We Are Westridge
A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests
Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor at Convocation on the Value of Empathy and Connection
At our August 28 Convocation ceremony, Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor shared her reflections on empathy and connection, and why these values will be our theme for the 2019-2020 school year. Following the abridged version of her opening remarks is a list of recommended resources for all ages to use to become more compassionate, more empathetic people.
"The Importance of Empathy and Connection"
by Elizabeth J. McGregor
This morning we come together to celebrate the start of another school year. Many of us are full of hope and excitement, a little nervous and apprehensive, or maybe scared! Trepidatious is even a word I heard from someone yesterday, which I think probably sums up a lot of what many of us are feeling!
In the gym today, we have 115 new students, probably 200 new parents, our 14 new faculty and staff members, and a couple of our new trustees! That’s over 300 new Westridge tigers who are joining our community! And if we combine this number with those of us who are returning, that’s over 1000 people all experiencing their own first day of the new school year feelings!
That’s a lot of feelings. And now I’m going to ask you to multiply them by two.
Being the intellectually curious and compassionate girls and grown-ups that you are, I’d like to ask you not only to think about how YOU feel right at this minute, but to try to put yourself in the place of someone else who is here. Try to pick someone who is very different to you, especially someone who is new to Westridge.
As this other person, are you happy and excited? Or worried or scared? What was it like to wake up their house or apartment? To live in a different part of town, or a different city? To have a different family or family structure? To have a different cultural background? To have had a very different school experience up to now? Just imagine and see if you can understand what this other life is like.
If you were willing to let me lead you, you stepped into the space where empathy begins. Feeling for and with one another. It is this space that together we need to continually seek and embrace, for it allows us to understand and care more deeply for one another and the world in which we live – it allows us to experience empathy and connection.
Empathy and Connection: These are qualities and experiences that we are going to focus on this year. Why? Because when you come to Westridge, you come to a learning community that not only challenges us to engage in the life of the mind and to grow and thrive intellectually, but also to be courageous and compassionate leaders who lead lives of impact.
Since our founding in 1913, one of our fundamental tenets has been responsibility to others and our community. How this plays out in the lives of our students and alumnae is something people say makes Westridge stand out among many excellent schools.
I always remember when I first came to Westridge 11 years ago and how one of our trustees who was to act as my mentor (he was an ordained minister and former head of a local school), explained to me that this responsibility to others and our community was part of the essence of Westridge and that I should never, ever, let it go. To him, and many others, it could be summed up as goodness, and as a unifying principle it should serve for who we are and who we aspire to be. It was rooted in a fundamental awareness of one’s connection with others, and of the responsibility to work actively and purposefully to enrich the world and its people. It was something that we could not take for granted.
For us to be true to this legacy, empathy and connection are vital. We need to learn and practice these qualities so that we can be the change we want to see in the world around us. Today, and in my lifetime and yours, we need this more than ever before.
Over the summer I thought a lot about these qualities and how we foster them. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my own children and grandchildren. We’ve realized that the times we spent listening to each other when we encountered something new and were troubled, or confused or didn’t quite know what to do, are some of our most powerful memories. And these have led to greater understanding and positive outcomes, especially when family members were going through distressing times.
Rather than tell each other what do, we’ve learned to listen really carefully about what each other is saying, and when responding, have tried to do so in ways that we trust the other person would like us to, rather than what we think they need to hear, or even what we would want to hear!
Our talented teachers have also thought long and hard about empathy and connection. They already continually seek opportunities to help you, their students, step into the world of someone else. It might be through learning about life in the Middle East or studying tragic historic events. It could be through appreciating the magnitude of the human experience through art, theatre, literature and dance. It might be through valuing the uniqueness of others through council, advisory and homeroom discussions, learning about identity in Human Development, or training to become a peer counselor. It could be through adopting another point of view in speech and debate or putting oneself in the role of the “consumer” when engaged in engineering and design. Increasingly, it is coming to a greater awareness of the living planet and participating in service-learning projects.
There are a whole range of experiences that you will have at Westridge, and you will be encouraged to understand and feel with others to develop your sense of empathy, understand other perspectives, and make connections.
But even with all of this commitment, we still think that there is more that we can do to understand the habits of highly empathetic people. We have more work to do, individually and together – all of us – students and adults alike – to build a more empathetic and caring community.
So, what can we do? I’m going to talk about six major ways in which we can strengthen empathy and connection, and I challenge you as we go through the year to come up with others. (Note: Adapted from Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It, by philosopher Roman Krznaric.)
