Friday, April 14, 2017

Empathy is the highest form of critical thinking

I’ve probably mentioned that while cleaning out the old magazines from Dad’s house I took a few home with me. I’ve slowly been reading them in amongst the few magazines I get. One that I took from Dad’s house in the Smithsonian Magazine from December 2013.

The feature articles of this issue are about innovative people. The one that caught my attention is the article about Dave Eggars and Mimi Lok and their line of books.

One of the complaints about what we record as history is that so much of it is about the “Great Men.” These are the guys who controlled and directed events. They’re usually of high rank and many times what they do is to protect that ranking.

Eggars created the project Voices of Witness to tell the stories of those who lived through catastrophes (many caused by the Great Men). Lok is the organization’s executive director. A member of his team will go to a survivor and essentially just listen, allowing the survivor to tell his or her own story. These storytellers have found the process to be healing – someone cares enough to hear me. I can face the trauma with a friend beside me. I have a voice and can use it.

Some of the books of the series:

Underground America, stories of undocumented immigrants.

Voices from the Storm, the people of New Orleans on what happened to them during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Surviving Justice, the people wrongfully convicted and then exonerated. But the time between the two is usually traumatic.

Refugee Hotel, documenting the people who come to the United States as refugees.

High Rise Stories, stories from Chicago Public Housing (a fitting companion to the documentary about Jane Jacobs).

Invisible Hands, about the workers who are doing many of the jobs outsourced from America and are dealing with low wages, a devastated and toxic environment, and repressive governments.

Patriot Acts, about the Muslim people who faced injustices as part of the 9/11 backlash. This one is critical for today’s political climate.

There are also books on migrant agricultural workers in California, inmates at a women’s prison, residents of Palestine under Israeli control, residents of Haiti still struggling after the 2010 earthquake, people in Colombia who become migrants because of the violence there, survivors of Burma’s repressive military, and the abducted and displaced of Sudan.

The whole Voice of Witness program is more than the books. They offer training to become an effective interviewer, with lots of emphasis on listening. They offer study guides so their books can be used in class. They hold in-class workshops so students learn how to capture the oral history of those around them.

Students who read the books discover more than statistics about such things as incarceration rates. The storytellers aren’t ghosts of some far off place. They are people the students can identify with and root for and love.

Through the workshops and the gathering of stories the students learn empathy, to understand another person and the crisis they lived through. A mantra at the Voices of Witness office is: Empathy is the highest form of critical thinking.

I’m delighted these books are out there. Because of the trauma contained within I’m not sure I want to read them.

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