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The Empathy Campaign: Empowering Victims of the Rwandan Genocide and Beyond

“In an era when global human need has become commonplace, even cliché, how can we cultivate a genuine spirit of compassion toward people we’ve never met?” This is the provocative question driving The Empathy Campaign, a social justice effort begun at Harvard University that challenges people to both empathize with and empower survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

It all started with one powerful story. While conducting research in Rwanda during the summer of 2008, the Empathy Campaign founders Quinnie Lin (Harvard ’09) and Robert Ross (Harvard ’09) met a man named Emmanuel who shared his story with them. Emmanuel was a survivor of the genocide that tore his country apart in April 1994, when ethnic Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis as the brutal culmination of a series of ethnic conflicts between the two peoples. After his parents were murdered in the violence, Emmanuel suddenly found himself cruelly and prematurely thrown into the position of head of his household. He was forced to drop out of college and take on a job to support his family. Amazingly, Emmanuel did not harbor resentment at his fellow countrymen, but instead dreamed to return to school and pursue a degree in clinical psychology to bring healing to the suffering in his community.

The Empathy Campaign was conceived when Quinnie spontaneously declared that she would pay for Emmanuel’s education. This would entail raising $2000 to send Emmanuel to college for one year in Rwanda. Coming back to Harvard, the two students resolved to build a team committed to Emmanuel’s cause--a cause aimed to both elicit a strong sense of empathy from hearing Emmanuel’s story among the Harvard community, and to also actively empower Emmanuel through education to effect positive change in his own community. The Empathy Campaign partnered with All Nations Education, a Christian non-profit organization committed to “providing resources for young adults to go to college in their countries.”

Her Campus was able to catch up with Kristy Luk and Debra Chang, two members of the Empathy Campaign core team, and ask them to share their experience with us.

A little bit about Kristy and Debra:

Kristy Luk (Harvard ’12) is from Plano, Texas and is majoring in Social Studies. Her favorite ice cream flavors are green apple, pistachio, and tiramisu. She plans to work in the non-profit sector and later explore public interest law after graduation.

Debra Chang (Harvard ’12) is from Los Angeles, California, and is majoring in Psychology or Economics. Debra loves anything cute and cuddly. Her career ambition is to found a school in China.

Kristy (at left) and Debra (at right), members of the Empathy Campaign core team

Her Campus: What motivated you to join The Empathy Campaign?

Kristy Luk: For me, my decision stemmed from my own education. At the time when I joined the Empathy Campaign, I was taking a Government class about ethnic conflict. In fact, the class had just spent an entire week discussing the Rwandan genocide. It was really amazing seeing how I could apply what I learned to life outside the classroom.

In addition, I felt strongly that there was a need to raise awareness about what happened in Rwanda in a world that promised “Never again” after World War II and yet remains relatively ignorant about this incident that occurred just fifteen years ago. In a way, we are forced to live with the repercussions of not intervening in time. We must now do our part to help the masses of victims.

Debra Chang: I was drawn to this project for two reasons. First, I thought it was great that the vehicle for social change taken by this Campaign was education – something I’m extremely interested in. In a way, it’s my own education and sense of responsibility that also drives me to help Emmanuel. Secondly, I was intrigued by the faith component of the Empathy Campaign. I was asked to serve on the core team as a prayer leader. This is the first time I’ve been able to see how I could tie social change to the values of love and compassion my faith has taught me.

HC: What specifically has been done so far?

KL: The Empathy Campaign took place in April 2009, the fifteen-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In a single week, the core team and volunteers (a total of twenty-seven individuals) knocked on the doors of 765 Harvard dorm rooms and told Emmanuel’s story, as well as asked for monetary donations. The following week, we expanded our campaign to the streets of Harvard Square. We spoke to passersby and partnered with local businesses to support our cause. In the end, we raised $4003 – enough donations to send Emmanuel to college in Rwanda for not just one, but two years!

HC: What’s the next step? Do you have plans to expand the vision?

DC: I don’t think the Empathy Campaign will ever be over – there will always be this need to empathize with and empower people to be community leaders all around the world. We really would like to see the Campaign live on forever as an organization both at Harvard and at other campuses around the United States. The Empathy Campaign already has a sister branch established at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. We hope to identify and support scholarship recipients in Ghana and Peru this year.

KL: We would also like to add a domestic component to the Campaign because we believe there are similar needs at home in the States. Our vision is to establish a mentorship program starting in the Boston area in which mentees develop the skills necessary to run their own “empathy campaigns.” The goal is to create sustainable cycles of empowerment in which student leaders mentor upcoming leaders in an ongoing process. We see our role as hopefully temporary: it’s about leaving a self-generative system in place so that the organization can sustain itself long after we are gone.

HC: How has the Empathy Campaign changed you?

KL: I’ve seen firsthand how garnering people’s passion is both powerful and life changing. Whereas in high school I was nominally involved in social justice causes, now I have experienced for myself how rewarding and effective it is to work at the grassroots level. Also, I now feel confident in my wishes to be involved with public service after college. The Empathy Campaign proved to me that my dreams are completely within reach.

The Campaign also taught me that people do not need to be coddled. What they need are people who believe in them and give them a basic foundation and tools to accomplish their own goals. I realize in retrospect that my view of service was previously condescending in many ways. I thought it was about serving helpless people. Now I’m focused on finding ways to help others ultimately help themselves.

DC: The goal of the Empathy Campaign was to get people to empathize with Emmanuel and come to realize the tremendous amount of privilege we have here as college students in the United States. The educational opportunities we take for granted are simply not available to many students around the world. What really surprised me was how willing people were to empathize – to walk in Emmanuel’s shoes. They were so generous.

Additionally, I had previously been driven all throughout life by my own accomplishments and what I could do for myself. The Empathy Campaign was infinitely more fulfilling. It showed me how I could use my skills to reach and help other people in a real way. My worldview has also changed. I have learned that people all around the world have similar dreams in our hearts. We can take actions to tie our dreams together and help our communities.

HC: Do you have any advice for others interested in effecting real world change?

KL: “You can dream really big – don’t limit yourself to needs that are nearby.”

“Be aware of where you can use your gifts to help others.”

“Don’t be afraid of taking a leap of faith to do something you believe in. The Empathy Campaign just presented itself to us. We dove in without knowing whether it would succeed.”

“Make sure you have a strong team and support system behind you!”

DC: “It’s okay to have some doubts in the beginning, but don’t ignore what may be tugging at your heart. Be aware of having a soft heart!”

“There’s no such thing as a small role in social justice missions. Through helping Emmanuel, we hope he will be able to do great things.”

“It’s too easy to say ‘Someone else will solve that problem.’ Someday that person in need will be you. Let yourself discover how joyful it is to give back!”

Get involved with the Empathy Campaign!

Contact Kristy Luk at knluk@fas.harvard.edu or Debra Chang at debrachang@gmail.com

Donate to the Empathy Campaign at the All Nations Education Website

Get more info at the All Nations Education Social Networking Page (student blogs, meet people involved, etc)


Debra Chang, Harvard ‘12

Kristy Luk, Harvard ‘12

All Nations Education website (http://www.allnationseducation.org)

The CIA World Factbook (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rw.html)

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