Did Empathy Fail Us?

From triumph to shame

“Since you were traveling, did you vote?” the taxi driver asked me on election night. I assured him that I voted early and that it was my first time voting, ever. We agreed that this election was like no other, that it has brought out the worst, and sometimes the best, in our country. He told me that he came to America from Pakistan just two years ago with his son, who now goes to school in D.C. We arrived at a red light and he took out his phone to show me a photo. He was smiling with his son in front of the White House gates.
He told me that when he first moved in, he was greeted with open arms from his neighbors, that wearing his turban in this country was a symbol of triumph, but with the recent rhetoric from this election, he said, “This turban sometimes feels like a target.” We both remained in an uncomfortable, unifying silence until the light turned green. “Are you still hopeful for the election?” I asked. “Very,” he said. “There are too many loving husbands and daughters and uncles and grandmothers. They will always win.”
Three o’clock in the morning soon approached and I wondered if he was also awake, staring at the same screen. I wondered if he still felt hopeful, if his chestnut turban felt more like a target, if he was angry, ashamed to be in this country, or scared for his son.
It’s been a month since the election and, still, every time a taxi passes by, I look through the windshield. I cannot stop thinking about that taxi driver – especially because his experience is so different from mine. What does it feel like to watch a candidate suggest that your turban should determine whether you can come to America? How does it feel to walk past neighbors who voted for that rhetoric or, in many cases, were able to overlook it?
I am tremendously privileged to wonder what that feels like.
I have never experienced discrimination or dealt with a slur thrown at me and while the journey that my ancestors took to flee the Holocaust, is a part of me, my story is much different and much easier. It would be ignorant to believe that this election will affect me the most. Actually, it will probably affect me the least, but ignoring this election contributes to the problem and continues to divide our nation.
We have a nation more polarized than ever, people asking their loved ones to “unfriend them” because they voted a certain way, an uproar of protests against a certain candidate and more, sometimes extreme and hurtful, displays of support for the another.

Students gathering at Will C Wood High School in Vacaville, CA.

Students gathering at Will C Wood High School in Vacaville, CA.


Here is the evidence: This is an account of some of the hurtful things Trump has actually said, by Politico. These are hate incidents that happened across the country just ten days after the election, by The Southern Poverty Law Center. 

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where we fundamentally do not understand each other and more alarmingly, where we do not want to understand each other?

Empathy is not easy, but it is necessary

Those around me know that empathy is my favorite word. I am fascinated by the process of understanding another person’s experience, but this election has turned what I thought I knew about empathy on its head — simply and overwhelmingly, because it feels like empathy didn’t work.

Personally, I cannot understand how a close friend of mine voted for a candidate who suggested that Muslims should be banned from entering the country. I do not agree with this statement because I know that diversity is strength and it is blatantly racist. I do not want to be racist and therefore my vote reflected that. The logic is linear. Since my friend voted differently, my immediate conclusion was that she must be racist.
Ultimately, half of America voted the same way she did, for a candidate that bragged about grabbing women without their consent, mocked people with disabilities, suggested that Mexicans are criminals, and painted the Black community as helpless and violent. The same linear logic would lead me to believe that half of America is racist and sexist – it’s the easiest conclusion, but it vastly undermines the problem and prevents me from doing something about it, simply because “I am not racist or sexist.”
Certainly, in some cases people voted specifically for those comments and against minority groups, and that is a real and appalling truth to face. Even more, some people voted because of deliberate misinformation or to protest the system in general. What is perhaps the most disturbing and difficult to rationalize are the people who were able to overlook the racism and sexism because of whatever situation they are facing. Bear with me. I am not suggesting sympathy. I am suggesting that there is a serious and widespread problem with what this election has prompted us to assume about our neighbors.
My first question to my friend was, “How could you vote for racism and sexism?!?!” That didn’t go very well. After a bit of reflection, I wondered what would happen if I asked, “What type of situation prompts you to vote this way, to overlook such offensive comments?” It feels wrong to ask this question. It feels offensive and disloyal to the taxi driver’s triumph, but when I approach this question from a perspective of empathy, I think I understand what went wrong.
I am too afraid to ask my friend why she voted the way she did because I only want empathize a certain way.
My favorite word didn’t fail in this election… I did, we all did. There is dissonance between the empathetic self I pride myself to be and my actual empathetic self that only goes one way. Making assumptions and linear conclusions would have been the easy way out because it excludes me from addressing the problem; but empathy is not easy, it forces me to understand what I don’t want to, and it drives meaningful change.
I imagine my friend meeting the taxi driver. I imagine him showing her that same photo. I imagine the same uncomfortable, unifying silence and I wonder if he will still be hopeful. Will she?

