Today, I awoke to a changing America, one that looks and feels very different from the American I have come to know. Much of the night I contemplated what I would say to my two children, one a girl and one a boy with 2 best buds from Mexico. Some awoke from a dream this morning and for others a nightmare. We woke to division, fear, and deep hatred. I deeply struggled with how to approach this conversation, even for someone that should always know the right words in the right order. Today, I did not.
I was harkened back to a lecture I gave this summer at our Summer Speech Institute. SSI has always been more than about winning tournaments. It is truly about finding your voice and developing the confidence and competence necessary to become an agent of change. Those with the ability to influence become the leaders, the original aim of a liberal arts education.
I introduced the students to the concept of empathetic leadership. Some scholars argue empathy is the #1 skill a leader must possess in order to be successful. Empathy should be not confused with sympathy. Empathy means you recognize and understand someone’s feelings, how this impacts one’s needs, and how it shapes one’s perception. In a time when exclusion and incivility dominate our political and social landscapes, perhaps empathy is what we need to be teaching.
I am convinced, more than ever, speech is the training ground where we foster a rebirth of and cultivate the next generation of empathetic leaders. Speech teaches emotional intelligence and perspective taking. It forces the speaker and the audience to look at problems from a different vantage point. It forces students to remove the coat of privilege. It forces us to put the needs of others before our own.
I have spent all of my professional life teaching students words matter, that words are the most powerful weapon we possess. Words will always tell the story. It is more than just words. When the stakes in our country are high while simultaneously speech programs across the country are being cut, we can no longer sit idly when speech can do its part to teach a more tolerant, a more accepting, a more empathetic society. Our country desperately needs empathetic leaders.
The tattoo on my wrist took on a different meaning today for me personally. It is reminder of why helping others find their voice is more important than ever. It symbolizes the need for empathy.