The Greatest War: Empathy vs. Selfishness

Without diminishing the horrific civil war in Syria or the many other violent conflicts around the world, I believe that the greatest war is being fought between those with empathy and those who are selfish. In our own country we see it playing out on many fronts:

  • Health Care: do we empathize with those who cannot afford it or selfishly insist that healthcare is solely a personal responsibility?
  • Homelessness: do we look the ever increasing number of homeless people in the eye and reach out a helping hand, or do we look away and encourage our policymakers to criminalize homelessness so we do not have to see it as we walk down our streets?
  • Education: do we take real steps to improve public education for our most marginalized students to close the achievement gap, or do we siphon public funds to private schools which largely benefit those who can already afford to send their children to such schools?
  • Civil Rights: do we acknowledge and remedy the real discrimination suffered by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups or do we undo the progress made by over 50 years of civil rights legislation by failing to enforce those laws?
  • Income inequality: do we build an economy that allows everyone to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing and health care, or do we continue down an accelerating path of haves and have nots?

I have long theorized that most of these problems could be solved if more people empathized with those who struggle with one or more of these challenges. Yet, a recent study showed that an decreasing percentage of college students have empathy for others by dismissing their attachment to others.

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While this presents a challenge for the future in a world that appears increasingly selfish, the good news is that there are methods to increase empathy and many people are working to implement these methods. Roman Krznaric wrote: Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it a few years ago. In it, he suggests the following methods for increasing empathy.

  1. Stop and listen-Research shows that in employee-employer disputes, if both sides agree to simply repeat what the other side just said before they start speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.
  2. Ask a stranger (such as a restaurant worker) how their life is going-Barriers to empathy are stereotypes and prejudices we have about others, often due to unconscious judgements based on appearance or accent.  A good way to increase empathy for those whom you do not know is to have a genuine conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Since most of us interact with restaurant and other retail workers who are strangers to us, this is an easy place to start.
  3. Expand your horizons through books and films-As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While we cannot do this in a literal manner, Krznaric has established an Empathy Library to provide resources to those interested in teaching and expanding empathy.
  4. Bring empathy instruction into our schools-The word’s most effective program, Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and is spreading worldwide: over half a million children have done it.  The teacher is a baby who visits a class group regularly over a year. The children sit around the baby and discuss questions: What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? It’s a stepping stone to developing their empathic imaginations. It works by increasing empathy levels, boosting cooperation, reducing school yard bullying and even increasing general academic achievement.

Some may consider this naive, as it is also the case that studies demonstrate that those in power, both in the workplace and by income, tend to be more selfish. One way to combat the ingrained selfishness of the rich and powerful is to demonstrate to them that over the long run, empathy for others will improve everyone’s lives, including their own. For example:

  • improving education for all will provide better workers to improve the economy for all;
  • expanding access to health care for everyone reduces the need for hospitals to provide free high cost charity care in their emergency rooms driving the cost of medical care up for everyone as someone has to pay for this care;
  • providing affordable housing and supportive services for the homeless does a better job of removing the visible scourge of homelessness from our streets over the long term than jail terms when we criminalize homelessness;
  • protecting the civil rights of marginalized groups and individuals helps those people feel welcome in our communities and less likely to commit acts of desperation;
  • reducing income inequality decreases the resentment of those in poverty against the wealthy and generates a healthier overall economy for all.

Increasing empathy starts at the individual level, so I encourage my readers to start today. Find a stranger, open a conversation, and increase your empathy. You will feel better for it and one step at a time, empathy can win the war over selfishness.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

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Picking Asparagus across the Political Divide

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center Survey, we are now living in the first time that majorities of both parties have very unfavorable views of the other party. Worse yet,

More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.

These fears of each other are leading to greater social polarization and distrust, making interactions across the political divide increasingly difficult. No wonder that Congress and state legislatures find it so challenging to forge a consensus on difficult political issues.

Every year, as my wife and I drive through Wisconsin’s countryside, we pass by a local small farm where the farmer sells delicious fresh asparagus. We have bought dozens of pounds (maybe hundreds!) over the past 20 years and enjoyed it thoroughly. Last year, however, we noticed that the asparagus farmer, who has always been very friendly to us, wore an NRA hat. As the Presidential election heated up, we also noticed that he posted a Trump/Pence sign in his yard.

