STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Are we just one good story away from more effective social welfare policies?


What happens when you take high school students from a poor school and have them interact with high school students from a rich school? Well, if you're lucky, a little something called empathy develops. 

(Need a refresher on the difference between empathy and sympathy? Check out this animated video of a fox and a bear and an antelope. I guarantee it's way better than just looking up the definitions in a dictionary.)

In the recent New York Times Magazine piece - The Tale of Two Schools- we learn about a kind of urban student exchange program that's been going on for about eight years called Classroom Connections, where students from a poor school in the Bronx meet up with students from a nearby expensive private school to talk about "race relations, say, or gun violence, or to take a combined field trip to work on a community-garden project."

The kids recently got together for an exercise in "radical empathy." The students paired off and swapped stories, and then turned around and shared their partner's story with the rest of the group. All told it seems to have been a pretty powerful workshop for the students. Here's how one student, 17-year old Juliet Lewis, describes it:

It would be untrue to say we spent an afternoon telling each other’s stories and ‘got past that whole difference in class thing.’ But when you tell someone’s story, that’s something precious, and you have to take care of it, you have to take care of them. Afterward, as my partner was making me laugh during all the ‘serious face’ photos, I was really grateful that he had taken as much care with my story as I tried to with his.”

Storytelling can be a really powerful tool. So powerful that, according to neuroeconomics expert Paul Zak, it has the potential to change our brain chemistry. Here's an animated video explaining Zak's research about neurochemistry, empathy and storytelling:

My colleague, Sarah Alvarez, talked toresearcherElizabeth Segal last month about empathy and public policy. 

Segal says a lack of empathy might be a key reason poverty policy might not work as well as it could. "Most of the people in positions to make public policy and social welfare programs don't have any personal experience or insight, empathically, into what it's like to be poor in this country." Segal isn't saying policy makers have hard hearts or don't want to make effective policy. It's more an issue of "you don't know what you don't know."

It makes you wonder: are we just one good story away from more effective social welfare policies?


Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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