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From Social Distancing to Social Connection – Narrative 4's Radical Empathy

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5 min read

From Social Distancing to Social Connection – Narrative 4's Radical Empathy

5 min read

From Social Distancing to Social Connection – Narrative 4's Radical Empathy

In 2012, the Irish author Colum McCann co-founded an empathy education project in New York City that brought minority and white young people together to exchange stories from one another's lives. The purpose was to break down barriers between the students so that they could understand each other on a deeper level.

After swapping the stories the young people were asked to tell their partner’s stories in the first person to the entire group. A process that allowed the young people to understand another perspective and walk in each other’s shoes in an experiment in what McCann calls ‘radical empathy’.

The success of the project led to the creation of Narrative 4, a not-for-profit organisation that trains teachers and community workers across 20 US States in empathy building techniques.  The story exchange, as it became known, has  attracted the attention of international media and researchers. McCann explains “I co-founded Narrative 4 in 2012 along with a social entrepreneur Lisa Consiglio in response to the realisation that barriers are being created and stereotypes reinforced at an alarming rate around the world. The story exchange offers a whole new way of listening and seeing.”

In 2016 Narrative 4 Ireland opened a Centre for Empathy in a renovated Georgian townhouse on O’ Connell Street supported by  Limerick City and County Council and the JP McManus Benevolent Fund. Other funders soon came on board including Creative Ireland and Rethink Ireland who supported the training of over 300 secondary school teachers and youth workers around Ireland. Limerick native Dr. James Lawlor has been at the fore of developing the centre and rolling out programmes that have reached over 7,000 young people.“Our work focuses on fostering a kinder and more empathic society. We use an evidence based method that allows young people to rationalise their experiences through stories and improve their listening and tolerance skills for others. Allowing young people to tell their stories is a cathartic process that creates a space for connection, empathy and self-reflection.”  

The charity has run a number of story exchanges for the community including a story exchange between older people and teenagers in Limerick. James Lawlor says ” No matter what age you are. We all have a story to tell and we all have a need to feel like we are understood and that we belong. The intergenerational story exchanges are always special. Sometimes the younger people might have a set idea about older people or vice versa and the process challenges these stereotypes.

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Colum McCann says despite the obvious challenges presented by Covid-19, he feels the time is right for the organisation to expand and that Limerick is the perfect place to lead the way as the city has overcome the stigma caused by a negative stereotype cast upon it from the outside.

“Our work is global but Limerick is at the heart of it all. The city is rich in history, heritage, and culture and the passion of its people is evident to all. Exchanging stories is what we’re all about, and by exchanging our stories we know we can change the world for the better. Look around at all that is happening right now. People are lonely, isolated, divided. By coming together and exchanging stories, we can bring folks together, to see the beauty in each other, to cultivate kindness, empathy, and humanity. Who better to lead this change than young people?”

The bestselling author of Let the Great World Spin and Apeirogon says the organisation is well placed to respond to current challenges and he is excited about the future. “It’s been a challenging time for all of us, there’s no doubt about that, recent months have been difficult for colleagues in the education sector, and charitable  organisations are under serious pressure, especially around fundraising. We know too that the Covid-19 pandemic is taking a huge toll on people and recent studies suggest young people are particularly affected. There’s a lot of invisible suffering out there which is why this kind of work is so important. We’re all about bringing people together, fostering connection, creating spaces for people to see they are not alone and that we are stronger when we hear each other and stand by each other.

We have tough times ahead, there’s no doubt about that, but Narrative 4 is poised to answer the call of our time. We’ve invested heavily in digital development and we will very soon have the capacity to train over 1000 facilitators per year, which has the potential to positively impact the lives of many young people.”

This summer Narrative 4 Ireland trained an additional 180 secondary school teachers from all across Ireland using an online platform. James Lawlor says “It is exciting to see our community of practitioners expand and see the story exchange become more mainstream in schools.”  The timing is right according to James, who says the organisation’s recent transition into virtual training and programming means they can reach more people than ever regardless of school closures and other Covid-19 restrictions. The story exchange lends itself to Zoom and the organisation has provided training to teachers in how to run the programme online.

Our next project is a partnership with Creative Ireland. We will train and mentor 12 youth workers who work with traveller and Roma youth.  This is a section of society whose voices are not often heard and we hope this programme will empower Traveller and Roma young people to tell their stories and challenge the stereotypes held by the wider community. “It would be amazing to do story exchanges between middle class young people from say Limerick, Cork or Dublin with Travellers and Roma youth so that they could understand each other and build friendship across that great social divide.” says James.

Find out more about Narrative 4 and the new Creative Ireland partnership  at www.narrative4.com/Ireland

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