Today more than ever, the greatest gift a parent can give a child is the ability to empathize.
Making new connections
Sometimes, kids themselves are best at teaching empathy to other young people.
When she was an infant, Naissa Isaro and her family moved to Maine from Rwanda as asylum seekers. Growing up in South Portland, Isaro witnessed tension between those born in the state and the growing immigrant population.
“Even if you find 100 things that you love about somebody and one thing that you hate about them,” she observed, “somehow the hate overpowers everything.”
At 15, she decided to attend a nearby summer camp run by Seeds of Peace, which focuses on building connections across differences and preparing teens from communities in conflict to be effective leaders for peace.
Seeds of Peace is a traditional camp in many ways. Campers do arts and crafts, play sports, live in cabins with bunk beds, and eat at a dining hall. But in addition, campers have a facilitated dialogue session for nearly two hours each day. For many, it’s their first opportunity to hear what someone’s life is like on the other side of a conflict or as a function of their gender, race, or religion. The program continues year-round through activities at home, all designed to build relationships across lines of conflict or difference, gain insights into issues that divide them, and develop greater levels of trust and empathy. “Having that opportunity not only allows people to understand and connect differently with each other,” says Eva Armour, the director of impact at Seeds of Peace, “but it inspires a commitment to want to work toward change.”
Isaro and her sister, who attended Seeds of Peace a year later, were so influenced by the experience that they helped incorporate a similar structured dialogue into their high school’s curriculum. Their program, called CivilTEA, trains students to facilitate monthly peer-to-peer discussion groups around topics like immigration, beauty norms, and race. Several other high schools have also adopted the program with their help.
“People go in uncertain and unaware and probably even uneasy,” Isaro says of the program. After a few sessions, though, students are able to listen to and understand each other’s views, even if their experiences and perspectives are vastly different.
“They gained the tools of empathy, and that made a safer and more productive community both with Seeds of Peace and CivilTEA,” Isaro says.
Now a college freshman in Massachusetts, Isaro hopes to continue spreading CivilTEA to high schools in the area and, eventually, to turn the project into a career.
“Especially in a time like this, I think it’s really important that more people do this work and see the beauty in having civil conversations,” Isaro says. “Then we can start from there and grow and make things better.”
This content is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.