Cultivating the Language of Empathy Through Multi-Cultural Dialogue



by Jolene Thibodeaux, Sep 2021

Image copyright© Wendy Red Star, "Ashkaamne (matrilineal inheritance), 2019"


Working to bring diverse communities together, promoting respectful dialogue in an effort to surface our collective intelligence can help us all gain a better understanding of ourselves, each other, and the wide world we live in. This greater understanding allows us to unite, discover sustainable solutions to our shared problems, and mitigate past damage done for future generations. FemmSouth remains committed to the notion that facilitating current dialogue transforms and heals. Dialogue helps us build the language of empathy. As we engage in conversations, like this month’s study of Indigenous culture and the generational effects of boarding schools in America, we are met with the challenge of language and how to use language with respect to the culture and people we are studying.


Hosting conversations amongst multi-cultural participants means the idea of contextualizing language takes on a deeper meaning. When different cultures come together, we may not always know in what context what we say is received. A simple acknowledgment that others may use language and infer meanings in a way we aren’t yet privy to, allows us to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with one another.


Case and point can be drawn from one of FemmSouth’s upcoming book club reads, Braiding SweetGrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


In her beautifully written book, originally published in 2012 and generating newfound interest today, Kimmerer, a Native American, mother, scientist, author and professor, sets out to explore modern botany. Through the lens of science and her own Native American cultural identity, Kimmerer pays homage to Indigenous peoples’ cultivation of plant knowledge through myth, prophecies, and storytelling. We begin to see a cultural approach around contextualized language use; a way of speaking about the natural world which emphasizes the inclusion of human beings not as outsiders separate from the natural world, but as relatives to it and all living things. This kind of teaching is used to create empathy for all life on the planet--plants, animals, water, soil, and people. Though all the stories or methodologies may not be familiar to us, they still resonate precisely because of the type of empathic language Kimmerer proposes. Kimmerer’s examples come from her own upbringing and her affiliation with her particular tribal towns. They may not be the same as another Native person from another place and time. If we note that all Native tribes have their own unique beliefs, religions, languages and stories, it allows us the chance to read the book not as a Native American book on plants, but as a book written by someone who happens to be Native American with a certain perspective and a teacher with vast knowledge around modern botany.


FemmSouth’s second upcoming book choice, Boarding School Seasons by Brenda Childs, Winner of The Native American Indian Prose Award, supplies readers with an emotional look at the plight of young Indigenous children, from the years 1900 to 1940, who were forced to leave their families to live in government sanctioned residential schools. Child’s book is a collection of letters written by children, parents and school officials at The Haskell Institute in Kansas and The Flandreau School in South Dakota. These poignant personal accounts testify to the deplorable conditions at the schools.They bear witness to the illness, disease, abuse the children edured, the aching loneliness of the parents and the disturbing lengths to which officials were willing to go in order to keep these families apart.


  • It is relevant to note the recent gruesome discoveries in Canada ongoing in 2021. Mass graves excavated around hundreds of government mandated residential school grounds have revealed the skeletal remains of lost First Nation children, numbering in the thousands. First Nation people search for ways to grieve and cope as the search continues.


  • Furthermore on August 1st 2021 Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo whose grandparents were sent to boarding schools here in the states, launched an investigation into residential schools likely to result in the same horrifying results. Haskell School, featured in Child’s book, makes the feds list as a school to be investigated.


Cultivating the language of empathy is more important now than ever as the country embraces this dark past and works to reconcile and heal. FemmSouth is looking for participants that are genuinely interested in this process.

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