Matt co-founded Empathy Action with Ben Solanky over five years ago. Late last year Matt felt that the time was right to step down as an Executive Director. He shared a heartfelt statement in which he spoke of the difficulty of his decision and how utterly convinced he remains of the vital need and impact of Empathy Action’s work. As Co-Founder, Matt emphasised that he will always be part of our team and how proud he is of everything we’ve achieved. We know that we can always count on his support, even from afar. While we will miss him, we are hugely grateful for his ongoing passion and commitment to Empathy Action.
We asked Matt to reflect on his time with Empathy Action and below are his thoughtful and inspiring answers to our questions.
How did Empathy Action come about?
Firstly I think it’s important to state that our primary reason for establishing EA – at the heart of both the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of this organisation – was a response to Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”. His mandate underpins everything we do and is the very purpose of our organisation.
EA also came about from a belief that not only do we all have a duty to actively care for others in our world, but that everyone can make a difference, each in their own way.”
We saw that all too often what holds people back is a feeling of helplessness in the face of so many and such enormous problems, which then breeds apathy. We recognised that if we could get people to empathise more deeply with others, through running empathy activities like simulations, this could serve as a powerful catalyst to spur people on to take action.
What’s the story behind the name?
The team spent many weeks trying to decide on the right name for the organisation, we even began with the interim name, The Empathy Project. In the end though, we decided to stop trying to be too clever by considering obtuse names such as ‘Petrichor’, ‘Stone Soup’ or ‘Pebble’, and just say it as it is!
The two words Empathy and Action sum us up completely; not only describing what it is we do, but also describing the type of compassionate action we ultimately wish to motivate in people…an ‘empathy action’.”
What has been your toughest moment?
I think anyone who knows us well knows there have been a few! However, I think some of the toughest moments for me personally were when any pupil would make the deliberate choice NOT to accept one of our gifts handed out to the participants at the end of a simulation. We use these gifts to illustrate how small actions can make a real difference (in this case benefitting the impoverished communities that make them) and we ask pupils to take them as a pledge to care and take action. Whilst it is only ever a handful of individuals who choose not to take one, my sense was always that they were the ones probably most in need of empathy and, my fear, the ones we’d failed to reach. My hope, however, was that a seed may still have been planted and in time bear fruit.
What are you most proud to have achieved through EA?
Again, there are so many things we’ve accomplished as an organisation these past five years, of which I’m immensely proud. Above all though I would say it is the clear and direct impact Empathy Action has had on the many thousands of school children who have taken part in our programmes, as reflected by – and as we’ve already witnessed in many cases – their compassionate choices and actions in the years to come.
Where do you see EA in 5 years’ time?
I would very much hope that the EA community has grown a great deal larger and become even more impactful. We always envisaged starting up new EA ‘hubs’ around the world, in time forming an interconnected, global community of like-minded and ‘like-hearted’ people working together to redress the balance. It would be wonderful if in 5 years’ time we had two or three – or even more – hubs up and running!
What do you take with you from EA as you prepare to leave?
Too many things to name here, but ranking very highly would be a great sense of privilege and deep camaraderie, from having shared a wonderful journey with some amazing people.
I also take with me a firm conviction, which I’ve had from the beginning, that Empathy Action and the role I’ve played in it is very much part of God’s plan.”
What have you learned about empathy during your time with EA?
I’ve observed that building empathy, particularly in children, is much like planting a seed. In some cases it can shoot up quickly with very little nurturing, or it may take years before the conditions are right for it to flourish and grow. But empathy on its own is not enough, it must be put to good use or it will simply wither and die.
Empathy only becomes meaningful and worthwhile if it is then used to take action to help others in need.”
What role can EA play during COVID-19?
Covid-19 is the great leveller, bringing the world to its knees and affecting everyone, regardless of who they are. And because of this we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation where the groundwork for empathy with one another, through a globally shared experience, has already been put in place. I believe that there now exists a unique opportunity for EA to harness that empathy and find new and innovative ways of channelling it into meaningful acts of caring for each other.
What is the most effective way to teach empathy?
The closer one can get to experiencing and ‘feeling’ the lives of others, the easier it is to build empathy with them. It needs an open mind and an open heart, but that is why we believe the experiential empathy activities we run, like the The Poverty Trap and Desperate Journeys, are such powerful tools for teaching empathy.
As Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Thank you so much Matt for reminding us what empathy is all about! We are excited to continue to build on the strong foundation you have created and look forward to inspiring compassionate action in the times ahead.