HEART’s mission is to foster compassion & respect for all living beings & the environment by educating youth & teachers in humane education

What Is the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?


By Kristina Hulvershorn
A question that never fails to puzzle students is, “What is the difference between empathy and compassion?” Most of us are familiar with the notion that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but compassion seems to be a trickier word to define. I have come to believe that compassion matters most when it is used as an action word.
So, to explain the concept of compassion to my students, I start by asking, “What if your little brother (or cousin, friend, etc.) were stuck under the bed? If you walked by and said, ‘that has happened to me before…you must feel scared’ then went about your business, you might be displaying empathy, but little else. That feeling, though kind, didn’t do anything to help your brother. If, however, you notice him stuck under the bed, realize that he must be scared and hurt and try to help him get out, you have now displayed compassion. Compassion, I explain, is ‘an awareness of another’s’ suffering and a willingness to help address it.’
This concept, taken into the realm of humane education, has tremendous implications.  I, personally, want to live in a world where our beliefs are tied to meaningful action. I want to know that if I am in trouble, someone will not only feel my pain but act to help alleviate it.
One of our activities at ‘be the change’ asks participants to construct their own circle of compassion. In order to include an entity (which can be anything from migrant farm workers to dolphins to family members) in your circle of compassion, you must honestly weigh the question, “if this ____________ were in harm’s way, would I help him/her?”
I often push participants to really think critically about this one because frequently we are doing harm without meaning to. If we, for example, regularly purchase clothing from a company that uses sweatshops, we are casting a vote in favor of keeping sweatshops in business.  Often participants say things like, “I thought I had compassion for this group but realized that if I’m not doing something to help, I actually don’t. I might even be harming them.”  This can be a difficult realization, but an important one as we work to create opportunities for people to do good, to help, and to be part of positive change.
The activity we offer at ‘be the change’ to take people through this exercise is called “Circles of Compassion” and we use recycled photos from magazines to make magnetic pieces to allow people to fill their metaphorical circle. We love seeing our students come to the realization that their circle of compassion always has the opportunity to grow to include more people, animals and places.
Here is an example of two circles of compassion constructed by recent visitors to ‘be the change.’ These sparked some great thought and discussion!

Where Did Our Compassion Go? A Discussion on the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond


The popularity of humane education is on the rise. Throughout the country more and more elementary, middle and high schools are implementing compassion, empathy and social responsibility into their curriculums. Another rapidly growing venue for humane education is at the post-secondary level. The past few decades have seen a number of graduate and undergraduate programs focus on the core theories behind humane education.
I was lucky enough to take part in one such example of this expanding interest at the university level. I was invited to speak about some of what HEART does at “Where Did Our Compassion Go? Children, Adults and the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond”, an exciting event that took place at the City College of New York. This discussion, moderated by Daisy Dominguez, featured a diverse panel of compassionate educators, professionals and trailblazers who spoke about their experiences and work in the field of compassion, empathy and the evolving human-animal relationship.
The keynote speaker for the evening was City College of New York’s own Professor of Psychology Bill Crain. Crain spoke, in part, about his new book The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.  The farm sanctuary the book refers to is Professor Crain’s own. In 2008, with his wife Ellen, Professor Crain opened Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York. The sanctuary is home to over seventy farm animals rescued from abusive situations and eventual slaughter. The sanctuary helped Professor Crain gain a deeper understanding of the emotional lives of farm animals and ultimately led to the creation of his book.
The book itself is divided into two parts. The first discusses various emotional behaviors that both animals and children share. The second part covers broader social themes of western culture’s disparagement of animals. Professor Crain observes that this societal view on animals is learned and children do not set themselves apart from nature and animals, and he hopes that as a society we can move back towards our natural connections with animals. A message that all humane educators can agree on.
Additional speakers included other City College of New York professors Jennifer Morton, who spoke about different philosophical approaches to human-animal relations and the challenges of such research and academic work, and Nancy M. Cardwell, who discussed the need for universal compassion and how compassion for animals is connected to the compassion we feel for other humans, including ourselves. These ideas remind me of my work here with HEART, and how often we have to remind students that it is not only the outside world they should show compassion towards, but also themselves.
Brian Shapiro, New York State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, talked about the link between animal cruelty and human violence. Using both startling statistics and a number of personal stories, he made it clear that violence against animals is an early indication that immediate intervention needs to be done, so that a violent perpetrator doesn’t escalate and hurt others, including humans.
Karen Davis, President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns gave an impassioned talk on the nature of humans, and how they interact with the outside world, a world that is filled with other people and  animals, all of whom need love and compassion.
With all of these wonderful speakers talking about the big ideas such as respect, compassion, and empathy, I shared with the audience some of the examples of how these feelings can be fostered through humane education. Using HEART’s farm animal curriculum as an example, I spoke to the audience about how humane education fosters reverence, respect, compassion and critical thinking. I started the presentation with an observation, that most children have an inherent love of animals and if that love is acknowledged and nurtured it can be sustained into adulthood.
As a humane educator I witness firsthand as children’s faces light up when they find out that they will be learning, in part, about animals. Additionally, children, especially young children, are always the most horrified, and moved to action when they learn about the injustices that animals around the world face. Society has yet to help them form excuses and come up with false rationales as to why animals “must” be treated so terribly. Children’s inherent passion and compassion shine through and they call out injustice for what it is and seek a better life for all animals.
This idea is certainly true when teaching about farm animals. Children have almost immediate reverence for the different farm animals. Learning that chickens cluck to their babies while still in the egg, that pigs love to cuddle with other pigs and cows will literally jump for joy help kids make that instant connection that farm animals are like us, deserving of love and compassion.
Though the event focused on the loss of people’s compassion from childhood into adulthood, it was clear that evening that there are many people in this world with compassion to spare. There is still much to be hopeful about, as there are brilliant and passionate educators in our world today dedicating themselves to making the world a better place one child at a time.

