Have you ever met someone or saw a person on the street and wondered how their life turned out like it did?
So often, we look at a person and place judgments based on our own belief system without even knowing one thing about their life story.
It's interesting how our views begin to change after we take the time to really listen to people's stories and learn about their life experiences. Often, a newfound respect develops, along with compassion for where the person is in life.
I often wonder how much more compassionate our world would be if we took the time to connect through story, instead of being consumed with the latest piece of technology.
At a recent Sacramento Social Mission Central event, I heard the inspiring Toni Morris speak.
Toni is the founder of Bridges For Humanity, a non-profit whose mission is to create experiences that build bridges for understanding and compassion through human connections.
Toni stops by to share more about her commitment to building bridges of compassionate understanding, one story at a time.
JB: Please share with our readers about Bridges for Humanity and who it's designed for.
TM: In actuality, Bridges for Humanity is designed for everyone! Which is why it is so powerful... but our program is focused on partnering students ages 15-23 with partners from diverse backgrounds, different from the experience of the student. Students receive training, coaching, and mentoring and then are introduced to their partner. The student learns the story of their partner, and then they create a project that retells what inspired them about their partner's story. Some of our students have written songs, some have created paintings, others have written about the inspiration of the story. All students are also required to write an experiential essay - sharing what they learned about themselves, how their perspectives might have changed or opinions that are now different than before their project experience.
We believe that everyone has a story that needs to be shared, and all of our stories provide lessons, insights, hope and inspiration, often when we least expect it. Sharing stories is powerful both for the listener and the storyteller.
JB: The story behind Bridges for Humanity is inspiring. What was it about the story you heard that gave you the idea for such an amazing movement?
TM: The idea for Bridges began several years ago. I repeatedly observed situations where people made judgments or showed a lack of understanding/compassion, mostly due to their lack of any personal experience with or firsthand knowledge about someone with different perspectives or experiences from their own. Since these occurred with staff in my workplace, and I was in a position to take action, we provided training, introduced new perspectives and ideas, and set expectations for behaviors. I observed significant changes after these actions in how people treated each other, their level of satisfaction and joy, and even previously held opinions once they experienced connecting with someone they had previously not understood. For example, most people who have a prejudice about someone of another culture or race have never really known anyone on a personal level from that race or culture. Once they have an opportunity to learn the story of a person with this difference, through personal interaction, their view naturally expands - they no longer act out of complete ignorance. I dreamed of creating a program or organization where we could intentionally create these kinds of experiential connections. And from this, Bridges for Humanity was born.
JB: Bridges for Humanity is committed to a powerful value system of compassion, respect, integrity and human connection. What kind of changes have you witnessed in the student participants after they apply this value system to their own lives?
TM: There are so many great examples, but one in particular I will share. One of our students had a previously held judgment about another race, and in particular men. She had no idea that the partner I had chosen for her was a man of this race. (And I had no idea she had her prejudice.) When I told her about her partner, she later shared with me that she had gone home after learning about this partner and told her roommate that she was really worried about doing this. She also told me that once she met this man and heard his story, she felt a very meaningful connection. It completely changed her view that all men of this race are the same. She shared another story with me about her previous prejudice about people who are overweight. She happens to be a petite and beautiful girl who has never had to worry about weight. Her appearance has always been a priority for her. She learned that she was getting a new college roommate, and when she received the information about this person, she looked her up. The picture was of a girl who was a little overweight, wore no makeup and dressed more like a guy. She was devastated! She wondered how could they possibly get along when they were so very different. But then she thought about what she was learning with her Bridges project, and how unfair it is to make judgments about someone you haven't even met or know nothing about. She decided to meet the girl and give her a chance. It turned out this girl came from a family of all guys and her mother was not in her life. She had never had anyone to help her with makeup or shopping, etc. So this student found herself becoming a "big sister" to this new roommate. I am so proud of her and how much she has grown through her Bridges experience!
JB: It's interesting how people form an opinion based on very limited interaction with a person. On your website, you share about the experience of Cassidy, a high school student, that partnered with George, a quadriplegic. Could you share more about their project and how it changed their views on each other?
TM: Cassidy and George were our first pilot project! George learned that others' views can be changed through connection. Before meeting George, Cassidy wasn't at all comfortable around people in wheelchairs. Not that she had a true prejudice, she just didn't have any experience with anyone with a physical disability. After meeting George, within minutes she practically forgot he was even in a wheelchair - he was funny, kind and interesting. She learned that people with disabilities are just people - people with different abilities. Cassidy gained a better understanding that people have a history prior to being in whatever circumstance they are currently in and that she could just as easily had something affect her life as George's accident had affected his. She became not only more understanding of people who have different abilities, but of all people. She wrote a song about George and how his story inspired her to never give up on your dreams, and to not let life's challenges get in your way.
TM: We hope to create a "pay it forward' movement around compassion. When others are touched and know they are not alone, they have a tendency to want to help others in ways they were helped. Every time I hear a story or share one of my own, I learn something. I have seen the storytellers light up when they share their life experiences with someone genuinely interested. And always, there is value in the stories that are shared.
JB: How can our readers learn more about Bridges for Humanity?