5 things to try for building empathy post-election

Engage with the Ashoka US Youth Council using the hashtag #AshokaYCouncil to share your stories of empathy after this election. Here are some simple ideas for what you can do to empathize with what is uncomfortable after this election:

  1. Spread love, where you don’t want to: It is easy to be kind to the people we already feel comfortable with. It is much more difficult to be kind to the people that we feel offend us or we disagree with. Start with a smile, give a compliment, or send a hand-written note explaining why you appreciate this person. You may be surprised; kindness can harness empathy with people you never thought you could understand.
  2. Challenge people outside your digital bubble: If you wanted to do something online, you could make an open call on Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat and ask any Trump supporters to engage with you in a peaceful empathy building session for understanding. Ask questions, listen and build a space for empathy with someone different than you so that you lead by example and offer them a chance to return it to you. Please take a picture, or make it a Facebook Live video, tagging your efforts with Upworthy’s #UpYourEmpathy and #AshokaYCouncil so that we can join you and track the conversations.
  3. Ask! Offline, at your school or community, ask the questions that you don’t want to. Ask your friends and family members about the situations they are facing and why that prompted them to vote a certain way. Approach your conversations from a place of active listening without giving into threat perception or defensiveness. Push the boundaries of your ability to understand things out of your comfort zone. Remember, we all are battling something. While some battles may be more difficult than others, all battles are hard. You could make this an interactive assembly or townhall at your school, or family meeting with your siblings. Take a picture, or make it a Facebook Live video, tagging your efforts with Upworthy’s #UpYourEmpathy and #AshokaYCouncil so that we can join you and track the conversations.
  4. Look! Understand someone you disagree with without language. Invite both people from your network and those who may different views to a challenge for understanding one another on a human level. Participate in the following exercise: Stare into someone’s eyes that you disagree with for four minutes. It is a powerful nonverbal form of communication and is and proven to promote mutual understanding. Here is an example.
  5. Other ideas: Actions to take. Ways to help.  Watch this video from fellow #AshokaYCouncil member, Amit Dodani, as he shares his thoughts about moving forward. 

*Disclaimer: This post is by Daniella Cohen, and is not an official statement of Ashoka, Youth Venture Inc. or Upworthy. The views expressed by this article are mine, and are not representative of any organizations or partners.

Dear Mom,

Dear Mom,

Thank you. I do not say “thank you” enough. You give, constantly and relentlessly. You give me unconditional love, constant encouragement, empathy, advice, delicious-breakfast-in-bed-every-morning, and calculator-dropping-off-when-I-leave-it-at-home (thank you for that). You give me compassion, regardless of how your day was. You give me positivity, even when you are the one who needs it most. You lend me your ears, when you need someone else to lend you their's. 

This Mother’s Day, I want you to receive, to get back the love that you give everyone else. Receiving is something that you do not do often, but it is something that you certainly deserve. That starts with me. I am trying to be a better daughter and give you the love that you give me. Too often, I use “just being a teenager” as justification for being a bad daughter. You deserve better. Last night, you told me that you wanted one thing for Mother’s Day, as you always do. You wanted a poem. So I wrote you a poem, but it may offend the Laws of Poetry:


There it is. It’s just love. No magic, no secret. Just love. That is what’s real. That's all that matters. You deserve more of it.


Me, Jonny, Azza, and my mother in Paris in 2003.