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Readers of my blog should not be surprised that I abhor the policies of the NRA and the Trump/Pence administration. Indeed, I spend a great deal of time and energy working to combat the destructive policies supported by both of them. So, when asparagus season arrived, my wife and I had to ask ourselves whether we still felt comfortable buying asparagus from a supporter of politicians and a lobby organization whom we both abhor.

While we have not yet talked politics or gun rights with the asparagus farmer, we realized that our best chance of understanding where he comes from and possibly coming to a common understanding was to continue to buy asparagus from him. So, we continue to do so.

Please do not misunderstand. I have no problem with people who choose to boycott large corporate entities who take abhorrent political positions, treat their workers unfairly or do other destructive things. In fact, I participate in many of those boycotts. However, I see those corporate boycotts as vastly different from a person to person interaction of buying fresh asparagus from a small farmer. I am quite confident that if we stopped buying asparagus from him, he would not change his political views in any way. In fact, if we specifically told him that we would no longer buy asparagus  from him due to his political views, it would probably make him angry and embolden and harden his political positions.

So, last weekend we picked 9 pounds of delicious asparagus and had a lovely chat with the asparagus farmer and his son about how his crop was doing and his decision to start allowing customers to pick their own asparagus for half the price of the pre-picked asparagus. We will continue to pick and buy his asparagus and perhaps one day, at the right moment, we will have an opportunity to have an honest political conversation that does not degrade into hate and fear. These conversations need to be borne in trust and we can only gain that trust by engaging with people who disagree with us.

I will be sure to let my readers know how the conversation goes if and when we have that political conversation with the asparagus farmer. In the mean time, we will continue to build trust with someone whom we know disagrees with our views.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Mentoring Isaiah

At the beginning of this past school year, I volunteered to tutor a student at a nearby elementary school through a program established by Madison’s 3 synagogues. On my first day, the school’s learning coordinator introduced me to a smiling 5th grader, Isaiah. She also asked me if I would agree to tutor a second child, who was in the 3rd grade, so I could maintain my relationship for a few years since Isaiah would move on to middle school next year. I agreed to an arrangement in which I tutored Isaiah for a half an hour once a week, and immediately tutored a 3rd grader, afterwards.

Both students were smiling, friendly, cooperative and eager to learn. However, both were significantly behind their peers in math, so that is the subject in which I tutored them.

After a few weeks of tutoring, it became clear to me that Isaiah had significant math challenges that my tutoring alone was not helping. I notified the school’s learning coordinator, and his teacher e-mailed me to thank me for my concern.

By November, I still saw no progress in Isaiah’s math skills, and I grew increasingly concerned that if he did not receive additional specialized instruction, he would face increasing academic barriers as he moved forward in his education. One day that month, I opened the folder the 3rd grader brought to me and noticed that his folder did not contain a new assignment and only contained the assignment he had completed with me the week before. I did not want to interrupt his teacher during class, so I simply made up some math work for that session.

However, I e-mailed the learning coordinator expressing once again my concern that Isaiah needed further evaluation to find out why he struggled so much in math. I also requested that the third grader’s teacher make sure that she always gave me work to do with him in the future. Little did I know that these simple requests would end my brief tutoring career.

Isaiah’s teacher e-mailed me to tell me that since I was clearly frustrated, perhaps I should stop tutoring him. I responded by telling her that I was fine, but I was concerned for Isaiah’s academic career. Fortunately, she decided to call me and during our conversation, she and I agreed that if Isaiah’s mother agreed, perhaps it would be better if I evolved my relationship with Isaiah into that of an after-school mentor. His teacher agreed to ask his mother, and his mother agreed.

Sadly, the third grader’s teacher took great offense at my simple request and rather than simply acknowledge her oversight, she ended my tutoring relationship with him. I contacted the principal who agreed to let me meet with with the third grader in the office to say good-bye to him. I hope he gets the help he needs from someone else.

