The first time they met, they talked about animals.
Six-year-old Zul-Kifl Issah, in Tamale, Ghana, and 7-year-old Jonah McMillan, in Coldstream, British Columbia, Canada, listed the creatures who lived near them: hippos, lions and elephants for Zul-Kifl; and dogs, cats and a gecko for Jonah.
“You give them a place to sleep in your house!” Zul-Kifl marveled about Jonah’s pets, while Jonah gasped that the beautiful creatures that populated his books roamed free in parts of Ghana.
Their families — including their parents and siblings — were brought together via a nonprofit organization called Empatico. It’s one of a number of organizations, including UNICEF’s Voices of Youth and Global Nomads Group’s Seat at the Table, that seek to “connect children across lines of difference,” as George Khalaf, Empatico’s executive director, said.
“We help children grow roots of lifelong empathy by exposing them to kids beyond their community or the four walls of their classroom,” Khalaf said.
Much of the talk about structural racism has begun to focus on how implicit bias grows in and impacts children. Parents have to start early if they’re going to cultivate a generation rooted in empathy and fairness, Khalaf and others have said, not just by exposing children to lives and worlds outside their own, but helping them grow deep connections to them.
Segregation fuels division
What makes such connection particularly challenging in the United States is what separate lives children lead. Less than 13% of White students attend schools where kids of color form the majority of the population, yet almost 70% of Black children attend such schools — and more than 70% of Black students are in high-poverty schools.
Such divisions create “a fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding, hatred and violence,” Khalaf said. “So many of us have lost the ability to navigate difference, and it’s become so easy to dehumanize the other.”
To really live integrated lives, people need diverse and integrated schools and neighborhoods and activities, he said, but that will take some time. For now, there are ways for children to connect to peers from different backgrounds and to cultivate empathy.
Growing empathy as kids grow
Empatico’s own research found an “empathy sweet spot” between the ages of 6 and 11, when children have a sense of their own identities and social categories but their prejudices against other groups haven’t hardened. “They’re open to influence in ways that start to close as they grow older,” Khalaf said. But what happens as kids age?
“Often the question is, ‘If they were interacting across racial lines in second and third grade, why aren’t they doing it in the seventh and eighth?” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” “They were all mixing up and invited to other’s birthday parties. At 12, 13, 14 they’re not anymore.”
There are many reasons for this, she said. Kids are often tracked into ability groups, and too often, kids of color are relegated to the lower academic rungs.
Meanwhile, older kids start to separate into “affinity groups,” often sticking with kids who are like themselves. For Black kids, this often has to do with how differently they’re treated as they grow up, and their encounters with racism.
“People start responding to them differently,” Tatum said. “The Black boy who everybody thought was cute when he was seven — at 15, maybe now people think he’s dangerous, and the feedback he’s getting from the world is different.”
For a young Black man, the experience of watching the video of George Floyd’s murder is profoundly different than it is for a White child, for whom it’s not a preview of what could happen.
“White kids have the privilege of not thinking about racism, so they don’t know what to do when their friends of color are confronted with it,” Tatum said. “If a White child has learned that language, has learned the concepts and can speak about race, that White child is likely to be able to preserve that friendship.”
Sticking to your own affinity group “is a coping strategy for kids of color,” Tatum said. And yet, “getting kids from different racial groups to connect and understand each other is part of creating a more equitable and just society.”
Finding strength in difference
Older kids can have just as profound experiences finding connections with new and different people. Girls With Impact, a live, online entrepreneurship program, is now connecting girls in 40 states.
“The girls in my class were from all across the U.S.,” said Kayli Cooper, 15, a Girls With Impact graduate, who is from Los Angeles. “Culturally, there was a lot of difference, but also some of the girls’ ventures had to do with their personal challenges.”
Cooper is Black, but she encountered White kids with plenty of privilege but with physical differences and disabilities, or LGBTQ kids in challenging environments. The girls connected by helping each other with their ventures.
Cooper’s is Girl Well, a company that would make wellness kits for homeless girls. Cooper came to the conclusion that “I need to be better about surrounding myself with people who aren’t exactly like me.”
“The idea is that it’s a group effort,” said Kristen St. Louis, 17, who is from the Bronx in New York. During the program, St. Louis founded Mirror Me Diversity, to provide diverse books to classrooms across the country. “We have to accept the fact that we live different lives and refuse to let that divide us.”
Schools as incubators of social justice
This kind of connection doesn’t need to happen across geographic lines. It can happen within a classroom, by focusing on social justice issues and anti-racism. Tatum used the example of a math teacher getting kids to think critically about race, and learning math, by collecting data about and graphing racial disparities.
“You can help kids in an age-appropriate way to think critically about fairness and unfairness in our society,” Tatum said. Weaving an understanding of racism and how to interrupt it into the curriculum can be beneficial for all kids, creating more equity in the classroom, which those children can then bring out into the world.
The goal is to create a “learning environment where kids are working cooperatively together across racial lines, where every kid feels like they’re making a contribution,” Tatum said.
Kids do as parents do
Even if kids connect via these nonprofit programs and schools do more to focus on race, parents must still play a big role.
In order to get over the deficits segregation begets, people, especially White people, have to be intentional. In a 2017 survey, 70 percent of parents said they’d prefer a racially diverse school, but 60 percent said they wouldn’t commute longer to get to it.
“If the question is, how do we ensure that kids have cross-racial friendships, we have to ask the parents to have them,” Tatum said. “If parents’ friendship networks are racially segregated, it’s likely that their children’s will be, too.”
If you live in a segregated neighborhood, and go to a segregated school, you can still join diverse sports teams or choirs, places where you’ll have opportunities to genuinely connect with others who come from different backgrounds — not make token friends of different backgrounds.
It means, ultimately, making yourself uncomfortable in order to grow. “You can’t just sit in your own comfort zone and learn what you need to learn,” Tatum said.
Preparing for now and the future
The reason to engage in this project, of reaching across racial and ethnic lines, of creating more empathetic kids, is not just to create a more just world. “Too often, empathy is seen as a nice-to-have instead of an essential ingredient to navigate the world today,” Khalaf said. Research links positive empathy to well-being and intimacy, but it’s also a major life skill.
Within 25 years, it’s projected that White people will be the minority in the United States.
“Young people growing up today are going to live in a very diverse society,” Tatum said. “If you don’t learn to engage with people different from yourself, you are at risk of being a social dinosaur, and you won’t have the skills you need to interact effectively in the workplace.”
But the truth is, children don’t find this project nearly as uncomfortable as many of their parents do. “More often than not, the magic happens when the adults get out of the way,” Khalaf said.
Still, the parents find great joy in opening their worlds, too.
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“This is a place that we come to nourish our family with happiness,” said Adbul Razak Issah, Zul-Kifl’s father, of the Empatico meetings. The Issahs and McMillans have shared their cultural traditions, their artwork, their love of reading and their passion for education — and they’ve appreciated their similarities and differences, across race and ethnicity and culture.
As Brittany McMillan, Jonah’s mother, said: “I see a lifetime of friendship between our families.”
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.” She has written The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many other publications.