On Being 17

One month ago, today, I was on a plane returning from the Just Peace Summit in New York. I sat in a window seat overlooking a sunset. Simply and profoundly, it was a dreamy site to see. I forgot about the week’s worth of homework I had to complete, I forgot about the emails in my inbox, about the unread text messages. I was at peace. Content. Meditative. Appreciating the sunset. Uninterrupted, I had been looking out the window for quite some time. I didn’t want this peace to end. How much time was left on this flight? I checked my watch:

30 minutes to go.
Is that really today’s date?
30 days until I turn 18?
… and then the crisis:


As I often do, I looked to my planner to reassure myself.


My planner, my rock, my reassurance. Embarrassing, I know :)

I frantically looked through the pages. I started looking backwards at past events, to-do lists, and goals. “Whew,” I thought. I have been doing things -- lots of things: Mock trial. Travel. Coffee dates. Homework. Flipping through the pages was a sort of reassuring reflection… until it wasn’t. I found unsettling blank spaces and emails I planned on sending, but never did. I found lingering homework assignments and missed opportunities for coffee dates. 

I always set high expectations. That is evident in my planner. I plan to do more than is feasible. I am too critical when I fall short, but I am slowly getting better. According to my planner, being 17 was very productive, but left room for improvement. To me, being 17 was similar to the sunset I watched on the plane: simply and profoundly dreamy -- it has been the happiest year of my life. Emotionally, I have grown so much. Some highlights: discovering my obsession with fungus at the Clark Scholars research program, skating to Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love in the ice show, watching my sister’s documentary Specks of Dust, launching InspirED, hugging Lady Gaga, meeting Jeni Stepanek and learning about Mattie's message of peacemaking. Being 17 was certainly not flawless. I made mistakes. I have regrets. I cried. I both lost and gained friends, valuable friends. I learned more about my own story. I did lots of thinking. I have lots more thinking to do.

Turning 18, in my mind, seems like some sort of intense and philosophical marker of adulthood. At least it did on that plane ride. I don’t think I am there yet. I don’t think I want to be there. I want to make mistakes. I want to learn more before I am “there.”


This photo was taken by my brother, Jonny, at Lake Michigan. I do my best thinking here.


17 lessons:

1.      I need to treat myself with the same compassion I give to others.  Most often, I am own my worst critic. I bully myself when I fall short of my expectations. I deserve compassion.

2.     Self-care MUST be a priority. I preach that “self-care is not selfish,” but putting that into practice is very difficult. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I need to take better care of myself.

3.     Be boldly and unapologetically me. Too often, I apologize for things I cannot control. I apologize when I am vulnerable. Here is what I should be unapologetic about: needing alone time, celebrating success, overthinking things, telling my story, writing my feelings, sharing my feelings, doing what I know is healthy for me.

4.     I need to be nicer to my parents. My parents tend to see the best and worst parts of me.  For all that my parents have given me, they deserve a nicer daughter.

5.      Struggle isn’t relative. This is something I learned the hard way. I compared someone else’s struggle to my own. Any struggle is hard. Every struggle is hard. Instead of responding with judgment, respond to struggle with sensitivity.

6.     Gratitude is tremendous! I am grateful for sunshine. I am grateful for my incredible siblings. I am grateful to have clean water. I have countless blessings in my life, but I cannot just be grateful for my blessings. If I want to be a truly grateful person, I need to learn to be grateful for my struggles, my regrets, my weaknesses, for the things and people that cause me pain. I am grateful for positive and negative aspects of my life, because both have given me the capacity to grow.

7.      Friendship needs to be reciprocated. I am in no way a perfect friend; I am trying to improve. I have lost, gained, and repaired various friendships; the most important lesson I have learned is that I deserve the empathy, advice, and unconditional listening that I offer my friends (and the other way around). Reciprocation is key.

