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A summer reading list from Mia’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts

After decades of decline, empathy—or the desire for it, at least—is suddenly everywhere. From corporate culture to academia, the urge to instill empathy in a world divided, unequal, and burdened by conflict has become, well, urgent. The University of California, San Diego, plans to create a Center for Empathy in consultation with the Dalai Lama. And at Mia, the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts (CEVA) is envisioning how museums fit into this picture—particularly how art might be predisposed to fostering empathy.

As part of this project, CEVA has compiled a list of recommended reading on why empathy is important and how it can be practiced in museums, families, and relationships. Here are five suggestions:

1. “Brené Brown on Empathy”

Brené Brown is a professor at the University of Houston who’s made a career out of studying shame, vulnerability, and empathy. In this video, she uses humor (and good illustrations) to talk about empathy, sympathy, and how the two differ.

2. “Why empathy is the key to dismantling white racism” by Susan Lanzoni

In this article, empathy historian Susan Lanzoni looks to the writings of black scholars like James Baldwin and Kenneth B. Clarke to remind readers that even 50 years ago national conversations around racism in America centered on empathy. In doing so, she reveals that to achieve genuine equality, we need to acknowledge commonality and build mutual respect. “To understand someone different from us, we have to change ourselves,” she says.

For more on the history of empathy, check out Lanzoni’s book.

3. “Designing for Empathy” by Elif Gokcigdem

“Museums hold the key ingredients of empathy-building, perhaps more than any other institution that our civilization has produced,” claims museum scholar Elif Gokcigdem. In this article, she offers some practical steps for museum professionals (and other designers) to integrate empathy into their work.

4. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki.

In this book, Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki draws upon his research to show that empathy is a skill—one that can be learned and practiced. He also argues that it is an essential skill to hone if we are to create lasting cultural change.

5. Unselfie – Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-about-me World by Michele Borba

Michele Borba is an educational psychologist who’s written extensively on parenting and childhood development.  In her most recent book, she argues that children who are taught to practice empathy are kinder, more resilient, and better primed for success in an increasingly “all about me” world.

Find more information on the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts on its webpage.