In the Name of Love: Using Empathy to heal division & conflict

As demands for major reforms of the systemic racial injustices and violence continue in the US, many are yearning to be purposeful and take action in a meaningful way.

Many people are asking: In what ways am I contributing to the problem? Where are my blind spots? How can I contribute to the solution and truly support my fellow humans who are suffering?

No matter what path we choose, the work ahead will benefit from a lot of genuine listening, learning and empathy. These are legitimate actions to begin with because they lead to deeper understanding and informed action. In this article, I’ve chosen some compassionate role models to inspire your heart and spirit.

Poster for the documentary

Long Night’s Journey into Day

This is the title of a powerful documentary that I saw twenty years ago at the DOXA film festival. It impacted me deeply and I highly recommend it because of its relevance to what is happening in the US.

This film explores post-apartheid South Africa’s restorative justice efforts by following four cases that were heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Those who had taken part in fatal violence sought amnesty while victims’ families wanted justice so the TRC attempted to bridge these two needs for the future of their country. California Newsreel succinctly describes each case:

“A white special forces officer, struggles to reach peace with the embittered wife of a black activist he killed 14 years before.

A group of mothers, after enduring years of misinformation and denials by the authorities, learn the truth about how their sons were set up, betrayed and killed in a vicious police conspiracy.

A liberation movement combatant who blew up a bar frequented by the security police expresses his remorse about the civilians killed, but the sister of a victim remains doubtful.

A young black activist comes to recognize the anguish he caused by killing a white American student during a mob riot, while her parents see past their pain to embrace a new multi-racial South Africa.”

With great emotion, this film shows how hearing each other’s stories allowed empathy and forgiveness to begin healing the inter-generational trauma of nearly 80 years of racial segregation, white supremacy and violence. While the journey is far from over, the restorative justice work that South Africa did through the TRC was an important beginning. You can now screen it for a few dollars here.

Side note: It just so happens that the thought-provoking DOXA documentary festival is happening online this year (but only available to viewers located in BC) from June 18-26, 2020. Details her

A Small Taste of the Magnitude of Restorative Work

Over the last two years, I’ve been working on a project that looks into some of the violations that have occurred between members of a vibrant community in Vancouver. This is a very inclusive, collaborative and creative community yet as with any community, harmful behaviors do show up. We examined allegations of misconduct, misuse of power and other incidents to see what happened, why it happened and how the problems could be addressed.

We knew it would be complicated and often-times very heavy work that must also be kept confidential. Some people were able to resolve things on their own because they felt empowered by our presence. Other times, a punitive approach was requested because previous efforts had failed.

Last week, my final duty as a lead was to facilitate a restorative dialogue between two people who had experienced in an extended conflict. Though there was no violence involved in their situation, it still took a lot of preparation and bravery for them to talk to each other. 

From my Restorative Practice Presentation- based on materials from IIRP

The Roots of Restorative Philosophy

Restorative philosophy comes from indigenous tradition and has spread through the restorative justice work that’s been happening with incarcerated individuals and survivors of violence in countries like Canada, US and Australia.

The graphic above looks at four kinds of conflict resolution styles. Authoritarian styles are the most firm yet the least fair, while Restorative styles are most firm and most fair. It’s useful to consider which styles you tend to use in your various relationships and if it’s possible for you to explore a more restorative approach.

Restorative practices such as healing circles and facilitated dialogues are opportunities for impacted parties to speak from their perspective and share the effects of the incident on their lives. These processes foster empathy, respect and help us to see each other’s humanity. As we come to understand the other party, we can collaborate on solutions and agreements. Without that, we are left with authoritarian, neglectful or permissive approaches to dealing with problematic behaviors or conflicts. We are stuck with perpetual misunderstanding, which breeds resentment, fear and division.

Chastity Davis, an Indigenous consultant who creates bridges between organizations and aboriginal communities, did a restorative justice workshop with us and spoke about the healing work she did with the RCMP and an aboriginal community in rural Canada after they had a conflict.

She took time to understand the RCMP’s perspective and helped the officers understand why their tactics had been so triggering for this community. She provided further context by offering a crash course in Indigenous history and the traumas linked to the RCMP.

She also worked with the Indigenous chief and community members to understand their experiences, fears and needs. Eventually, everyone was able to sit in a talking circle, listened to each other’s side of the story and came to deeper understandings of what had happened. There were tears, there was anger, there was tension and discomfort during the circle but it led to the willingness to rebuild peaceful relations with the RCMP, which was necessary for both sides. By the end, they were able to create some relationship agreements and the chief gave the officer a traditional gift made by an elder, which moved the officer greatly.

In Canada, we have our own history of systemic racism and government-sanctioned violence towards Indigenous Peoples which needs to be addressed. There is much learning, understanding and transformation that we can do here, without even crossing the border.

The Need for Understanding

From Wikimedia Commons

Most of us want to speak and be understood yet we rarely try to hear and understand the “other” side. More often, we tend to demonize or dehumanize the “other” because we forget that they are human too and have the same need for empathy, respect and understanding. We also need to be accountable and take responsibility for the ways in which we each have contributed to the issues at hand. 

In a restorative justice workshop that I took many years ago with Evelyn Zellerer (founder of Peace of the Circle), she referred to studies that reveal how our fight or flight response will de-escalate when we observe someone “trying to understand us”. The amygdala – which is part of our limbic system and connected to our survival instinct and emotional responses – begins to calm down when we felt like others are making genuine attempts to listen, empathize and understand us.