How These Students Stood Up to Bullying in Their School – Part 2

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When we last heard about our intrepid heroes they were in the process of deciding how to confront the evil Dr. Harm, a villain who threatens and even physically hurts people, animals or natural places in many ways, creating suffering and injustice through his actions. The group decided to focus on the ways that fellow students were hurt by  in-person bullying and cyberbullying, an issue that they felt was a big problem in their own lives and community.
As Humane Heroes they knew that they had to get their facts right if they were going to make a good plan to tackle this problem, so they first created a set of survey questions to get a sense of the scope of the problem in different grades, and examples of the kinds of actions and words that fellow students were most bothered by. They found that kids were often treated cruelly and then threatened more if they said they would tell a teacher, and that many mean and hurtful comments were just accepted as a part of daily life. The group decided to organize a special “Anti-Bullying” or “Up-Stander” task force and commit to interrupting these kinds of bullying or just nasty actions whenever they saw them. They made badges for themselves so others would know that they had taken on this responsibility, and did dramatic role play exercises to practice safe and effective ways to stand up for anyone being bullied.
The next phase of the mission involved spreading positivity, and for this the group created a set of multi-colored hearts designed to acknowledge their peers when they saw or heard positive actions. One side of the heart has an action that the kids decided was one they wanted to encourage: showing respect, showing compassion, sharing and including, and showing forgiveness. The other side says: Pass It On!. The group went out and whenever they saw others doing one of these acts they gave them a heart to acknowledge it and told that student to pass it on to another when someone else showed that same good behavior. Over a period of weeks the students reported seeing their hearts circulating around the school, hearing stories about other students’ experiences in giving them out, and even finding that kids were making their own sets of hearts to pass on when they liked the way the others were acting.
For these students, addressing the problem of bullying became an exercise in creating a more engaged community, one that feels empowered to support others not only by interrupting cruel and excluding behavior but also by actively promoting pro-social actions. By modeling their willingness to interrupt bullying, they well may offer other kids the courage to make that choice when they witness their peers being treated badly. And by engaging others in a fun way to spread acknowledgement of actions that foster positive community, they are spreading seeds of kindness to greatly multiply their impact. Humane Heroes indeed!

How These Students Stood Up to Bullying in Their School – Part 1

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December 12th is designated as Human Rights Day here in the US, but for us at HEART, every day is a day to explore and act upon ways to protect and enhance the rights of all living beings, and the complex living world that sustains us. In one of our after-school programs at a public school in the Bronx, students in the 4th and 5th grades are learning how to be Humane Heroes, who can identify and combat some of the “super villains” that threaten all of our basic rights and community needs.

After reviewing the idea of human rights, and thinking about how the concept of rights can extend to non-human animals and even to the living habitats that we all share, the class committed to being the kind of super heroes who are willing to stand up to assaults on those rights in their community.

