From COVID-19 vaccines to school closures to voting rights, it is plain to see that Americans feel more divided on big issues than ever before. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer report, 64% of us believe that Americans are incapable right now of having constructive and civil debates about issues we disagree on. As the report states, a distrust in media and a collapse of trust in democracies put greater emphasis on businesses and nonprofits to help solve societal ills.
At Chicago Cares, we understand that service can play a role in bridging the divide in our country. Service can – and must – help us meet this moment. As a bridger organization, Chicago Cares works to engage in complex and challenging conversations with those who experience our world differently. Together, we do the hard, sometimes uncomfortable work to dismantle and challenge the things that divide us and reimagine what it means to truly serve one another.
Empathy is at the heart of all relationship-building and is a powerful way for us to connect through our differences.
Chicago Cares’ Evolution
In 2017, Chicago Cares shifted our programming and operations to center empathy in our work and to resource community-driven change on Chicago’s South, West and Northwest sides. Through this work, we partner with community leaders, anchor organizations and volunteers to identify and collaboratively build volunteer projects that accelerate the implementation of the community’s revitalization plan already in place; we serve “with,” not “to.” In addition, we bring volunteers from across Chicago together to educate one another about the assets, challenges and opportunities in each neighborhood, encouraging volunteers to stay involved to truly build a more unified city.
The research is clear: volunteerism that connects people across lines of difference is an extremely effective way to reduce prejudice and increase empathy. One hundred percent of Chicago Cares’ volunteers report that their volunteer experience helped them see things from someone else’s perspective and become more empathetic. Volunteers who serve in this way are more inclined to pursue civic action.
Centering Empathy in Your Organization
A shift toward empathy begins with small steps. Whether it’s encouraging staff to share diverse perspectives or fostering dialogue among volunteers, simple actions can pave the way for strategies that fully embrace empathy. Here are a few ways you can center empathy in your organization:
- Bring diverse people together: By bringing together diverse individuals to work side-by-side, we can create mutual experiences that make our interconnectedness visible. Strengthening trust and building empathy among Chicagoans from different communities, backgrounds and life experiences is an important first step toward addressing the city’s long history of racial, economic and social segregation.
- Educate volunteers about the neighborhood where they are serving: By understanding the assets and challenges of the communities they serve, Chicago Cares catalyzes volunteers to do more. Through these everyday experiences, we can encourage volunteers to deepen their civic engagement.
- Center expert voice and lived experience: In all of our projects, we build in an educational component, often featuring speakers who have community expertise. We try to value lived experience just as much as expert voice and we provide honorariums to show that value.
- Hold space for relationship-building: At each project, we create space for volunteers to connect and learn from each other. Volunteers also set agreements at the start of each project so participants can bring their whole selves to the experience.
Empathy can play a critical role in bridging the divide among us. By listening to one another and working together, we can change hearts and minds to build more vibrant and equitable communities, together.