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 Abridged Webster’s definition of empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Just as social entrepreneurship is aspirational, so is empathy. You never reach a perfect empathetic state. You never cross the empathy finish line. There is no “Boom! Drop the mic!” moment where we can say, “Got it! I am now empathetic!” From our perspective, it is a process and that requires ongoing and intentional active engagement, reflection, and analysis. It’s not easy. We must work every day to trigger our empathy and embed it in the core of our decision-making, interactions, and actions. Because without working daily to build mutual empathy, there can be no mutual respect. Without mutual respect, there can be no mutual trust. Without mutual trust, collaborative efforts are futile. Consequently, innovation becomes impossible. This is why empathy must come first: our other core values depend on it.
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!”
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.