A Letter to WLF

Written by Samantha Dols, WLF Founder

President Obama shared his heart this week, highlighting a trove of memories, accomplishments, and messages of gratitude. He issued hopeful calls-to-action and acknowledged that, while we’ve made steps forward, we remain bounds away from where we need to be - with race relations, economic injustice, and most profoundly, the ability to empathize.

He captured this concept well with a reference to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird":

Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

What Finch said, and Obama echoed, is a philosophy that rests upon two complementary pillars, and a philosophy that is at the core of the World Lens Foundation: a curiosity for “the other”, and a deep loyalty to the human race.

First, curiosity. For someone to attempt to understand another perspective, she must first wonder - she must take a bold step away from the world she knows and allow herself to be guided into that of another, no matter how distant or uncomfortable its terrain may be. Through observation and inquisition, she then learns to engage with something or someone foreign, and quite naturally, this “thing” - person, custom, idea - that once appeared daunting, becomes human.

Second, loyalty to humanity. To be loyal is to show constant support and allegiance to a person or institution. To be loyal to humanity is to acknowledge the tremendous diversity of the global neighborhood in which we live, and still choose allegiance. It is the recognition and celebration of what makes us different and what makes us the same. 

Perhaps more than ever before, it is easy now to create a personal brand and feed it only with strategically extracted fragments of ideology. To aesthetically construct, through photos and digital shrines of idolization, a persona that appears unshakeable. Admittedly, I fall victim to this often. I turn off notifications from certain Facebook friends whose opinions challenge mine, I seek out articles that will reaffirm the beliefs I already hold, and I converse most frequently with liberals who love love and hate hate. And in many ways, this is good — it’s exciting to connect with likeminded individuals. It's liberating to find someone who “gets you” and important to build communities where people know with full certainty they can be themselves. 

Additionally, as we get older, it seems that the desire to define oneself increases. We become almost required to tidily situate the contents of our soul into a ribbon-topped box. To proclaim, “this is who I am, this is where I belong, and this is what I stand for.” And this too, is not bad - we need leaders with conviction and consistency. And I believe we often evolve through the process of stating the many things in which we believe.

But, when we are too defined and keep closed the tops of our boxes, we run the risk of losing our foundation for empathy: curiosity and loyalty to humanity.

In our youth, these qualities are most purely demonstrated and honored. As children, we play and make mistakes and experiment. We bounce through phases of identity and are more easily forgiven for spilling paint and blurting out unfiltered comments. We are less concerned about societal demarcations and more concerned with forming relationships.

What if we abandon our love affair with boxes and seek instead to uphold the sacred “uncertainty” and “angst” that is too often reserved exclusively for adolescence? What if we define only the most basic elements of our being human and let the remains fall safely into question marks? What if we more freely allow ourselves (and others whom we believe we “get”) to visit new lands and colors and anthems?  How will this change us?

Similar to Obama’s literary reference, an adage used commonly to demonstrate empathy is "You can't understand a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes." While this illustrates a powerful experience, it simplifies the logistics of the procedure - we don’t always have the opportunity, permission, or desire to walk in shoes other than our own. If we are not born into circumstances that nurture an ethos of social justice, it may be difficult to understand why a concept like this could be important. Or perhaps we are curious about those different from us, but we lack the resources to take a sensitive and appropriate approach.

I believe, through my own insecurities and doubts, that this is where we come in. This is where the citizen’s role becomes transformative. With courage and together, we can start untying our ribbons and open ourselves to the discomfort and profoundness of empathy - we can practice humility, acknowledge our fear and naiveté, and quietly begin a dialogue with someone we do not understand. We may or may not be met with a matching level of vulnerability. But maybe that’s part of the adventure. As with most things, it is by example that we learn most effectively. So if you have something inside of you that wants to do good, which I believe we all have, use it. Use your kindness, use your curiosity, use your heart to inspire your peers to invest in “the other”. 

At an organizational level, this is where our government and civic institutions have the opportunity to help change hearts. In addition to the rapid pace at which we innovate systems and technology, we ought to also consider innovations in shared experiences and structures of integration. How can schools and universities facilitate more inherent opportunities for interracial, intergenerational engagement? How can companies positively impact communities in lasting ways, beyond their current efforts of social responsibility? How can local governments transform their architectural and social infrastructure to accommodate the diverse spectrum of the human experience?

We need more opportunities to walk in the shoes of others. We need places where we can safely interact with and learn alongside people that look, act, and believe differently - we need more than formal trainings on diversity or cultural sensitivity, and more than one-off service days where we cook meals for the poor. While the behavior of some nations progress toward insularity, the macro movement of our world predicts an inevitable convergence - economic globalization, the prevalence of internet and social media users worldwide, the devastating crises of refugees and asylum seekers needing new cities to call home. Albeit extreme, the survival of (wo)mankind depends upon our ability to integrate with one another, regardless of borders, religion, and race --- and so, we need to fight for systemic ways to transform our patterns of human interaction in order to help our generation and the next shift to a default setting of inclusion and acceptance.

I have much to learn and many practices to improve upon. I contemplate empathy often but know there are countless examples in my daily life where I fail to implement it. I need to hold myself more accountable and find concrete ways to engage with people who see the world through a different lens. Instead of retreating into quietude during a prickly situation, I need to communicate and carry on.

My hope is that with World Lens, the number of empathy opportunities increase for students and educators worldwide. We are expanding, steadily and deliberately, and onboarding new teachers and team members who are passionate about bringing the world a little bit closer together. I am humbled and impressed by the participants each season, who commit their time and energy to understanding and personal development. By my partner in crime, Theresa, who practices service and generosity with authenticity and class. And by our growing team of partners and supporters who are helping us, in tremendous ways, provide a space where young people from around the world have the freedom and permission to try on the shoes of others.

Theresa Clemmons