September 29, 2014 by

The Force Of Altruism: A Basic Recipe For Empathy, Leadership, And Learning To Make A Difference


By Eleanor Bedford

How do schools get to the point where kids not only think that they can make a difference, but they actually go out and do it? What is the secret to their success? What did their teachers do right? After interviewing numerous Changemaker Schools across the country to help share their stories, insights and inspiration I discovered that there is a very clear, basic recipe for making a difference at any age. It goes like this: first, start with empathy. Encourage and apply it. Second, work in creative leadership opportunities. Combine them together. Then watch nascent social entrepreneurs grow.

The two basic ingredients are always the same. The precise form they take and the outcomes that result vary greatly. What makes the recipe fun and delicious is that once you’ve combined the basic ingredients, the positive ripple effects produced can never be predicted (beyond the level of enthusiasm that tends to result.)wholechild- making a difference

Student experiences at the Lab School in Laramie, Wyoming, a public school for Kindergarten through ninth grade, located at the College of Education on the University of Wyoming campus, demonstrate this dynamic. What is more, they also mirror the same kind of early, formative experience that the world’s most successful social entrepreneurs say drove them to become the innovators, changemakers, and industry leaders that they are today. What do these experiences have in common? The same basic recipe for making a difference.

1. Start with empathy. Empathy doesn’t just mean treating others better; it means doing better. It is the foundational skill that lies at the core of social change because it is what motivates us toward altruism and cooperation beyond our narrow self-interests. When people are encouraged to identify and empathize with others, and then act on that feeling, it can become a driving force for change. If it gains enough momentum to reach the tipping point, this force can literally change the course of human history. Sounds like a series of huge leaps of logic, right?

Let me back up and explain. After supporting thousands of successful innovators driving change in the public interest around the world, Ashoka saw a clear pattern emerge among them. Whenever they asked Ashoka Fellows what most contributed to their current success, they would hear a story about a formative experience from their youth. While the stories were all different, the common denominators were always the same.  It goes like this: early in life, there was a moment when the Fellows not only felt empathy for someone (think: homeless person on a street corner) or about something (think: lack of food or shelter or a sustainable solution) but they were also encouraged to try to help do something about it.  Taking action then—no matter how small—led them to believe, at a very young age, that they could make a difference in the world. Years later, the Fellows found themselves challenging the status quo in their field, striving to make a difference and to bring about positive social change. Often through the relentless pursuit of innovation and collaboration. Occasionally through discoveries that have gone on to change the world as we know it. Click here for some examples.

What started it all? Being encouraged to apply empathy—to move from feeling to action. And then experiencing, first-hand, the positive ripple effects that can result from that action. In many cases, these ripples reach farther and wider than anyone can ever anticipate. Each time a child has that experience of being a catalyst, it builds both their leadership skills and confidence. This makes it more likely that they’ll continue to do something like that again and again, taking greater risks, on a greater scale each time. It doesn’t matter where or how a child starts. The important thing is to simply to begin.

Changemaker Schools consciously cultivate empathy and leadership by creating environments where students quickly identify social issues, then receive the encouragement, support, or platform they need to help address them.  For example, at the Lab School, students learn how to lead Socratic seminars and often facilitate them for the Matthew Shepherd Symposium on Social Justice. Established at the University of Wyoming in 1997 after the tragic death of Matthew Shepherd, the annual event has evolved into a major national conference that examines strategies and actions that can eliminate social inequality.

2. Provide creative leadership opportunities. The Lab School is where University of Wyoming Education students get their hands-on training as future teachers. It goes to follow that a whole-child approach, project-based, and learner-centered education are all central themes. Opportunities for inspired and inventive student leadership are built into both the curriculum and culture.  And, in the words of one seventh-grader who came to Lab in elementary school, the “Diversity of hands-on activities engage students in a comprehensive and unique learning experience.” Students are expected to present on their projects starting in Kindergarten. Older students can propose topics to teach.

Student-led electives provide opportunities for kids to teach their passion to their classmates. Every Friday, students can choose to take two different electives.  A particularly popular elective is the “Force of Altruism” (FOA). It evolved out of a project that literally put students in the shoes of someone who was homeless for a day. “After that shocking experience, some students decided that a difference must be made and FOA was formed. It has continued to thrive while helping [the] community ever since,” a student leader involved in it proudly explained.  FOA runs a variety of activities—such as peace jams, homemade-at-school pie sales and make-your-own taco lunch—to raise funds for their ongoing philanthropy.

“It is truly a sight to behold when the lunch rush hits our humble taco stand,” an FOA member joked. “Students will crowd the halls and effectively throw money at our cashiers to eat the ever-desirable lunch and, more importantly, fund a group striving to help our community and our world to be a better place.” Enthusiasm and altruism go hand-in-hand. What better way to learn?

3. The critical secret ingredient. There is one secret ingredient critical to creating this dynamic. The degree of creativity, initiative, and leadership that students demonstrate—literally the degree of difference they may make in the world—tends to be in direct proportion to the degree of creativity, initiative, and leadership encouraged and expected of teachers. As Margaret Hudson, the Lab School Principal for the past 10 years put it: “Academic success is essential [yet] a focus solely on academics and narrowly measured academic achievement fails to educate the whole child. As a school, we must…balance academic learning with a host of other skills and abilities such as: critical thinking, creativity, civic skills and dispositions, perseverance, social skills, work ethic, physical and emotional health, music, art, and world language and culture.” All additional ingredients in learning to make a difference—for the whole child and the whole world.


Eleanor Bedford is a teacher, coach, and founder of Learning by Design 2C, an organization development and learning strategies consulting firm. She worked in international relief and development for two decades, traveling to more than 40 countries and serving in numerous armed-conflicts, where she provided small grants to social entrepreneurs and activists designed to model positive social change and demonstrate “the art of the possible.” Today, she applies her diverse experience to empower changemakers both at home and abroad: supporting Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative; teaching at American University’s School of International Service; and providing professional coaching—and empathy—to aid workers serving overseas.

Imagine a world where every child masters empathy. Designed for teachers as well as anyone interested in instilling empathy in children, the new Activating Empathy: A Roadmap to Changemaker Classrooms course will enable participants to identify their strengths and weaknesses in cultivating empathy in young people as well as specific resources that can help them improve their work with children. Take the online empathy course and download a toolkit for promoting empathy in schools (PDF).