Build Empathy, Your Activism Will Follow

By Ricky Silver, Co-lead Organizer at Empire State Indivisible

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For four years, our country has been under constant assault from the Trump administration. And for most of 2020, our country has been rudderless as we’ve been tackling a global pandemic which continues to wage psychological, economic, and physical trauma on society in ways we are quite frankly, not emotionally equipped to manage. But on Saturday, as Joe Biden was declared the President-Elect, the weight of the lies, the hate, the devastation, and the violence had been lifted, and for a moment in time, people surrounded by friends, family, and in many cases complete strangers, unleashed an outpouring of joy that symbolized all that can be good in humanity.

You see, joy is one of the easiest things for us to relate to. As human beings, the unmistakable rush of serotonin, the widest of smiles (or masked smizes), the dancing in the streets; it is all universally relatable. The ability to understand and share in joy, even with perfect strangers, is a true gift.

But in the midst of yesterday’s joy, I found a new weight creeping back into my emotional headspace. We had collectively beaten Trump. But the forces that enabled a Trump Presidency had not been defeated.

This country has been built on systems of oppression. Racial, economic, and gender inequalities have not been unintended consequences of a system that is broken, in need of fixing. Rather, as my good friend and incredible legislator Yuh-line Niou often says, “Our system is working exactly how it was designed.” In other words, there is a lot of work left to do.

I’m the last person who needs to be weighing in on the exact details of the path forward and the work ahead. As a straight, white, and privileged man, I know my role is to listen and trust the leaders of the communities that have been most affected by centuries of oppressive policy. But I do know that the reasons I’ve become more engaged in activism and the experiences I’ve had in the last few years are worth sharing. Because to tackle what lies ahead will require even more Americans to stand up and do more work than they used to. Defeating Trump must be the beginning, not the end.

So where do I start?

Well let’s start with that joy we all experienced on Saturday. As I mentioned, the ability to share and understand in the joy that others have is a special gift. But what about other emotions? Other experiences? Why is it that we are so equipped to share in joy but we are often so numb to sharing in others despair? Or in their hardship? Why can so many of us simultaneously acknowledge the inequalities that exist in our country, but at the same time struggle to engage as activists on behalf of those communities?

Recently I took part in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training for my workplace and one of the more impactful moments was when the trainer gave us a clear call to action. She said “Focus on delivering equity, and diversity and inclusion will follow.”

I’m convinced that we all need to think about activism in a similar way. The barriers to engagement within our democratic systems are high. There’s no question about that. As a co-founder of an organization, Empire State Indivisible, that focuses heavily on reducing those barriers, I know just how hard it is to get people mobilized to fight for issues that they perceive don’t affect them. But we’ve had the most success by helping others recognize they are a part of a broader NY community. Why does this matter?

I believe that if we all focus on building empathy, our collective engagement and activism will follow.

Empathy is the ability to share and understand in more than just joy. It’s to recognize that the real lived experiences of others, particularly our black and brown communities, are often filled with pain and oppression in ways that we all may not share, but we must acknowledge.

And when you focus on expanding your empathy, the path to action becomes a lot clearer.

Take for example the homelessness crisis that has only accelerated post COVID19. In the wealthiest country in the world, how could we accept the idea that members of our community are living without shelter, on the streets. I’m reminded of one of my favorite activist leaders, Jawanza Williams of VOCAL-NY who when describing the need to organize for the homeless community said “we need to stop perceiving these crises as fixed realities of our society.”

Read that quote again. Its power is in its directness. And it guides much of my engagement in activism. If we all focus on building our empathy, I promise you the activism will follow.

I know, I know. Right now you are starting to stress out about the time and energy it will take. Maybe you are sitting there reading this nodding your head in agreement but convinced that there simply isn’t the time in your life to become an activist.

What comes next isn’t the “10 ways to hack your activism” commentary that will somehow make it seem easy. It’s not easy work. Pretending it is, is where most organizations fail us. But I’ll offer up a shift in perspective that I think may help. Focus less on the time, and more on your own capacity.

Over the course of our lives, as we grow, mature, and realize more experiences, we don’t gain more hours in the day, do we? But rather, we increase our capacity to achieve. We increase our capacity to learn. And maybe most importantly, we increase our capacity to love.

Capacity, the maximum amount someone can accomplish, is not a fixed quantity. Each and every one of us have examples of moments in our life when we surprised ourselves. Moments where we did more than we used to. While I’m not a parent, I think about so many of my friends that are. I think about how impressed I am with their increase in capacity to nurture, to love, and to build a family. The capacity most would say they didn’t know they had before they chose to have children.

The act of advocating on others behalf is no different. When people ask me how I find the time to do the work I do, my answer is simple: the time finds me. When you root your activism in empathy, the capacity follows.

So where do we go from here? As the National Director of the Working Families Party, Maurice Mitchell has said, “Electing Joe Biden is a doorway, not a destination.” What is on the other side of that doorway will depend on how many of us dig in and do the work. I hope you will join me!

If you are interested in getting more engaged, but don’t know how to start, I am here to help. I would love to welcome you into my activist home at Empire State Indivisible or help you find other ways to get involved. There’s no single way. But it is our collective responsibility.

Please email me at to chat more!

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