“Show Up”: Education, Empathy, and Agency in Social Change
In my song, I focused on three central ideas of social change: education, empathy, and agency, more or less in that order. Education holds many roles in relationships with social change, because the information you learn early in life helps frame the knowledge you gain later. In the first and second verse, I reflect on my education; these two verses were inspired by a specific moment I experienced in high school. I remember learning freshman year that Christopher Columbus imprisoned Native Americans and destroyed their culture, leading to a massacre and starting the oppression of indigenous people that continues today. I was shocked, because I was a freshman in high school and had learned about U.S. history for so many years already with no mention of this information. I could remember the name of Christopher Columbus’s three ships, what year he sailed, and where he was born, but I could not understand how my teachers had left out this crucial detail. I was angry, and it felt like this was a thing where everybody had a kind of mutual understanding, that it was a fake history but that it was okay to lie to kids because the truth wasn’t pretty. I was a good student and always believed in school, and I felt like the victim of a wildly unexpected conspiracy. Because of this revelation, I never looked at history the same way again: I learned to notice which voices were missing from the story and made an effort to seek them out.
The second concept I focused on was empathy. Most of my life revolves around my understanding of empathy because of my psychology background. The main line of my chorus is a direct plea for empathy in people that lack it: “Put down your mirrors, put down your guns / Look someone else in the eyes for once.” Empathy is the most important factor of human coexistence, and it is linked to music in many ways. In “Music and Empathy,” Istvan Molnar-Szakacs claims that music promotes “self-awareness and self-esteem,” “mutual tolerance,” and “healing” (98). He also explains that music is effective for expressing intense emotions, and this is why social justice and anthems often work so well together. He concludes that “music may act as a universal language of empathy…among individuals that do not speak the same language or share the same culture” (98).
I first gained interest in empathy and social justice when I watched a Ted Talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the Westborough Baptist Church at the age of twenty-six. Her story captivated and inspired me, and was a concrete example of how simple interactions of empathy can spark real change. She changed her understanding of the world purely through conversations with strangers over many years, until she was one day confident enough to act on her new beliefs. This kind of empathy, used in combination with music, has the potential to bring a structure to common emotion and effect change on a large scale.
This brings me to my final idea: agency. Agency is the act of acting; it’s the final step that you can take hundreds of times. I’ve learned that empathy and education can get you far, but if you don’t act on your knowledge and connection, there will be no results. Agency is the concept that is most difficult for me, since I prefer to hug the sidelines and do my work behind the scenes; however, social justice cannot be achieved on the sidelines, and I am constantly working on being more active with my ideas. I address activism and agency with the line, “Come closer, take, my hand, don’t be afraid / It’s time to fix the mess that we made.” I believe that even if we are not accountable for specific problems in the world, we are accountable for fixing them. This view comes from a therapy technique where you teach the client that you may not be able to control what happens in your life, but you can control how you respond. I worked with kids over the summer and used this line often, and realized how applicable it is to every aspect of life, including social justice. We may not be able to control the problems, but we can control how we respond, which is how we can effect change.
I primarily use music as a creative outlet and a hobby, and although I’ve always passionate about it, I had never analyzed the use of music in social change. Through learning about songs and artists and through writing my own song, I realized how music can serve more purpose than a pastime. I also realized that this song was easier to write and to share than any other music I’ve made, probably because the struggle I wrote about is a common one, and feels less isolated and more connected. This feeling is the heart of songwriting and social justice, and demonstrates exactly how music can inspire education, empathy, and agency in passionate listeners.
King, Elaine, and Caroline Waddington. “Empathy and Musical Engagement.” Music and Empathy, Routledge, 2017.
Phelps-Roper, Megan. “I Grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s Why I Left.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, http://www.ted.com/talks/megan_phelps_roper_i_grew_up_in_the_westboro_baptist_church_here_s_why_i_left.