The Empathy Tool: Thinking Outside the Square

P1000936With income inequality, urban poverty and homelessness rising rapidly in New Zealand, creative and compassionate Kiwis across different sectors are banding together to do something about it. While in New Zealand this past month I ran across a series of innovative interventions: the Auckland-based Family 100 Project, its companion Empathy Tool, and the research report An insight into the experience of rough sleeping in central Auckland.”

The Family 100 Project was a collaborative research project co-led by staff from the Auckland City Mission and a group of researchers from Waikato University, Massey University, and the University of Auckland. The Auckland City Mission is downtown Auckland’s largest non-governmental social service agency focusing on people marginalized by poverty and homelessness. They provide safe shelter through their drop-in center, food parcels, social worker screening and referrals, a homeless outreach team, and a drug/alcohol treatment center. In conjunction with the Auckland Primary Health Organization and the Auckland District Health Board, they operate the Calder Centre, a low-barrier health clinic. Most all of their services are located in central Auckland near the Aotea Square, the main town square and heart of the city.

The Auckland City Mission staff became concerned with the growing number of people accessing their services on a long-term, versus a short term crisis basis as had been the norm. They wanted to understand more of the lived experiences of people in chronic poverty and homelessness. What prevents people from moving out of poverty? was the main question they had.  So several years ago they partnered with the university-based researchers, and drawing from their database of 15,000 clients they selected 100 families to follow for a year (2012-2013). Reflecting the demographics of their overall client base, the sample consisted of 80 female-headed households, 40 were Maori, 25 were Pacific Islander, 22 were European/white, and 13 were Asian. The research team completed frequent in-depth interviews and mapping exercises. The interviews and mapping exercises focused on housing, debt, food insecurity, health, education, and employment.

From what must have been mounds of data, the university-based researchers and Auckland City Mission staff analyzed and interpreted the results and then presented their findings in a series of fascinating scholarly articles (linked here at the end of the page) and in more easily accessible reports, including the summary report Speaking for Ourselvesand the intriguing and highly visual Demonstrating the Complexities of Being Poor: An Empathy Tool.


The Empathy Tool was developed by Mondy Jera, Executive Researcher of the design consulting firm ThinkPlace. I visited Mondy at her ThinkPlace office in Wellington to find out more about how the tool was being used and evaluated. Mondy and her team were also responsible for the design of the rough sleeping in central Auckland report, which has a series of wonderful graphics including the ones shown here.This was based on a research study focusing on the experiences of rough sleepers in central Auckland and was completed in February 2015. She said that a homeless rough sleeper man in Auckland pulled the report out of his backpack and showed it to a librarian at the Auckland Central Library and told her he uses it to help him navigate services. Not an intended use of the report, but a very clever one. P1010063

She also told me that the library staff saw ‘library’ on her graphic of a house (shown here) representing research findings on what happens when public and private domains meet on the street. The library staff decided to set up special training for them on how to work effectively with rough sleepers, and they have started a movie night at the library for their homeless patrons.

The Empathy Tool is being used in ongoing training with housing groups in Auckland, with Maori Affairs, and in special poverty sensitivity trainings with staff of the New Zealand Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for setting economic policy for the country.

Mondy, who has a Masters in Public Health from Otago University and a bachelor’s degree in sociology (criminology) from the University of Utah, designed an 8-week ’empathy experience’ for a group of eight people from the Ministry of Finance. They first did classroom training using the Empathy Tool and practiced role-playing scenarios. She then gave them each $2 NZ to take the cross-city bus to the soup kitchen for lunch. Most of them had not taken a city bus since their college years and by the time they figured out transportation to the soup kitchen, the kitchen had run out of food. So they pooled their money and bought a communal lunch at the grocery store, commenting on how expensive any healthy food choices were and how time-consuming it was to meet basic needs while ‘being poor.’ They then did a series of on-the-street intercept interviews with people in more impoverished sections of Wellington and finally had an in-depth de-briefing session to talk about their experiences. They were then tasked with designing an innovative intervention to address a common poverty-related problem. They completed this training program a year ago and Mondy plans a follow-up evaluation of it soon.

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