How Can We Teach the World Empathy? Bill Drayton Says He Knows How

The founder of Ashoka, a network of global social entrepreneurs, is taking on education to change the world

Bill Drayton is this year’s recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award.
Bill Drayton is this year’s recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award. Courtesy of Ashoka

In the spirit of Mark Twain who famously said he never let his schooling interfere with his education, Bill Drayton grew up enthusiastic at school, but not so much about school. He enjoyed a few subjects, but he admits, his energies were in things like, starting a series of newspapers or being an active member of the NAACP. Now, Drayton, who is credited with having coined the phrase “social entrepreneur,” hopes to create a network of global changemakers (empowered with skills embracing empathy, teamwork, leadership and problem-solving) with his organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public to reshape education all together.

For more than a decade, Ashoka has partnered with young people with its Youth Venture program, but it’s only in the past year that it began partnering with schools to introduce the concept of empathy into the curriculum. Dozens of schools in the U.S. are already on board and, according to Drayton, “Last week, Scotland said, this is going to be in all of our schools and even though the Irish Ministry is cutting back, they’ve just made a huge commitment.”

Ashoka’s network of changemakers includes 3,000 fellows working more than 70 countries, who place a high premium on supporting those bringing about change in their communities. Among others, they’ve supported a Japanese girl, who founded a website to connect with other children whose parents were going through a divorce, and an activist in Calcutta, who helped to found a school for the children of factory workers. Drayton’s hope is that by teaching empathy in elementary schools we can create a generation of changemakers.

For his own work as a changemaker, Drayton has been awarded the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award and will be speaking with the Smithsonian Associates Friday, April 19 at 7 p.m.

We talked with Drayton about how to teach empathy and why he thinks top-down solutions aren’t the answer.

How has the landscape of social change evolved since you founded Ashoka in 1980?

If you go to Harvard Business School you will now find more people in the social enterprise group than in the marketing or finance group, which is wildly different from even ten years ago or five years ago. That’s very satisfying. We are at a different stage.

The world really has to go through this transition from being organized around efficiency and repetition, think assembly line, to a world where the real value comes from contributing to change. That requires a different way of organizing—fluid, open teams of teams. And it requires a different set of skills—empathy, teamwork, a very different type of leadership and changemaking.

How do you implement that new paradigm?

Any child who has not mastered cognitive empathy at a high level will be marginalized. Why? Because, as the rate of change accelerates and it’s an exponential curve, that means every year there is a smaller and smaller part of your life covered by “the rules.” They haven’t been invented or they’re in conflict, they’re changing. You’re going to hurt people if you don’t have this skill and you’re going to disrupt groups. You cannot be a good person, just by diligently following the rules, it’s not possible anymore.

That’s the first step in a reformulated paradigm for success in growing up. We have 700 Ashoka fellows, leading social entrepreneurs around the world, focused on young people, and so we have many different ways of doing this. I was just talking with a Canadian fellow, I was on her board actually, Roots of Empathy.

She’s able to take children, first through third grade, who did not get empathy in their schools or on the street, or in their family and if she’s given three hours a month for eight months, all the kids will have advanced empathy. Bullying rates come down and stay down. We know what to do with 8th grade girls, who lose their self confidence and become mean girls, we know how to have kids practice and play at recess and in the classroom.

How many elementary school principals do you know who have ever even thought about this? It’s not on their agenda. They are measured by information transfer on tests. And you can’t have mayhem in the hallways. Well this is perfectly designed for a world in which you’re training people to master a body of knowledge, or a set of rules. And you’re defined as a baker, or a banker, or whatever it is. And you’ll repeat that for the rest of your life. Fine, but it just is not relevant now.

So what does she do to teach empathy?

She brings an infant, two to four months old from the neighborhood at the beginning of the year. The infant wears a T-shirt labeled “The Professor.” The Professor resides on a green blanket and there’s a trainer. The teacher sits at the back and does not really engage that much. The first graders or third graders or whatever have the responsibility of figuring out; what is the professor saying, what is he or she feeling. Of course, they’re absorbing a very high empathy level.

How does this foundation of empathy inform the work that you do internationally?

They have exactly the same problem in India and in Japan, here and in Nigeria.

Any country that falls behind has just bought a one-way ticket to Detroit. It’s hard to realize that 50 years ago, Detroit was the top of our technology. Now it’s bottomed-out, in informal bankruptcy, has lost 25 percent of its population in the last ten years. Well that took 50 years. With an exponential curve, you don’t have 50 years. If India does this right and we don’t, we’re Detroit. That’s true for a family, a city, a community, a country. The key factor of success going forward is what percentage of your people are changemakers.

This is like the new literacy.

How did you learn these skills?

I didn’t realize what was going on then, but in retrospect, I’m very grateful. I had parents who had this skill. They knew it was important. And they took the trouble, not just to enforce skills, but to ask, how do you think it made him feel when you did that? I was really lucky.

I’m not particularly well-suited for football. I couldn’t imagine why I was being tortured by Latin and math and things that had no relevance at that point. I love history and geography. My energies went into starting things, which was fine for me. I had a principal, who advised my parents not to be worried, and not to show that they were worried when I was not where I was supposed to be. Because I was busy doing these other things. What a gift.

Ashoka has something called Ashoka’s Youth Venture, which is designed to do precisely this for young people. I would like to have every young person grow up in that sort of a school, community environment. We have a summit ever summer. Last summer it was at American University, four or five days.

What about huge resource inequities and people like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University who advocate the idea of a Big Push to get countries out of poverty?

You tell me whenever you can find a place that you have sustainable development if it isn’t led by people who have this sort of power. The central lesson of development is that it’s in people’s heads. As Gandhi said, India will be independent when it’s independent in our heads. There’s a classic Harvard Business Review article in the context of big American corporations: you want a change? You think the chairman’s idea is going to fly by itself? Forget it, it’s never going to happen. It has to be a team of people.

You don’t put people on it because of their position: that’s a committee and committees never get anything done. It has to be a team where everyone on the team wants it and then, you know, it’s a good thing that the chairman is with you.

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