‘Bridge the partisan design’: California Assembly District 15 candidates discuss empathy in politics

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Candidates for the State Assembly District 15 seat redirected their attention away from campaigning for three hours Saturday afternoon in order to address a topic rarely discussed in the realm of politics — empathy.

The Radical Empathy Forum differed from typical political discussions in that it emphasized active listening rather than debate. Candidates were asked to share their thoughts on creating an empathetic and caring culture through one-on-one conversations, which were then echoed back in a test of attentiveness.

The forum was organized by Empathy Tent, an organization that offers empathy training and mediation, along with BridgeUSA at Berkeley. Empathy Tent founder Edwin Rutsch said the organization primarily works within the Berkeley community to promote a “culture of empathy,” but it held the forum to incorporate empathy training into politics.

Rutsch added that a political forum of this kind is unprecedented.

“Politicians have talked about the importance of empathy, but they seem to not know how to do it,” Rutsch said. “We have some methodology … to have constructive dialogue. It’s about bringing these skills into politics to bridge the partisan design.”

Ten of the 12 Assembly District 15 candidates were present at the forum. Candidates Ben Bartlett and Jovanka Beckles were absent, but Beckles was represented at the meeting by Vallejo City Unified School District Board of Education member Ruscal Cayangyang.

Although Rutsch discussed the importance of empathy in handling partisan disagreement, the assembly member race primarily consists of Democratic candidates, with UC Berkeley sophomore Pranav Jandhyala being the only Republican candidate. Jandhyala proposed “stepping out of a two-party framework” as a necessary aspect of fostering empathy in politics.

Candidate Dan Kalb pointed to disagreements among those on the political left as areas that also require empathetic interactions.

“What I want to see is that discussion happening with more empathy so that instead of people pushing away each other, they are working together to be a part of this liberal, progressive movement that can take over,” Kalb said at the forum.

Topics addressed at the forum — through the “empathy circle” format for active listening — ranged from specific policy, such as SB 827 on housing, to the broader topic of technology. In the context of caring for others, candidate Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto stressed the importance of retaining human connection despite the increasing prevalence of technology in society.

At the start of the forum, autobiographer and monologist Josh Kornbluth presented The Empathy Circuit a video that connects social justice issues and brain science — to provide context for the biological process behind empathy. This project, Kornbluth said, is nonpartisan.

“I’m trying to make it equally compelling to pretty much any political persuasion, and not just to my Berkeley bubble,” Kornbluth said at the forum.

Many candidates highlighted their personal work experiences to illustrate the importance of empathic interactions. Candidate Judy Appel, vice president of Berkeley Unified School District board, said she understands the value in guiding students with love and empathy in order to instill confidence.

“I don’t think we talk about the relationships and caring that has to be at the heart of leadership,” Appel said. “It’s a great responsibility to represent a district, and you can only do that if you’re open to understanding the experiences of the people in that district.”

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.