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Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University and MLFN Caregiving Team Member

Most of us know the old saying that you can’t understand someone’s perspective until you have “walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s an adage that resonates today as we consider mindfulness and the need for empathy.  Of course this is more simply said than done. However, such perspective allows us to have understanding and empathy for others – as well as an appreciation for our own biases and vulnerabilities.

Drawing from the likes of John Rawls, I teach my students about the importance of thought exercises or tools that help us understand the situations of others – especially those who may have less resources, those facing pressures and stress in life, and those who may have less power or standing in a situation, or be more vulnerable. Conversely, these exercises help us to understand that when we are in positions of power and authority we may have privilege that goes unacknowledged.   These tools allow us to gauge circumstances where inequality may exist. They allow us to consider how our own biases, prejudices, and preferences shape our perspectives and worldviews.  While we know that we cannot completely separate ourselves from who we are, such efforts in appreciative inquiry can make us better and help build empathy across our differences.

Dionardo Pizaña

Recently, the MFLN’s Virtual Conference provided an opportunity to acquire another tool to aid in our understanding.  It is one that I will share with my students in the future and one that I would like to share with you now.  The Virtual Conference centered on the topic of change, be it in our professions, our personal lives, the organizations that we belong to, or among those we serve. Dionardo Pizaña, an extension specialist with Michigan State University, gave a presentation on “Leveraging Connections” examining organizational change through the prism of individual perspectives and attitudes.  Pizaña stresses the need for “equitable and inclusive change” as both an ethical and practical imperative.

Achieving such change requires a level of “emotional intelligence” that can be learned and refined through self-reflection and reinforcement by others in a trusting organizational or community setting.  One of the most important elements of this is to allow a sense of vulnerability in admitting to others that you may not have all the answers, that you appreciate the needs of others but cannot have full understanding, and that you are subject to human frailties and shortcomings.  In short, Pizaña is encouraging us to have “trust” in others to allow better communication and understanding.

As Pizaña notes, “We live in a society that drives us towards sameness and the rejection of differences.”  While we can and must find common ground and connection, we should also acknowledge that the manner in which we encounter and manage change can be affected by who and what we are.  As Pizaña notes these may include, 1) race/ethnicity, 2) gender, 3) sexual orientation or gender expression, 4) disabilities, and 5) other differences.  Striving toward sameness has profound effect on self-identity and community and undermines opportunities for organizational and personal growth.

Recognizing difference is one part the equation. But we must also acknowledge the power dynamics and structures embedded in social and organizational settings that can be taken for granted – especially by those in positions of power.  Here Pizaña reminds us that to achieve both equitable and inclusive change requires questioning these foundations. With this we can take proactive steps, both as individuals and with others, to enable and empower multiple voices that can contribute and share in positive change and development.

I will leave you with one last thought drawn from Pizaña’s presentation and this deals with the importance of curiosity.  Curiosity or inquisitiveness is a “gift” that sometimes is lost or misplaced as we grow older, as we get caught up in role or status, or as we lose trust in ourselves and others.  What a shame it would be to lose this gift, for this is also the gift of teaching and learning. As Dionardo Pizaña notes, the best way to preserve this gift and to find it after it has been lost is to do so in collaboration with others.

 This MFLN-Military Caregiving concentration blog post was published on October 27, 2017.