Can we cultivate empathy in our country for its marginalized communities?

When we arrived at the watch party on election night last year, the mood was still festive. My sister and I had brought her three young daughters to witness the celebrations erupt for the country’s first woman president.

But when the newscaster announced Ohio, my home state, had gone for Trump, I knew it was likely over. I picked up my four-year-old niece, sat her on my lap, kissed the back of her head and held back tears. We watched as state after state got in line behind a man who’d called for a national registry of people like us, 3.3 million Americans, simply because of our religion.

Messages of support on the windows of the Islamic Society of San Francisco

As a Muslim-American commentator, I think and write a lot about how my faith identity intersects with my country’s politics. During the election, I pointed out how the GOP was using anti-Muslim fear mongering to feign concern for LGBTQ Americans and how the rise of Trump, like Islamophobia, couldn’t be attributed solely to the Republican Party. But on election night, for the first time since I began publishing, writing an op-ed didn’t feel like the best use of my time.

Over the next days and weeks, hate crimes against Muslims or anyone who might be confused for one, dominated my social media feeds. A Muslim kindergartener was assaulted by his teacher in Texas, a Muslim teacher received an anonymous note telling her to “hang herself” with her hijab in Georgia. According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 26 percent that year, preceded by a 70 percent increase the year before. (And we know those numbers are likely to be low since the majority of hate crimes in the U.S. go unreported.)

As I began processing my own feelings about the election and scrolled past videos of bigotry and violence, the op-ed, a medium I’d come to rely on as my dominant method of expression, seemed impotent. When it came to changing minds, research suggested that facts didn’t matter and might even be harmful. Was there a point to explaining how blaming all Muslims for the violent actions of a few was akin to blaming all Christians for the KKK? Or, how Trump’s attacks on Muslims or any minority community were an attack on our country’s core values? If facts don’t change minds, then an op-ed filled with them wasn’t going to either.

To fight back against the widespread bias, intolerance, and injustice in the country, I knew I needed to think bigger and wider than I ever had. It was that realization that led me to apply to the John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford.

Collaborating with a small team of fellows dedicated to addressing the same kinds of issues that I cared about, I began to explore questions that stemmed from election night: How might we cultivate empathy in our country for marginalized communities like Muslim-Americans? Is empathy even the goal or should it be more plainly behavioral change? Does it matter how we arrive at behavioral change or just that it happens? Can we instill any such change so that it becomes long lasting and permanent?

What role does storytelling have and more generally journalism in this space? What types of storytelling would be the most effective at generating deep connections across cultures, faiths, and immigration status?

This isn’t to say I’ve given up on traditional commentary. Making a case for the ideas and causes I believe in with facts will always be part of how I approach social change. But the stakes are just too high to limit myself to expressing those ideas through a singular medium. This winter, I’ll immerse myself in classes like d.Leadership at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to learn a new framework of thinking for how I might approach these larger questions.

The greatest gift the JSK Fellowship affords is the time and space to think big and explore new approaches. I intend to use it.

* If you have any thoughts or suggestions on the questions I’m grappling with, reach out. You can find me on Twitter: @zebakhan

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