The first two approaches I’ve already spoken about, but I think they bear repeating:
First: We can try to put ourselves in someone else’s position. When another person is very different from us and has an opposing point of view, especially if they are angry, it is particularly important for us to seek to understand, and not to write them off or treat them with disdain or indifference.
Second: We must talk to one another and truly listen: We need to be part of the antidote for a world that seems to be increasingly polarized. And practicing the art of conversation is a big step in finding out how others perceive the world or how they are truly feeling.
Third: We mustn’t label others: It’s part of human nature to want to categorize things and group things in certain ways according to our past experiences, but it’s so important not to label others because then we attribute our ideas to them, rather than learn their true beliefs and perspectives.
Fourth: We need to experience other ways of living and doing: We literally need to go out into the world and explore lives and cultures that are in contrast to our own. For me, the old saying that travel broadens the mind is very true, and ensures that I challenge my own biases, stereotypes and preconceptions.
And living in Los Angeles, we can experience an incredible range of cultures and perspectives virtually in our backyards. It is truly one of the blessings of our great city and I hope you take advantage of it.
Fifth: We can explore without travel through reading and other ways of seeing the world: There are so many story books and biographies and movies, or on-line talks, blogs, videos, and documentaries that we can read, listen to, or see.
Lower School: Did you grow up with Winnie-the-Pooh, feel bad for him when he didn’t get things right, and feel good when his friends came to help? And have your read the sweet story of Chrysanthemum – the mouse who loved her name but was teased about it on the first day of school? Let’s think about what makes a good friend, and how we can be welcoming and include one another.
Middle School: You probably read, or will read, The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as other stories, that will hopefully inspire you to reflect on the ways each of us can be a positive force for change, rather than completely the opposite.
Upper School: Have you read (or seen) The Hate U Give, a very moving young adult novel that illustrates the sharp contrast between the home and school life of a sixteen-year old girl? It might give you even more insight as to why we started out with the exercise of imagining to be someone else first thing this morning.
Sixth: We can generate empathy and connection by encouraging others to join us: Perhaps one of the most interesting characters to have caught the attention of the American viewing public in recent years is Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers understood that we can generate empathy and connection by encouraging others to join us. He was the same generation as my father, but I am especially encouraged by the girls of your generation who demonstrate this understanding already.
Think of Malala, helping us understand what life is like for girls before and after they have access to education. And 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who is currently urging other teenagers and young adults, to care deeply about climate change and our planet. Along with Malala, Greta, and Yara Shahidi, actress, humanitarian, activist and our Commencement speaker this past June, all of you, our students, have the capacity to be a part of what is coming to be known as “Generation Fearless” – a generation of empathetic, powerful agents of connection and change.
Ultimately, “we need to recognize that empathy and connection are at the core of what is best about human nature” (Krznaric). This is why empathy and connection need to be at the heart of what we do at Westridge. This is why these themes will be addressed throughout the year by advisors and homeroom teachers, through our reading of Lisa Damour’s latest book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, and through parent education. This is why we focus on developing the skills of collaboration and communication and continually remind each other of our core values of integrity, respect, responsibility and inclusion. This is why institutes of higher education are looking for schools and students who believe in making caring common.
And, if you recognize and practice empathy and forge connections, this is why YOU will lead a life where you will find joy, purpose, and meaning.
For Younger Students:
- Henkes, Kevin. Chrysanthemum.
- Milne. A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh.
- Rogers, Fred. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: The Poetry of Mr. Rogers
- Verde, Susan. A Book of Empathy.
For Middle and Upper School Students:
- Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl.
- Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give.
For Older Students and Adults:
- Banaji, Mahzarin R, and Greenwald, Anthony G. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.
- Borba, Michele. Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
- Brown, Brené. On Empathy - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
- Damour, Lisa. Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. (As we continue to see an increase in stress and anxiety in our students, this book will lay the foundation for Lisa’s visit to Westridge in December. A number of book club conversations for parents are being offered throughout the fall by Dr. Lisa Carruthers, Director of Counseling, and Dr. Jim Holland, Coordinator of the Westridge Research Initiative. For more information, see the Westridge Weekly on-line newsletter.)
- Krznaric, Roman. Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It.
- Steele, Claude M. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect us and What We can Do.
- Weissbourd, R., et al. Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions (created by Making Caring Common, A Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education). https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/turning-the-tide-college-admissions
Choose groups to clone to: