HALIFAX – It’s at the World Trade and Convention Center in downtown Halifax, but it’s no ordinary conference.
On a Friday afternoon, dozens of high school aged students from across the region are huddled together around tables, charts, graphs and laptops trying to solve society’s most pressing problems.
The Accelerating Empathy conference is put on by a start-up not-for-profit called The Empathy Factory.
The conference, now in its second year, aims to empower youth by giving them the power to single out an issue, voice their concerns, propose a solution and put it into action.
“We get to finally give a voice to a lot of these high school students, who have said before, “I have ideas, but what do I do with it?'” says Blair Ryan the CEO and co-founder of The Empathy Factory.
“We’re offering them a catalyst. We are taking away the excuses.”
The two-day event brings in students and puts them into groups with mentors from the community, ranging from social media experts to business entrepreneurs, teachers, social workers, and charity organizers.
Mike Kennedy, who represents The Awesome Foundation’s Halifax branch, is working with students who want to make studying history more relevant to teens. Kennedy is impressed with the depth of thought, organization and intention that he sees in the participants.
“It’s amazing to think with all the challenges we face and opportunities we face as a province, we’re not leveraging this age group enough. They’ve got incredible ideas,” he says.
Over the course of the conference, each student group solidifies their idea and whittles it down to one three-minute pitch – akin to a business pitch for an investment. They present their idea to a panel of judges, comprised of other business leaders, city councilors and philanthropic entrepreneurs. The judges ask questions, determine the feasibility of the idea and then, ultimately decide which idea has the greatest chance of being realized.
While it’s structured so there’s an overall winner, the participants say the benefit is in having the conversations and feeling like they are being heard.
Kirsten Hall a Grade 12 at Cole Harbour High says her group has been working on a concept that would help more students have access to overseas volunteering opportunities.
“Everybody’s contributing and that’s something you don’t get a lot with youth,” she says. “You don’t normally get everybody sitting around and saying something together and that’s one of the big things I think.”
The program is based on each person’s innate sense of empathy to find real and lasting solutions to problems. For many teens, it forces them to think about feelings they don’t normally address and share them with their peers. Austin Bowes, who’s in Grade 10 at Prince Andrew High in Dartmouth came to the event hoping to talk about the problem with teen suicide. He hopes his ideas will shed more light on the issue and he says he’s getting something out of it too.
“Empathy is one of the greatest feelings you can actually have,” he says. “When you help someone out that’s in a great need than you.”
“Getting engaged in empathetic ideas really changes your perspective on life and on society and it gives you more of a positive outlook on life and it makes you realize that you do have power,” says Brandon MacDougall, a Grade 12 student at Cole Harbour High. This is MacDougall’s second year participating in Accelerating Empathy. Last year, he successfully pitched an idea for a Spoken Word Club at his school, where students could feel free to share their art, thoughts and emotions about bullying. The club has since expanded to an open mic night at Alderney Landing once a month.
“To me every city, every community should have something like this,” he says. “It gives youth a place, a platform to launch their ideas and to make a real change.”
The Empathy Factory has been concentrating on efforts in the HRM, but there are plans to expand, mainly because there appears to be demand. The conference leaders are considering taking it to Sydney, Fredericton, and Saint John.