While scrolling through social media, watching the news, or in class, students are bombarded with humanitarian crisis after humanitarian crisis. Without guidance in how to navigate these issues, young people can be left feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
That’s why Michael Kokozos, an instructor at Gulliver Preparatory School and the University of Miami in Florida, conceptualized this unit for his interdisciplinary global politics course.
Below, he suggests a framework for helping students develop an “action-orientation mind-set” or “the willingness to consider and apply practical solutions to deal with problems or situations while cultivating a critical consciousness.”
A Compass for a Changing World
In an increasingly globalized world, where human suffering is more visible than ever, compassion offers us a compass: a way of being that points us toward promoting cooperation, fostering trust, ameliorating conflict, enabling human flourishing and healing the environment. In that regard, the benefits of practicing compassion in the classroom cannot be underestimated. The contagious effect has the power to transform classroom culture into a place where students feel like they belong and to make them feel they can change the world.
To help my students face the litany of seemingly endless humanitarian crises these days, I maintain the logic of the maxim “think globally, act locally.” I encourage them to think about the entire planet as they take action in their own communities by emanating or “mapping” compassion at every possible level: within oneself; as a neighbor; in their community; and as part of the world.
The New York Times has provided excellent resources to accompany this framework that have helped me and my students further define compassion, evaluate its importance in the cultivation of well-being and citizenship and consider strategies for implementation in various political situations.
How Self-Compassionate Are You? A Quiz
As any educator can attest, the process of understanding others begins with understanding oneself.
As an icebreaker or think-pair-share, I have my students take this self-compassion quiz that measures how much self-kindness or harsh self-judgment they show themselves. Their results often reveal that being kind to yourself is not always easy.
I invite students to reflect on their own levels of self-compassion, and then debate the merits of the advice: “Before you can help others, you must first help yourself.” They usually come to the consensus that humans project their pain onto others and that this reflective work is key to imagining a holistic inner-outer peace while facilitating mutual understanding across cultural divides.
For homework, I ask students to put self-compassion into action by choosing or adapting one of the exercises from this article. It details some ways to improve your self-compassion skills, such as keeping a journal, imagining how you would treat a friend in need and learning how to comfort yourself when you’re suffering.
The Kindness Game
From compassion for the self, we move to the next level of analysis: compassion for a neighbor, or, in this case, a classmate, by playing “The Kindness Game.”
For this activity, I randomly provide each of my students an envelope that contains a slip of paper with the name of one of their classmates. I then give them the following instructions: “You have 48 hours, if you choose to participate, to perform an act of care for the person listed on your piece of paper.” I remind them that, like in the real world, inaction is a political statement. So, if they choose not to participate, their grades will not be affected as long as they explain their reasoning for doing so.
The simulation has profound implications. Students discover that both action and inaction are contagious. For example, when an influential member of the class chooses not to participate, others follow. However, when a student raises the bar by their compassionate act — like one student who produced a video capturing the reasons their classmate is an asset to their community — the thoughtfulness of the other deeds increases.
Students also begin to distinguish pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion. They realize that there is a distinction between, say, being polite and actually making someone feel seen and heard. This is when I introduce the “Spectrum of Empathy” graph from the Nielsen Norman Group. In “Sympathy vs. Empathy in UX,” Sarah Gibbons explains:
There is no firm threshold that marks one’s transition from sympathy to empathy. Rather, the relation between the two is best represented on a spectrum with pity (the most disconnected and abstracted version of sympathy) on one end and compassion (the more connected and embodied version of empathy) on the other.
As we examine the graph, we discuss how higher levels of effort, understanding and engagement are key facets of compassionate action.
Compassion Mapping: Hashtag Activism
These realizations lead to many other discussions, especially ones that pertain to the relationship between the individual and society. Elucidating this relationship provides a critical opportunity for me to transition from the personal and interpersonal to the institutional and cultural. Here is where I introduce the concepts of power, privilege and oppression and how they shape global politics, including peace and conflict, violence and nonviolence.
Understanding Power, Privilege and Oppression
I start by explaining the theory of the matrix of domination by Patricia Hill Collins, which reveals how aspects of identity, such as race, gender and class, operate as the overall organizing structure of power in society.
We also read this Times article on intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, that refers to “the complex and cumulative way different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism and classism overlap and affect people.”
Together, these resources help students understand how identity factors and oppression influence the social location of an individual.
Exploring Social Activism Throughout History
We then begin to consider what compassionate action looks like beyond the classroom. We read the article, “7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism,” which explores youth movements from Tiananmen Square to Black Lives Matter to Parkland. We discuss when and how young people have been moved to challenge the state as a result of direct cultural and structural violence toward its people, often along intersecting axes of identity, including race, gender, sexuality, class, citizenship and disability.
Naturally, students begin to steer the conversation toward online social movements, including the merits and limits of “hashtag activism.” So, in this next assignment, I have students choose an example of national hashtag activism and map out its reach, using this handout as a guide. At each level, they identify both the impact the movement is having on others as well as what a compassionate action or response might be.
Example: Mapping the #MeToo Movement
For example, if a student chose to map the #MeToo movement, they might note the ways this movement has acted as a lens for seeing how sexual and gender-based violence has impacted people, from the individual to the global level.
At the individual level, for instance, it might be reflected in a woman’s fear of walking home alone late at night. At the national level, it is seen in the fact that sexual assault is alarmingly common in the military or that it costs the United States economy millions in resources like support groups and lost wages.