8.     The imposter syndrome is real and very dangerous. “I don’t deserve to be where I am and must be a fraud” is something I face daily. It is difficult to recognize my successes as well deserved. Taking small pride in my accomplishments is not selfish, it may lead to happiness. Speaking of… 

9.     Happiness is a verb. Happiness is hard work that requires consistency! That being said, there are tools to promote happiness -- I wrote about a few here.

10.   Not all relationships need saving. This is something I also learned the hard way. I try so hard to see the good in people. This sometimes leads me to being blind to unhealthy friendships. Reconciling a new beginning may be more important than reconciling a broken friendship.

11.   I need to be less judgmental of my feelings. I tend to judge what stresses me, rather than deal with it. Perhaps not all stress is created equally, but all stress should be addressed. Judgment is only an inhibitor.

12.  I can always “make time.”

13.  Listening is hard. Ever since watching my sister Azza's TEDx talk, I have tried to be a better listener. Being a good listener is hard work -- necessary work.  

14.  Kindness must be a habit. Kindness can be a part of my daily routine. Giving a few more compliments, telling a friend I care about her, or paying it forward -- these are small, easy acts of kindness that can promote happiness instantly. 

15.  Emotional learning is hard! Feeling the way I want to feel is like learning how to ride a bike. It is okay to ask for help; it is okay to make mistakes; it is okay to fall down.

16.  Genuine. I need to be that. I tend to say “I’m good,” when I am not. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to ask for help.

17.  I have so much to learn.



I recently had a conversation with a close friend that made me question what my life would look like if was a book. The conversation was amidst turmoil: our friendship was deteriorating and we both avoided talking about what was going wrong. Perhaps this was because neither of us wanted to admit our shortcomings, neither of us wanted to admit we were at fault. I explained how I was feeling: imbalanced. I felt like I was giving advice, lending my ears at any time, and giving constant positivity to a friend who gave me none in return. He explained what was inhibiting him: too many commitments. He explained that he had been extraordinarily overwhelmed and, therefore, was feeling extraordinarily stressed. Between school, charity work, and family life -- he was just too busy.

He said that if his life was a book, it would be prioritized by page -- meaning that what is most important and takes the most time goes on the first page, the second most important, on the second page, and so on. 

“Right now, you are on the third page.” His words felt like bullets. 

I wanted to ask, “Why must your book have pages?” I wanted to tell him that friendship should never go on the third page. Instead, I said nothing. I could not understand why our friendship was not prioritized. Selfishly, I was offended; I felt unworthy. I was disappointed in myself: I gave so much to someone who did not reciprocate my friendship and predisposed myself to getting hurt. I was also disappointed in him: after seven years of friendship, I expected more. Why can’t he be busy while still being a good friend? Why can’t he fit everything on the first page of his book? I do. 

That was just the problem: I compared his book to mine. I judged his struggle because I thought our struggles were the same.

What I didn’t realize at the time, I realize now. No two struggles are the same. It does not matter whose struggle is worse because struggle is just struggle. Any struggle is hard. Every struggle is hard. 

Looking back, instead of responding with judgment, I should have responded with sensitivity. He was juggling more than just too many commitments. I should have said, “I understand. I am here for you; I am here to listen.” 

The saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” So too with the pages of someone’s book; so too with the struggle on each page. Don’t judge someone’s book by it’s cover, by the sequence of the pages, or by the struggle on each page. 

The response to struggle cannot be judgment. The response to struggle needs to be sensitivity. 

Learning to Ride a Bike

I remember learning how to ride a bike, like it was yesterday. I started with training wheels and consistent practice. When I graduated from training wheels, my father held the handle bar, as my guide. Slow and steady, that is how I learned to ride a bike.

If learning something new, physically, requires this type of practice, then learning something new, emotionally, should require the same.

Since dedicating my senior year to emotional health (click here), I have learned a very important lesson: supporting healthy emotions is just like learning how to ride a bike. It is okay to ask for help; it is okay to make mistakes; it is okay to fall down. Feeling the way that you want to feel is hard work that requires consistency, motivation, and dedication.

It is time that we recognize that broken emotions require the same attention as a broken leg. It is time that we recognize that learning how to feel happier requires the same attention as learning how to ride a bike. 

