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Political Empathy: Perspectives from Psychology and Urban Studies

For this episode of The PARK, we turn to the disciplines of psychology and urban studies to discuss ways to learn about ourselves and our communities as we think about the deep understanding required for political empathy. Dr. Lia Howard talks with Caroline Connolly, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies of Penn’s Department of Psychology and Marisa Denker, Executive Director of the stakeholder and community engagement firm, Connect the Dots. Explore empathy from the inside out and from the bottom up, as we grapple with individual cognition and grassroots community engagement.

Open Streets, Philly Skyline

Excerpts from edited transcript.

Lia Howard: Welcome to our guests, Caroline Connolly, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies of Penn’s Department of Psychology, and SNF Paideia faculty, teaching a course entitled, Seminar in Positive Psychology, Positive Education, this fall, 2021. And Marisa Denker, Executive Director of the stakeholder and community engagement firm, Connect the Dots, and SNF Paideia faculty, teaching a class in the urban studies department entitled, Participatory Cities, this fall, 2021.

Caroline, you teach such interesting classes at Penn. Classes such as Emerging Adulthood, Success and Achievement, and even the SNF Paideia course, Positive Education. How do these courses get students to both understand themselves and others in deep and meaningful ways? How is individual and community well-being built into these courses?

Caroline Connolly: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to talking about this because I think this is so relevant to so much of what’s going on in the world today. And I’ve recently created these courses because I think they really resonate with students’ experiences. And there’s such a vested interest in individual well-being as well as community well-being.

So looking at my courses, the first one that I’ll talk about are Emerging Adulthood and my Success and Achievement course. Both of these are really underpinned by the commonality of experience. And I think this is so interesting because though we live in a culture where we prize being individualistic and having unique experiences, I actually think that this perspective can be detrimental in some contexts. As our students reflect upon their own transition into adulthood and their own pursuits of success and achievement, I think it can be reassuring for them to hear that these experiences can really be paved by alienation and false starts for many people. When students read the research and hear experiences of others, as they also feel some alienation or false starts, they realize that this is actually part of these transitions. And this is part of the experience. And that hopefully fosters a sense of community. Having a moment of, “oh, I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only one that felt that,” can actually be really empowering to our students. And so I think the notion of well-being really relates to these ideas of vulnerability and community and it being empowered by this.

For example, when we look at the transition into adulthood, we see a lot of students experiencing moments of reversals and things not working out as they want and their identity not taking shape, necessarily, as they hoped it would on the timeline that they had hoped. When students think about this and when anybody thinks about this, it really makes you think, who wants the concerning aspects of your life to be so unique and unknown to others? So that really highlights a shared sense of vulnerability and that can be very empowering. For us to develop a sense of individual and community well-being, I think we have to really reflect upon our moments of vulnerability. And from here, students can hopefully build confidence in their perspective to reach out to others and help build a stronger community. This really looks at this from the perspective of the individual reflecting on their own experience and relating that to the broader sense of community, that I am not the only one going through this. And I think with Penn students looking at the notion of success and achievement, that’s so powerful.

In my Positive Education course, there’s really an emphasis [on the] disconnect within education. What is it that students need that isn’t provided by their education? Thinking about this and how to overcome these obstacles can really help develop an understanding of how individual and community well-being are so important.

The topics that I teach at Penn are things that I think are incredibly powerful to our college students because we have this great opportunity to connect with these students at this moment of time where they are developing their own identities and developing skills before they go on as fully fledged adult members of the community. And I think that gives us this really powerful opportunity to have them think critically about how their education intersects with the community at large and how they can really foster well-being in the different environments in which they find themselves.

Howard: Marisa, you’re gearing up to teach an SNF Paideia course this fall called Participatory Cities. In your video describing the course, you discuss how the class will examine, and I’m quoting you here, “how we as citizens co-create more just and equitable cities and neighborhoods”. You plan to use both theory and praxis. Can you explain, in general terms, what course content you will use to help students explore how to be good neighbors?

Marisa Denker: I’m very excited to teach the course and I think it will have a real impact on Penn students that are constantly navigating their role, as well as good neighbors from Penn and West Philadelphia. So what we’ll be really focusing on is community engagement, stakeholder engagement, and how to develop, design, and be part of really equitable and robust participation processes. We’ll go through the history of community engagement and ways that the public in the past have been able to be part of say, city planning processes. We’ll go through its evolution over time. And really look, in terms of the current state, challenges and barriers within these processes that community members experience that make it hard for them to have a voice in typical processes. And we’ll look at best practices now and even developing best practices together as to how to go through those barriers and make sure that we’re bridging those barriers and developing ways for more meaningful dialogue, discourse, and real ways to actually make sure that people have agency and stewardship over their cities and neighborhoods and towns.

