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ThinkPlace designers are using empathy to help transform outcomes in Del Norte California

What is empathy-sparked transformation and why does it work?

This is Part 2 of our deep dive case study into the remarkable transformation of Del Norte County and the role of empathy in creating it. Find Part 1 HERE


When filmmaker George Lucas wanted a setting for the forest scenes in StarWars: Return of the Jedi he chose the stunning green glades of the Redwood forests of Northern California, this is where we find DelNorte and Adjacent Tribal Lands.

The indigenous peoples of this area have formed their own complex narratives in the place they have occupied since the beginning of time. For them, this has long been a bountiful source of physical, spiritual and communal nourishment. But for others, these are the forests where a motivated resistance joined together to take on and defeat a seemingly-indomitable foe.

In the movie, success was forged through shared purpose, collaboration and commitment. It’s an interesting metaphor for what’s been taking place more recently across the county: a hugely-exciting, whole-of-community, positive transformation.


StarWars crew on location, RedWood Forests in Del Norte, Northern California

Picture Source:

In PART 1 of our 3-part series we introduced you to Del Norte, a county bordering on Oregon, that carries a seemingly-intractable history of disadvantage across areas such as education, health and poverty.

An initiative, known as Building Healthy Communities, has been making startling impact, turning Del Norte from an exemplar of undesired outcomes to a sandbox for innovation and community-led positive change.

So how have they done it?

“The approach that we have taken is empathy-sparked transformation,” says Leslie Tergas from ThinkPlace. “And the impact has been profound.”

members of the Del Norte community take part in a Building Healthy Communities activity

Picture Source: Wild Rivers Community Foundation and Building Healthy Communities

What’s empathy-sparked transformation?

“To make change possible, we make people feel something first,” says Michelle Carrillo, Initiative Director for Building Healthy Communities. 

“To transform systems you are transforming people. We look for the meaning behind the numbers and the data to better understand the lived experience of people closest to the pain.”

It begins by spending plenty of time in and with the community, building their capability and understanding of the design process. ThinkPlace designers started out by running a bootcamp in Del Norte, training around 40 people from community organisations, service providers and associated groups in design thinking and insight-gathering methods.

This process supercharged the empathy-sparking process, equipping people with the tools to generate human connection as they ventured out to their neighbours, asking about their lives, their hopes and the forces that constrained them.

We asked them about their aspirations for their community. But also: What changes do we need to see so that things are different? What’s the desired future experience in this area and what needs to shift in order to get there? -- Leslie Tergas, ThinkPlace.

One of the core skills required for those wanting to make change in this way is empathetic listening.

Empathy is a word that gets used and misused in many contexts. We mean having an appreciation for the life and experiences of people, especially when people have different histories, experiences and values than your own. Empathy and diversity go hand in hand--empathy is a judgement-free appreciation of difference. Empathy is understanding. It is seeing the reality of others. For change-makers and service providers, empathy is key to seeing the reality of what support and change people need, in terms that are relevant to them.

"Empathy requires humility because we have to put our own world-view aside, and be open to the world-views of other. Done well, empathy conversations spark connection, and an aha that is highly energising for anyone who is working on community transformation. That is why we use the word spark. Empathy ignites a spark that fuels the transformation work, which is fundamentally hard. It needs to be fed with that energy of human connection and understanding," says ThinkPlace’s Leslie Tergas.

Like many rural communities, many of Del Norte’s government or NGO leaders have lived in the community for many, many years, if not their entire lives. It is a tight-knit place where relationships are intertwined. That can mean it is hard for people to imagine that they might not understand what their neighbors are experiencing.

When we launched empathy interviews- many people weren’t prepared for the new stories of living in Del Norte they heard from their neighbors, especially people of different races, incomes and generations.

“Our partners kept saying, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life, I thought I knew this place and I didn’t”, said Geneva Wiki, TCE Senior Program Manager for Building Healthy Communities.

“We had intentional conversations with the teen mom staying on grandpa’s couch on the reservation, the young dad just released from jail for shoving his partner while on meth, as well as the highly educated parents creating a nature-based home-school model and living off-grid. Deeply listening, without judgement, to a wide range of people, helped us move towards new and powerful insights.” 

Wiki calls those empathy-sparked insights “the heart piece.”

“Once they were paired with the quantitative social and health data (the numbers piece) that’s when a real change owned by the entire community- began to catch fire.”

The intent was clear: to build capability and provide tools to enable members of the community to gain deep insights and shared understanding about the needs, aspirations and lives of their neighbours.

And then to get on with making something.

See also Case Study published by Centre for the Study of Social Policy

ThinkPlace community building workshop Del Norte

“Traditional engagement methods in this kind of area have centred around big public meetings,” says ThinkPlace’s Leslie Tergas.

“Say you were trying for an intervention around literacy, experts would show up and summon people from the community. People would talk and talk, advocating for their already-entrenched view. Viewpoints and discussion would be polarised. Everyone would fixate on why you couldn’t do something a particular way. And nobody would be making anything.”

Not only had this model proven unsuccessful, Tergas says, it had generated serious fatigue.

Building Healthy Communities is a series of linked projects, Tergas says. But underpinning all of that is the goal of getting an entire community to work differently.

“For us this has become less about designing the change and more about activating an entire community of changemakers.”

Building capability as a first step elevates everybody. But in an area where young people can struggle with education and employment opportunities it creates both. That, in itself, is powerful.

The driver for much of the improvement across Del Norte has been young people. Once a maligned group, they are now rewriting the script for themselves and for their community.

ThinkPlace community building workshop Del Norte


“We are seeing deep changes with our youth communities,” says Michelle Carrillo Initiative Director of Building Healthy Communities. 

“Young people are shifting from a place of hopelessness and feeling like they have to leave the community to be successful to having ownership in creating a healthier community.

They are engaged and are working towards improving systems and policies that affect their lives. We are also seeing shifts in the way community leaders talk about and practice engagement with the populations they are responsible for serving.”

ThinkPlace began this journey of empathy-sparked transformation with a design thinking ‘bootcamp’. Four years later another bootcamp – around community resilience -- will soon be held in Del Norte.

The difference this time? More than half of the facilitators running the upcoming camp will be locals. The students have become the teachers.

“Rather than creating a new project for them, based on their needs we are simply helping to coach them through the process as they do it themselves,” Tergas says.

“That’s a big shift and a really important shift.”



Embedding empathy in the fabric of a community




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