Parenting + Changemaking

*This post was written in collaboration with Ashoka's Youth Venture. It first appeared here.

Hi! My name is Daniella Cohen and with the help of Ashoka’s Youth Venture and the support of my parents, friends, and teachers, I co-founded GIVE. What started with one letter has transformed into an international letter writing organization. Our main goals are to promote empathy and enhance education at our partner schools in India and Uganda by installing computer labs and providing access to the internet. None of this would have happened without the support of so many people — my parents, specifically, were instrumental. This post is about just that: what my parents did to help me become a changemaker.

How did my parents foster cultural understanding?

My parents supported cultural understanding since a young age. With relatives dispersed between five continents, traveling was easy. Traveling immersed me in other cultures and allowed me to get a glimpse of other peoples lives. This was the beginning of empathy learning.

When travel was not possible, I was able to experience different cultures through books and audiobooks. My parents ensured that the books they read me were written by diverse authors. The books in my book shelf have always represented cultures and stories, very different from my own. I remember reading about great leaders from various countries. My parents also encouraged me and my siblings to act out the stories — these are some of my fondest memories. My favorite audiobooks were mythologies. I remember falling asleep to Greek and Indian mythologies. These stories shaped my understanding of accepting and being curious about other cultures.

How did my parents foster a love of learning?

My parents also supported a love of learning since a very young age — outside of school. In second grade, they suggested I take “Shakespeare for Kids” enrichment classes at a program through a local university. These classes made learning pressure-free, fun, and supported my curiosity for learning.

Outside of the classroom, I talked with my grandparents about their histories. Learning my family’s stories of escape from the Holocaust in Europe taught me to to be curious about and appreciate the past. Learning about culture can start with your own family.

My parents instilled in me a love of learning; this is what inspired me to start GIVE.

Through GIVE, I prioritize providing funding for education at our partner schools. We have installed internet and computers in rural areas of India and Uganda. The laptops supplement the education, spark curiosity and inspire a love of learning, too.

What is the most valuable advice from my parents?

The story of GIVE truly started in 2008, when I was in third grade. As a third grader, I only understood “war” to be a problem of friendship. I had the idea to write letters to students in war-torn areas to build friendships and — in my mind — solve war. So, my third grade class wrote letters to students in Iraq and Israel. Unfortunately, we never got responses, but it was ultimately my parents who gave me the most valuable guidance: just because something doesn’t work the first time, doesn’t mean you should give up. You have to try harder the next time with more passion and drive. Two years later, GIVE was founded as a pen pal exchange with a school in India.

My mother told me, “You must be willing to fail at something if you really believe in it.”

The first letter I received from my pen pal, Suma.

The first letter I received from my pen pal, Suma.

How have my parents supported me in starting my own project?

As a third grader, I thought that friendship could end wars. Looking back, it is easy to laugh at myself and my lack of knowledge about war. However, the notion that students, even in third grade, want to become friends and want to learn about other people is something remarkable. My parents believed in me and supported me by affirming this simple, powerful idea. My parents encouraged me to take risks for what I believed in. By validating my third grade idea, my parents taught me that my voice matters.

Two years later, when GIVE was founded, my parents supported me even more. In fifth grade, I had a separate GIVE-specific email — my parents taught me how to professionally compose emails in order to reach out to mentors, more schools abroad, and prospective pen-pals. My parents helped me apply for grants, launch fundraisers, and manage the funding. My parents practiced giving speeches with me and helped me gain confidence before speaking at funding events. Managing funding and using a “work” email are things that fifth graders don’t usually do. With my parent’s guidance, I am proud to say that GIVE was able to grow into a sustainable and functioning project, started by a fifth grader.

Speaking at a fundraising gala for our first partner school in Bangalore, India.

Speaking at a fundraising gala for our first partner school in Bangalore, India.

Follow Daniella Cohen’s changemaking @GoGiveProject

Follow Ashoka’s Youth Venture @Youth_Venture

Learn about Ashoka Youth Venture’s Council here!