Howard: Caroline, in the video for your SNF Paideia course, Seminar in Positive Psychology, Positive Education, you mentioned that sometimes elementary and secondary schools have goals that can fall short of what students need to thrive in modern society. Further, you state that Penn students are well positioned to comment on these things, having so recently gone through secondary school. We are living through a politically polarized moment. How are schools doing on equipping high school students to live in these times? In essence, how are they doing in terms of fostering political empathy? Does your class offer some commentary here or ideas on how to foster dialogue across difference or ways to build political empathy?

Connolly: Again, I think this is really wonderful, how we’re working with Penn students, having them reflect upon education. Our students are great at education. They have nailed this. They know what they’re doing. They’re great at taking tests. They’re really good at excelling.

In all the things that they face, whatever they might have faced, they made it here. They made it to Penn, an Ivy League University, that will carry them very far into the future. And so I feel that when we think about our students and how they have, in many cases come so far, their own perspective can really powerfully inform them about the shortcomings of education.

And that’s so important because we can discuss this in class. In positive education we read a lot of research about the current state of education and the shortcomings of education. In that maybe the educational system hasn’t caught up with modern times and we’re really preparing students for a life that existed maybe 50 years ago. But they’re not developing the skill set that they would need to thrive in modern society. I think we’re at such a unique moment in time, in regards to education. We have to reassess the delivery and experience of education due to the pandemic, but also there are really pressing social issues like Black Lives Matter and this has really resonated with our students.

I think as a result, our students are developing their own values about complex and political issues. And they’re also learning to articulate these within their communities. As a result, hopefully, they’re engaging with others to affect the change that they want to see in the world. While this process isn’t new, I feel like this is something that more students are becoming engaged with. The world is hopefully becoming more inclusive and sensitive to understanding the experiences of others. I hope that our students are learning to connect with issues and support causes, even if those do not directly affect them.

I think that’s really a hallmark of responsible citizenship. Protecting rights, even if your own rights are not infringed upon. I think there’s a lot of scope to develop empathy here, political or otherwise. And so when we think about how our students experience education, we want education to supplement their own experiences in the world, right? We want to help them understand the world in which they will be graduating into. And there’s so much going on that we can draw from that’s going on in the world that we can draw from within our own classes. And I hope that my students feel that they have the ability to really reflect upon their own experience, but also the state of education in the world and how that can, hopefully, help them make sense of possible solutions and ways to move forward in solving different issues in this regard.

Howard: Marisa, why do you think being a good neighbor is so important to the policy making process? Why do you think that including marginalized voices in decision making processes, as you say in your video, needs to happen? Is there a lesson here about political empathy?

Denker: I think it’s really critical, given everything that’s happened in the past year, and it’s now time to really, really overdue, time to think about how we can make sure that every voice is actually included and has an equal say in the process. For instance, we talk about living in this democratic state, yet our processes on local levels really are very top down, typically. And are very not bottom up.

The idea is that, if decisions are being made around people’s neighborhoods, around their local park, around even the trees in their area, anything like that, they’re the ultimate end user. So they should be the ones that are actually part of that decision making process. Since ultimately, the end result will happen to them and affect them. So they should really be part of that process. And there’s so much expertise as well in people that live in these local areas. In their own neighborhood, they’re experts in their own way, just as much as a planner or a designer, architect, is an expert, a local resident is an expert in their area, too. They know what’s needed. They know what gaps are. And we need to make sure that we’re actually connecting the dots between the different processes and ways of thinking so that it’s a much more collaborative process going forward.

Howard: Caroline, in your role as a Professor of Psychology, but also as the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Psychology Department what do you notice about Penn students and their abilities to empathize with others? Do you have any important tools or resources you give students to help them develop more complex ways of feeling deeply for others?
Have you seen how these tools perhaps influence their motivation to understand others across political difference?

Connolly: This is a really great question. I think Penn students are exceptional at intellectually engaging in the coursework. And they excel at social engagement within social context. And within the class, I think this is evident. We can help our students really develop complex ways of feeling deeply for others and fostering empathy in that regard.

What I would really love to see is our students taking a more holistic perspective here and seeing how their presence in the community impacts that community. I think this is a tricky thing because I work at Penn and I work in this context where I’m helping students with their education.

And part of why I’m so excited about teaching this Positive Education course is that I hope that we can connect more broadly with the community and have students really relate to a sense of community and feeling deeply for others within that environment. And I don’t really mean experiences that end up on resumes and CVs, but ultimately fostering a human connection by respecting the community. And I think that really relates to empathy. And that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot but I haven’t yet figured out, what would be the most productive way to incorporate these skills for students and how we could actually incorporate these within their education.

