October 24, 2013
Negative beliefs about "other" people lead to prejudice and discrimination. What is empathy and how does it differ from tolerance? How can empathy be taught?
Julia B. Rosenblatt is Co-Founding Artistic Director and Director of Education for HartBeat Ensemble, the Hartford-based performance company that creates productions drawn from contemporary life. HartBeat develops theater that are accessible beyond the barriers of class, race, geography and gender. Julia's most recent play, Flipside (2011), has received critical praise and been presented in Hartford, Boston and the New York International Fringe Festival. With a 2013 Artist Fellowship from the CT Department of Economic and Community Development she is creating a play examining motherhood and its place in our economy. (email@example.com)
Stephen Armstrong is social studies department supervisor at Hall High School and King Phillip Middle School in West Hartford and an adjunct instructor of history at CCSU. He is President of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He has served on the NCSS Board of Directors twice and is the chair of their Government and Public Relations committee. He is a past-president of Connecticut Council for Social Studies and the New England History Teachers Association, and recently served on the committee that revised the Connecticut social studies standards. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Liah Kaminer is a senior at Hall High and an alumna of Solomon Schechter Day School. She noticed serious anti-Semitic language at school and worked to build a program addressing it. She hopes to go to UConn or UVM, expecting to major in biology and minor in French. She is also a vegan baker and her business name is My Treat Sweets.
Julia is the Co-Artistic Director and Education Coordinator at HartBeat Ensemble and is excited to now be in the Nook Farm neighborhood. HartBeat is in its 13th year as a theater company that creates mostly original work that tells untold stories, bring to light unheard voices, and make theater accessible beyond the barriers of race, class, gender, and geography. The entire theater company is based on the idea of empathy. Similar to Stowe’s efforts to tell a true story to raise awareness on an important issue, HartBeat seeks to share such untold stories. HartBeat came to Hartford in 2001, recognizing Hartford as a microcosm of the inequities in the country, the poorest/2nd poorest city of its size, while being the Insurance Capital of the World.
HartBeat'sEducation programs use theater to teach empathy as a tool for peaceful conflict resolution and teach play building at a high level. They offer the Youth Play Institute, a program in which 18 young people ages 16-21 come together to write a play on a specific topic – this year’s theme was institutionalized racism in schools, and the schools to prison pipeline. Students do their own research, interview people on all sides of the topic, and write a story about their findings. They also use arts to enhance unity in the school system through an interactive theater which incorporates common conflicts like bullying. The program is delivered in schools based on each school’s needs and current problems; the program also includes an opportunity for the students to write a play about the issue themselves.
With theater, the ability to see and put yourself in the place of someone standing before you live is as powerful as it gets. Studies show that 91% of our communication is non-verbal – the idea of someone being able to stand in front of a group and convey feelings and emotions is the beginning of creating empathy.
Steve is a “veteran” teacher and has been teaching for “a while.” There are some kids that are very empathetic, and often comments are made which aren’t meant to be intentionally hurtful, but shows where we need to educate and teach students. When anti-Semitism is covered in school, it is only in the context of the Holocaust – students do not realize that anti-Semitism still exists. Liah came to him and asked to develop a curriculum. Liah, as a peer and as a student who experienced anti-Semitism, made the class much more effective than if he delivered it themselves.
Liah attended a private school during elementary school and never experienced anti-Seminitism. When she attended public middle and high schools, she heard many anti-Seminitic remarks. Many times, she was in groups when comments were not directed at her but the others knew she was Jewish and that she wouldn’t do anything about it. The comment that put her over the edge was when she heard a boy in the hallway ask two other boys “Are you two Jews?” When the boys responded “no,” he patted them on the back and said “Good, you’re one of us.” She wasn’t sure how to handle the comments and bullying, and finally went to the principal with her father. She later met with Steve Armstrong who helped her develop a curriculum that wasn’t lecturing, but studying the evolution of the comments and debunking the stereotypes. It also raises awareness on the offensiveness of the phrases students use which are not always true. The class is presented in front of each freshman class.
Liah showed a clip from ABC’s “What Would You Do?” which focuses on anti-Semitism in America - the clip (see below) what starts the discussion in the classes. It prompts the class to think about what they would do if they were in that situation, and why the students might have reacted as they did. This is the second year of running the class. To learn more about the class, visit our recent blog post HERE.
GROUP DISCUSSION (AUDIENCE QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS)
Audience question: Do the students do a writing assignment after the class and watching the video clip?
- Liah: No, but a survey was delivered at the beginning to see where they stood before the class.
- Steve: In preparation for the class, teachers delivered 3 lessons from the Anti-Defamation League.
- Hall HS teacher: Because of Liah’s efforts, this program has been institutionalized and will be part of the World History curriculum. She leads the Safe School Climate Committee and is working hard to make sure this effort isn’t lost.
