Shared Table: Art as Empathy Engine

Published in
6 min readOct 9, 2016


October 4, 2016

SStating the obvious, the world we live in is more connected than ever before and yet more socially isolated, with growing chasms between people of different mindsets. Given that art has always been the ultimate humanizer and bridge builder, we’ve been interested in how to enable the creation and amplification of art that truly brings us closer together.

Our partners at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts share our passion for the power of creativity to drive change. We’re proud to have had the opportunity to work with them to imagine how to share their mission, “generating culture that moves people”, with the people of the Bay Area. We partnered with them to bring our tenth BIG TABLE dinner on the role of art as an empathy engine to life at the YBCA Grand Lobby.

Together we gathered a group of 25 artists and leaders at brands working at the intersection of empathy and creativity to dig into the topic, and share what we’re all learning as we navigate the field, and our own lives. Out of all of the BIG TABLE dinners that we’ve hosted, what stood out to us about this evening was the willingness for participants to share not just professional insights but personal vulnerabilities. Our team at enso left the table that night deeply moved, recognizing the importance of creating spaces to have heart led discussions about the state of the world.

Although we were only able to scratch the surface of this big topic, we want to share a few of the insights that emerged from the BIG TABLE:

Transformation is an ongoing process.

The table recognized that we’re in the process of dismantling long held cultural conditioning of othering each other. To do something so big is not going to change overnight. It’s a long game, with hard to quantify results. Patience, and openness to both experimentation and failure is key.

Humanize, don’t normalize.

While it can be comforting to hear someone say “I understand what you’re going through”, it’s also important to recognize that you won’t be able to put yourself in every other pair of shoes. Be okay being in support of someone’s experience without having to have lived it, or understood it yourself. There’s also a tendency, in the intention of empathizing, to normalize each other and make everyone the same when in fact the only thing we do have in common is that we’re each unique.

Confront the things that make us deeply uncomfortable.
We’ve all done the Facebook purge — or considered it once or twice. The unfriending of the person in your feed who’s posting the articles and rants that make your eyes roll or blood boil. In an effort to get rid of that nuisance, we quickly curate our communities to be full of people who agree with us — and we walk away from the front lines where understanding is needed most.

Heartbreak brings us together.

We reflected on the days following the Paris attacks or after the photo of drowned Aylan Kurdi surfaced. There was an outpouring of supportive content on social media channels. How do we capture that burst of empathy following a tragedy, and channel it into meaningful action?

Start with yourself.

We discussed the awareness that being empathetic towards others requires you to be first empathetic, understanding and loving to yourself. Once we are at a place of inner acceptance, it’s much easier to let those feelings overflow into those around us. Easier said than done, but a powerful practice to cultivate.

Don’t just talk about empathy, create experiences that lead to it.

While its an important conversation to open up, we came to a place that experiences, rather than conversations, are the best ways to cultivate empathy. Its our duty to allow for the creation of more art and in real life exchanges that allow us to create and enter “unsafe space” — the places where we can learn to face our limiting beliefs about others and grow closer together.

What happens when we’re all taking part in artistic expression?

Yes, with the advent of computing and digital tools, the ability to have voice through artistic expression has been truly democratized. Similarly with the web and all it’s platforms, all those expressions have a place to be shared and be discovered instantly. So what happens when we become a culture where we are all makers, creators, artists? We just might also be growing a culture of empathy. Because when people are engaged in the act of creating, making and sharing, they become more attuned and open to the empathy that lives within us.

Thank you to our attendees for being a part of such an inspiring and nourishing evening:

Aaron Perry-Zucker / Creative Action Network / Co-founder
Amanda Kelso / Instagram / Director of Community
Ana Teresa Fernandez / Artist
Angel Steger / Pinterest / Product Designer
Carla Fernandez / enso / General Manager
Davi Sing / enso / Executive Creative Director
David Charles / Filmmaker + Creative Director
Deborah Cullinan / YBCA / CEO
Erica Stanulis / GoPro / Director, Global Corporate Social Responsibility
iO Tillett-Wright / Self Evident Truths / Artist + Activist
Jennifer Martindale / YBCA / CMO
Jordan Peavey / The Nature Conservancy / Director of Field Marketing
Kate Harvi
Kerry Stranman / enso / Insights Lead
Koreen Odiney / Not Really Strangers / Founder
LA Hall / Self Evident Truths / Design Director
Lennon Flowers / The Dinner Party / Co-founder
Marc Bamuthi Joseph / YBCA / Chief of Program and Pedagogy
Neil Hrushowy / San Francisco Planning Department / Manager, City Design Group
Niklas Lilja / enso / Innovation Lead
Nkechi Njaka / NDN Studio / Founder
Ricardo Viramontes / Lyft / Creative Director
Sonya Renee Taylor / The Body is Not an Apology / Poet + Founder
Xande Macedo / Airbnb / Design Manager, Market Diversity

Meal designed by Chef Juliet Orbach / Florals designed by Luke Amaru Chappellet Volpini / Photos by sreel Photography / Featuring the portraits from the Self Evident Truths Project by iO Tillett-Wright

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