Howard: Marisa, a big part of your course is putting ideas into direct practice through real cases you are privy to as the Executive Director of Connect the Dots. Can you tell us a bit about Connect the Dots. What it is, why you formed it, and what it is doing? Also, tell us a bit more about how students will be able to work on real civic problems facing the city of Philadelphia.

Denker: Connect the Dots is a private firm that views ourselves as a social enterprise, really. But we’re a firm that focuses on community and stakeholder engagement. So what we do is we focus on designing public participation processes that help to create more livable cities for people everywhere.

We work a lot in Philadelphia but we also work outside of Philadelphia, as well. And most of our work would be us designing and delivering and being on the ground, actually making sure that voices are heard and are part of the process. Right now we’re working, say, with SEPTA on the bus network redesign, which will be across the city of Philadelphia and greater Philadelphia.

We’re working on projects even around local parks, around rebuild projects with the city of Philadelphia. We’d work on a lot of transit place-making. In South Street right now, we’re working on actually pedestrianizing and piloting that for South Street. And that’s also all about making sure voices are included in that process.

That’s our role. We’re the ones that literally connect the dots to make sure that voices are being heard and actively heard and considered. It’s not just a checkbox activity, which is what often can happen with community engagement in bigger projects.
But that really, the insights are being fed in directly to the engagement and the decision making process. And that people are being listened to actively. So we’re really excited with this course, that students will have the opportunity to be a part of some of these projects, have their ideas tested out, prototyped.

We might be able to test different engagement tactics that they develop and we can test them out in a real live project setting. And we’re also interested in students learning through that how to develop community partnerships. Because all of our projects and the way we approach our projects are very much in a community driven way, in a grassroots way.

One of our core tactics that we try to do on every project we can is develop community partners and ambassadors from the get go that can join our extended team. We’re thinking that could be a really great opportunity for students to learn how to do that because it directly relates to being a good neighbor and how we can build capacity and build confidence and build team members, essentially.
So that people really feel like that they are part of a process and that a process isn’t just happening to them. But they even have a say in how we engage them and how we engage their neighbors.

Howard: Caroline, one of your assignments described in your course video for positive education is focused on civic engagement. You ask students to draft a proposal to change the educational system to better meet the needs of primary and secondary school students. How do you aim to get students to think in complex ways through this applied assignment? Do you envision students developing a type of political empathy as they think about the different components of a very specific policy arena like the educational system?

Connolly: Part of why I devised this assessment is that I want the students to understand how to go through the process of trying to effect change within education. As a citizen who’s not specifically and directly involved in education, writing a petition, I think, is a valuable skill for a student to learn.

I’m connecting with a school where we hope to have our Positive Education students interview high school students to hear what they think should be improved upon in education. While we each have our own opinion on this, I think it’s really valuable for our students to hear by those who are most affected, so current high school students. And within this activity, I think this is incredibly powerful, for students to develop civic engagement.

Because we can all see a lot of social problems, but how do we actually go about trying to effect change there? And so our college students will go and interview high school students, connect with those students, to see what do the students actually think is important? And what do they think needs to be changed? And take that interview, in the context of all the things they’re learning, and draft a petition. And I think that will hopefully help students develop greater political empathy as they think about education and really how to understand the complexity of these issues.

For example, yesterday I came across a statement by educator Kelsey Romano who is addressing the city council at the city’s budget proposal meeting. Kelsey Romano had students who are on the Race and Equity Committee and they were speaking about violence, violence prevention, and what the city should do about it. Kelsey Romano shared a lot of these statements within the city budget’s proposal meeting. And these statements are really devastating, as you hear students describing their own experiences with violence in this city. How ninth graders are talking about how frightened they are or how devastated they are that they’ve lost someone close to them, that we have these really high expectations of students to achieve well in school, if they’re actually struggling with basic security and safety.

Ultimately, how can we expect students to learn when they doubt their own safety or when they’re grieving loved ones? And I think that this type of activity for our students, to draft petitions, really gets them to think about the tangible problems that are facing the lives of high school students or middle school students or elementary school students. And how education is something that we want all our students to excel at, but there are a lot of things that intersect with their education. And looking at the recent spate of violence in the city, this is actually really staggering and dramatically impacts the student experience.

We really would hope this would be an example of something that our students would reflect upon, how violence can impact education and a host of other issues. When I’ve done this activity before, students have been really interested in representation of minorities within the school and topics related to different extracurricular activities to help students foster a sense of community. There are a lot of different ways in which our college students really reflect upon the high school experience from their own perspective, but also from all the literature that they’ve been reading throughout the semester.

