Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon Wins Canada's Innovation Award

Gordon envisioned empathy as a peace pill that could go beyond the classroom to the boardroom and the war room

Canada’s first Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon is a 2018 winner of the Innovation Award give by Canada's Governor General, the representative of the Queen in Canada. The award is given to individuals, teams, and organizations whose innovations are truly exceptional, transformative, and positive in their impact on quality of life in Canada.

The purpose of the award is to inspire Canadians, particularly young Canadians,  to embrace innovation and to emulate innovative, entrepreneurial risk-takers who have developed new or better ways of creating value, and to foster an active culture of innovation that has a meaningful impact on our lives. Each year, up to six award winners are identified through a two-stage, merit-based selection process. This process is managed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. 

Mary Gordon

Ashoka Fellow since May 2002

Gordon is recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur who has created programs informed by the power of empathy. In 1996, she created the Roots of Empathy program in Ontario. Her not-for-profit organization offers programs in every province of Canada, and in New Zealand, the United States, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Costa Rica and Switzerland.

Gordon is  a trailblazer whose mission has been to build caring, civil and peaceful societies. Her first innovation was creating Canada’s first school based parenting programs, Ontario’s Parenting and Family Literacy Centres, which have been replicated around the world.

“Early on I witnessed families suffering through domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect," she said. "The common denominator was the absence of empathy. I wanted to prove that birth is not destiny. I started Roots of Empathy to give children the opportunity to spend a whole year with a deep connection to a neighbourhood parent and infant who naturally demonstrate secure attachment and attunement, and are the best model of empathy in the world.”

Gordon envisioned empathy as a peace pill that could go beyond the classroom to the boardroom and the war room, and thus created Roots of Empathy in 1996. At the heart of the program are a neighborhood parent and baby who visit a classroom over the course of a school year. A Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches the students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings.

In this experiential learning, the baby is the “teacher” and a catalyst to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others – empathy. The Instructor, using an accredited curriculum, also teaches a class the week before and after each family visit. Independent research confirms the impact of this unprecedented program and its success in reducing aggression and bullying and increasing empathy, fostering greater kindness, co-operation and sharing among students. The program has been replicated in schools across Canada and in ten other countries.