Empathy, the Foundation of Change
Josephine Balzac, J.D., LL.M.
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Business
The Ashoka U Exchange experience allowed me to experience empathy like I never have before. I learned that a true changemaker embraces all disciplines, because changemaking is truly interdisciplinary and is rooted in empathy. This foundational principle was the overwhelming theme interwoven into every keynote, academic panel, discussion, and excursion during the three day Ashoka U Exchange conference. This one little word was impacting me more than ever before. I could feel its power and purpose. Empathy surprisingly took center stage; a word that has never been near being the main dish. It was always either the side dish to a particular discipline or perhaps the nonexistent desert that would ruin the diet. I say this because we have never been taught “empathy”; it is not a subject or class, and it is hardly ever a dinner table conversation. Yet, knowing, understanding, and utilizing it in our everyday lives, could make this world a better place. It perhaps could “be the change, we wish to see in the world” as Ghandi eloquently expressed at one point in time.
I was beyond excited to attend the Ashoka U Exchange and was so grateful for the opportunity to experience it. As a tree hugging environmental attorney teaching Business Law and Ethics in the Department of Business, I was ready to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as I could from experts on changemaking, social innovation, and social entrepreneurship. I was also eager to see the connection between sustainability, public policy and law, benefit corporations, social justice, and underrepresented communities (all panel discussions I attended). What I wasn’t expecting and what I found to be a pleasant surprise, was the genuine and sincere human interaction that I encountered; one that began with an instant mutual respect for one another. I did not expect to be in a room with close to 1000 like-minded individuals, all of whom wanted to change the world for the better. Each conversation was profound, it made you dig deeper within yourself, there was no judgement, no agendas, no envy, no dislike, but a genuine care and understanding for each other and what we believe in. The conference challenged us to not only think outside the box, but to step out of our comfort zones, create “brave” spaces not “safe” spaces and embrace and accept all those around you, especially, if those people or opinions are different than your own.
As I walked around attending the different discussions, I couldn’t help but think that this very simple concept, if fully implemented, could actually change the world. In essence, the idea is very simple, because think about it, we all feel empathy or mutual care and understanding at one point or another, for the ones we love, our children, our spouses, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, best friends, and yes, even our pets. So if empathy isn’t difficult to comprehend or even recognize, then why is it so difficult to apply to others in the world around us? Isn’t this what makes us human, as well as define us as one humanity and human race? We all laugh, cry, love, desire, think, and grow, which reminds me of a favorite quote from JFK, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
I have always been a promoter for people and planet over profit and an advocate for environmental and climate justice – focused on addressing issues through a human rights approach. This is the reason I became an environmental attorney, because I discovered the inspiring connection between obtaining our rights as humans and having a clean and healthy environment. I saw how the pollution of our air, water, soil, and food, caused loss of life, health, property, and culture, and that these horrible impacts affected the most vulnerable and marginalized communities of color and low income, both locally and within developing countries. I thoroughly understand the intersectionality between social and environmental justice. Throughout the years, I never analyzed the fact of how these impacts were not necessarily directly affecting me, yet, I cared; I felt compassion, I felt a heightened respect for others to have the best quality of life, through a clean, safe, and healthy environment, in order for them to fulfill their inherent rights as humans. I realized at the Ashoka U Exchange that I was leading with empathy to make a positive impact in the world. As I walked through Ashoka, I focused on the meaning of empathy and I started to think, what would business, policy, environmental, and activist decisions look like if empathy was collectively intertwined at the core? I imagined it very differently. Could finding solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges be as simple as injecting empathy across disciplines, issues, and beliefs? Is this the missing link? Should empathy be the new “golden rule”? I absolutely believe so.
Those three days infused every cell of my body with feelings of empathy and I vowed to challenge the status quo and implement it in my class curriculum, in my legal advocacy for policy decisions, in my activism for environmental and social justice, in business practices, and in community relationships. In doing so I will reach across party lines. To help change policy, I will engage in interfaith connections, I will be an activist not only from the outside, where reaching out to the other side is rare; but also from within the depths of dissent, to better understand the business of maximizing profits and figure out ways to educate and change from within, while working together across disciplines. By doing this, we can more effectively educate and ensure the mission of Rollins College, which is building “global citizens and responsible leaders with meaningful lives and productive careers.” I shall work harder than ever before to teach students and lead by example to be “environmental stewards who are socially responsible”.
In closing, and most importantly, I want to engage the students so that not only do they learn the importance of empathy, but end up wanting to implement it in their communities and careers. If all of us in our lives, practice this simple concept, we would achieve a unity in purpose, which is to achieve the mission of being the best we can possibly be with each other and ultimately “Be the Change”!