Developing Empathy

Participants from Nicaragua and Oregon meet with and interview Andrew Bogrand (Democracy International) on Capitol Hill.

Participants from Nicaragua and Oregon meet with and interview Andrew Bogrand (Democracy International) on Capitol Hill.

¨How can we learn to love others if we do not have the opportunity to understand them?¨ Driven by this question, the World Lens Foundation (WLF) was founded five years ago with the aspiration to give people worldwide the opportunity to communicate cross-culturally and develop leadership, accompany other cultures and to be accompanied, and to cultivate empathy.

Through a partnership with CANTERA Center for Communication and Popular Education, twenty CANTERA teenagers and young adults had the opportunity to participate in photography classes from January to May 2016 in the WLF´s Interactive Storytellers program. The participants met weekly to participate in the twelve-week curriculum in which they explored powerful themes: connection, illumination, perspective, reflection, cultural accompaniment, leadership, conflict resolution, sustainability, accessibility, visionary leadership, empathy, tradition, and empowerment. They explored each theme personally, as a class, and within their community, learning to reflect individually, share their story with others, and listen openly to others´ life experiences.

Additionally, they were trained with basic camera skills so that after reflecting on the week’s theme they could share their dreams, experiences, beliefs, and community through the art of photography.

The transformative experience never stopped there. At the end of each class, each student chose one or two of their photos share via Facebook with students at Forest Grove High School in Oregon, USA. Each week, the Forest Grove students photographed the same subjects as the Nicaraguan students and also did the same reflections, but within their community, from their perspective, informed by their life experience.

¨This is US food?¨ students asked in surprise when they saw a pan frying with tortillas and meat. ¨That´s not a US game?!?!¨ they responded after seeing a bingo board with words in Spanish. They were shocked by these photos which helped to break the stereotype that games played in Nicaragua must be different from games played in the United States,  and that only English is spoken in USA.

Simultaneously, the students in Oregon deconstructed stereotypes about Nicaragua, and learned about a Central America rarely portrayed in Western media.

Five months of photography classes and cross-cultural exchange culminated with a photo showcase, and four Nicaraguan participants in the WLF Interactive Storytellers class applied to attend the WLF´s first Leadership Summit in Washington DC, USA. For their outstanding creativity and consistent participation, two Nicaraguan students were selected to travel with the three class facilitators to meet two students from Oregon and their class facilitator face-to-face in Washington DC in a fully-funded cross-cultural encounter.

The Leadership Summit was a full, relationship-rich learning experience in which the participants sat next to journalists, film directors, Congressional assistants, and leaders of international institutions to learn from their experiences, and ask questions about leadership, cultural accompaniment, cross-cultural communication, and empathy. Laughter broke language barriers. Human connection dissolved stereotypes. Sharing personal stories bonded us in our vulnerability. Friendship, faces, and experiences replaced the generalized notions previously attached to the others´ culture. Laughter, connection, stories, and friendship fell like drops of water on a pond, their ripples being the practice of empathy in our daily lives and work as community leaders. Now, having returned to our communities, we continue rippling, practicing empathy in our words and actions, striving to love those we encounter in our homes and communities, as well as those we read about in the newspaper and see on TV, because we have been given the opportunity to connect with others and be open to understanding them.

- Rose Costello, Jesuit Volunteer in Ciudad Sandino (


Paul Burger