The group identified some of the formidable super villains that are threatening people, animals and the environment, and decided to start working on one area. The super villain the kids have identified is called “Dr. Harm”, and the awful powers he possesses include using any form of violence or intimidation to get what he wants.

Students brainstormed and researched many ways that Dr. Harm affects people, animals and the environment, from the suffering of animals on factory farms and wild animals in captive settings, to wars and suppression of free speech, and the various forms of bullying that are so common in our schools. They chose to use their super hero powers to fight against the ways that kids are hurt and threatened by cyberbullying and in-person ways of excluding and embarrassing others by revealing secrets or spreading gossip. They have all heard about or even experienced some of the harm that this kind of cruelty inflicts on, not just the individual target, but the whole student community that is then fractured and angry and vulnerable to other forms of aggression and discrimination.

The students are in the process of deciding how they will take direct action in their school to combat this issue, and educate others about the evil deeds of Dr. Harm.

To make dealing with these kinds of very serious issues engaging to younger students, the group has created a life-size figure of Dr. Harm. They outlined one of the students and colored it in to make a costume for this villain, and then surrounded the poster with examples of the kind of harm he can inflict.

Using multi-media projects in service projects is an important way to make sure that all students can meaningfully participate. Some kids are not strong in literacy or other language skills but may be great artists or have other abilities that we need to encourage so they feel empowered in the group and can build their own brand of activism in their lives.

Our HEART Heroes are learning one of the most important lessons for inspiring positive change: that working together to make their communities kinder and more just feels good and allows them to develop their special super power strengths in a supportive and caring setting.

Bring Diverse Books Into Your Classroom

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By Ali Berman
From elementary school through graduate school, I read a lot of great books. Books that inspired me and taught me to think about literature and life. Books that shaped my world. And yet, it wasn’t until I reached my twenties that I started to realize that, even though I had considered myself to be well-read, I had actually only been given access to a tiny percentage of the human experience. During one particular class in graduate school, when I looked down at my syllabus, I saw all male names, except for one, a lone woman. And with a little more research, I found that, of all the authors I would read that semester, only one was a person of color.
Immediately I started thinking back, reflecting on the books I had been assigned in middle school, high school and college. With the exception of classes like Native American Literature or Pacific Rim Literature where I had opted to look at writing from specific voices, the same held true. I had gone through my entire educational experience reading predominantly white male American voices. And the characters they wrote about largely fit the same demographic. Even in the Native American and Pacific Rim Literature courses, the authors had almost all been male.
Cut to years later, after I had tailored my own personal reading to fill in the gaps in my education, I learned about a new movement that was taking shape called We Need Diverse Books, a movement I believe is absolutely necessary for the creation of a more humane world.
We Need Diverse Books, “is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.”
The organization is working to amplify diversification efforts by promoting the inclusion of the experiences of LGBTQ communities, people of color, people with disabilities, gender diversity and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.
Here at HEART we know firsthand just how important it is for children to learn about the experiences of all different kinds of people to help the kids grow up to be more empathetic adults. It’s easy to see the world through our own eyes, but sometimes it can be harder to relate to experiences we’ve never had. By exposing our kids to the inner lives of others through books, we can fight stereotypes and show them that the world is a big place filled with all sorts of people.
Like We Need Diverse Books, we want to encourage classroom teachers to review the books they assign to their students, and, if that list seems lacking, to seek out more diverse authors and characters.
Here are just a few ideas on how to start the process:

  1. Check out this resource from We Need Diverse Books and find new books to add to your curriculum.
  2. If your students are a bit older, talk to them about the issue, discuss why having diverse books matters, and ask them to take part in the process of adding more diverse books to the curriculum. They could bring in their favorite book from home, or head to the library to find new books. As another perk, your students will feel like active participants in their own education which will make them more engaged.
  3. Have students check out the annual VIDA Count. The organization looks at thirty-nine of the most well-respected literary journals and periodicals and breaks down the numbers to see how many women and men they published in a year. As VIDA has shown, there is a huge disparity, with men taking up the vast majority of ink. For example, in 2013 the New York Times reviewed 307 male authors, and just 80 female authors. Bonus points if the kids do a count for their own school by gathering the syllabi from teachers and seeing how many of the books assigned would qualify as diverse. The number they end up with might just help other teachers get on board with diversifying their own curriculums.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

Photo Credit: Flickr/Salem (MA) Public Library