the empathy cycle

the empathy cycle

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the first in a series inspired by the book. Stay tuned for two more posts, coming soon.

I’ve written before about why I and my colleagues choose to do mission-driven work, and Alison recently shared why Aggregate makes donations throughout the year. But what are our underlying motivations for these donations and deeds? Do people give because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes them look good, or because they enjoy helping others?

I make a yearly personal donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my grandfather, his brother, and my great grandfather all died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. It is something I wish no family to ever go through again and I know it’s a long battle to get to a cure. And so, I do what I can to ensure a cure is eventually found. Similarly, I dedicate time and money to environmental conservation groups because I care about the health of our world and living creatures, and personally value being in nature.

Personal experiences often determine how I spend time and money, too. Last year I became a mom, which is challenging under even the best circumstances; you can imagine why I started zeroing in on ways to help other mothers and single parents. Now I can relate to and help carry the load for a subset of humanity that I didn’t previously empathize with.

More research is pointing to the fact that channeling money toward others—not ourselves—means the giver walks away happier, and healthier. Kristof and WuDunn peel back some of these layers in their chapter on the neuroscience of giving, citing multiple studies which reveal lower stress and longer lives of people who volunteer and donate. I wonder if our proximity to a cause also affects how we feel after giving time, money, or resources.

A weaker connection might reduce motivation to participate, in my case, prioritizing causes based on where I live, and what I’ve lived. So, then, what about causes that aren’t close to home, or the heart?

Some people balk at the idea of “outsiders” becoming involved in communities that aren’t their own. We’ve all heard, “If it’s not happening in your backyard, it’s none of your business.” I am a straight, white, cisgender female from a middle class family. I don’t fall within any minority or at-risk population. I did not experience racism directed at me growing up, or harassment and abuse based on my sexual preference, though many of my friends did. I will never experience many of the hardships so many people face worldwide, such as not having access to health care, well-funded schools, and healthy food. I recognize my privilege.

Why do I care about ensuring equal rights and opportunities for at-risk and minority populations if I am not a part of that population? I contribute to organizations working to eradicate these disparities because I have empathy for the people living with these issues each day. It is important for the health and stability of our communities for everyone to have equal opportunities and representation. Everyone should have access to these things I consider basic human rights, and as an ally, I have the power to follow the charge of those living these experiences to see where and how I can help. 


You’re a living example of caring beyond yourself to look after essential issues, even if you’re not in the epicenter or on the periphery of those issues. So many organizations hustle every day to reframe stories and statistics to make them more relatable to potential donors who feel removed. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, lending words and resources can provide us with a sense of productivity, as opposed to doing nothing and feeling guilty as a result.

This is why I genuinely struggle with those who take carving knives to altruistic intentions, which can never be purely selfless. Let’s be clear—I’m very in favor of of the “warm glow” theory of giving. It sounds like you are, too. It builds empathy, a basic building block of humanity.

Here’s the rub: empathy and happiness that results from giving is too often a luxury. While we bask in the afterglow of our good deeds, those trapped in the labyrinth of meeting basic needs can’t always afford to be empathetic. And according to the research I mentioned above, that exasperating cycle means shorter and less healthy lives for those who aren’t in a position to give.

Violence and disparities in health and education can chip away at empathy, or jeopardize it all together. One of the biggest and most heart wrenching recent examples of the importance of empathy, particularly as it relates to violence in America, can be found in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. Perhaps if there was more empathy for and within these communities in general, resulting in more action and policy change across the board, these events never would have occurred. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a compelling thought nonetheless.

While empathy is difficult to measure, organizations like Ashoka are working to study the long-term effects of encouraging empathy and trauma-informed care. In schools where outcomes are being studied, there have been reports of reduced bullying and ethnic and racial tensions, increased capacity for conflict resolution and openness to others, and increased attendance (source). It is critical to social and economic security to ensure we are teaching the younger generations empathy and setting them up for success—particularly at-risk youth who may not be able to afford empathy and generosity toward others when their own basic needs aren’t being met.

More and more, it seems empathy is a privilege. If empathy and the ability for action are a privilege, what better way to use that privilege than to help others?

why we choose this work

why we choose this work

Why did you choose your job? Is it the family business or is it something you dreamed of doing since you were a child? Is it something you never expected to do, but somehow here you are?

