This is one in a series of profiles of the winners of the 2018 Governor General’s Innovation Awards. See all honourees


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Breakthrough moments for innovators can come at dramatic and especially unexpected times. Mary Gordon’s came following a scene of appalling domestic violence one night in Toronto in 1995.

A teenaged mother, who participated in one of the parenting and family literacy centres that Ms. Gordon set up, had been assaulted by her husband. With her two tiny, scared daughters wrapped around her legs, the woman pleaded to Ms. Gordon that her spouse hadn’t meant to punch her glasses into her eyes, and was sorry he’d done it.

Driving away from the young woman’s home, Ms. Gordon realized that she needed to set up a program to teach people about empathy. “I was angry and swearing and crying, and that’s when I put together the idea that she didn’t have empathy for her little girls, her husband didn’t have empathy for her, her mother didn’t have empathy for her. This was a whole cycle of not having empathy,” she remembers. “I decided I had to do something. I’m going to bring a parent and a baby into a classroom so children can see what love looks like.”

It was an unusual beginning for an unorthodox program called Roots of Empathy, a not-for-profit organization she started in 1996 that today spans 11 countries and is still growing. Created as a means of reducing aggression and bullying among school-aged children, the program extends to other forms of violence outside of the classroom, Ms. Gordon says.

“It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, this is a program you can count on reliably to address your challenge, whether it is bullying, gender equity issues or domestic violence,” says Ms. Gordon, a social entrepreneur, educator, author and child advocate. “All of those issues would be impacted if people had empathy. It’s about finding our shared humanity.”

Roots of Empathy brings a parent and baby to visit a classroom several times over the course of a school year. An instructor, using an accredited curriculum, coaches the students to observe the baby’s development and to label its feelings. This is experiential learning, Ms. Gordon says, where the baby is the “teacher”, acting as a catalyst to help kids identify and reflect on their own feelings and those of others.

She says that research from three continents confirms the impact of the program and its success in fostering greater kindness, co-operation and sharing. In 2005, she created the Seeds of Empathy program for 3-to-5-year-olds in child care.

The programs are rooted in her own upbringing in St. John’s, NL. Rather than buy luxury items for Mary and her four siblings, her father put spare change into a tin he kept on the dining room table and donated the money to needy families overseas. Her mother made meals for newly released convicts. “I’m sure the biggest convict was no more than a drunk, but my mom would fix a meal for this person and whichever youngster was around, we would be invited to ‘please sit and eat with our guest so they don’t eat alone’,” she says. “It was a dignity afforded every single soul.”

Empathy is key to breaking cycle of violence

After moving to Toronto, Ms. Gordon became a kindergarten teacher. She set up family literacy centres, starting in the city’s underprivileged neighbourhoods, then moved on to create Roots of Empathy.

“Long ago I realized that the common denominator in all kinds of violence, including bullying, was the absence of empathy,” says Ms. Gordon. She defines empathy as “the ability to take the perspective of another person,” which begins with the relationship between parent and baby. “I realized that I could break the cycle of intergenerational violence by helping children in schools develop empathy, so they would not maintain this vicious cycle of aggression.”

As a former teacher, she knew “if you want to have an impact at a universal level you have to go into schools,” particularly to tackle bullying. “There’s all kinds of evidence to indicate that children who are feeling less stressed are more productive and more receptive to learning.”

Meanwhile, to affect public policy, it was important to “address a problem that politicians and governments are worried about with an effective, proven solution.” Roots of Empathy is such a solution, says Ms. Gordon, although there are challenges with financing in Canada, especially because government budgets are tight and donations from corporations tend to go to programs their employees can participate in.

She’d like to see greater funding for social innovation to address the world’s problems and recognition of initiatives like hers to change people’s attitudes.

“There’s a lack of connectivity between the science we have, the policy we make and the programs we support,” she says. “Innovation is not all science; true innovation is what we do with the science.”

An inspiration in my life …

… was my parents, in many different ways. From my mother I learned about the dignity of each person,

and from my dad I learned about the right of each person to not be alone, to not be scared. And none

of these things were taught, they were absorbed.

I’m most inspired by …

… children, because they love so easily. They’re the answer to everything, they’re 100 percent of the future, they’re generous. Little children are hopeful. They’ll fight to the death, but they offer solutions. Their trust in those they love is completely inspiring—and completely frightening.

My advice to innovators is …

When people discourage you, do what the kids do and put your hands over your ears and go “na na na na na!” If you have a dream and a scheme, the best thing you can do is keep true to that. Very often people will discourage you by saying it’s not practical, but guess what? Who would have thought that bringing a baby into a classroom is practical?

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