Why We Should Give Video Cameras to the Homeless

I recently came across a powerful, short video called This is Adam, about a homeless guy living on the streets of San Francisco. He had all sorts of interesting and insightful things to say, amongst them this: ‘I notice every day that people everywhere are losing their compassion and empathy – not just for homeless people but for society in general.’ What’s really striking is that we see the world as if through Adam’s eyes, including how people ignore him as they pass by.

Digging around a little, I discovered that the video had been created in an unusual way: Adam had been given a wearable video camera to become the autobiographer of his own life. He’s part of the Homeless _____ Project, a project run by an innovative media company called NearShot, which helps people tell their own stories through first-hand perspectives by giving them reconditioned video cameras to record their daily lives. They’re on a mission to curate 100 Stories of Homelessness Across America.

I was so inspired by this fabulous empathy-based project, where you step into somebody else’s shoes, that I went to visit it in San Francisco when I was  there on a tour for my book Empathy earlier this month. I asked one of the project’s co-founders, Kevin F. Adler, to write a guest post about it all. Here it is…

San Francisco once had 35x as many homeless as today (and more empathy towards them)

San Francisco — beloved for its progressive ideals, entrepreneurial spirit, beautiful settings, and landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz — is also hard to forget for its significant and highly visible homeless population. Including those in shelters or transitional housing, the number of homeless people is 6436, of which 3401 are living on the street.

These numbers are unacceptably high, no doubt. But the city has experienced higher bouts of homelessness in the past… and had a healthier disposition towards them, with better result.

Much higher: 225,000 by some estimates. After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, 3,000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed. From a population of 400,000 people, over half were left homeless in the most significant shared trauma the city has ever faced.

And yet, even amid the widespread devastation and plight — a period in which most residents were as vulnerable and impoverished as they ever would be — people came together. As Rebecca Solnit chronicles in A Paradise Built in Hell, help was contagious and offered without solicitation. Goodwill was spontaneous. People stitched together blankets, sheets, and tents for their neighbors. People gave away food in droves, from citizen-led outdoor soup kitchens that popped-up everywhere to the many slaughterhouses that “gave away their meat for free to everyone – white, black, or Asian – until the supply was exhausted.”

“I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt, and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers.” – Dorothy Day

An important lesson resides therein for building empathy toward our beleaguered neighbours on the streets, which we take to heart in our work to help homeless volunteers capture their stories: not in spite of a shared trauma are we empathetic, but precisely because of it. And so it is worth wondering: how might society be differently disposed toward the homeless if we consider that some level of trauma shucked them onto the streets or shackles them there?

Instead of treating our homeless neighbours with disdain or righteous presumptions of laziness, worthlessness, or other pejoratives, we would see more of our own reflection in their faces. For there is strength through vulnerability together, humanity when there is trauma shared, rather than a mindset of dismissal that people always get the lot they deserve.

The makeup of an acute, widely-felt catastrophe is different than an individual or family-level trauma (a medical emergency or death) or a system-wide trauma (the widespread eradication of affordable housing and social safety nets in the US from the late 1980s onward). And yet, as I write in Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital (2015, UPA), for the individuals affected by a trauma, it can be equally traumatic — and even more so, without a therapeutic community rallying behind you.

The shared experience of the 1906 earthquake, fire, and subsequent homelessness had a galvanizing effect for San Francisco. In 2014, we can come together once again as a city if we acknowledge the trauma that our homeless neighbours have faced, are facing, and will face (perhaps with us similarly afflicted) but for the grace of God / providence / good luck / service.

As fascinating new research has shown, we avert our eyes not because we are callous but because we feel the need to manage our softer sides and ensure that we aren’t exploited. This is why the experience of firsthand perspective storytelling is so transformative. If we cannot feel the earth rumble or see our own building burn, we must put ourselves in the shoes of someone else and take the time to hear their story in order to arouse our humanity.

If we can identify the homeless situation for what it is — one rooted in some form of trauma — a renaissance of compassion and rapport will result, which will lead to ending homelessness. For empathy lives where experience is shared by survivors and fellow neighbours alike.

This guest post was written by Kevin F. Adler, co-founder of Nearshot

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Who are the five greatest empathy heroes of all time?

5 empathy heroes

Who are the greatest empathy heroes of all time? I’ve looked through the history books and come up with my top five. OK, you know St Francis of Assisi, but what about Gunther Walraff, Beatrice Webb or John Howard Griffin? You can find out all about them in my new article at YES! Magazine.

I’ve been rather busy with my electronic pen and have written another article, in Time Magazine, on five ways to be more empathic. My advice ranges from chatting to your local barista to introducing empathy tests in the office and getting babies to teach your kids how to step into other people’s shoes.

