“Do you want to play kickball with us?” Unsolicited, a second-grader at an inner-city Oakland, California, school invites into his game the adult stranger standing awestruck on the blacktop at the school recess break. It looks like chaos, as any playground with over a hundred children would. But there seems to be only one other adult around, and the children are engaging happily in various forms of play. If conflict arises between students that they cannot resolve, one of a few students in “junior coach” t-shirts jumps in to help mediate. But the need for this is rare. The second-grader explains the game. “You wait in this line for your turn.” The ball appears to hit the painted line of the kickball court, and one student thinks it’s in, the other, out. Without a word, they walk up to each other and throw out their fists—for a game of rock-paper-scissors. Decision made, the game continues. If you blinked, you would have missed it. “Good job,” the young people waiting their turn yell out to the student exiting the game.
From a distance, it looks like a bunch of kids just fooling around at recess. Up close, you see it is far more serious. Though it probably doesn’t feel that way to them, these young people are hard at work practicing empathy, community, citizenship, collaboration, inclusion, conflict resolution, leadership, and more. This is a Playworks playground, a recess program created by Jill Vialet to make play a critical part of every child’s school day. Jill is one of many leading social entrepreneurs around the world helping society shift the way we think about young people and the growing up experience. Making this shift is urgent.
An accelerating rate of change in the world has begun transforming traditional power structures, opening the way for millions to participate in society in a way that they could not before. From the end of slavery and colonization, to the rise of democracy, the women’s and civil rights movements, and the current technological revolution—which has unleashed ideas and initiatives from people from every corner of the globe—we are witnessing the flattening of hierarchies and diffusion of power from the hands of a small elite to those of every individual.
While this process is by no means complete, in large part because some people still use their own power to suppress that of others, the door has opened to a future where every person can create change. We all stand on the front lines of the social challenges that emerge every day. We don’t have to wait and hope that our elected representatives or corporate leaders or other powers that be make the right choices. In fact, society cannot afford for us to wait. We are each powerful, and outcomes depend on us.
But a world of rapid change can be a complex landscape to navigate. In the past, we had hierarchies and institutions that—for better or worse—kept society organized. Today we live in a more decentralized world. We all need initiative, confidence and good decision-making skills, as we often have no one above us to tell us what to do. We need to be able to prioritize important information and actions in a world of information overflow and ambiguity. We need to be comfortable working in collaborative environments. We already see the world’s leading companies clamoring for employees who have these leadership skills. But the need is bigger than the economy.
To flourish both as individuals living up to our potential and as a society that benefits from the potential of every individual, we must empower ourselves and our young people as changemakers, individuals equipped to drive positive change—in their own lives, in their communities, in their companies, in the world.
To flourish both as individuals living up to our potential and as a society that benefits from the potential of every individual, we must empower ourselves and our young people as changemakers, individuals equipped to drive positive change—in their own lives, in their communities, in their companies, and in the world. And the source of the changemaker’s power for good is empathy.
As rules become in flux, as people move fluidly in and between formerly homogenous groups, cultures, and societies, and as more and more people have power, every person needs an ever higher level of empathetic skill in order to thrive. We need applied empathy—the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others and to use that understanding to guide our response—to act in ways that avoid harm and contribute to positive change.
The young people at the Playworks recess are learning this (as proven through the proxy measure of reduced bullying rates). So are many other young people across the globe through their own initiative, through the initiatives of hundreds of other social innovators, and through the efforts of numerous educators and parents. But it is not enough. Ashoka, a global organization that has learned everything it knows from 35 years of finding and supporting the world’s best social entrepreneurs (individuals developing systemic solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems), launched its Start Empathy Initiative five years ago to help society understand that empathy is the new literacy.
Recent brain science has shown that as humans, we all have the innate cognitive capacity for empathy. Not unlike our capacity to read, however, it requires cultivation and practice to develop. But empathy is not something you can teach like you teach reading. Not surprisingly, a world of rapid change that requires us to develop our changemaking abilities, starting with empathy, also requires transforming the way we engage and educate young people.
The old model of focusing on what we teach children—knowledge and rules—has persisted far past its expiration date, and it is creating an urgent crisis.
As part of the Start Empathy Initiative, we have built a still growing network of over 200 Ashoka Changemaker Schools in 27 countries across five continents. We have selected these schools because each of them in their own way—the network includes every type of school and demographic—prioritizes empathy and changemaking both as modes of learning and as essential outcomes for young people. In doing so, they transform what education looks like. Because once you understand why recess has as much value as reading and math class, everything changes, including what “class” even looks like.
Teams of teachers, students, staff, and parents in these schools—“change teams”—work to deepen their schools’ changemaker values and innovate new ways of doing things. They also share their innovations and work with Ashoka and our network and partners to drive global adoption of this new framework for success in growing up so that one day, every school will be a changemaker school.
The old model of focusing on what we teach children—knowledge and rules—has persisted far past its expiration date, and it is creating an urgent crisis. When we continue to say that success means going to school to gain knowledge that will get you a good job, we not only foster anger and disillusionment among growing ranks of unemployed young people across the world, we also undermine the real potential of young people.
An “everyone a changemaker” world requires us instead to focus on who children are and have the capacity to be (right now, not just in the future) and how we help them unleash that capacity for the good of the world. Doing so starts with empathy.
Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system-changing ideas into practice on a global scale. Ashoka’s mission it to support social entrepreneurs who are leading and collaborating with changemakers, in a team-of-teams model that addresses the fluidity of a rapidly evolving society. Ashoka believes that anyone can learn and apply the critical skills of empathy, team work, leadership and changemaking to be successful in the modern world. Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative is a collaborative platform for social entrepreneurs and others who share this vision of a world where every child masters empathy and who have the insights and innovations that will make that vision a reality.