In our every day lives, we can do more to listen and understand the different viewpoints in our own circles or families. It’s possible to engage in true dialogue if we can develop an authentic interest in hearing someone else’s perspective. So often, in person or on social media, we have already condemned someone as wrong in our hearts and they can feel that. Their natural reaction is usually defensiveness or attack, and then we either work harder to “convince” them that they are wrong or we give up and block them from our lives.

The Talking Circle is one kind of restorative practice – photo by Eugene Kim

At its heart, Restorative Practice is about relationships. When I attended a training last year by the International Institute of Restorative Practice, the emphasis was that restorative practice should be used proactively to build relationships 80% of the time and used reactively to address harmful behaviors only 20% of the time.

Using tools like the talking circle for class discussion, family meetings and work sessions brings familiarity, ease and comfort around active listening, speaking compassionately and remaining open to other people’s perspectives. This makes the process more likely to succeed when it is used to address challenging topics or conflicts.

Also, once you have built a strong relationship with someone through these practices, there is more empathy and willingness to work through problems. There is more desire to make amends or correct harmful behaviors. Alternatively, when we are distant, anonymous or unknown to each other, it is very easy to condemn and attack.

As more parents, teachers, police officers, politicians and people in authority positions realize that prison, punishment and exile are not true solutions, we must also recognize that restorative practice takes a lot of time and dedication. It’s not a quick fix because it requires significant effort to hear different perspectives, learn from each other, maintain respect and work together on mutually beneficial solutions.

Learning about Lived Histories & Context

Recently, I was reading more about the history of slavery in America and digested the fact that it has been 401 years between the establishment of slavery in the US (when the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619) and the continued imprisonment and police killings of African Americans in the year 2020.

Even though the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution proclaimed in 1865 that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States”, it is clear that the brutality has continued through the mass subjugation and incarcerations of African Americans. [The award-winning documentary “13th” – available on Netflix – is a great introduction if you want to learn more]

There is over 401 years of lived history and context that informs what is happening right now in the US so it’s important to recognize that. Even though studying and reading will not give anyone a lived experience, it is meaningful to try to understand and empathize.

Michelle Alexander is a civil rights advocate, professor, columnist for the New York Times and the author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness which has “helped to transform the national debate on racial and criminal justice in the United States”.

“The enemy in this war has been racially defined. Even though studies have now consistently shown for decades that contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, this drug war has been waged almost exclusively on black and brown communities.” – Michelle Alexander

Kimberlé Crenshaw – photo from Wikimedia Commons

Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School and the executive director of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF).
Intersectionality is a theory that Crenshaw developed to explore “how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality, ability etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination. Intersectionality identifies injustices that are felt by people due to a combination of factors.” (Wikipedia)

“It is the reality of living life in a Black body that makes you more subject to police violence.” ~ Kimberlé Crenshaw

Activists holding photos of Breonna Taylor\ & George Floyd. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Importance of Mutual Respect & Compassion

As we each develop our awareness and capacity to tackle systemic issues like racism over the long-term, we can learn a lot from those who have held very challenging dialogues and done extremely courageous work while facing the risk of violence and even death.

These inspiring role models have gone through all kinds of obstacles in order to move forward. It has been and it will be the work of many many generations. We are all needed and we must all learn to be with what is uncomfortable in order to understand each other.

Daryl Davis is a black musician and activist who befriended KKK members and helped over 50 clansman transform their racist views and leave the white supremacy movement.

“Take the time to sit down and talk with your adversaries. You will learn something and they will learn something from you. When two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So keep the conversation going.” ~ Daryl Davis

Christian Picciolini is a former Neo-Nazi who now helps people disengage from hate movements. His life story details how he was recruited and how he eventually changed his violent ideology.

“Find someone that you think is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them, because I guarantee you that they’re the ones who need it most.” 
~ Christian Picciolini

Healing from Hate

In the past, I was a misanthrope (one who hates humanity) and was very reactive, angry and ready to fight people all the time because I was constantly judging others as evil or wrong.  This was coming from my trauma and not surprisingly, it was a depressing and lonely existence.

In my mid-twenties, I decided to change the course of my life by dedicating myself towards the study of understanding and compassion. After many years of consistent focus, I was able to heal my anger and my hatred. It also taught me that if a cynical misanthrope like me can learn to love, then anyone can do the same.

We are living in very polarizing times – where each side is becoming increasingly righteous, dogmatic and condemning. While aggression may have short term benefits, in the long run, it inflicts further pain that festers into continued rage, prejudice and violence. Only the deep and persistent work of finding mutual understanding and mutual agreements will bring true peace.

Taking the high road also involves taking the long road.

May you find continued inspiration to understand, empathize and humanize in the coming weeks, months and years.

As a testament to the power of the human spirit, I’ll end with this video clip of Archie Williams sharing his incredibly story. He was wrongly incarcerated for 37 years yet despite living such a seemingly endless nightmare, he says:

“Freedom is of the mind. I went to prison but I never let my mind go to prison. When you are faced with dark times, what I would do is – I would pray and sing. This is how I got peace. When the Innocence Project took my case. I just kept hoping that day would prevail… After 37 years, I was released on March 21, 2019.” ~ Archie Williams

With much love,

P.S. Some More Learning Resources

Anima Leadership based in Canada has some upcoming anti-racism online events that you can attend:

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