If the student were to apply an intersectional lens, they might research whether and how some groups, like Native American women, bisexual and transgender women and women with disabilities, might be among the groups that are even more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.
That student might then recommend an intervention such as workplace programs that prevent sexual harassment.
Analyzing Relationships of Domination and Subordination
They present their maps via Padlet, an online bulletin board application that allows them to view and comment on each other’s work. They analyze relationships of domination and subordination at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural level to further understand the basis of the movement.
They also make connections among the movements, often illuminating the ways in which certain populations are dominated or controlled. This deeper understanding of the way power, privilege and oppression work in society moves them further toward taking compassionate action.
Compassion in Action: The U.S.-Mexico Border Crisis
Finally, we dive into a specific example of a global humanitarian crisis to consider compassion with regard to international relations.
Of course, you can choose from any number of crises, but, recently, the photos related to the border crossings have moved my students to focus on the conflict at the United States-Mexico border.
Humanizing the Border Crisis
We start by reading an article that helps them make sense of the issue, giving special attention to the policy of detention. We extend this by exploring other multimedia resources from The Times that help humanize the crisis. We read about what life is like for migrant children in shelters. We listen to and read first-person accounts from detained migrants. We look at interactive maps that show current fencing at the border, the location of detention centers and 911 calls from migrants.
The spirit of this task can also be applied to tracing the stories of the Syrian or Venezuelan exodus, from noting their migration patterns to evaluating their challenges of assimilation and acculturation. In fact, The Times has numerous resources that detail the global displacement of people, dispel myths of mass migration and examine their relationship to global warming.
Compassion Mapping the Issue
Compassion mapping this issue can be conceptualized literally and figuratively, and students do so in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:
• Reflection: At this stage, students are not as inclined to feel pity, or even sympathy or empathy, as much as they are inclined to want to disrupt the crisis. They point out what a compassionate response (or lack thereof) might look like at each level — from a passer-by to a doctor to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent to a politician to a researcher. As they do so, they discover a newfound conceptualization of compassion: Compassion ought to be attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable. This requires those who want to help to see the faces and listen to the stories of those most affected, and then craft an action plan that is attuned to their needs at varying levels of analysis.
• Storytelling: This can take a few forms. It might look like a cartographic representation that prompts students to symbolize geographic features and data. Students have also produced their own podcast episodes that capture the trials and tribulations immigrants face to help audiences better understand their grueling journeys.
• Action and Analysis: Compassion mapping can also function as an overlay to the global politics levels of analysis — the individual, local, community, national and the international system — that seeks to understand highly complex problems by also integrating an action-orientation mind-set that involves working alongside and supporting the most vulnerable among us. For example, to conduct and analyze their own compassionate actions, students selected or adapted an example from an editorial by The Times, “Children Shouldn’t Be Dying at the Border. Here’s How You Can Help.” Then, they wrote a reflection on their action.
Continuing the Conversation
If time allows, we continue the conversation with a fishbowl discussion, in which a group of students are chosen to discuss a given topic by picking one from a bowl while the rest of the class watches, listens and takes notes of the discussion. Topics include:
• Define and reflect upon the following terms: asylum-seeker, refugee, immigrant, migrant, expatriate. When do we use the terms and what do these terms suggest, not only about the law and public policy, but positions of power?
• How does the media play a role in shaping public attitudes toward migrants? Examine the immigration rhetoric in the United States and its impact, particularly as it relates to the crisis at the United States-Mexico border. (For example, examine coverage of the so-called caravan.)
After all groups have shared, the entire class is given the opportunity to discuss their ideas and questions with peers from other groups.
Fostering an Action-Orientation
It’s natural for students to experience a sense of paralysis, a numbness to the bombardment of international crises while scrolling their social media feeds or watching the news, if not during a few hours a day in a global politics course.
This is the reason, in tandem to this exposure, it is essential to foster an action-orientation, or the willingness to consider and apply practical solutions to deal with problems or situations while cultivating a critical consciousness. I have found that beginning with the individual heart and harnessing its capacity for compassion and reverberating outward is an effective and logical way to prepare students to tackle the challenges of global politics.
An educator should consider, however, that this work is emotional; this work is messy. Creating spaces in which students feel heard — their vulnerabilities celebrated as much as their ingenious attempts lauded — enhances their confidence in applying leadership skills.
Given our students’ increasing sense of conflicts both immediate and existential — from natural disasters to climate change to the fragility of democracy — it is incumbent upon us as educators to meet them where they are and to support them in finding the tools they need to make their compassion in action plans come alive.
More Compassion in Action Resources
I try to model compassion in my classroom. In this Times column, the Opinion writer, David Brooks, offers practical tips for cultivating kindness amid a heated political climate. In my classroom, we occasionally “scramble the chairs.” I also have students create their own personalized name tags that I randomize on desks to mix up the classroom dynamic, interrupt potential inequities and facilitate new perspectives.
This interactive website promotes community engagement by holding annual “competitions” involving random acts of kindness and compassion missions. I like to refer to the Compassion Report Map, which provides an exemplar of compassion mapping as much as it also provides an opportunity for students to participate and share the ways in which they are having an impact on their communities.
This site provides resources for educators, including online training, and compassionate leadership activities. One particular resource I like to use is the assessment rubric for individuals and groups.