Empathy is a fragile thing. Every day, particularly during and after this year’s presidential election, new incidents of bigotry, discrimination and bullying seem poised to overwhelm our efforts on behalf of social justice. The communities we choose for ourselves seem to be more insular – more exclusionary – than ever before. While philanthropic giving can be one path toward balancing the social justice scales, it wasn’t clear to me initially how monetary donations can help generate and sustain empathy across social boundaries.
I gained a greater appreciation for the benefits of a diverse, inclusive working environment through my corporate roles, first at Hewlett-Packard and later as part of the founding team at networking gear manufacturer 3Com. Creating an environment of honest communication and demonstrated respect allowed for fuller engagement and better ideas and simply made for a richer, more rewarding working environment.
Not long after I left 3Com, I became involved with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), and my eyes were opened to the impact that nonprofits have on life in our community. Their impact on education, social justice and quality of life for everyone truly enriches our region. I began to make the connections between beliefs that were formed and honed during my corporate days with the organizations that delivered on this promise every day to the greater community.
While I continue to be involved with several nonprofits, the one that has become front and center for me is Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that fosters conversations in schools and workplaces about racism, prejudice and religious intolerance. It’s one of the many worthwhile organizations I’ve come to know through my involvement with SVCF.
Through combining studies of human behavior with historical analyses of the Holocaust, the civil rights movement and other critical moments in history, Facing History helps people make the connection between historical events and the moral decisions they must make in their own lives. It very literally applies the lessons of history to the challenges we must face, individually and collectively, in today’s world.
At its heart, Facing History is a teacher training program. To date, it has engaged some 50,000 teachers in its programs, showing them how to get students talking about their differences while they learn about critical thinking and how to sort fact from fiction. It doesn’t replace any part of a school’s curriculum; instead, it complements the curriculum and makes the study of social sciences and literature relevant and engaging.
And we know that the need for productive dialogue and understanding differences has never been more important than it is today. Requests for Facing History’s services within corporations have been going up steadily, especially post-election. Schools and corporations alike want to have safe and inclusive discussions about race and religious prejudice to discover what they share and to face differences openly. In a corporation, it’s all about standing up for what’s right and eliminating the fear that accompanies speaking truth. It is about encouraging – in Facing History terminology – “upstanders,” people who stand up to respect and protect the right of others despite differences in race, religion, economic status, and priorities.
Facing History helps people make the connection between historical events and the moral decisions they must make in their own lives.
I am aware of one firm that was exposed to Facing History curricula and is defining the upstander role in their organization in these four ways:
Facing History simultaneously addresses both of my primary philanthropic interests: social justice and education. Education, in many ways, is about building relationships. And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing – first in corporate settings and now through philanthropy. Silicon Valley Community Foundation provides a structure and tools for my continuing efforts.
I enjoy making connections among the many organizations I support with my knowledge, my skills and my funds. Silicon Valley Community Foundation is a crucial part of that. My donor advised fund there lets me pool my philanthropic resources into the billions of dollars managed by SVCF. That gives me access to better money managers – and better returns – than I could attain on my own.
More importantly, it gives me access to their expertise on emerging community needs, policy issues and funding priorities. My philanthropy advisor there coaches me on how to make my giving most effective. For example, I was having trouble persuading other members of one of the boards I served on to put much effort into fundraising. So SVCF helped me design an anonymous matching funds incentive system that rewarded the group’s fundraising efforts by doubling any money they were able to raise.
How do I know whether my efforts and contributions are making a difference?
Last month, the CEO of the Opportunity Fund, another one of the excellent nonprofits I support, told me that he wants his staff to have a conversation about race that Facing History can facilitate for them. That’s the kind of connection that brings my work full circle: I can use philanthropy to help these nonprofits, but I can also apply my professional skills to help them scale. It’s about more than just giving my funds. It’s about using my skills to help increase their reach and deliver their message and services to more and more people, and connecting them in creative ways to leverage their impact. Using the skills and principles I developed in my corporate life, I’m now building a network to support what I’m trying to achieve in the world.
Which brings me back to how philanthropy can support empathy. Shortly after the presidential election in November, Facing History brought together all of its global advisory board members – including me – at a retreat in Boston. While there, we participated in a 30-hour alternate reality game called “Face the Future: A Game about the Future of Empathy,” designed by social gaming expert Jane McGonigal from The Institute for the Future. The game’s nearly 10,000 players from 51 countries were told they had been transported to the year 2026 to experience a new social networking site called “FeelThat,” which allowed them to feel the emotions of others.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the game felt particularly relevant – to its target audience of students and teachers and to Facing History as an organization. Since its founding, Facing History has been city-centric, focusing primarily on large metropolitan areas where we saw our methodology and values were greatly needed. Now we’re asking ourselves how we can do a better job of reaching out to the rural communities that appeared to express feelings of marginalization and isolation. Perhaps this “game” is a window into how we can do just that.
Engaging with Facing History allows me to be a part of something that is already working to address the need for understanding, civil discourse and “upstanding.” It gives us hope and a path forward to become the citizenry we aspire to be.
Debra Engel is a donor and former board member at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and a board member at Facing History and Ourselves.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation
Facing History and Ourselves