Core Value: Empathy Comes First in Order to Drive Social Change

Social Entrepreneur Corps leads innovative and dynamic impact immersion programs in Latin America. As the sister organization to the award-winning Community Enterprise (CE) Solutions, they work alongside local partners and University participants supporting the creation, growth and impact of social innovations focused on intelligently alleviating poverty. Together they create sustainable impact in the field while helping university students to gain the skills and knowledge to become the social entrepreneurs of the future. Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship has a strong and enduring relationship with Social Entrepreneur Corps. This post originally appeared on their blog.

Social Entrepreneur Corps alum, Colleen Wade, ND '15

Pictured on the right: Colleen Sheehy, Social Entrepreneur Corps Guatemala ’13 and ND Mendoza ’15

Last month, we were excited to launch #ProjectEmpowerment, a social media campaign that will highlight the core values that inspire our work at Social Entrepreneur Corps. Our core values shape the way that we approach empowerment in all aspects of our work. They guide everything from our internal team dynamics to how we engage with our collaborators to how we co create social innovations with our community friends and partners.

Our first core value is Empathy. Why is empathy first? In short, because empathy must come first. Absent a proactive and dogged focus on being empathetic in our endeavors, we will fail. It is that simple.

The fact is that it is not only that we will be suboptimal in our efforts if we are not intentionally working to be empathetic, we will also potentially do more harm than good.  A lack of empathy, generally unintentional, is at the root of so many of the failures we see to address poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement. It can be insidious. When we lack empathy we become indifferent. In the words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” When we don’t work towards empathy we become detached. Think about the detached “Ivory Tower” decisions that are made in aid agencies that lead to “White Elephants”. When we don’t make the effort to become empathic we fall back on being sympathetic. Sympathy is a “me” centered emotion that leads to feel good, undignified, and overly simplistic responses to complex challenges. And when we lack empathy we eventually become distrustful and resentful. “Those people are just lazy!”  “They just want handouts!”

Oct. 4, 2013; Irish Impact Conference. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Oct. 4, 2013; Irish Impact Conference. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Working to instill empathy as our priority core value empowers us to create inspired and elegant responses together.  It empowers us to build mission-focused, dynamic teams. At Social Entrepreneur Corps we work to create engagement opportunities and situations where interns can trigger their empathy. Interns live with homestay families. They play together. They learn the language.  They work side by side with local leaders, organizations, and community members. And they miss buses and get stuck in the rain and occasionally have “stomach issues,” amongst other inconveniences. Although the process of triggering empathy is not always exactly enjoyable, it is foundational. In addition, interns are constantly with our team and see our strengths and, oftentimes, our warts. Although it is painful for us at times to expose our vulnerabilities as an organization, this is of no less importance. Aspiring change leaders need to see and experience all authentically in order to truly gain greater empathy, in order to build relationships, build social innovations, and create positive change.

In conclusion, Ashoka seems to sum up the importance well when describing their highly successful efforts around empathy, in stating, “We need the skill of applied empathy – the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response – to succeed in teams, to solve problems to lead effectively, to drive change.” If we hope to play a positive role in helping others to become more empowered to create positive change, we must start with empathy.

Oct. 4, 2013; Irish Impact Conference. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Oct. 4, 2013; Irish Impact Conference. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

Greg Van Kirk  was recognized as Schwab Foundation “Social Entrepreneur of the Year for 2012 (Latin America)” at the World Economic Forum, as well as a member of the Ashoka/Siemens Foundation Community Impact Development Group and the Clinton Global Initiative. He has served as an economic development consultant for organizations such as USAID, Chemonics, VisionSpring, Soros Foundation, Church World Service, IADB, Water For People and Fundacion Paraguaya. Greg also contributes time as “Social Entrepreneur in Residence” and has worked with Columbia University, NYU, Marquette University, Indiana University, University of San Diego and Arizona State University.  Greg is a graduate of Miami University and currently lives with his family in New York City. You can see Greg’s TEDx talks at UNC here and at BYU here.

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