Environmental Stewardship: What's empathy got to do with it?

Creative Action Institute recently crossed the Atlantic to convene 33 participants from 19 conservation and gender rights organizations working in Cameroon.

From September 5-7th, we dug into a Facilitation Intensive as part of the Creative Leadership for Social Change Certificate Program, made possible by our partners at the New England Biolabs Foundation.

Cameroon is challenged by a host of environmental issues - from deforestation, poaching, desertification, poor sanitation and water services to a lack of government support. Despite a wealth of cultural and natural resources, 50-55% of the population live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is a very high 40-50%.

Our collaborating partner organizations represent a powerful force of change, working to empower youth, women, refugees, indigenous communities and small-scale farmers around the country with leadership and vocational training, alternative livelihood options, sustainable agriculture training, family planning education and conservation initiatives.

In this intensive course, our partners learned to master the primary elements of facilitating and designing participatory workshops. Breaking out into facilitation teams, participants gained direct experience in how to lead a series of innovative activities to motivate and engage their communities. Through our collective dialogue, reflection and feedback process, one point that emerged again and again was the power of empathy.

You might ask: what does empathy have to do with conservation and gender work? Our answer: Everything!

Through the CAI process, participants discovered firsthand the critical role empathy plays in their work to advance social change and environmental stewardship. One activity has trainees form a circle, and each person is invited to step inside the circle if they identify with a series of declarations to see who else among the group shares that particular experience, identity or belief. Declarations included vulnerable topics such as losing family members to HIV/AIDS, experiencing some form of gender-based violence or feeling despair about the condition of our world.

The sense of connection and empathy in the room was palpable with the collective realization that these struggles are not faced alone - reinforced by the experience of bearing witness to the same distress of their peers. Isolation is one of the root causes of apathy, and our partners reflected together on how a sense of belonging motivates us to act on each other’s behalf.

In the Council of All Beings activity, participants created simple masks and costumes to represent a nonhuman Being - sharing that Being’s concerns, perspectives and challenges of the environmental crises. We heard the lament of Chimpanzee, Coral Reef, Soil, and Elephant, among many others, each sharing their unique tale illustrating the devastating impact of our unsustainable human activities.

The experience of putting aside their human identity for just 30 minutes provoked a depth of feeling and awareness that decades of conservation work may never reach. John Kiyang, the head veterinarian for the Limbe Wildlife Center, was close to tears as he reflected: “I have worked with chimps for 20 years, and I only now realized the harmful impact of forcing them into a submissive role with humans. Even though we are providing rehabilitation services, we are still holding them in captivity. I felt what it must be like from their perspective, and it will change the way I work with them.” By feeling the suffering of others, we are able to do our work with more awareness, wisdom and compassion.

On the third day, we engaged in Each One Teach One, where participants create theater skits and poems to illustrate the intersection between women and climate change by embodying the important role women play as traditional knowledge keepers, land stewards, health protectors, community leaders and advocates for future generations. In the plays, men donned headscarves and stepped into the shoes of Cameroonian women. By role-playing and empathizing with the female experience, the men realized that empowering women is key for effective climate change mitigation. Here is a poem written and performed by a group of men:

Women, a climate resource Women, custodians of our tradition, procreators of our generations libraries of knowledge but silenced in decision-making

Women, sowing seeds protecting life, producing food and causing little impact on our natural resources but no one seems to hear or see them

Women, weather experts climate biologists and scientists but lack the opportunities to share their knowledge

Women, climate researchers skillfully navigating the climate crisis but their knowledge remains unvalorized

Women, women! Climate resources we can’t do without Let’s engage women in climate change mitigation!

We are moved to act because we care. During the training, our partners opened their hearts and minds to the experience of others and were transformed in the process. By stretching the imagination and taking on the experience of impacted communities, both human and nonhuman – our partners discovered the power of empathy to remind us of our profound interconnectedness and inspire wise action on behalf of the entire web of life!

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present. The main thing is that you're showing up, that you're here and that you're finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”  ― Joanna Macy