The Power of Empathy
Blog post written by Guido Hajenius from Santa Monica, California
Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak in the fourth youth prison this week using our Empower Youth Program material from the organization I work with: iEmpathize. I was looking forward to speaking to these kids who had been incarcerated for being part of gang activity under charges of criminal activity, including murder.
I learned that I wouldn’t be allowed to use the media I had brought with me, a Spanish version in our Empower Youth Program (www.empower.iempathize.org). Instead, I’d need to utilize an interpreter. Our whole program is media-based, but because I’ve used it widely in LA with over 2000 youth, I knew I could “wing it.” So, as I went through the security, it was just me and these tools which are now deep inside of me after teaching the materials over and over. The main purpose of the Empower Youth Program is teach youth how to stay safe and to navigate through all forms of exploitation, including child sexual exploitation. This was a unique situation speaking to this group of youth but my focus was to capture a conversation around how to navigate through all forms of exploitation in order to stay safe. Even though these gang members have undoubtedly been a part of the exploitation problem, I strongly believe that they can also be part of the solution.
As we reached the inside of the prison, I noticed how clean the facility was. They brought in the first group, the MS 13 gang members, and I also noticed how each boy had brand new shoes. Even though the prison was new, clean, and the youth had new shoes, their tattoos reminded me of where they had had come from. I felt nervous as they sat down. One kid got my attention among the 40 gang members. This young man, who we'll call "Miguel," had tattoos covering his entire body, more than any other boy. I learned that the tattoos were an indication of their affiliation and deep gang involvement. His eyes were dark, empty and even piercing. I noticed that while most of the other gang members smiled on and off, Miguel was different. He would smile just a little when he looked at me, and then he'd quickly shift back to an intense look on his face. As I began to speak, I wondered what I would say to them, especially since I had never been part of a gang. How was I going to have a conversation with these boys about exploitation if many of these kids had been the ones exploiting victims? How could I present any truth about God if they have been involved with so much darkness and violent activities?
It's in these moments when I remember that I need to practice empathy--- relating to the suffering of others--in order to best help them. And make no mistake, although these boys have inflicted pain and suffering upon others, they too have been the recipients of this as well. My presentation lasted for 75 minutes. I explained how problems of exploitation are what causes the most suffering in the world and how empathy is a solution to all forms of exploitation. I spoke about negative push factors that push youth into being vulnerable to exploitation. The boys were incredibly engaged.
After I finished the presentation, I made sure to shake Miguel’s hand. My interpreter, Edwin, informed me that he was the leader of that group. I was told that in order to be a leader of a gang, one has to have more kills than anyone else in the group. It's incredibly difficult to comprehend how the only way to find your significance and be acknowledged in a gang is to through taking another person's life. This explained why his eyes they were so dark and empty. Miguel is 17 years old. He has a lot to navigate through and has already experienced so much. I left him and the other youth with not just inspiration or a feel-good message, but some real tools to help them navigate their context. They now also have a better understanding of why things have evolved the way they have. They will inevitably have opportunities to choose to practice what was discussed. Sometimes people just need to see that there is another way, a better way. I'm incredibly grateful that God has allowed me to serve in this capacity and bring His truth to the people of El Salvador.