politicians find common ground in sustaining North America’s fastest-growing city – even if Ms. Shelley envisions new revenue tools while Mr. Crawford dubs himself a ‘keep taxes low kinda guy.’

“Welcome to ‘Political Blind Date.’ The popular Canadian television show might sound like a hokey reality show for the political set. But for its creators, the aim is to undo some of the stubborn binaries that have built up around contentious issues from gun rights to taxation to immigration to climate change.

“Getting beyond the media scrum, the yelling during parliamentary question periods, the sound bites on nightly news, and the callous swipes over social media, producers set the stage for participants to engage one another with the time and respect that complex problems require.

‘Respect is at the heart of it. Not only are politicians, in the way they are using political rhetoric, not respecting each other; they’re disrespecting their citizenry,’ says Mark Johnston, showrunner of ‘Political Blind Date.’ ‘And at the same time, there’s been a disrespect and dehumanization of politicians.’ …

“With the filming of a fifth season underway, about 50 politicians have already participated, spending two days together with each other’s constituents and wrestling with legalization of marijuana, Indigenous rights, and climate change. It’s not easy: In one episode, a politician who supports gun rights visited a Toronto mother whose children were hit by bullets at a playground. 

“The goal is not to get the two politicians to reverse their positions, something that rarely happens. It’s to slow down and study policies in all their complexity, and to hear the human concerns and perspectives that lie behind their support. …

“During the episode on Toronto city finances, which aired in January 2020, Mr. Crawford hands Ms. Carroll a button to put on. Hers is a big yellow disk with an arrow pointing upward, reading ‘High Property Taxes.’ His reads the opposite, the arrow pointing downward next to ‘Low Property Taxes.’ 

“But after the show, he realizes the buttons don’t make as much sense as he originally thought. They both want their constituents to be able to stay in their homes and rely on services their taxes pay for. …

“He says he’s still a ‘low tax kinda guy.’ But the experience opened him up to a conversation he would not have been willing to have before the episode. And both say they talk more than they ever did before. ‘We’re often understaffed, under-resourced, and really stretched for time,’ says Ms. Carroll. ‘We don’t get to know enough about each other’s personal lives. So you don’t know where each other are coming from. 

“ ‘You can have different politics, but it always helps if you can humanize and say, “OK, I get your point of view and it’s different from mine, but I know where you’re coming from, so let’s work on it,” ‘ she says. …

“Anna-Kay Russell, co-founder and director of funding partnerships for the Canadian Black Policy Network, says this kind of connection between two rivals has a trickle-down effect. ‘The “us versus them” mentality not only seeps into the behavior of our politicians, but down into the mindsets of the voters, and it detracts from the fact that we’re a nation that needs to and should be operating as one, collectively,’ she says. …

“The show has averaged about 195,000 viewers per episode, a solid number for a small network like TVO, says [John Ferri, an executive of TVO, the television network that airs the show,] and it has been optioned to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and South Africa. The show’s creators are also shopping it to the United States, given all the divisions that have grown amid the pandemic. …

“[Johnston] sees potential even in the explosive political environment of the U.S. ‘It’s easy to sit behind a Twitter account or stand up in a legislature,’ he says. ‘But if you agree to go on a journey with another human being, I just think in general people are going to listen to each other.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: ICA
The Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed building is in East Boston, one of the communities hit hardest by Covid-19. In April, the ICA decided the most important thing it could do would be to provide food to neighbors in need. (Art projects for families get included in the bundles.)

Some artists seem more alert to human needs than the rest of us. That’s something my mother noted after my father had a debilitating stroke in his 40s. The painter friend and the poet friend seemed to more moved by what happened, more empathetic, than many others.

Certainly, in the current pandemic, we’ve seen people in the arts stepping up to offer all kinds of help. Here’s an example.

Grace Griffin reported for the Boston Globe in April, “With its galleries closed to the public, the Institute of Contemporary Art is using its Watershed outpost to feed families in need. … The nonprofit enlisted its catering company, The Catered Affair, to help with a donation drive.

“The ICA also recruited new donors to fund the project. The monthlong drive — launched in partnership with East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, East Boston Social Centers, Maverick Landing Community Services, Eastie Farm, Orient Heights Housing Development, and Crossroads Family Center — distributes family-size boxes filled with fresh produce and dairy products. …

“ ‘We know this is just a drop in the bucket of need,’ said ICA director Jill Medvedow. ‘We are pleased to help in this small way.’ ” More.

Then in late May, Andrea Shea followed up with a story at WBUR radio.

“Now the museum, its catering company and partnering community organizations in East Boston are extending their food distribution program through Sept. 3.

“ ‘What we learned in April … how hard hit East Boston residents are by COVID,’ ICA director Jill Medvedow said Friday.

The struggle to feed families is ongoing, and Medvedow said it highlights life-threatening disparities the largely immigrant East Boston community faces.

“ ‘Not having the nutrition that contributes to one’s health, to one’s ability to take care of your family, to that sense of dignity that everyone deserves,’ Medvedow said. …

” ‘I see this heroism around me,’ Medvedow said, ‘and I feel very lucky to help facilitate this. That’s my role.’

