At a time when Greenfield is still grappling with the challenges of the COVID pandemic, GCC has launched Reading for Change, a program to unite the entire community in a shared goal: increased empathy.
Reading for Change is a collaboration among GCC, Greenfield High School, and the Greenfield Public Library that invites students, staff, faculty, and community members to read, discuss, and engage with a common text. In this inaugural year, the Reading for Change text is The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.
Reading for Change began in the social sciences department at GCC, led by sociology professor and department co-chair Brian Kapitulik, faculty members Josh Becker and Linda McCarthy, and professor emerita Anne Wiley. “We thought if we had a social science lens around this project, we could identify something that affects us all in the broader community, read a text that examines the problem and uses social science research to talk about its causes and consequences, and then importantly, offers viable solutions,” Kapitulik explains.
In The War for Kindness, Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki describes research-informed strategies for increasing kindness and empathy in the face of racial inequality, political polarization, and decreasing trust in social institutions. He explores empathy in different settings, such as the criminal justice system, education, and health care, which parallel many of the environments where GCC graduates will work.
The GCC community has responded enthusiastically to the project. So far, 11 faculty members (representing 15 courses and approximately 200 students) are incorporating the book into their classes, in disciplines ranging from the social sciences, education, and criminal justice to music.
Kapitulik has also encouraged staff members to read the book with their colleagues and use it as a jumping off point to discuss how, in their professional roles, they can build kindness and empathy into the college’s institutional culture.
The organizers will also encourage individuals to engage in Kindness Challenges, a series of exercises that Zaki presents designed to strengthen our capacity for empathy. Each library will create a “Kindness Corner,” with materials and resources to help people participate.
Librarian Liza Harrington is organizing the efforts of GCC’s Nahman-Watson Library, where they will distribute the books to students in addition to setting up a Kindness Corner. At Greenfield High School, librarian Jess Pollack ordered more than 100 copies of The War for Kindness and initiated a summer read for faculty and staff. The school will also make it part of this year’s AP English curriculum.
The Greenfield Public Library is developing an array of opportunities for the community. They have created a “Book Club in a Box,” providing copies of the books and discussion guides, and will have twelve additional circulating copies. Librarians are also putting together kindness and empathy reading lists for adults, teens, and children and their Kindness Corners will include activities, displays, inspirationals quotes, and a kindness journal for people to record their thoughts and experiences.
Throughout the fall, Reading for Change will host three community-wide virtual events. The September 23 kickoff will focus on understanding the importance of empathy, while Making Connections (October 21) will be a community discussion on empathy across a variety of settings. At the final event, Making a Difference (November 18), Jamil Zaki will participate in a discussion of the book and help participants strategize ways to spread empathy and kindness in the community.
The Reading for Change project is already having an impact. According to Dean of Social Sciences, Professional Studies, and Workforce Development Chet Jordan, it has helped the GCC community connect when so many are still not on campus. “It has been a thread that has bound us all together in this really kind of liminal space that we’re in,” he observes. “We’re sort of back on campus and sort of not and Brian’s using this reading to unify it all.”
For his part, Kapitulik is optimistic about the project’s long-term effect, as the Greenfield community explores the meaning of empathy and how each person can apply it to their own spheres of influence, whether they’re police officers, school teachers, or college professors. “If we’re all trying to interject a little more empathy and kindness into whatever it is we do in the community,” he affirms, “it’s going to have a ripple effect, improving the quality of our lives and the quality of our community.”
For more information on Reading for Change, visit www.gcc.mass.edu/reading-for-change.