Mary Gordon on the importance of fostering empathy

As part of Desautels’ Homecoming festivities last Friday, McGill’s Social Economy Initiative (SEI) hosted a presentation by social entrepreneur Mary Gordon in the Bronfman Building. Gordon spoke to the audience about Roots of Empathy, the classroom program she founded 17 years ago to help address aggression and bullying, and to help increase empathy among elementary school children.

Gordon discussed how teaching children to be “emotionally literate” will improve society in future generations. Emotional literacy, she explained, requires an individual to be able to identify his or her own feelings, to identify those feelings in other people, and then to discuss those feelings with others.

“Let me promise you, we are an emotionally illiterate society,” Gordon said. “We have a steady uptake of emotional ineptitude in society.”

Roots of Empathy, as the program name suggests, focuses on building empathy in young children to increase emotional literacy. The program aims to foster the capacity for caring by working with babies. The children learn to identify how the baby feels in given situations—for instance, if a toy is taken away.

“We have the opportunity to say [to the children], ‘when was a time you felt like the baby, when you were crying inside?’ And I promise you there are many broken hearts in every classroom,” Gordon said.

Roots of Empathy began as a small program in Toronto in 1996, serving 150 children. It is now in every province in Canada, and has a reach of over 450,000 students across the country. The program has also expanded into the United States, Europe, and New Zealand.

According to Anita Nowak, SEI integrating director and current instructor of a new McGill course entitled “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation,” Gordon was chosen as a Homecoming speaker for a number of reasons, but Nowak said that the success of Roots of Empathy probably played a large factor in the final decision.

“I think one of the things that is very important in the non-profit sector, and the social enterprise and entrepreneurial endeavors, is that they actually show impact,” Nowak said. “[It’s important] that it’s not just a promise, but that they actually can deliver on the mission that they are hoping to accomplish.”

Nowak also explained how SEI wanted to take advantage of the Homecoming weekend to inform alumni of what SEI is doing, and how they can help. The SEI is a relatively new initiative at McGill that began this past January, and will publicly launch in the spring of 2013. It hopes to integrate social entrepreneurship and social innovation into the teaching and research that occurs in the Desautels Faculty of Management.

A mixture of students and alumni attended Friday’s talk. Many students said they attended because they are currently in Nowak’s Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation course.

Michael Hibberd, U3 general management, is in Nowak’s class and was impressed by Gordon’s presentation.

“I really did think it was a phenomenal talk,” Hibberd said. “It was incredibly inspiring. I found a lot of things in this talk that I had been thinking about for a long time and looking for, but never found … It was really refreshing.”

Kristen Foster, U2 international management, is also in Nowak’s class and agreed with Hibberd.

“I think [Gordon] does something that our society is starting to do, but [is taking] way too long to do, and that is to get to the root of problems, rather than trying to fix it afterwards,” Foster said. “She is doing it to such [an] extent that it is amazing and inspiring.”

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