“About four years ago, when Medvedow and her staff embarked on transforming the 15,000 square-foot condemned building into satellite space for the ICA, they were dedicated to building relationships with the people who live there. ‘I never thought then that this would be the way in which we would demonstrate that the arts and the ICA would be a resource in this Boston community,’ she said, ‘But it is.’

“The food boxes also carry on the ICA’s mission to share art. Each one includes a creative project for families isolated at home. Medvedow said the museum is currently in talks with artists about commissioning new activities designed for both solace and stimulation. …

“Initially the effort’s funding was seeded with unsolicited anonymous donations. Now the ICA is funding the food distribution project and welcomes any additional support. …

“By the end of summer the ICA’s Watershed estimates it will provide more than 2,000 boxes of eggs, butter, fresh vegetables and fruit to East Boston families.” More.

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Photo: Thomas Jefferson University Photo Services
Medical professionals develop their empathetic side at a 2017 Netter Symposium in Philadelphia.

I’m back to writing the usual posts that link to interesting articles. This one is especially appropriate, given my recent experience as a hospital visitor. The article is about techniques for “teaching” empathy to medical people, but I have to say I think every worker in that hospital was born empathetic. From the security personnel and cleaners to the brain surgeon and night nurses, it was amazing to experience how kind everyone was, and I wonder if it’s just the culture of that hospital.

Be that as it may, there are initiatives everywhere to help medical professionals develop their empathy “gene.” An article at a “platform for theatremakers” called HowlRound is about using drama for that purpose.

“As theatre folk know well, sometimes the most meaningful creations are borne out of the fruit of circumstance. To wit, the Lantern Theater Company in Center City, Philadelphia, happens to be located around the corner from the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (SKMC) of Thomas Jefferson University. In 2012, Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern, and Dr. Salvatore Mangione, pulmonologist and director of physical diagnosis and history of medicine at SKMC, started discussing a way to make the most of that physical proximity — and potentially change the course of modern medicine while they were at it.

“Together, along with artistic colleagues Craig Getting and Kittson O’Neill, they developed a curriculum for what became the Empathy Project. [Mangione] and the team believed that ‘in addition to preventing burnout, and giving [students] more comfort with empathy and ambiguity, it might give them a different brain and help them become a better physician.’ …

“Part of the program focuses on playwriting. This section asks students to not only learn the technical tools of dramatic storytelling, but also to make a personal investment in the work they are creating. It helps break students out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to write about a truth that goes unsaid in their community. …

“Many of the project’s exercises have roots in Meisner work, including improv technique to facilitate open listening and taking stock of one’s ‘baseline self.’ This combination of listening and self-awareness supplies the building blocks of empathy, asking students to consider themselves and each other with perhaps more generosity and less competitiveness. …

“Plays written by students for the Empathy Project have dealt with wide-ranging topics such as immigrant experience, class issues, what it feels like to be a Muslim in America, the recent death of a parent, ethics of patient privacy, and doctors confronting cadavers. O’Neill avows she has learned more about the Muslim American experience in her class at Jefferson than she has anywhere else in her life.

“Getting believes some of the most fundamental questions playwrights ask during their writing process can easily be applied to doctors working with patients. These include: What are the given circumstances of this person? Who is supporting them or not supporting them? How do you get your audience to feel the emotions you want them to feel? How do you structure the telling of information that is at the right pace and is clear? As a result, students taking part in the Empathy Project reported seeing their patients in the hospital the way a playwright would see them.”

More here.

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Suzanne (seen here with her paternal grandmother and John) sent this message to her customers today:

“At Luna & Stella, we make fine jewelry that celebrates our closest connections, the relationships between parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, partners and the friends that are our family.  I believe those relationships are the greatest treasures we have.

“But recently I have been thinking more about the extension of these relationships — community. Specifically, I have thinking about what the role of businesses in civil discourse is and should be, and what my role as a small business owner should be in being a part of the conversation.

“I am the first to admit I don’t have all the answers. But I think we owe it to our children and communities to start somewhere. The place we are starting is with Facing History and Ourselves.  For over 40 years, Facing History has been training educators to teach empathy, tolerance, and civic responsibility through the lens of history.

“On #givingtuesday, November 29, Luna & Stella will give 20% of all sales on our website to Facing History. 

“Thank you for your support of this important work.

“In gratitude,


“P.S.  As a thank you, use code FACINGHISTORY for free shipping on your order.  If you are not able to shop on #givingtuesday, we will make a donation equal to 20% of your purchase all season long with this code.

“P.P.S. My friend and Facing History Los Angeles Director Liz Vogel interviewed me for Facing History’s website. Read the interview here.”

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As an icebreaker at lunch Monday, a colleague asked us all to go around the table and name a New Year’s resolution. I said I was going to emulate the phone-reading guy in the comic who tells his friend, “Yes, I just got a text, but I think there’s also a subtext.”

I meant that I want to go beneath the surface of things, to listen to what people are really saying. You know how you can sharpen your skills in that department? Read fiction.

