More than a Feeling
The “Brown-Bag Lunch” is one of the many perks of working at Ashoka. Not merely a chance to chow down with your do-gooder co-workers, Brown-Bags are often organized around the arrival of an esteemed Ashoka fellow to the global (DC) office. Recently, Ashokans got a particularly special treat—a conversation with fellow and Dialogue in the Dark founder Andreas Heinecke.
Andreas’s enterprise (which now has franchises all over the world) invites people to experience complete darkness as a blind guide leads them through different “real life” situations, encouraging empathy in a particularly stark way. Hearing from Andreas was particularly meaningful for me, as I had taken part in Diagoue in the Dark while living in Israel before I began college. In a long year of religious study and reflection, the trip, scheduled well in advance with a friend (Andreas’s program is quite popular in Israel and requires significant advanced booking), was meant to be an enjoyable one, a step away from the seriousness expected during much of my time in Jerusalem. Yet it turned out to be one of the deepest and most self-reflective experiences I had the entire year.
Reflecting on my own experience with Dialogue in the Dark and contextualizing it within Andreas’s description of its founding—largely influenced by his realization of Nazi atrocities against the Jews—gave me new insight into Ashoka’s work and the value in it. While I spend most of my time at Ashoka working on a program focused on growing rural talent, I am continuously drawn to and intrigued by our new Empathy initiative. To have an entire sector of the organization focused around a feeling was, at first, a bizarre concept to me. Within my first few weeks, one of my most meaningful learning experiences was the realization that Empathy’s mission—to have every child master empathy—actually made an enormous amount of sense. At Princeton, the people I met who are heading toward careers embracing social entrepreneurship, high-impact giving, and other high-level forms of practiced magnanimity have been trained and instilled with empathy. Whether by their parents, a summer experience, or otherwise, they have each realized that pursuing social causes is of utmost importance. Bestowed with intelligence and equipped with passion, they are taking the value of empathy and applying it in the most meaningful ways they can imagine.
Every fellow and employee I’ve come across in my own work at Ashoka has been equipped with this very skill—otherwise they would certainly not be doing what they’re doing. Their work is almost universally low on personal gain, and many are working in environments in which the easiest route would be to take advantage of others to move to the top. However they learned it, their mastery of empathy has allowed them to work toward a future in which previously impoverished populations can thrive.
So, taking a broad look at the work of Andreas, Ashoka, and my fellow co-workers and classmates, the lesson seems clear. In the pursuit of solutions to the world’s most dire problems, brains and drive are only useful tools—mastering empathy may indeed be the first step to a better world.