Mary Gordon from Roots of Empathy is working to create a world where every person has the chance to develop their emotional literacy. At a panel called “Empathy Leadership” at the Skoll World Forum, she shared that she didn’t believe that empathy could be taught, but that it “could be caught”, and she’s hoping to make it a pandemic.

Presenting with her was Bill Drayton who is often credited with being the father of “social enterprise,” which means he‘s a staple figure at the Skoll World Forum. His efforts in founding and building Ashoka for the last thirty years have been integral in finding, connecting, funding, and celebrating global changemakers, and the current iteration of Ashoka’s work is focused on empathy. In fact, over 700 Ashoka Fellows do work focusing on youth education and empathy development, and his team is looking to support even more leadership in this area over the next few years.

The premise of their session today was that empathy is the foundation skill upon which teamwork and leadership is built and that by spreading empathy we can improve the organizations and the challenges of the world. Empathy has been coming up as a theme throughout the Skoll World Forum this year, and I think it is an important component in creating a better future.

An experience I had that informed that opinion was when I led an extraordinary group of students around Cambodia for two weeks. The thing that made them exceptional was not the fact that they were only 11 and 12 years old nor that they were exceptionally brilliant, but from the fact that they knew how to communicate and work as a team better than any adults I had ever worked with. I didn’t realize what it was that made them so unique at first, but when we gathered as a group and they gave each other time to speak, supported people who were struggling, and facilitated the group dynamics discussions on their own, I realized that they had more empathy for each other than any other group of people with whom I had worked.

It turns out that at their school, the Nueva School in California, they had joined “social emotional learning class” for a few hours a week since grade one. With empathy as a part of their school curriculum, it was immediately evident which kids were new to the school as they were the ones who gossiped, complained, or failed to support their peers most often.

It was then that I realized the importance of fostering education systems that support the whole child, from emotional to cognitive excellence. Can you imagine a world where every child is exposed to that type of learning and where every person recognizes their own power to positively impact the lives of those around them? I’m glad Mary Gordan and Bill Drayton can. Their efforts can help us create an “everyone a changemaker world”, as Ashoka describes it, and that’s the future the Skoll World Forum has reminded me is possible.