Yesterday, Isaiah completed 5th grade and there was a lovely graduation ceremony that his mother and I both attended. The week before, Isaiah had been very concerned that he look good at graduation, and he showed me his unlaced shoes that were a size to small, and wondered if we could go shoe shopping so he would have nice shoes that fit him during graduation. While I regularly take Isaiah out for a meal and often take him to the movies, sign him up to play on a basketball team, have fun playing laser tag or at the trampoline gym, buying a new pair of shoes felt like something I should share with his mother. So, after he found a reasonably priced pair of shoes he liked, I told him that I would contact his mother to see if she would be willing to split the cost. After shoe shopping we went to Rockin’ Jump the local trampoline gym, which he loves.

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Over the weekend, Isaiah called me to see if he could help me in my garden. Gardening at his neighbors’ homes is something he has done to earn money in the past and although I was willing to have him do some gardening for me, I was out of town last weekend so that was not feasible. Since I had not heard back from his mother about splitting the cost of his new shoes, I contacted her to see if she would prefer if Isaiah earned half the cost of the shoes by gardening for me, and she thought that was an “awesome” idea.

Normally, I mentor Isaiah once a week, but since Isaiah needed the new shoes before graduation, and we had already agreed that after attending graduation, I would take him to see a movie to celebrate, I agreed to pick him up after school on Tuesday so we could buy the shoes. Afterwards, he came back to my house to do some weeding in my yard.

After graduation, the kids and their parents were invited to a reception in the school cafeteria to enjoy cake and lemonade. When Isaiah was ready to go, I suggested that he say good-bye to his teacher, so we both approached her. She gave us both hugs and whispered to me, “Please stick with him.” I promised her that I planned to do so.

Earlier in the year, I asked Isaiah what he planned to do over the summer. He responded with a smile and said, “spend more time with you.” As my mentoring is not organized by anyone other than me, Isaiah, and his mother, we will evolve our relationship in a way that makes sense for all 3 of us. He will attend summer school to hopefully get the math help that he needs and I will continue to take him for meals and other fun outings once a week.

My work as a civil rights attorney has given me many opportunities to resolve civil rights violations on both an individual and systemic level. But engaging as a mentor has opened my eyes to the reality that real change begins with personal relationships. I hope I am helping Isaiah see a bigger world and live a successful fulfilling life. It is clear that he also has my back. As we were driving from the movie yesterday, I changed lanes without checking my blind spot, but Isaiah was looking and shouted out that there was a car there, and fortunately helped me avoid an accident. Our relationship is mutual. we help each other. Indeed, that is as it should be. I look forward to growing that relationship with him for as long as he is willing.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Please Don’t Feed the Narcissist

Even as young children, we are taught that when we go into bear country that we should be very careful not to feed the bears.

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After all, feeding bears is dangerous for humans and can also harm bears. It is a simple rule, although unfortunately many people disobey the rule in order to get pictures of bears. Of course, they do so at great risk to themselves.

During the presidential election, I urged my fellow Americans to Ignore the NarcissistUnfortunately, my advice was not heeded, and we now have a Narcissist in Chief as our President. However, how we deal with a leader who feeds on attention is still a matter of grave concern. Clearly, now that he is President, we can no longer ignore him. But, we can take care not to feed his insatiable narcissism.

The media, politicians of all stripes and advocates seem unable to resist giving the Narcissist in Chief all the attention he craves. It is worth remembering that narcissists crave all attention that is focused on them, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, so even those who poke fun at his tweets or other inanities are actually feeding his narcissism when they do so publicly.

This hit a new peak with the viral attention that his idiotic covfefe tweet received earlier this week. Sure, the tweet was idiotic and no leader of any nation should tweet idiotic nonsense as our Narcissist in Chief does on an all too regular basis. But, the better tactic would have been to privately notice how idiotic it was and then publicly take action against any one or more of the horrific policies which he and his administration are proposing.

Another example is the regular observation and critique that the Narcissist in Chief has failed to fulfill his promises and has left hundreds of positions in government open. From any reasonable opponent of this administration, this is not actually a critique. It should be noticed, smiled about, and then ignored, because the last things those of us who are resisting this administration want is for it to fulfill its promises and have full staffing to implement horrific policies.

The Narcissist in Chief may be the world’s greatest expert in utilizing social and other mass media to feed his insatiable need for attention of any kind. The best method of resistance is to deny him the attention he craves so badly and focus advocacy efforts on electing new and better leaders. As I have done here, he does not even deserve being identified by name.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.