If you are like most people, you probably have heard about Hannah Graham, the second-year student at the University of Virginia who went missing on September 13th of this year. Her story has understandably connected with millions of people across the country.
One only need to view the video footage of Timothy J. Longo, Sr., Chief of the Charlottesville Police Department, to see the empathy Hannah’s disappearance has generated from officials in the city and across the nation.
In a press conference held on September 17th, Chief Longo spoke passionately and emotionally about Hannah and his determination to find her. He described her as a “straight A student” and as “an accomplished athlete, and a good friend..this is who we are looking for.”
The Hannah Graham story confirms a sad reality. We see those with whom we can connect. We look for Hannah Graham because we can identify with her and with the pain her family and friends are enduring. We can see Hannah, even if we aren’t quite sure where to look.
Without minimizing the tragedy of Hannah’s story, let us share another story with you. Have you heard of Dashad Lequinne Smith?
Dashad went missing in the same Charlottesville area two years ago, on November 20th to be precise. Unfortunately, few people know about Dashad’s story.
Dashad Smith just happens to be a black transgender teen who dressed both as a man and a woman. Dashad was known to others as Sage, Sagey and Unique, names that don’t easily roll off the lips of a television news anchor.
Here’s what we know. Dashad reportedly intended to meet a man for a date on the evening of November 20th. He, and the man he went to meet, have not been heard from since. This is who they are looking for.
Local police did question a man of interest, but that individual stopped communicating with investigators and his whereabouts are also unknown. According to the Black and Missing Foundation, there have been few leads since Dashad’s disappearance and even fewer media stories on his case.
There are plenty of reasons why you might know about Hannah Graham and not about Dashad Lequinne Smith. For us, it comes down to who we choose to see and who we are willing to look for. These cases, and plenty of others, illustrate just how critical empathy is to collective action.
In these two cases, it suggests the presence of an unsettling empathy gap in our society. Collective action requires an ability to “move the crowd” and stories that connect with us emotionally are more likely to garner attention and action. What happens, however, when you discover an empathy gap? Empathy gaps allow us to pick and choose. They allow us to divert our attention from one person or one situation to another.
In recent years several studies have been done on race and the empathy gap. These studies show participants images of both black and white people being subjected to different levels of pain. The subjects are then asked to describe how painful they thought the experience was for that person. Both black and white participants thought the experiences were more painful for the white test subjects.
Empathy gaps undoubtedly explain why we look for some people and not others. It explains why the world was slow to respond to the Ebola crisis in west Africa. It also explains why some people get a pass at the same time others are “held accountable.” Empathy gaps drive behavior in such profound ways. They influence many of our institutions, including the media, public health, criminal justice, and education. They also influence behavior in the workplace.
Empathy is positive, especially when it is applied consistently.
But great leaders are able to find appropriate ways to close the empathy gaps and mobilize the crowd to take positive, collective action.
Are you that person? Who are you looking for? Better yet, who and what do you see?