Before I even knew what a veterinarian was, I wanted to “fix animals so they could live forever.” I was lucky enough to grow up with animals in my life since birth and quickly formed a bond with all of our four-legged family members through the years. Two years into my biology degree at college, tragedy (or fate?) hit, and Organic Chemistry forced me to re-evaluate my life goals. At the time I was convinced my world was falling apart, but little did I know I was finally heading in the direction—it just took some painful shoves from the universe.

I soon realized I should make a career out of my volunteer experiences, and could spend my days helping people in my community and around the world. I studied political science and history, studied abroad, and later went on to study environmental sustainability and international development as part of my Master’s program, picking up communications skills along the way.

I choose to work in this field because I truly believe storytellers can change the world. Films can affect policy change. Books can start conversations that challenge long-held personal beliefs. Images can spark a nationwide protest. There are no limits to what storytelling can do, and I’m proud to take part.

As we celebrate Aggregate’s third birthday this month, I asked some of my colleagues why they choose to do mission-driven work. Check out their answers below.

Two of my role models—my mother and my grandmother—have always taught me to stand up for what’s fair and what’s right. Watching their tireless efforts led me on a path of mission-driven work that began in childhood.

As a community activist and Local School Council president, my mom dedicated much of her adult life to fighting for other families in our blue-collar Chicago neighborhood. As a kid, I spent many nights watching contentious school board meetings, and my mom always encouraged my involvement. As a very opinionated sixth-grader, I began writing columns explaining the issues, such as open versus closed campus, to my elementary school audience—often opposing my mother’s stance.

My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 18, moved to the United States alone and started a new life, having lost her parents at Auschwitz. Through all these struggles, she has maintained a powerfully positive attitude. Although it is difficult for her, she is dedicated to telling her story, giving dozens of talks each year, and ensuring her message of tolerance reaches as many people as possible.

I come from good stock.

Though my goals fluctuate and evolve from day to day, there are three things that will always remain: be relevant, be present, and be helpful. I’ve spent years traveling for work and for pleasure, from the poorest countries in West Africa to towns ravaged by tornadoes in the Midwest, and I’m sometimes consumed by how unrewarding this world can be, how many stories there are to tell about it, and what more could be done to change it.

When I was 18 years old, I traveled to Accra, Ghana, and spent the summer living and working in one of West Africa’s largest refugee camps—not so fondly referred to as Little Liberia. This was probably the most transformational experience of my life, and one that kept me on a path of altruism and philanthropy. Now, I am always searching for ways I can connect with the people around me and foster creative projects that serve a purpose for the community.

They were the people for whom John Steinbeck wrote and Woodie Guthrie sang. Dorothea Lange captured their lives on her Graflex camera. My father was among the migrant workers in California’s Central Valley following the Dust Bowl. He was an American tri-racial born to a 15-year old single mother and lived in deep poverty throughout his childhood. Against the odds, he went from being a migrant worker to being a well-respected researcher and scholar in his field. Stories like his don’t come about without the agency of many people who believe in social justice and creating equal opportunities. Most were not as famous as Steinbeck, Guthrie, and Lange, but the impact of their collective actions had a profound effect on my father’s life, and the lives of subsequent generations. All of those people have died, and recently, my father, too—but their powerful examples building an egalitarian society live on in a very personal way for me. That’s one reason I consider it a great privilege to do mission-driven work for fairer and better futures.

In college, I took a class that was essentially Protesting 101. Our soft-spoken but brilliant professor used the The Battle in Seattle as our central lesson in understanding grassroots organization and decentralized power. Throughout the class, I discovered how people with little power were able to amplify their voice, make a ruckus, and be heard. It was one of those sticky ideas that roll around in your head and keep surfacing in unexpected ways. It didn’t move me to become an anarchist but it did shift my trajectory for the work I would do.

