Causes Week 2016: On a mission to bring empathy back into culture

Human Library events allow people from different social backgrounds to engage in open conversation. Speakers, acting as "books", share their life stories, as Ms Pernille Bussone from Cycling Without Age is doing above with "readers" Andy Sim (far lef
Human Library events allow people from different social backgrounds to engage in open conversation. Speakers, acting as "books", share their life stories, as Ms Pernille Bussone from Cycling Without Age is doing above with "readers" Andy Sim (far left) and Lee Shao Zhong.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Etch Empathy organises Human Library event and exercises to experience real-life challenges

In our annual Causes Week, back for its fifth year, we spotlight individuals and groups that are making a difference in the community, and look at how others might pitch in too.

How do you develop empathy?

Local social enterprise, Etch Empathy, is teaching people to empathise through two innovative ways. One involves people acting as "books" in a Human Library, sharing their experiences with "readers".

Another involves acting out real-life challenges, from poverty to physical disabilities.

The Poverty Escape Simulation is being offered to schools and organisations here to help nurture a more empathetic population.

 
 

A two-hour session with Etch Empathy can involve up to 80 participants who play different roles in a simulated community and perform a variety of tasks.

It includes playing the role of a villager, who has to feed his family by selling handmade paper bags.

Etch Empathy co-founder Lee Pin Qi, 26, said people need to cultivate empathy to work better with local communities for more sustainable humanitarian work.

Since it started in 2013, Etch Empathy has held about 50 simulation sessions for around 2,500 participants, aged between 14 and 55.

Besides the poverty theme, the workshop organisers also conduct separate sessions in which participants simulate blindness, deafness and ageing.

Just yesterday, about 50 local and regional staff from Microsoft participated in a deaf simulation exercise. Participants had to order drinks at a shop, respond to an emergency evacuation and attend a meeting while wearing noise-cancelling headsets.

The activities were led by facilitators with varying degrees of hearing loss.

Ms Lee, who studied mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore, started Etch Empathy shortly before graduating in 2013.

She was inspired by the overseas learning trips she made from 2007.

On a trip to Yunnan, China, Ms Lee found that schoolchildren had discarded posters she had hung up a day earlier on a classroom wall. The posters promoted hygiene.

"After talking to the teachers, we understood that the school had not seen it as something useful to them," she said. "Our idea of service then was focused on the need to give them something. For them, it was simply about offering our friendship."

On another learning trip to Cambodia in 2009, she met Mr Aaron Yeoh, 38, who later became the co-founder of Etch Empathy.

Ms Lee said she hopes the simulation exercises can bridge the gap between what beneficiaries need and what volunteers are prepared to give.

Etch Empathy also conducts Human Library events to provide a platform for people from different social backgrounds to engage in open conversation.

Speakers or "books" in a Human Library are on loan to about two to three "readers" at a time. In a small group setting, they are able to share stories about their life, such as prejudices or stereotypes they face, and also take questions.

So far, Etch Empathy has conducted four sessions here with 12 "books" and about 50 participants.

Started in Denmark about 16 years ago, the Human Library concept has grown in popularity and has been held in more than 60 countries.

"It provides a safe setting for people to ask questions that they normally fear to ask," said Ms Lee.

Said copywriter Chen Lukai, 34, who attended his first Human Library session at youth centre The Red Box on Nov 29: "It was a unique experience as it forces us to talk to people outside of our usual circles."

His "book" that day was local tennis player Sarah Pang.

In the future, Ms Lee and Mr Yeoh hope to set up an experiential space in Singapore to allow people to connect with others through multi-sensory zones.

For instance, visually disabled facilitators could play host to a team bonding session that involves cooking in the dark.

The space will give visitors access to programmes and curated exhibitions on deafness, blindness, poverty and ageing, among others.

"I believe that everyone has the ability to empathise, but along the way, the world has become more individualistic. My dream is to bring empathy back into our culture."

For more information, visit www.etch.sg or call 9737-7837.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'On a mission to bring empathy back into culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe