Empathy and Safe Schools

Empathy and Safe Schools

Last week, along with 2,000 other people, I listened to great Australians Debra Cheetham AO, Julian Burnside AO, Chris Judd, Tara Moss and Susan Carland discuss empathy in a forum at the Melbourne Town Hall.

It was a timely moment to pause and reflect on empathy which is the idea of stepping and walking in the shoes of others. Susan Carland had a simple and eloquent description: empathy is to look at someone unlike yourself and see their humanity. Julian Burnside took it further: A thing once seen cannot be unseen and therein lies the responsibility to act.

Safe Schools Coalition Australia (SSCA) has received a good deal of media focus recently. The national alliance of well-established and credentialed organisations supports principals and their teachers with good, well researched, evidenced-based information and classroom resources regarding how to support LGBTI young people in schools. SSCA has broad, multi-partisan political support at the Federal level and State and Territory support around the country. It is an opt-in program with more than 500 schools across all sectors involved to date and more than 18,000 teachers trained. Frankly, we cannot keep up with the requests for this support from schools.

SSCA has been plagued for the past 12 months by two small ultra conservative organisations, the Australian Christian Lobby and Family Voice, who have raised objections and petitioned to MP’s against the existence of a program which seeks to stand in the shoes of others, in this case LGBTI young people. It’s one thing for a group of individuals to have a different set of values, it’s another altogether to be completely closed to dialogue, or worse, to maliciously and intentionally misinform others.

So let me set the record straight, SSCA exists so that teachers, families and students (LGBTI or not) can all contribute to creating positive learning environments where the school community is informed, educated and celebrates diversity. Empathy. Surely the most Christian of all values.

By their very existence LGBTI young people are not victims. They do not need sympathy, but they do, like all of us, need empathy. School is meant to be the level playing field, a place of learning, safety, of feeling and finding your way in the world. Most young people spend more time at school than anywhere else in a given week. Except research tells us that this experience can be a living hell for some students who are marginalised, vilified and experience homophobic and transphobic bullying in the school grounds. This is particularly serious for young people who are, for whatever reasons, unsupported at home.

Apart from looking after our team at SSCA, the most important focus in my mind over the past few weeks has been LGBTI young people, their siblings and their friends. I have worked with young people all my life, from all walks of life and circumstance. To be thrown into an unwanted spotlight, to be vilified for the person you are, who you love, to watch and hear a barrage of abuse flowing through your media is serious and damaging. As parents we can’t protect our children from everything that happens to them but we can absolutely expect in Australia in 2016 that school will be a safe place.

Amidst all the media and commentary there has also been an enormous outpouring of support. People know that a community which is diverse is good for society; that diverse workplaces are good for business and a school which embraces and celebrates diversity is a school in which all students do better.

I believe we have a hunger for genuine discourse in this country. 2,000 people turned up out of nowhere on a midweek night in Melbourne to talk about empathy. A few days later another 2,700 people turned up in Sydney to hear Brene Brown talk about empathy and vulnerability. Clearly, we want to talk about things, and talk things through, in Australia. Democracy is not politicians, promises, wins and losses at the voting booth but the decisions and choices we make every day to be better together.

We are fundamentally hardwired for empathy. Sure, we don’t like to be proven wrong but we delight in the discovery of a new truth, particularly a lived experience and love sharing it. We are inspired by acts of empathy and compassion and we feel happier when we help others, when we seek to understand.

Empathy is learned. Let’s practice it by stepping into the shoes of our LGBTI young people and community. Let the power of truth and love win the day.
Jan Owen AM
Foundation for Young Australians


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