The Project Empathy story

A note from the founder

It's February 2017, and I'm the farthest from home I could possibly be. 

When I made the decision to leave my small Worcester, MA college and study in Melbourne, Australia for six months, I was excited and invigorated by the idea of immersing myself in a different culture. 

From the food (fairy bread, anyone?) to the slang ("Meet me for a choccy biccy and a cuppa 'sarvo?") to the animals, poisonous insects, and liberal use of top-tier curse words, it was as amusingly different as I had envisioned it would be. ​

I reported back to my friends and family about all the cultural differences I was experiencing. This was what I had come to Australia for, right?

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Enter Project Empathy.

 

Although I was meeting literally hundreds of people per week, our conversations were surface-level and focused on the quirky differences we were encountering. I longed for the deeper connections I had with friends and family back home. ​

 

Simultaneously, the US was more politically and socially divided than I had experienced in my lifetime. ​I couldn't help but think how things would be different if we all just listened to each other.

 

The idea came unprompted one night as I was sitting in my apartment, watching the sun set behind Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building: what if I created a space for people to tell each other's stories?

 

The premise was simple: I would select six people, who would each tell me the story of a true, life-changing moment. I would pair them up, and then have them swap stories. The challenge would be one of empathy: connecting with another person on such a level that you can step into their shoes and tell their story.

 

I put out a call for participants through the University of Melbourne's Union House Theatre and met at a nearby café with each of them. I was treated to twelve open, honest stories that changed these peoples’ lives.

 

I heard stories of growth from trauma, new perspectives on family and the meaning of home, the longing for genuine love, the harsh reality of growing up, coming to love parts of yourself you once hated, and the empowerment of taking your life into your own hands. I was struck by the kinship I felt with these strangers from across the globe. When given the chance to share our emotions, we connected despite our differences.

 

The process that followed was moving, silly, vulnerable, and deeply connective. 

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Now, four years later, Project Empathy has been performed five times: twice in Australia at the University of Melbourne, and three times in Worcester, MA, USA at College of the Holy Cross. It is my hope that universities, theaters, and communities around the world will take on the Project and experience its power for themselves.

 

As we fight a global pandemic and our differences are in the spotlight, physical and ideological distance threatens to divide us. I am hopeful that this Project can empower communities to strip away differences, engage on a human level, and flex our empathetic muscles.  ​

 

We all have stories to tell, and we all have the capacity for empathy. Let's do this. ​

 

With love,

 

Catherine Cote

Founder, Project Empathy, LLC