By Savannah Wooten, Class of ’18

Hot on the heels of the 2016 Presidential election, “empathy” has become 2017’s trendiest buzzword. In almost every sector, politics, crime, education, psychology, gender, economics, and beyond, Americans are asking questions about how to understand “the other” like never before. This summer, I have begun asking, examining, and answering some of these empathy-related questions in conversation with friends, family, mentors, professionals, practitioners, and the world’s leading experts on the subject (the sky’s the limit!)

The questions below are guiding and framing the interviews and writing produced throughout the project:

What is empathy? Are there different types?

How do you describe a lack of empathy?

Are Millennials more or less empathetic than their parents?

Does increasing polarization stem from an inability to empathize?

Does technology facilitate or inhibit empathy?

Can empathy ever be negative?

Can biology, trauma, or power block an individual’s ability to empathize?

Are there ways to train, build, elicit, or revive empathy?

I am now one-third of the way through the project. I have developed an audio recording consent form, conducted five initial interviews, and began producing small soundbites from specific interviews that will accompany future blog posts. The further I go into the research, the more new avenues present themselves. Every interviewee has referred me to additional contacts, landmark studies, or added another awe-inspiring or jaw-dropping true story to the mix.

Conducting an interview over the phone.

Approximately half of the interviews take place in person, with the other half taking place over the phone with a recording software.

For this reason, I’ve started an “Empathy in Action” database full of resources, stories, and suggestions for future exploration. This central bibliography includes a log of every article, book, and accessible piece of information I’ve come across as well as contact information for those who could provide additional first-hand testimonies or in-depth information. I am systematically reaching out to these individuals to schedule short interviews over the next two months.

Needless to say, the project has only become more expansive, immersive, and interesting as it has gone on. As I continue to produce small clips, blogs, and other deliverables this month, I will also continue tracking next stories and spaces the project could grow into.

Stay tuned for a series of interviews with NGO staffers working on hate crime and violence prevention, activists campaigning to bridge the divides between rural and urban Americans, neuroscientists and psychologists studying the basis of callousness and abuse, and survivors of genocidal violence and war on the role of empathy in post-conflict communities.