- Audience member: Heard about Liah’s efforts while at the library (a group of parents of toddlers were talking) and was excited to hear about the difference she had made.
Liah’s father: When he and Liah met with the former principal at Hall HS (African American male) he explained that African Americans have an entire month, Jews do not have an hour in the year. Would like to see students taught about the origin of differences that lead to conflict. As a child psychiatrist, he has met professional colleagues who have said “We like you because you are not like the other Jews we know” – they are “backhand compliments.” Liah received many compliments for her work, but not a single Jewish person offered to help her efforts and continue her work. He wants to empower Jewish kids to not only be proud of their religion, but to stand up for their rights, know their history.
Audience member: Recommends a TED Talks by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "The danger of a single story". Its not that the stereotypes are not true, its that they don’t tell the whole story. She also notices that in conversations about race, stereotypes, etc., groups “fight for the trauma” and say their ethnicity or religion has had it the worst (“We’ve fought for 3,000 years, you’ve only fought for…”)
Audience question: What has been the takeaway for Liah and does she have any desire to work with these issues in college?
- Liah: If she encounters this issue in college, she will certainly work to tackle it, and now feels more comfortable. The takeaway is not positive, she realizes that bigotry is everywhere. You need to try to change peoples’ minds or give a different perspective.
Julia: When students participate in an “invisible theater,” (similar to “What Would You Do?”) they don’t always realize they are part of such an experiment and are often angry that when they find out. How much do you have to turn up the heat to make change? She graduated from Hall HS and is Jewish but did not experience anti-Semitism in high school, though encountered a lot of classism and racism towards African Americans and Latinos. When entering the world 20 years ago, many people reacted when learning that she was from Hartford. She is interested in Liah’s course and is curious how far it will go – she hopes it will go far beyond anti-Semitism.
Hall HS Faculty member: There is an urgency to create an atmosphere of social justice. They are working hard, especially during National Bullying Prevention Month, with programs around “The Laramie Project,” “It’s a Girl,” child soldiers, and other films and authors. The school is trying to understand that everyone suffers in some way. It is often classism which filters into everything else.
Audience question: What was the cost for Liah standing up?
- Liah: Many bridges were burned, and many people felt she was overreacting; but if that is what you think, and cannot respect her for how she feels, they should not be friends. She feels very self conscious when she stands up for things, and doesn’t always hear what is said behind her back, but sees reactions when she talks about her work and in particular coming to speak at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Often time her Jewish friends would not react to comments, even when they were directed at them.
- Fellow Hall HS student: More programs need to be implements on different “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, etc.
- Julia: there are other schools where social justice is taught
- Teacher who teaches social justice class: What is the role of empathy in all of this? Where did the empathy come in when Liah taught the class? How did you prompt the empathy?
- Liah: When the class was originally taught, they were thinking about education not empathy; but empathy and feeling is what changes it from a classroom lecture to an understanding and life lesson.
Audience member: What was it that motivated Liah? What is the difference in Americans and Israel Jews?
- Liah: Was raised among American Jews, and noticed that they are much more laid back than Israel Jews – they are not insulted by stereotypical comments, and don’t know the history/background behind them.
- Julia: Is interesting to see when someone who is an oppressor is oppressed in another situation. Personality and strength of character plays a large role into what someone is willing to do.
Audience member: Learning about the stereotypes and comments makes her wonder what bigotry is in her, what she might be saying/doing that is actually offending others. Learning about the empathy of another persons view, even in a political discourse, could change what is happening in our country we are not being empathetic towards others who might have a different belief for whatever reason. It is very similar to what happens in many of these situations.
Audience member: Are there any characteristics of those who make anti-Semitic comments? Low self esteem? Someone looking for attention? What are students supposed to do if they overhear racist comments?
- Steve: In the last year and a half, he has talked to four individual students about offensive comments. The irony is that for three of the kids, until he pointed out that the comments were offensive, they had no idea what their words meant.
- Audience member: The behavior gets worse as they get older.
- Liah’s father: “There is always a simple solution, and it is always wrong.” You can sometimes understand someone and why they do it, but not necessarily empathize with them.
- Stand up! - standing up one time can make a world of difference
- Read/watch Constantine's Sword to understand the history of anti-Semitism
- Teach and learn about the origins of discrimination and stereotypes
- Listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The danger of a single story"
- Be a leader in promoting empathy and understanding
- Challenge your peers to stand up to stereotypes and discrimination
- Examine yourself - "Do I have biased/racist/discriminatory impulses?"
"Anti-Semitism on the Rise?" an episode of ABC's "What Would You Do?" opens the class that Steve Armstrong and Liah Kaminer teach at Hall High School.