by Tim Wolcott
Empathy is grounded in mutual trust. James Baldwin called for faith in the “evidence of things not seen”. He believed we should live life with the assumption that a sense of decency might yet live in the American soul. He advocated for cultivating a sense of community through affection and understanding for ourselves and for each other.
Myles Horton of the Highlander School believed that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions. He also asserted that people often don’t know that they have the solutions and act in ways contrary to solving the problems. Consequently, for many decades he brought teachers who listened with vulnerability and humility together with disadvantaged people, resulting in progressive change locally and nationally.
Adrienne Rich uses poetry to develop community connections. She organizes workshops for primarily low-income, African-American single mothers that document their lives. The process facilitates the transition from “I” to “We” without extinguishing others’ worldviews. As they accept the suffering of others, they also accept the responsibility for shared action. This integration of acceptance and responsibility is a true sign of spiritual as well as practical progress. The writing workshops have evolved into a school / community partnership that has improved the behavior and academic performance of students as it has reinvigorated the neighborhood.
Community develops through actions that facilitate mutually beneficial connections between people who are vulnerable to each other. The progressive movement grows as our individual humility and tenderness toward each other builds. Our speech should echo this development. Yes, we have excuses to be indignant or callous. But, more importantly, we have better reasons to be kind and sensitive to the feelings and motives of the people we hope to mobilize.