Seeing the world through different eyes: hearing it through different voices

“They shouldn’t say a thing about me until they’ve walked a day in my shoes,” the young man told me.

I was on a football pitch on a housing estate in Hackney, east London, at the start of a three-month tour around the UK researching my book, British Voices. It was late August 2011, some three weeks after the worst rioting in thirty years had spread from Tottenham to other parts of the capital – including Hackney – and other cities around England. The young man and his friends were not feeling good.

“Even though we’re not involved in gangs,” one told me, “the way people look at you just puts you down.”

“We’re stereotyped,” he went on, “even us good people. No matter what you do, you’ll always have that bad name of a black kid from Hackney, so some people think, ‘I might as well be bad.’”

“If there are no opportunities anyway,” another said, “you might as well risk it.”

His sense that the negative expectation of young people growing up in that part of London became a self-fulfilling prophesy was deeply saddening, but it was the young man who had talked of others ‘walking a day in his shoes’ who stuck with me. He might not have used the word, but I felt he was talking about empathy – the ability to see the world from another’s perspective. He and his friends didn’t feel that anyone empathised with them: “no matter what you do, you’ll always have that bad name”.

I reflected further on empathy as I continued my research. As I travelled around Britain, I found fundamentally good people everywhere I went but empathy was often lacking: whether towards people of other backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, genders or attitudes.

Too often I heard people stereotype others whose attitudes and experience they didn’t truly understand, not necessarily through any fault of their own but because of prevailing attitudes amongst their friends or family or simply because a lack of exposure to people of different backgrounds. Yet this lack of understanding was clearly damaging, creating boundaries between people and communities, undermining trust and social bonds.

How, I wondered, is it possible to develop more empathy, to enable us to work better to understand ourselves and others, and respect those who are different to ourselves, for what they are?

When I met I counsellor during my research, I asked her exactly this question.

“You don’t teach empathy,” she told me, “you imbibe it from those around you.”

It was, perhaps, my favourite quote on a journey which involved speaking to over 1,000 people. And I couldn’t help thinking once again about mentoring and befriending and the opportunity it provides for people from different backgrounds to come together and share experiences.

It struck me as I travelled that it is very important, but not always that common, for young people to have the chance to build relationships with people outside of their immediate circumstances: their home, school or their community. I returned from my travels more convinced of the value of initiatives such as mentoring which provide an opportunity to connect with someone outside of their family or peer group, who has different experiences and perspectives on the world.

I know from being a mentor myself that the benefits go both ways, giving the adult the chance to learn vital life-skills themselves: the ability to listen without judging, to encourage and support without ‘telling’, to seek a greater awareness of what the world might look like from someone else’s perspective. And for me, that is what is so special about mentoring: a long-term, voluntary commitment on either side: neither mentor nor mentee forced to take part: both trying, in some small way to walk in each other’s shoes.

I hope the book provides some opportunity for people to hear the voices of others who have different backgrounds, attitudes and experiences from their own. Yet it seems to me that there is no substitute for true human relationships as the basis on which to build empathy, making me all the more convinced of the need for initiatives like mentoring to help to build our society for the future.

Joe Hayman is a mentor for Friendship Works and the Author of British Voices, a portrait of the UK from the perspective of its people.

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