These articles are based on my book just published in the US, Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It.


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Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It

Empathy USA cover low resEmpathy inspires with a unique combination of teaching, storytelling, and a serious call to action.’ – Brené Brown, author of the New York Times # 1 Bestseller Daring Greatly

I’m delighted to announce that my book Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, has just been published in the US by Penguin Books (it has been published in the UK under the title Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution).

The book  describes how empathy – the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking and the world through their eyes – can  improve our relationships, boost our creativity and tackle social issues from racial prejudice to violent conflicts.

Drawing on over 10 years of research, you will learn about human libraries, how babies can teach empathy, and discover the six habits of highly empathic people.



As part of the launch of the book, I’m also announcing creation of the world’s first Empathy Museum, an experiential adventure space for taking imaginative journeys into other people’s lives. Please visit the Emathy Museum website and watch the two-minute video, Step Into the Empathy Museum.

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Empathy Library Competition


You may have heard about the online Empathy Library I founded a few months ago. It’s been fantastic to watch it grow. It received over 100,000 visits in its first few weeks of life, and now contains reviews of hundreds of books and films which have been entered by its thousands of users. Anyone can join and add their favourites.
Read More »

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Welcome to the Festival of Love

What Is Love exhibit Southbank Festival of LoveI was recently at London’s Southbank Centre for the launch of their fabulous summer Festival of Love. What made the occasion particularly special for me was that the two-month festival, running throughout July and August, has been based around the different varieties of love in Ancient Greece that appear in my book The Wonderbox. To set the scene I gave the opening talk on these forgotten approaches to the art of loving, discussing eros (sexual passion), philia (friendship), storge (familial love), pragma (mature love), ludus (playful love), agape (selfless love) and philautia (self-love). Read More »

Posted in art, creativity, emotions, love | 1 Comment

In Ronald Duncan’s Writing Hut

Ronald Duncan's writing hutI am sitting in a tiny, sparse stone hut at the top of a North Devon cliff, overlooking the sea. Outside is an enticing sign: ‘Ronald Duncan’s Writing Hut is Open’. This is where the West Country poet and playwright – best known for writing the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia – used to spend his working days. Read More »

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Let’s base World Cup teams on star sign and shoe size!

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, whose birthday is on February 5, would be a star player in the Aquarius zodiac team.

As football fever envelops the planet, with all eyes turned towards Brazil, I want you to imagine a different World Cup. Each country sends their national team as usual, but then all the players are pooled together and divided into teams based on their astrological star sign. So Virgos play Leos, and Aquarians are pitted against Aries, with each team having players from a mix of countries. Who would win overall? Perhaps the power of Taurus, the bull, would be no match for the sharp sting of Scorpio. We might imagine other World Cups, where teams are based on shoe size – the clodhopping size elevens against the nimble-toed eights – or maybe the favourite colour of each player. Read More »

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The World’s First Empathy Museum

Empathy Museum RSA Animate

One of my ambitions is to found the world’s first Empathy Museum – an experiential and conversational adventure space for stepping into other people’s shoes. I’ve just written an article at the Virgin Unite blog where I describe my vision for the museum as both a physical space and a digital community. You might, for instance, encounter a Human Library where you borrow people (instead of books) for conversation, or a Sweatshop where you make clothing under the working conditions of sweatshop labourers in developing countries.

And here’s some great news. Not only have we recently held a fantastically creative ‘hack weekend’ with students from the Royal College of Art in London, designing prototype exhibits – we’ve also received seed funding to help turn the Empathy Museum into a reality. So the journey starts here.

Do check out the article, and share below any ideas you may have for exhibits that should be part of the Empathy Museum.

Posted in art, conversation, empathy, empathy through experience | 11 Comments

Why The Empathy Critics Are Wrong: Empathy Doesn’t Break Democracy, It Makes It

You can always tell when a new idea is becoming popular – people start critiquing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to empathy, a concept that is getting more public attention today than at any point in its history (the frequency of Google searches for the word ‘empathy’ has more than doubled in the past decade). Read More »

Posted in emotions, empathy, ethics, history, literature, philosophy, politics, psychology, public policy | 3 Comments

6 Ways to Teach Yourself Empathy

6WaystoTeachYourselfEmpathy‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ wrote George Bernard Shaw, ‘they might have different tastes’. This and other ideas for teaching yourself empathy appear in this new article in Readers Digest magazine. You’ll also find some advice from one of my heroes, the American oral historian Studs Terkel, who I rate as one of the greatest conversationalists of the 20th century: ‘Don’t be the examiner, be the interested enquirer.’

Roman Krznaric’s new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, is published by Random House.

Posted in emotions, empathy, empathy library, empathy through conversation, empathy through experience, psychology | Leave a comment
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