Building More Empathetic Communities with Technology

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How can we foster better, more empathetic communities? This is the question I brought with me a few weeks ago when I built “Conversation Kitchen” at the annual Civic Digital Fellowship Social Impact Hackathon.
Like many other recent college graduates, I’m daunted by the prospect of finding or creating communities outside of school. Today, more than ever, bonds between people are built online — whether that be through email listservs, Slack, or Facebook meme groups. While this online communication helps us keep in constant contact with faraway friends and coworkers, it’s difficult to build a deeper level of trust, empathy, and understanding through a computer screen. In creating “Conversation Kitchen,” our hackathon team sought to figure out the best way to foster these empathy-building, in-person interactions.
As a Civic Digital Fellow this summer, I’ve had the opportunity to see the benefits of being part of an empathetic community first hand. Living and working together with the other Fellows has given us many opportunities to learn more about each others’ experiences and perspectives both in civic tech, and in a broader context.
As someone who comes to the world of civic tech from the private sector, learning about how other folks have experienced technology through non-profits, startups, and government agencies has greatly broadened my own perspectives. Incorporating these ideas into my own set of beliefs has only been possible because of the trust I have for others in our community.
Fostering this underlying trust is essential in learning from, and empathizing with, other members of the cohort. Whether it be for an activist group, or a neighborhood association, creating stronger bonds between members results in a more empathetic and successful community.
Through our hackathon project “ Conversation Kitchen ,” we sought to apply this principle of trust building to create empathy between groups of people with opposing viewpoints. Our goal was to foster strong communities between folks who would not otherwise come together due to their opposing beliefs. Our application creates groups by ensuring a variety of viewpoints on a given topic, as well as a variety of personality traits that may impact the role individuals have in their groups (e.g. leadership or stubbornness).
We used current debates over DC Transit as a first dividing issue. We asked questions about people’s opinions on funding and accessibility of transit to form groups of people who disagree on these issues and build empathy between them. We imagine our web app being used in the future to connect folks on different sides of more contentious national political issues. Conversation Kitchen would be a useful tool in any situation in which there is a lack of empathy between folks who have differing perspectives.
We focused on blending online conversation with offline communities by organizing and encouraging small-group in-person meetups. We ask folks who join a group to first work on building rapport, then move onto more difficult conversations once trust has been built within the group.
Spending part of a weekend brainstorming and developing a community and empathy-building tool was an exciting and mind-opening experience. Working on this with other members of the Civic Digital Fellowship, each with their own expertise and passions, made that experience even better.
As I finish up the fellowship this summer and move onto my next adventure, I hope to build upon what I’ve learned from this project by helping to foster empathy and trust in whatever community I become part of next.
Alberta Devor is a 2019 Civic Digital Fellow working at the General Services Administration. She is a recent graduate of Brown University with a degree in Computer Science.

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Brown CS ’19 // Civic Digital Fellow // NYC // 🍍

We’re inspiring and empowering the next generation of digital leaders to use their technology skills for social good.

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