That’s according to an Emory University study written up at MicGabe Bergado has the story. “It’s not news that reading has countless benefits: Poetry stimulates parts of the brain linked to memory and sparks self-reflection … But readers of fiction? They’re a special breed.

“The study: A 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers. [Neuroscientist Gregory Berns and coauthors] compared the brains of people after they read to the brains of people who didn’t read. The brains of the readers — they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii over a nine-day period at night — showed more activity in certain areas than those who didn’t read.

“Specifically, researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement. When you visualize yourself scoring a touchdown while playing football, you can actually somewhat feel yourself in the action. A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling. …

“Need more proof? Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research focused on the effect of literary fiction, rather than popular fiction, on readers.  For the experiment, participants either read a piece of literary fiction or popular fiction, followed by identifying facial emotions solely through the eyes. Those who read literary fiction scored consistently higher, by about 10%.

” ‘We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple,’ Castano wrote to Mic.” More here.

Thank you, Claire, for sending this. You know what I like.


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In April, singer Will McMillan read a post at Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog, here, about research on why people feel joyful when singing with others.

Having dug into the physiological research and found that heartbeats often synchronize, Will wrote a blog post of his own and included an MP3 of singing “Blue Moon” with his frequent collaborator, Bobbi Carrey. “(They perform at Scullers in Cambridge this coming Thursday.)

It was in the comments at Will’s blog, here, that I found this YouTube recommendation — a deeply empathetic baby listening to a sad song. You see what music can do.

I hasten to add that for me, there are fewer happier moments than crying to a sad song. Don’t know how old you have to be to feel  happy-sad. I hope the baby feels good.

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Ashoka, which defines itself as “a global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs,” has a blog called Changemakers that might interest readers. The March 26 post is on teaching and empathy.

Nora Cobo at the Center for Inspired Teaching writes, “While test-based assessments are essential, they reflect only one type of data and one kind of skill that students need. Schools must also focus on students’ social-emotional growth in order to create sound learning environments. Such settings help students develop interpersonal competence and improve short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes.

“Center for Inspired Teaching partners with teachers to change the school experience for students to include these critical skills. … Instead of looking at students’ behavior as something to be corrected, we train teachers to look at students’ behavior in terms of unmet needs. In particular, we ask teachers to consider students’ needs for Autonomy, Belonging, Competence, Developmental appropriateness, and Engagement — the ABCDE of learners’ needs.

“For example, a teacher may encounter a student who repeatedly gets frustrated and leaves his seat to chat with classmates when he encounters a complicated geometry problem. Rather than assuming the student has a bad attitude, the teacher strives to figure out which of the student’s needs is not being met. The teacher may discover that the student learns best when physically engaged – and offer him the option to tackle the equation by measuring distances by walking.

“Similarly, a teacher may find a student who refuses to work in a group setting, saying she just prefers to work alone. In examining the student’s unmet needs, that teacher may discover that the student longs for more autonomy with her work – and empower that student to create on her own.

“The teacher may discover, upon further engaging her skills of empathy, that other members of the group aren’t treating the student kindly, and therefore the student’s need for belonging is not being met when classroom groups are self-selected. …

“Placing empathy at the core of teachers’ practice ensures that students learn how to think, not just what to think – and go beyond covering the curriculum to learn the skills they need in order to thrive.”

More here.

Photograph: Kate Samp, Strategies for Children

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Tom Jacobs alerted me to a piece he published at Pacific Standard, a publication that reports on studies in the social sciences.

Newly published research, he says, provides some support for the notion that children by nature want to help others.

“ ‘From an early age, humans seem to have genuine concern for the welfare of others,’ concludes a research team led by Robert Hepach of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. …

“But how exactly do you discover a toddler’s motivation? The researchers took a novel approach: by looking straight into his or her eyes.

“They note that our pupils enlarge in response to emotionally stimulating sights, and deduced this could provide an indication of what specifically prompts kids to perk up and take notice. Are they aroused by the sight of someone in need—or, perhaps, by the realization that they could play the hero by helping?

“Their experiment featured 36 2-year-olds, who viewed a scene in which an adult needed help reaching for a can or crayon. One-third of the children were allowed by their parents to help the person in need (almost all did so); another third were held back from providing assistance.”

Curious? Read more.

(By the way, the same institute was behind some research that Alan Alda featured on the PBS show The Human Spark, here.)

Photograph: Two-year-old meeting his cousin’s need for conversation.

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Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard reports on new research into the benefits of music for children.

“Music education produces myriad benefits,” he writes, “strengthening kids’ abilities in reading, math, and verbal intelligence. New British research suggests it may also teach something less tangible, but arguably just as important: The ability to empathize.

“In a year-long program focused on group music-making, 8- to 11-year old children became markedly more compassionate, according to a just-published study from the University of Cambridge. The finding suggests kids who make music together aren’t just having fun: they’re absorbing a key component of emotional intelligence.”

The research team was led by Tal-Chen Rabinowitch of the university’s Centre for Music and Science. Read more.

Photograph: Pete Pahham/Shutterstock

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