Got Empathy? Kids Do!

Ashoka Fellow Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation of British Columbia, is building a vibrant social movement to change the discriminatory policies and actions toward First Nations children in Canada. Through the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Blackstock is building a new child welfare system by working directly with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities and helping them translate their constructive and reconciliatory visions for child welfare into action. Today, thousands of kids have become the Caring Society’s most powerful change agents and biggest funders; they’re working to turn around several hundred years of discriminatory practices.

Ashoka recently sat down with Blackstock to uncover the secrets to their success.  

Ashoka: How do you see the intersection between your work and empathy?

Blackstock: Our work is about achieving culturally-based equity for First Nations children in Canada – creating an environment where First Nations and non-Aboriginal children and adults grow up together as distinct peoples whose rights are recognized. That requires an exchange of empathy. To me, empathy is not just having a sense of interest and regard for other people; it’s an actual learning process, and an engagement process. It’s taking your understanding of another and putting it into action for the common good.

We don’t fall into the trap of trying to build people’s capacity to engage with First Nations people. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think what is necessary is to give people a sense of the issue, its unfairness, and to give them the chance to engage. A teacher involved in our campaigns just wrote me a note. She works with students at an alternative school, and after involving her students in our campaigns, parents came to her saying, “My child is much happier and their attitude at home is so much better. What’s going on at school?” The teacher feels these positive changes are because a) students learned about something that’s fundamentally unfair, and a contradiction of Canadian values; b) that it really resonated with them as it relates to other children in their own country; c) that the students were needed in the change process; and d) that they felt valued and were given space to express their unique talents and passions.

Ashoka: What is inhibiting empathy, both within and outside school systems?

Blackstock: I think one of the things is that the education curriculum on Aboriginal Peoples is often so uninspiring. It is often historical without invoking the lessons of history, and it fails to capture the rich diversity of Aboriginal Peoples and their many gifts to Canada. It also leaves unanswered what students can do to become actively involved in reconciliation.

What we’ve tried to do is to invite students into real action that addresses the injustices Aboriginal people experience by saying, “There is something unfair happening right now to First Nations kids in Canada and we need your help. Here’s a chance to make a difference in something that’s been a trouble-spot for our country for over 200 years and it only takes two minutes and is completely free. I know that you’re only seven years old, but you can still be a page-turner on this.” That’s a very different invitation than, “Here’s the history of how we’ve oppressed and violated Aboriginal Peoples for the last 400 years.”

Ashoka: Research shows that children are literally wired to be empathic. What do you think is taking that away from them as they grow up?

Blackstock: I don’t think it’s taken away from them. I think we are not creating inviting environments for children and youth to actualize their empathy in social justice movements in ways that build on their natural talents and passions. When I look at most NGOs or human rights campaigns, they really marginalize kids. They stand up for kids instead of with kids.

I’m blown away by the wisdom of children. They totally get it. Shannen’s Dream is a letter writing campaign driven by children to achieve equity for First Nations schools. This one little guy wrote in, “Dear Prime Minister Harper, if you don’t build more schools, you’ll create a crime wave and lose all of your money. If kids don’t get the proper schools, they won’t be able to get a good job and they’re still going to need money. So some of them are going to have to steal the money, and then crooks are going to be invading people’s homes, and people will get mad. And since you’re in charge, you’re going to have to fix this."

Ashoka: What are the conditions that need to be in place to sustain the outcomes you’re seeing — to ensure that those kids apply empathy not only to First Nations people, but throughout their lives?

Blackstock: We believe every child in the country should get an equal chance to grow up in schools that make them proud of who they are, to stay safely with their families, and to get good health care. And kids believe that, too, and want to help. We need to guide them in three ways: 1) have a message they can understand and relate to, 2) have a moral framework that promotes peace, respect and honor, and 3) create easy and effective ways for children to engage in the process but also welcome their creative contributions to the campaigns.

I’d love for people to do as our Elders did, and that’s to look for the natural passions and talents of children and youth and mentor them to develop those gifts for the good of us all.  That is what we try to do in our campaigns: invite children to engage their natural talents and passions to make a difference for others. We want children who are involved in our campaigns to feel proud of who they are and to learn active citizenship by teaching them how to make sure Canada is a country that is good for all. By affirming their value as people with important contributions and talents and giving them tools for respectful and active citizenship we hope that they will grow up with the tools they need to stand up for other causes they care about.

Ashoka: What are your strategies for reaching kids in the first place?

Blackstock: Teachers are starving for relevant and engaging learning opportunities on Aboriginal Peoples for their students. We try to help the teachers by creating online toolkits for each campaign. Each campaign has free online information sheets, video and audio galleries, and resources, and we have just engaged a volunteer to translate these resources into curricula. The teachers and students we have worked with in the campaigns have always been the best telegraphs, telling everyone about how great it is for everyone to be a part of the movement.

Thanks to all of these campaign ambassadors, we have hundreds and hundreds of kids, all saying, “We want to learn about this.” Just last week, I received an email from a parent saying her daughter and three other ten-year-old girls just went to the principal`s office to see if their school could become involved in our campaigns!

Ashoka: In building a world where every child masters empathy, where would you start?

Blackstock: Get them engaged in activities. Don’t just talk about it; model it and give children real opportunities to express the empathy every child is naturally born with, in ways that create meaningful change. At the end of the day, I’m saying, “We need you to build a Canada where everyone matters.”

Embed the social justice issue in a national value that everyone believes in. This helps create a synergy between standing up for the value and standing up for the issue. It can convert a “them versus us issue” to a “them with us” issue. All of our campaigns are about First Nations standing with caring Canadians who believe in fairness, justice and the sacredness of all children. I’m interested in giving action to values that we all share.

I was taught by an Elder that you need four things to change the world: Knowledge (and a lot of people have that), commitment (and some people have that), passion (and a lot of people will criticize you for that), and spirit (and you need to remember that). Too many social activists rely on knowledge and commitment alone. They believe that more and better facts will convince people in power to change course.  When the facts they present don’t create change, they often collect more and more information instead of looking for the missing ingredients of passion and spirit in their change action strategies.  

Want to learn more? Click here for a video in which Cindy shares powerful stories about how children are taking action. And check out the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to find how you can get involved.

To learn more about Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative.