College Commencement Speaker Emphasizes Empathy
Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013
Updated: Sunday, May 19, 2013 23:05
Women’s rights advocate and founder of the Run for Congo Women campaign Lisa Shannon called on graduates of the College to exercise empathy as a means of empowerment at commencement Saturday morning.
Shannon’s organization raises funds to support women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shannon said that her group has raised $15 million, enough to support 90,000 Congolese women and children. In addition to her work in the Congo, Shannon started Sister Somalia, the first rape and hotline support program in Mogadishu, Somalia. She has also written a memoir, “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman.”
Psychology professor Steven Sabat presented the citation for Shannon’s honorary degree, which University President John J. DeGioia conferred upon her.
“Instead of choosing a comfortable life, working to build a thriving business, Lisa went to Congo and devoted herself to helping extraordinarily vulnerable people living in the direst of conditions,” Sabat said. “Lisa Shannon’s values align beautifully with the spirit of Georgetown by recognizing the virtue of women and men for others.”
Shannon said learning about genocide in the Congo while watching Oprah motivated her to get involved personally. She started out small and did a 30-mile lone trail run to raise money. After raising $28,000 from her first run, she has organized several larger runs, including the annual Run for Congo Women — New York event.
On the first run she organized in New York, there was a large storm and only one other person showed up to run. Despite the disappointment, her passion for Congolese women motivated her to continue the work.
“I’d like to talk about power. It’s a tricky thing because it so often lurks in the moments that we least expect to find it,” Shannon said. “The empathy switch, flip it on, keep it on, it will fuel you over the threshold of doubt, of fear, of discomfort to find power.”
Shannon discussed her efforts to lobby Congress to pass a bill to combat the use of conflict minerals in 2010. She said empathy helped her protest and confront people opposed to the bill.
“Some people talk about compassion fatigue as though empathy wears you down. I’ve actually found the opposite to be true,” she said. “I found empathy to operate more like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the more power it gives, the more reflexive it becomes. It’s not that stepping up become more comfortable. It’s just that comfort becomes less relevant in the face of this sort of empathy override.”
Shannon concluded by calling for members of the Class of 2013 to put themselves in challenging situations to advocate for causes larger than themselves.
“I have one wish for all of you: that you do not pass up that invitation, that you do not choose comfort, sole-numbing comfort,” she said. “That you flip on your empathy switch, cross that threshold and dare disturb the universe.”