How Lea Kabiljo is bringing empathy into art education

It was the last interview that really got her.

Lea Kabiljo was driving with one of the people she most admires, visiting important places from this person’s life.

This was the third of three interviews, rounding out to eight hours of total recorded conversation.  Lea was to write a profile about her subject for one of her graduate school courses.

Her subject’s name was Sheila “Twinkle” Rudberg, the founder of LOVE: Leave out Violence—a not-for-profit devoted to empowering at-risk youth in Canada.

Twinkle was known for having turned a tragedy into a story of hope. She and her husband were out for a night on the town, when they witnessed a boy snatch the purse of an elderly woman. Her husband chased after the boy, leading to a confrontation that ended in her husband’s death. This is the event that eventually led Twinkle to found her organization.

Anyone familiar with LOVE: Leave out Violence would be familiar with this story. But Lea used her interviews to reveal the other parts of Twinkle, beyond just the tragedy.

Twinkle recounted that she was an adopted child. She explained the true origin of her nickname. She told stories about her first kiss, her hobbies and interests, and other intimate memories.

After eight hours of listening and sharing, Lea and Twinkle’s relationship moved beyond an interviewer-interviewee dynamic. They became friends.

As they sat in the car, in the final moments of their final interview, Twinkle reflected on everything she shared with Lea. And after this, there was silence. There was nothing left to do but be grateful for the experience they both shared.

Every time Lea sits down to listen—to really listen—she needs a moment afterwards to let the person’s story sink in. She takes their experience and reflects on it, without self-interest or judgement. This, as she explains it, is empathy in practice.

Lea has made a career out of empathy. So far, she has experimented with this idea through her work abroad, local art projects, and as program director for LOVE: Leave out Violence. She is now a PhD candidate in Art Education at Concordia University, where she wants to show educators how to approach their students with more empathy and understanding.

“People often confuse empathy with sympathy,” she explains. “Sympathy is when you feel sorry for somebody, you feel their sadness. Empathy is not sharing the same feeling; it’s understanding what’s happening to the other person.”

Lea had a formative experience with this concept while teaching at an all-girls school. Her class was a tight-knit group of 13-year-olds who would coordinate in making her life difficult.

“For the first year, I cried almost every day,” Lea said. “These girls got to me.”

She explains that, when you feel attacked, it can lead to a me-versus-them mentality—a dynamic that, she says, is less than ideal.

“It’s pointless to be engaging in argument with a student,” she says. “The idea is you need to resolve things, to mellow it out.”

She eventually learned to de-escalate conflicts by removing her “self” from the equation. This meant remembering that the students’ behavior was not personal. She needed to set aside her own pain to create room for understanding.

Lea admits that this was a difficult task. Everyone has an ego, no matter how big or how small, and it takes practice to set it aside and understand the reality of a situation.

To re-orient herself in the classroom, the first thing she did was to avoid reacting in the moment.

This does not mean her emotions were gone; she would still feel upset on the way home. But by sitting with her feelings in a quieter environment, she learned to look inward and understand why she felt the way she did.

Doing so helped her see that the students were not out to get her, that it was not personal, which helped her keep a cooler head. This, she explains, helped changed the dynamic.

To the outside observer, Lea’s ability to stay calm seems natural.

“She has this innate capacity,” says Lorrie Blair, professor in Art Education and Lea’s PhD supervisor. “She’s just remarkable.” 

But at the same time, says Lorrie, Lea’s approach in the classroom—and in life, generally—is one that was cultivated over years of community service and experience.

“Lea is a very caring and adventurous person,” says Gia “Lucky” Howard Greer, Lea’s friend and colleague in the Art Education program. “She has enough life experience to understand how it is to move through the world in different ways.”

Lea is now using her experience to inform her PhD work. She hopes to empower teachers to empathize with their students.

“We have amazing educational programs for teachers,” she says. “But we don’t teach teachers how to listen, how to get to their kids.”

She explains that oral histories have a role to play here. This means teachers should sit, listen, and understand where their students are coming from.

To get this point across, Lea has her students tell someone else’s story through a piece of art. In this exercise they are to pay attention to how they filter the story into their final product. What choices did they make? Why? Does this tell the full story?

Through this exercise, students learn how they are positioned in relation to the other person. Once they know this, they can better empathize with the other.

Lea has her own set of interviews she needs to re-visit for her PhD thesis. The recordings are currently in a box, waiting to be listened to.

“I’m waiting to open up these interviews because I want to be 100 per cent present for them,” she says. “It’s not something you can do in passing, in between work and going out for drinks.”

Every time she re-listens to an interview, she relives the conversation with that person—a process that requires time and attention.

After her thesis is done, she hopes to keep collecting interviews and listening to people’s stories. But she needs to find a good reason.

“I can’t do it just because it makes me feel great,” she says.

Lea’s experiences point to the special power of empathy. If we can all make room for deeper, more meaningful connections, what other gifts might we bring into the world?

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