The Power of Inclusivity: Interview With Empathy Educator Kristen Donnelly
by Tricia Brouk · 02 May 2021 · 12 min read
Dr. Kristen Donnelly has been talking about and teaching empathy and inclusion for decades, and now she’s going to invite us to think differently about tolerance from her first TED stage. I caught up with Kristen to talk about her journey and her ongoing practice of gratitude.
You have been cast as a speaker in TEDxSouthLakeTahoe’s 2020 season because of your idea around tolerance. What inspired you to share this big idea?
I’ve been listening to people talk about "diversity" and participated in activities around it since I was a pre-teen and nothing is changing. I realized about fifteen years ago that the issue was our focus on ‘tolerance’ as our guiding principle for human interaction. Tolerance is so passive - it allows us to remain in our own worldviews and with our own priorities and never actually engage with anyone we don’t want. Basically, tolerance just says that we acknowledge someone is alive and we cannot kill them.
Tolerance is so passive - it allows us to remain in our own worldviews and with our own priorities and never actually engage with anyone we don’t want.
We hear all the time that society is increasingly fractured and folks blame social media for this, which I find to be missing the point. We were fractured before we all started to live on our phones. There's just now data to back up what social scientists have been saying for decades. To me, a fractured world is one that isn’t functioning as best it can. I believe the best way to be human is to do it together, and that means we have to fix the fractures and make something new out of ourselves.
What does privilege mean to you?
Privilege is any circumstance in which something about your life works the way your culture wants it to and gives power to. For example, I am a white, upper-middle-class, educated woman. Three of those are unequivocal privileges and I have access to the societal power that comes with them. The last one - being a woman - is more complicated. I have more power than some other women because of those other three elements, but I have less than most men because of how society views and treats women.
As privilege is about power, recognizing our privilege is about acknowledging that power and then leveraging it for the elevation of others.
When did you first understand that not everyone grew up like you?
I was almost eight years old when my parents bought the manufacturing firm my brother and I now own. It’s located in the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia - and not the recently gentrified bit, the other bit - which has been marginalized since at least the 1960s. I learned quickly by watching the news that my dad was close to physical violence every day - and none of my friends’ fathers were.
In the first few years of ownership, we’d go to the factory on weekends to help clean, or other activities that children in family businesses are involved in, and I’d step over used needles and discarded condoms. I learned how people took heroin when I was 9, and heard my first gunshot when I was around that age as well. Then I’d go home to the suburbs where none of my friends knew those things.
Additionally, my parents wanted us to be aware of the differences between where our family worked and where our family lived. They were intentional in making sure my brother and I realized the privilege that came with the opportunities presented to us and crafted our lives so that we wouldn’t waste them.
You have shared with me that your father taught you the Thanksgiving tour of thanks, what is this?
When I was in middle school - there was some family debate on the exact year - my parents woke my brother and I up at 6 am on Thanksgiving morning and told us to get into the car. We drove south on I-95, towards Kensington, and were handed clipboards. We were to write everything we were thankful for, and I wrote all the typical things of a privileged middle schooler. I wrote my friends and family, sure, but I wrote about my stuff more than anything.
We drove around the neighborhood where our factory is and my dad told us stories of what life was like for our employees growing up, the challenges they were facing today, and what our lives might look like had we been born in that neighborhood. We were then handed another piece of paper and told to write what we’d be thankful for if we lived there.
On the way home, we were handed a third piece of paper and asked to write what we were thankful for now that we had seen someone else’s life. We stopped at Denny’s for breakfast and talked about how my brother and I would live differently now that we thought about someone other than ourselves.
We did this for several more years - exploring more neighborhoods in the city, and learning about our own family legacy along the way. We heard about the sacrifices our immigrant ancestors made to forge a life in the United States, and that hard work and luck (my dad didn’t use the word privilege, and probably still wouldn’t, but I do) were both paramount to our family success. Our responsibility was to pay it forward and bring as many people along with us on our journey as we could.
How did this illuminate your mission and calling in life?
I have very little conscious thinking that doesn’t involve how my life choices impact the lives of others. Being raised how I was taught me that we are all connected, and isolationism is a myth of privilege that has to be toppled.
My brother and I often tell people that we know we were born on third base, and it is the purpose of our lives to get as many other people home as possible. I did nothing to get some of the privileges I have, but I’ve done my damndest to live in response to them. I’ve gotten all the education I could so that I could advocate for those who never got that opportunity. I’ve trained my brain to solve problems empathetically, and I’ve intentionally surrounded myself with people different than myself and with whom I disagree so that I can make sure I see as many angles of a situation as possible in order to more effectively usher in solutions. I’ve seen that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions and that it’s not wisdom that needs to be exported, it’s resources.
Every decision I make is in light of how it will affect my service to others because that was the pattern of every family decision growing up. I was trained for this life very well.
How are you modeling thanks for your community?
