The Value of Empathy
Teresa is a Project Coordinator with LEDlab, working with Knack to develop a database of training and skill development programs, and further develop an ecosystem of digital badges amongst inner city organizations.
As Project Coordinator with the Local Economic Development Lab, I work on an employment initiative, Knack, at Potluck Café Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Here I use some entrepreneurship concepts to reflect on some of my experiences in this neighbourhood.
I have a deep appreciation for human centered design. I am glad that this ‘lean’ generation of entrepreneurship education focuses on providing value to customers that is based on empathy – understanding what people truly want and need. A valuable product or service is not what you think your customer or client wants but what they actually want. It takes integrity to stay focused on this.
Central to human centered design is talking to who ever it is you’re designing something for. This includes being aware of your own assumptions or prejudices and allowing these to change as you really listen to the person.
The DTES is a great place for challenging assumptions. Almost every day I am invited to be more open minded. Once when I was walking on Hastings a man, hunched over, shuffled towards me. I thought he was going to ask for money so I quickly composed a kind but firm response in my mind. What he actually asked me, with the utmost politeness, was, “Can you please tell me the way to Carnegie Community Center?”
Another time I was sitting at the bus stop ignoring two men who were casually exchanging insults above my head. When we got on the bus, one of them abandoned his aggressive manner to kindly arrange a seat for my crutches and me.
These days as I walk in the street I try to remember to look people in the face instead of looking past them or at external appearances. What I usually see when I do this is someone going about their life, carrying their own troubles with them, just like we all are.
In my work with Knack I meet community residents who are actively trying to turn their days in a good direction. They participate in our Soft Skills and Kitchen Hard Skills workshops because they really want to find work. People want work for the money (we know that income assistance leaves only about $18 a week for food) but there are other subtleties as well. For each person the true value of work is slightly different: something to do, a stable routine, being part of a team, learning a new skill, a sense of purpose…
Realizing this has helped me be more open minded about what work looks like. I met someone outside of Knack who told me how the work he does is perfect for what he needs. He drops by a certain NGO that gives honorariums for odd jobs. He works a bit and gets $5, which is what he needs for his cigarettes and beer. He meets interesting people and learns new skills. He told me he’s turned down offers for other work because he prefers the freedom. Our culture tells us we should work as much as possible and might chastise him for this. But, looking at it another way, it seems totally reasonable for a man of about 65. He’s taking his retirement while he still has the health to enjoy it.
Many individuals face incredible barriers. As I see it now, often the role of service providers is in helping someone stabilize enough that they can work towards what they want in life; able to regain control over their addiction/mental health/most recent crisis rather than being controlled by it. That is what I saw in that man. He knows what he needs and how to get it in a positive way. The alcohol is still in his system but it’s not controlling him.
How do NGOs and social enterprises know their beneficiaries? How can our services be of stronger value than a chemical fix? And so accessible that the myriad of other challenges don’t get in the way? How do we deeply empathise with those who use our services and iterate what we offer to meet their deeper needs and motivations?
Knack has discovered that our Soft Skills workshops teach us as much as they teach the participants. By coming together once or twice a week over 8 weeks in participatory workshops we learn snippets about people’s lives, their struggles and aspirations. When we match people with job opportunities we draw on all this informal knowledge of each person to try to make a match that will set someone up for success and growth rather than failure.
At this intersection of business and community we must always ask ourselves, who are we creating value for and how do we listen to them? May we do it with empathy and integrity, creating experiences of inclusion and empowerment.
Footnote: The stories I used in this post, fleeting moments of connection with people I may never see again. I would like to ask their permission, and know their take on what I saw. As this is not possible I offer a general disclaimer: these interpretations are my own and everything I think I know is always based on incomplete information ☺
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