One of the aims of the ‘Spread the Action!’ project is to promote critical thinking and to foster empathy as tools to tackle inequalities and discrimination. Keeping that in mind, we design our trainings and events as a platform for participants to reflect on our assumptions, beliefs, values and experiences that inform our views and perspective on these topics.
This is especially relevant nowadays, as we discussed at our last training, on the 13th October: We don’t seem to appreciate our humanity anymore, we’re just becoming our labels (e.g. immigrant, foreigner, Scottish, British, pro staying in the EU, pro leaving the EU, pro Trump, pro Hillary…). In this current context (Brexit, Refugee humanitarian crisis, American elections..) we seem to be more open to voicing stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions out and loudly: Can we contain that? Should we contain that? Do we need to go through this rough stage in order to arrive to the opportunity for change, the opportunity to celebrate Identities and the wealth of Diversity? Do our differences justify the bitter divide that is taking over our life today? Could we learn to disagree without abandoning one another?
For us, promoting critical thinking helps us to go into the values, beliefs, assumptions behind opinions and positions (discrimination, hatred…). One powerful tool to promote critical thinking is asking questions: questions have really helped us and the groups we’re working with to open up, clarify and explore assumptions, and to explain why we think and behave the way we do.
As Fran Peavey, pioneer in the use of strategic questions, explained, questions can empower and create motion – “What or who is missing for you in this picture? What do we need more clarity about?”-; they can create new options –“What difference would bringing these topics (identity, hateful behaviours and attitudes, empathy…) to our group(s) make?”- and they can help us to dig deeper – “What is important to us about challenging hateful attitudes and behaviours?” “Why do we care about this field of work?”, “What might be the risks (problems, barriers) and opportunities (funding, networking…) of working with these topics?”.
And what do we mean by empathy? After doing deep reading on this issue, we’re understanding empathy as the respectful understanding of what others are experiencing and being fully available to the other person. Accepting the other person as they are at that moment (accepting, not necessarily agreeing!) so we may feel safe enough to look at the issue causing the divide, to work through it and to move on. And last, but not least, empathy requires us to be genuine, honest with oneself and with the other when interacting with each other.
Because“questions can be like a lever you use to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can. . . . If we have a short lever, we can only just crack open the lid on the can. But if we have a longer lever, or a more dynamic question, we can open that can up much wider and really stir things up. . . If the right question is applied, and it digs deep enough, then we can stir up all the creative solutions.” (F. Peavey)
Over the past months we’ve also been coordinating Action Days aiming at raising awareness about the influence each of us have in order to make a positive difference: every little counts to challenge hateful behaviours and to nurture empathy! We have partnered up on two occasions with the British Transport Police to organise Action Days, using different creative methods to reflect on hateful attitudes and behaviours. At our last Action Day at Central Station, contributing to Hate Crime Awareness Week 2016 (#HCAW2016), we invited passers by to come up and place some of their ideas, feelings, opinions about what characteristics from one’s identity might provoke hateful behaviours & attitudes and what could we actually do to reduce the hateful behaviours and attitudes. As a follow up, we have created a questionnaire: it will only take you a few minutes and your answers will contribute to the ongoing conversation and will be extremely helpful for this needed discussion to keep developing and progressing. Because in our opinion, both critical thinking and empathy are like muscles: through practice and work we will keep getting better at them.