First, I elevate voices that aren’t mine as often as possible. Part of modeling thankfulness to me is acknowledging the importance of interconnected communities, so I do everything I can to publicly demonstrate that. Second, I am quick to apologize when I’m wrong and to admit when I don’t know something. This is also an important part of gratitude because it aligns you with the universe as a participant and not a master. Finally, I thank everyone for everything as much as I can - even if what they are performing is a function of their job. I do not believe that someone’s paycheck is how they know I’m grateful for their work - they have to hear it from my mouth.
Tell me more about Abbey Color and the inception of Abbey Research.
Our family mission statement is “to impact lives…and create wealth.” Wealth is a holistic concept - how Is economic spiritual Financial emotional psychological communal. The Ellipsis in the middle is the allowance for all of the ways that we can create that. We can create it through job creation, we can create it through charitable donations, we can create it through training programs, scholarships, resource redistribution. However, each family member is best gifted to impact lives and create wealth, which is how we believe they should do it. My mother's greatest gift is mothering. She is somebody who creates home and care for people wherever she goes, and so she has leaned into that piece of our family calling consistently. My father is really good with numbers. Where other people see limitations, he sees possibilities and patterns in economic realities. My brother is fantastic at solving problems and bringing other people along with him in the solution. I, I'm really good at asking questions. When I joined Abby color full-time in 2014, the question became how could I use my question-asking-training passion and superpower, in making die. The answer was that I couldn't. But I could use it to impact lives and create holistic wealth. This is why and how we started Abby research. The goal of Abby research is to provide space and education for people to develop empathy and understand the practices that are demanded in order to form inclusive communities. We do this by asking questions about ourselves, our clients, and our world.
Why did your father buy the company, and what are the hiring practices that you’ve inherited
The simple answer is that he bought the company because someone he trusted asked him to be a partner. But the more complicated answer is that he wanted to bring low or no skill manufacturing back to the Kensington neighborhood. Once upon a time, Kensington was the center of the textile industry in Philadelphia. Over the years it has become neglected and under-resourced, and jobs were outsourced overseas or to quote-unquote safer neighborhoods. My Dad figured that he wanted to come up with a way where somebody only had to show up sober, every day, and on time, and he could train them to do everything else. And for 30 years we've been doing just that. There are absolutely positions within our company that do require formal training or experience, but there are always at least a handful of positions that simply require willingness. He rewrote formulas so that people without any chemical knowledge could understand how to make the dyes. He standardized things within the dye industry, to allow for more opportunities for our employees. The guiding principle of Abbey Color is that we do not care who you were before you came to us, only who you are now, who you want to be, and how we can help.
Growing up in Yardley with knowledge of Kensington and how that impacted how I see the world.
For everyone else in my life, Kensington was somewhere people went on mission trips or to buy drugs. Kensington was not a place where people lived, Kensington was not a place where life happened. Kensington was a destination of pity or addiction. For me, it was where we worked. I knew the names and stories of folks who called that place home. I knew the histories of the neighborhood as they were told to me by our employees, and also from the history books, I scoured because I was desperate to understand.
The drive from my front door to the factory is approximately 30 minutes. In that time, we drive through about five tax brackets, and the median income drops nearly $50,000. The rates of literacy drop, the access to social services drops, the imprisonment rate rises - all for the difference of 30 minutes and a few zip codes.
I learned really early that while people do make poor decisions, they shouldn’t be perpetually punished for them, especially since it’s more likely they had poor decisions made for them. In the same way that we judge men on potential and women on their past, we allow the limitations of birthplace to have far too much impact upon someone’s life.
In the same way that we judge men on potential and women on their past, we allow the limitations of birthplace to have far too much impact upon someone’s life.
What do you want to see for our country and global humanity and the conversations being had?
If we were across the table from one another, this is where I’d lean forward with a sparkle in my eye. I am so excited for the future. Will it be easy to change how society has worked? Absolutely not, but I see more folks willing to get their hands dirty than I’ve ever seen before. I see Generation Z, with their innate diversity and their demands for difference, holding the world accountable in new ways. I see Millennials advocating for economic resource redistribution so that no one else has to shoulder the debt that they do. I see Gen Xers using their cynicism to dismantle structures that need to be gotten rid of. I see Boomers unlearning how they thought the world worked so that they can spend their retirement years engaged in social impact work.
Do I see all the other sides of this? For sure. I’m a citizen of the world, and we have so much work to do to excavate the toxicity that mires us. But I see learners and workers advocating for a new way to be human, and I’m excited.
The power of the moment we’re in is that we have to rebuild a new world because the way things worked before March 2020 doesn’t exist anymore. I want to scream when I hear ‘let’s get back to normal’. I understand the human need for it; we crave routine and stability, and normal is a stabilizing force, so it’s not the ‘normal’ in that sentence that I find problematic - it’s the ‘back’. We can’t go back, we never have been able to. We know things now that we didn’t before, so whatever we create tomorrow is new, even if it’s a recreation of what we had.
Besides, the way things were - what with the proliferation of police violence against American citizens, uncontrolled climate change, gender equity gaps, skyrocketing healthcare costs - wasn’t really working. Let’s try something new.