college | June 04, 2013

Empathy Equals Power: Commencement Speaker Lisa Shannon

T.S. Eliot once asked: "Do I dare?" That's the question Lisa Shannon posed to Georgetown students in a commencement speech. She asked them if they dared to stand up for their beliefs, and work to make a difference in the world. Taking a stand against injustice often prompts an conflict within your heart and mind. Shannon tells the crowd: "On the one hand you have this inner voice saying 'Uh oh, I can't abide.' but on the other hand, you're thinking 'Who am I to do anything?'"  
While some people may argue that compassion can be exhausting and wear you down over time, Shannon believes that empathy is actually empowering. That's why she advises the students to "flip the empathy switch on" and keep it on. "It will fuel you over the threshold of doubt and fear and discomfort to find power," she explains. And, it will help you overcome the self-doubt and win the conflict in your head about whether you should speak out against social injustice. "I found that empathy equals power," she says. "[and] I've found empathy to operate like a muscle—the more you exercise it the more power it gives, the more reflexive it becomes."

Shannon admits that standing up for change never gets easier or more comfortable. However, that discomfort eventually becomes less important than making a difference in the world. "Step up without permission or endorsements or anyone to say 'go.' Stumble, fail, fake it, take it as far as you can and trust that the reverberations are far bigger than anything you're going to be able to measure in your lifetime," she concludes in the speech. She leaves the grads with one final thought: "I have one wish for all of you: That you do not pass up that invitation...dare to disturb the universe."

In inspiring talks like this one, Shannon shares the hard-hitting stories of the work she has done to end violence in some of the deadliest parts of the world. Founder of Run for Congo Women and Sister Somalia, Shannon helps empower the people who need it most. When she speaks of these experiences on stage, she empowers her audiences to join in the struggle to make the world a better place, for all of us.

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