Howard: Marisa, in general, what other skills do you hope to help students develop in your course? How does this relate to political empathy, to see politics happen at the grassroots level?

Denker: One of the big skills that is intrinsic within community engagement and doing it right and doing right by others is both communication and being really transparent, open, honest, and humble in how we communicate with people that we either don’t know or that we’re trying to get to know. And how to really build relationships and build trust.

Because a lot of that work of good engagement comes down to building trust. And once you have that trust built, first of all, you’re not done. You’re always continuing to build it. But once you have the initial stages of it built, that’s where you can really start to allow and enable collaboration to happen. And really understand where people are coming from and how you can work together to achieve, to even figure out what the end goal is and what people’s goals are collectively, and then how to achieve them.

That’s one skill in terms of– transparency, communications, honesty, coming as yourself and as a human and treating others as humans as well. And another skill that directly relates to that would be facilitation. So related to communication, but it’s how we can take disparate groups of people, opinions, perspectives, even perspectives that directly go against each other. And how we can facilitate conversations that are meaningful and that allow for the initial beginning stages of building some sort of consensus or at least building mutual understanding so that we can move forward. And that’s a lot of what facilitation is, it’s stepping back yourself and making sure that other people’s voices can be heard in a group and making sure that those people in the group are also hearing each other and listening and building on each other.

I think those are skills that are so important, when it comes to political empathy, as well as just direct community engagement. Because that’s what it means as well, in terms of the divides that we’ve been seeing. That kind of active listening, transparent communications, and facilitating actual meaningful conversations, all really tie into that. Making sure that we can hear each other but we can also acknowledge differences and still work together.

Howard: Caroline, in our earlier series on listening, artist Ernesto Pujol shared that you have to listen to yourself before you can listen to others. As a psychologist and a professor, can you comment if that is true for empathy? Do you have to show yourself compassionate understanding before you can truly understand others? If so, how is this done well?

Connolly: From my own experience as an educator, I think that it’s actually quite easy to get someone’s attention by having them think about their own experience. We understand this for learning and memory, too. If something is self-referential it’s easier to recall. And I think when working with college students, this obviously holds true, as it would for anyone else. When you can relate to the experience personally, it can foster your ability to connect with others and their related experiences.

When we’re looking at this idea of empathy, I don’t think that one necessarily comes before the other. I don’t think that you necessarily have to have compassion for yourself before you can have compassion for others or understand others. I do feel that fostering a sense of community is really powerful for developing empathy for yourself and others.

As I was saying earlier, in my Emerging Adulthood class and my Success and Achievement class, I think it’s really powerful for students to understand that their experiences with hardship and struggle are not unique. And that can actually really help them have greater compassion for themselves. And that in turn, I think, fosters a sense of community that is really powerful. And therefore, people can go on to help others in a meaningful way. There are some really fascinating studies looking at social belonging and how social belonging is something that students can develop in different contexts.

You can develop social belonging by hearing the experiences of others, but also trying to relay your own experiences to others who have not yet gone through the experience you’ve had. So there are some interesting studies looking at social belonging in college students. Of how you can foster social belonging for minority college students.

A really fascinating study was done by Cohen and Walton in 2011 that looked into this idea of how can we help students feel a greater sense of belonging in their community. And we look at the idea of empathy and compassion. We also want to think about how people feel connected and how they feel that they belong with others. There’s a lot of research looking at how an individual’s experience of social belonging can be supported by hearing that others who were in that experience overcame that experience. And that this is actually a well trodden path.

Students often feel out of place when they first come to college, but this is just part of the transition. And you will get your feet on the ground and you will establish your friendship network and things will come together for you. And that’s a really powerful experience to have as a college student. And then for these students, the students in the study, would then write passages where they would describe their own experiences in college and how they did eventually feel a sense of belonging. And they would then share these with students who were incoming college students.

So ultimately you have students who are trying to understand their own sense of social belonging. And I think that’s powerful because that study really looks at the idea of if you hear others’ experiences, that can inform your own experience. And then that in turn, you can use that knowledge and your own personal experience to help improve someone else’s experience. And that fosters a lot of compassion, as well as empathy for others.

Howard: Marisa, the same question but reversing the direction a bit. Can listening to communities give us any insight on listening to ourselves? How can bringing in marginalized voices more equitably and listening to their concerns speak to individual wellness? Or asked in a slightly different way, do we need to develop healthy communities in order to experience individual social health? Are there connections here?

