When educator Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy in 1996, some were doubtful. Championing the power of empathy and its ability to transform children – and, in effect, the world – Gordon’s views were seen as laudable for sure. But practical? Debatable. At the heart of the program are classroom visits by an infant and their parent. By observing the loving relationship between the two over a course of time, the theory is children become more attuned to their thoughts and feelings and those of others. Empathy is the powerful result.
Skeptics take note: fifteen years later Gordon’s organization is thriving. Today, the social entrepreneur is also a bestselling author and her Roots of Empathy program is reaching more than 373,000 children worldwide. In Canada, the award-winning program is delivered in English and French and is found in every province, covering urban, rural, Aboriginal and remote communities. Roots of Empathy also reaches children in the US, the Isle of Man, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.
SEE Change was fortunate to have caught up with Gordon recently to chat about how she took an idea, borne of “gut and golly” and transformed it into an impactful model of social innovation renowned worldwide.
The importance of emotional literacy seems to be recognized more broadly these days. Do you agree?
Oh yes, absolutely. I started small in Toronto and then, interestingly enough, one of the medical officers of health in Ontario got a federal grant for child abuse prevention and used it all for Roots of Empathy. She realized what I was saying, that I was trying to break intergenerational cycles of violence and poor parenting. And what I had realized in my early life, the common denominator in all the violence I was working with – whether domestic or child abuse – was the absence of empathy in the perpetrator. They weren’t monsters but were lacking in empathy because their mother or father lacked it and on it goes.
The interest in the last five years has been incredible. When you look at who’s looking at Roots, you have a book called Getting to Maybe used in business schools, where they interviewed me years ago. Then the trauma expert, Bruce Perry, wrote a whole first chapter dedicated to it and quoted me saying how I got to where I was and the role of empathy in surviving trauma. Then you have the book, the Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin’s latest. He wrote a lot about Roots of Empathy. And the World Health Organization is using Roots as an antidote to violence, suggesting that violence is a public health issue and it’s not going to stop unless we develop empathy.
What do you think accounts for this greater focus?
Well number one, they’re beginning to understand what it means. When I first started Roots of Empathy in 1996, people said things to me like “why are you calling it roots of empathy, no one’s going to know what it means.” There’s been a huge proliferation in print and interest generally in empathy as it relates to our behaviour, our humanity, our civility, to democracy. All of those things, there’s a discourse that is mumbling and growing.
I see a bit of relationship to all of the media [reports] about bullying.The first calls I started getting was in 1999, after Columbine. They invited me down.
And now we see it in Norway, the complete absence of empathy there. The Globe and Mail had an article recently written about it, about the idea of evil and empathy. Interesting to point to the fact that the discourse on empathy is like a snowball that’s growing. But I’m not into sensational drama, I’m into neuroscience. Let’s talk about what we really can quantify and what we know both qualitatively and quantitatively, biologically and brain-based.
Tell me about the recent developments and the focus on brain-based research.
We spend a lot of time on research and now we’re expanding into brain-based and biological research (in addition to the ongoing behavioural research). We’ll be doing that in Seattle, Toronto and Hamilton. Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington and Dr. Stuart Shanker of York University will separately measure childrens’ reactions to various pictures, which will elicit, or not, certain reactions and compare them to reactions of children who haven’t had Roots. We’ve got funding to do both. In the US we have generous funding to start off in three cities from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust; they’ve been wonderful supporters.
We also have plans to develop in Europe. I’ve been asked to speak in the Scottish and English parliaments. They understand it; they’re connected to the research.
Many social entrepreneurs get swayed by success. You seem to stand strong and have learned to say no.
I’ve turned down many countries because we commit to a very high standard of implementation and integrity. We said “not yet” to China three times, and said “no” to many states in the US. You can’t do everything. I don’t want to fall on the sword of our success.
My commitment to myself and to Canada was that until we were pretty well established in Canada I didn’t want to go crazy internationally. But we are a global organization and the help I got in Stockholm when I won the Globalizer award really did help us figure out our strategy. And the McConnell Foundation is funding an organizational restructuring process. They want to make sure we survive all this growth and appreciate the fact that I’m not seduced by offers and money.
Credit: Melanie Gordon
What are the biggest challenges you face?
One big challenge is how to say no gracefully. We do want to change the world child by child, which means we’d like to get everywhere. But the history of building capacity of a social change organization is very clear: you can’t do everything at once.
Also, we train locally and it takes time to acquire knowledge of the culture. And rather than setting up big bureaucracies, we like to go with local wisdom so we spend a lot of time finding the right partner who has positive relationships with schools, who has a long record of integrity and transparency and stability as a nonprofit organization. It takes time. But I really value taking the time to find the right people. And I think that’s the thing: we’re not tempted to do things for shortcuts or for money. We know what we want, we’ve made plans and we stick to it.
You’ve had dialogues with the Dalai Lama, won various awards, have a bestselling book, etc. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Yes, the Dalai Lama loves Roots. He’s very interested in neuroscience. The first dialogue was with neuroscientists and I was put up as a practical example of how one develops empathy and compassion. But I do feel my greatest accomplishment was mothering two wonderful people.
Credit: Melanie Gordon
Looking back, what do you think accounts for Roots’ impressive success?
I think the big thing about Roots is that normally people do research and then develop a program. I developed a program that people did research on and now they’re saying this is a program that should be done. It was my gut and my belief that love grows brains, and my faith in the power of the relationship between a mother and a baby, and my belief that children can – and indeed will – change the world.
I’m not a Pollyana but I think Roots is the pedagogy of hope. It’s built on the developmental needs of children and the curriculum is stratified by age or grade and it’s really designed to meet little children where they are at the particular developmental phase in their life.
I have such strong beliefs in the integrity of children that it’s never occurred to me that this wouldn’t work, and it’s darn tootin’ nice to see research confirms it. It just never occurred to me I was wrong. Or rather, it never occurred to me that the children wouldn’t change the world. Or that if we work with children and give them the opportunities they will shape the world they deserve.