This led me to Aggregate, where I get to help people and organizations make a ruckus and be heard (blocks away from the 1999 protest!) I choose to do mission-driven work because I want to partner with people who have stories and voices we need to listen to, and I want to do all I can to help them be heard.
The kind of work I do generally helps make other people look good, and I don’t want those people to be in it for themselves. It’s a much more meaningful use of my time to offer communications support to those who are helping others be better at life. Sleep comes easier if I can contribute to building sanctuaries and springboards for those that can’t always do it on their own.
forced drought in detroit

forced drought in detroit

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is knocking on doors—not to collect what is owed—but to turn off the water at any homes owing at least $150, or who are behind on two months worth of water payments. Yes, you need to pay your bills. And if you don’t pay those bills, those services are taken away. Water, however, isn’t a service. Safe access to clean water is a basic human right. The lack of running water in a home is grounds for being charged with child neglect.

So far, over 17,000 homes in Detroit have had their water turned off. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bill Johnson estimates 89,000 customers owe near $91M to the city of Detroit, and are under threat of losing their access.  Amid rallies, protests, and public outcry, the department has put a hold on turning off water for 15 days, as of July 21. They insist this is not permanent and is only to give the city a chance to conduct outreach to residents about their options.

The city is working with residents to put them on payment plans, and says they will work with anyone who genuinely cannot pay their bill. With 38.1% of Detroit’s population under the poverty line, how do you decide who is destitute enough to be worthy of access to clean water and who is not? In the meantime, neighbors are borrowing from neighbors. People are spending money they don’t have on bottled water to keep their children hydrated. Some are even turning a profit by illegally turning the water back on. When those residents are caught with water turned back on, they are fined a hefty fee.

Last year, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They need the money. The city began shutting off water as debt piled up, but has been targeting individuals and not the companies in Detroit that also owe, to the tune of an estimated $30M. Is anyone knocking on the doors of the hockey arena, the football stadium, the high-end golf course, or the commercial businesses? Is the city turning off their water? The answer is a resounding, “No.”

A group has started an online campaign to bring attention to this issue. More importantly, they are working directly with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to link those who need assistance with those who are willing to give.

Turn on Detroit’s Water takes your email address and asks you to indicate the amount you would like to pay. They then match you with a Detroit resident in need. After you verify the account and payment due, your donation goes straight to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department on behalf of the resident.

Aggregate made a donation and it couldn’t have been easier—or more rewarding. So many of us say if our neighbors were in need we would help them in a heartbeat. Here’s your chance.

Image by Mike Boening. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

a radical partnership: gaming & hospitals

a radical partnership: gaming & hospitals

Encouraging video game play as a way to provide healthy distractions and positive interactions? That’s radical, and it’s happening at hospitals and (soon) domestic violence shelters worldwide.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life. 

Penny Arcade authors Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins founded Child’s Play in 2003 with a mission to provide age-appropriate entertainment to children during stressful events in their life as a healthy distraction, and to encourage positive interaction with their peers, friends, and family. It started with a single hospital in Seattle, WA. Since then, the charity has raised millions of dollars and has established partnerships with hospitals and other facilities worldwide to provide video games, toys, and books to children in need.

Currently, Child’s Play works with hospitals and care centers, including therapeutic facilities. In 2013, Krahulik and Holkins announced a new initiative to expand to domestic violence shelters. Applications are now being accepted.

With the help of participating hospitals, wish lists are set up that include games, books, toys, and other fun items. You can then click any location on their donation map to view the hospital’s list and purchase items to be sent directly to the hospitals. The items are generally shared in the hospital in community spaces or in a library checkout system.

If you’re interested in helping but don’t want to purchase a specific item, you can donate money directly, run a fundraiser event, or, for businesses, sign up for a corporate sponsorship. Cash donations are used to purchase additional play equipment for hospitals, including consoles and accessories, as well as toys and books, which often are given as gifts for birthdays and other occasions and therefore must be replaced frequently.

Child’s Play has found a unique way to use video games for good, creating an age-appropriate safe space for children to forget their worries for a few moments, relieve some stress, and perhaps make new friends in their hospital in the process. I was lucky to not spend prolonged periods at the hospital as a child, but having spent time as an adult as both a patient and a friend, I see the value and importance of programs such as this. I look forward to seeing their new domestic violence center initiative expand and succeed.

For updates on Child’s Play and to learn more, stop by the website, like it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter.

