“Come out of the box and I’ll be there with open arms.”
I have come across many such touching and empathetic notes over the past year. These are ‘affirmation posts’ that young people write to Body & Soul members at the end of the Life in My Shoes sessions that I deliver to schools and youth groups. The aim of the workshops is to encourage these young people to empathise with others by reflecting on their own experiences – things they may have found difficult or troubling in their lives – and realising they share things in common with people whose lives may on the face of it seem quite different. This has the effect of breaking down the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
This academic year has been an eye opener for me. When I enter a school, I know very little about the young people I am going to work with. When I leave, I am often amazed by their ability to empathise and develop a deeper understanding of others that they may not think they share very much with. Over the course of the hour-long sessions, I try to create an energy that makes the young people comfortable enough that they are willing to share their personal stories with the group and consider things from a different perspective.
One of the highlights of the year for me was when I spent two days at an academy – something I rarely get the luxury of doing in this fast-paced, tightly scheduled world. I became familiar with the students and got to know them well. I worked with a selection of Year 8 students who were keen to create something they could share with the whole school. We ended up writing an acrostic poem about HIV and AIDS (see below), which one talented young boy ended up rapping while everyone else worked it up into a Supa Hot Fire rap battle. They were so enthusiastic that I invited them in to Body & Soul to use our professional recording studio with the help of our Young Adult members.
When I go into schools, the message of empathy is not only confined to the pupils. After one session in a Tottenham school, I was approached at the end by a teacher, overcome with emotion and fighting back tears. She waited for everyone to leave the hall before approaching me to say: ‘If you have not touched anyone else today, then you have me.’ She went on to explain that her mother had died when she was younger from what she had been told was cancer. Recently she had found out that her mother had in fact died from an AIDS-related illness. The Life in My Shoes session had brought some of those feelings of shame and stigma bubbling to the surface, but the core message of empathy gave her a different perspective on her mother’s illness – she realised why people keep their HIV status a secret, why people lie about this illness. Our aim is that people should no longer feel they have to lie for fear of people’s reactions.
I’m already looking forward to the next academic year and the young people I’ll get to meet. There are exciting plans afoot for Life in My Shoes, including the establishment of a movement of young empathy activists – watch out for an empathy revolution!