At this year's John P. McGovern Lecture, Terri Givens spoke to MLA | SLA '23 attendees about her book Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. Givens engaged attendees in an energizing discussion of radical empathy including her six principles: willingness to be vulnerable, becoming grounded in who you are, opening yourself to experiences to others, practicing empathy, taking action, and creating change and building trust. She focused on how life is about understanding others, practicing radical empathy, and taking action, like voting and being intentional.
She shared her background, stressing that storytelling is an important component of empathy for others, and her story and experiences molded her views of empathy. She grew up in Spokane, Washington, and although she encountered the feeling of ‘the only Black kid in the room’ in Spokane, she knows her parents wanted to make a better life for their kids.
Givens began researching heart disease after her father passed away from a heart attack and found being a Black man was a risk factor and she found this curious. She wasn’t aware of how much race and bias affect medical research. She says she had her 'man in the mirror moment' and realized that in order to make change she would have to be a leader and that in fact, we all have to take action to have real change. She states that racism is systemic and it requires action, real intentional action, to even begin to address the inequities in the systems we live with every day. Givens also stressed that no one can be non-political. Everything is political and affects everyone. Systems are racist and are designed to be biased against people of color. We must be intentional about change. Creating change means that a doctor will look at people of color as a person and not as a statistic.
Radical empathy requires being willing to take people for who they are and not imposing who we think they should be. Empathy is not something you have or do not have. It takes practice and sometimes is difficult. But what are we really doing; are we doing things in our everyday life to practice empathy? Little things are important, like seeing someone at lunch who's different and taking the time to sit with them and learn something about them. The more we can reach out and understand people’s lives, the more we can have compassion.
Givens was open about her struggles to work through her vulnerability and willingness to be vulnerable with herself, drawing inspiration from Brené Brown. Her accomplishments have required a lot of work and required her to be vulnerable and accept herself. One of the unique features she shared about herself was that she plays fiddle in an Irish pub!
When asked about toxic workplaces, she stated that empathy does not mean absolution. You may need to extricate yourself from toxic environments and people. “Let the toxic environment pass through you, it’s not you,” she told us.
The experience was thought-provoking but also uplifting with the message that there is hope to be 'the change' with radical empathy. After the lecture, Terri Givens stayed to sign copies of her book for grateful attendees.