Learn about other radical local organizations we’ve featured, including Project VioletRain City Rock Camp for Girls, Seal Sitters, Undriving, Blue Earth Alliance, and Comedy Competition for a Cause.

radical comedy: you are what you eat

radical comedy: you are what you eat

An open comedy competition that simultaneously benefits the arts and sustainable agriculture? That’s radical.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life. 

For the second year in a row, Comedy Contest for a Cause will combine comedy, the arts, and social change into one great event. Last year, comedians performed sketches that promoted moving the world beyond oil toward sustainable energy use. This year’s theme is Food of the Future with the aim of increasing awareness about sustainable agriculture and raising money for local farm and permaculture project Morethana Farm.

Led and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, Morethana Farm is a six-acre working organic agriculture and agroforestry project located 35 miles outside downtown Seattle. The farm is supported by a partnership of several local organizations, including Antioch University Seattle, sustainable agriculture nonprofit Pacific Bamboo Resources, and clean energy nonprofit SeaChar.

Comedy Contest for a Cause aims to educate the public on the importance of sustainable agriculture while supporting and encouraging people to express themselves through art and comedy. An open call for stand up and sketches allows anyone to write a sketch and have a chance to perform. The winner, selected by a panel of judges, will receive bragging rights and a $500 cash prize. Proceeds from the event will be donated to Morethana Farm.

The show is June 6 at The Ballard Underground at 8:30 p.m. For information on tickets, check out their Facebook page and be sure to RSVP. I’ll be there, so find me and say hello!

Are you interested in learning more and volunteering with Morethana Farm? Check out their volunteer opportunities, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.

Learn about other radical local organizations we’ve featured, including Project VioletRain City Rock Camp for Girls, Seal Sitters, Undriving, and Blue Earth Alliance.

Image by Eliza Mutino, Sterling College.

powerful photography for social change

powerful photography for social change

Using documentary photography to inspire positive change in attitudes, behavior, and policy? That’s radical.

As a (relative) newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life.

Photography speaks to people differently, and often a simple image isn’t simply an image. As a photographer I’ve always been enamored with the art form and the myriad ways it can be used to improve the world by mobilizing a community to make a change, or even just brighten someone’s day.

Blue Earth Alliance sponsors artists and works to ensure photographers and filmmakers around the world are given a stage to present their work on critical environmental and social issues. They have helped raise almost a million dollars through membership donations, and require all sponsored work to be educational or informational in some capacity. The Alliance has focused its efforts on issues like global warming and the Artic, but also issues that are sometimes outside of the scope of the mainstream media, such as racism in the farming community, grandmothers in AIDS-ravaged Africa, and the loss of open space in Los Angeles.

Many of the artists who have worked with the Alliance have gone on to win accolades, be featured in galleries, publish books, and receive grants. One such artist—Seattle-based Daniel Beltrá—is currently a featured artist and was the 2011 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for the Natural History Museum. Daniel Beltrá’s newest project, Our Warming World, “asks us to consider the landscape as a place we have altered, all while striving to coexist within the natural world.” According to Beltrá, “rather than merely recording the changes in the environment, this body of work seeks to enhance our awareness of the intersection of nature’s power and fragility, asking us to reconsider our view of the planet and how we inhabit it.”

Also currently featured is Amazon Headwaters by Bruce Farnsworth, which highlights small groups of residents across the upper Amazon region leading cutting-edge programs in research, conservation, education, and sustainable communities. The final featured project is The Truth Told Project by Sarah Fretwell, which highlights the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including daily realities and the rampant sexual violence.

Later in 2014, Blue Earth Alliance will host Collaborations for Cause, a two-day conference in Seattle for nonprofits, photographers, change-makers, and communications professionals. The conference will cover the collaborative future of storytelling and will feature panel discussions, case studies, and breakout sessions. Keep an eye on their news page for more details in the coming months.

Want to learn more about Blue Earth Alliance? Like it on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, learn more about their featured projects, read their blog, and be sure not to miss them on Instagram.

Did you miss our other Radical Locals features? Read more about Project Violet, Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, the Seal Sitters, and Undriving.

Image by Daniel Beltrá from his new book SPILL.