Denker: Yeah, it’s a really interesting connection that you bring up there. And I think there is a lot to say of how those two concepts mutually reinforce each other. I think that the bringing in of marginalized voices can help to create healthier communities in the first place because we’re creating communities with and for people and not just to them, essentially.
And I also think that being a part of that process, people like us or other Penn students and other people who help to raise up and make sure those voices are being heard at the forefront, can learn a lot through that process and can learn how to be humble, how to be a listener. How to really understand how people have such different experiences and to make sure that’s really included in how we engage with each other going forward.

I think that’s a piece that is essential to a healthy society, to a healthy community, is that deep empathy with each other and making sure that what we decide together, what we build together, what we co-create together, is actually based on that understanding, that everyone’s coming from such different personal histories and stories and experiences and that they’re all so valid and so important in creating a mutually beneficial one and that kind of healthy community that we need to build together.

Howard: Caroline and Marisa, a question for both of you. Interestingly, you both spent time studying and living in Ireland. Caroline, you did both your graduate and your undergraduate studies in Ireland. And Marissa, you had a Fulbright to do graduate school there.

Can you tell us how studying and living in Ireland influenced the way you think about the work you do today? Did it contribute to how you think about political empathy?

Connolly: I decided to do my undergraduate degree in Ireland. I left my immediate family in Philadelphia and I moved to Dublin and I lived there until I was 25. And this actually had a profound effect on my understanding of identity. So I feel that there are many parts of our lives that we presume are part of our identity because we’re exposed to them all the time.
However, when I moved to a different country, alone at the age of 18, I found so many things that had surrounded me throughout my life were actually not a reflection upon myself. That when I was removed from that immediate environment, I realized there were so many things that were merely just background noise in my life.

That is, I felt like I had a better understanding of where my personal identity ended and where my environment began. So that actually, I think is really powerful in how it’s helped me understand college students because they’re in such a considerable transition of identity at around that age. And working with students in teaching as well as advising that we have a really multicultural student body and a lot of students are grappling with things other than what’s going on with their exams.
There are many factors in their life that relate to their identity. But we have students who are really affected by personal experiences that can be quite challenging. And so when you think about the way in which you develop the notion of autonomy in college, as a college student going to Penn in 2021, there are so many factors that you have to take into account.

I will also say, in that era in Ireland in education, there was a really profound emphasis on student autonomy and resourcefulness unlike what I had been exposed to the past, in previous experiences of education. And it highlighted to me the role in which I try to support students as they progress through their own education, but that I really want our students to take ownership of their own development.

I want them to do a lot of the heavy lifting instead of feeling that when they graduate from college, I’ve had all these people do this work for me all along. And now I’m on my own and I’m not sure how to do it. I feel that part of being in college is having greater ability of developing these skills of fostering autonomy and resourcefulness.

Living in Ireland really affected me to understand that in this way. Because the educational system is quite different. But I think that’s probably a little different from what you’re asking me specifically. But those are actually the two most profound things that affected me from my experiences living in Ireland.

Denker: Yeah. So it was a really amazing experience, studying and living in Ireland. I mean, first of all, my company started there. And that’s how Connect the Dots began, was by looking at how Ireland, particularly in Dublin, had managed to have all these different stakeholders working together around the issue that I was initially studying there, which was around re-use of vacant space for community, to turn them into community assets.

I learned a lot about how these disparate groups of people can potentially connect if enabled properly. I think I also learned in Ireland that there is, I guess, different levels of engagement. And I think Ireland is at a different level right now than, say in Philadelphia, in terms of how we really engage people, how we listen.

I think in both places we’re learning how there’s best practices in Ireland that can be carried over here, as well as vice versa. But I think Ireland is funny because they don’t– it’s a slightly more homogeneous, quite more homogeneous society there. But there is differences between people in different ways than race.

There’s a lot to learn on the Irish side, as to how to deal with that as Ireland changes and as a demographic changes. And how to make sure that we’re still continuously working towards, in both places, emphasizing and moving towards more collaborative practices, even rather than just one way consultative. So it’s trying to really make sure that there is more collaboration between private, public, residents, et cetera.

In Ireland, there’s also a more recent reawakening, in a way, since it’s been a traditionally oppressed society. Only more recently with allowing for gay marriage, abortion and things like that, people started to really rise up and understand that they have a voice that can and should be heard. So that’s really influenced as well, how we can spread empathy and look at that in different ways.

Howard: Thank you to my guests, Caroline Connolly and Marisa Denker. We have learned so much from you both. And we are grateful for your time with us. Join us August 10 as we hear from the Disciplines of Fine Arts, Urban Design and Anthropology about political

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