Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 8, 2014

Got empathy?

Local creator of K-12 social-emotional curriculum in finals for 'changemaker' prize

by Chris Kenrick

Can teaching kids empathy change the world?

That's the idea behind the $100,000 prizes offered this summer by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in partnership with Ashoka Changemakers, a group that tries to promote and connect social innovators from around the world.

The competition offers four cash grants of $100,000 to Bay Area projects that "cultivate empathy skills to strengthen communities and to equip young people to become leaders of change."

Palo Alto-based Project Happiness won $1,000 as an "Early Entry Prize Winner" in the contest and is among the 86 semi-finalists culled from 200 groups initially seeking the larger prizes. Local filmmaker Randy Taran launched the project in 2007 after her daughter experienced bullying in middle school and became severely depressed.

"When my daughter told me, 'Mom, I want to be happy, but I don't know how,' I ached to help her," said Taran, whose personal research on behalf of her daughter — who she said is now doing well — led to a film, a handbook, a K-12 social-emotional learning curriculum and a global online network. Project Happiness draws on positive psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience to combat what Taran believes is a rising global problem of depression.

"The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020 depression will be the greatest cause of human suffering behind heart disease," she said in a recent interview. "That's for every country, any socioeconomic background, for any age. That's the thing that really struck me: From young kids to elders, we're all dealing with this epidemic.

"I felt called to do something, and my background is film, so I started there."

Taran's 2011 documentary, "Project Happiness," follows three groups of students — from Santa Cruz, India and Nigeria — in their quest to unlock the secrets to happiness. The teens interview celebrities such as Richard Gere and George Lucas on the subject of finding happiness and finally gather in Dharamsala, India, to sit down with the Dalai Lama.

"Emotional resilience, self-awareness and empathy are teachable skills," Taran concluded.

Taran has spoken at "happiness conferences" in Bulgaria, Romania and around the United States. Last December, she spoke before 700 educators on a visit to Trinidad and Tobago.

"People at first were very suspicious — 'Here's another American coming to tell us how to do it' — but we explained that our programs are designed in such a way that you make it your own, according to the issues you're facing," she said.

"It's how we deal with the human condition, and it's different for everyone, but when we explain to people we provide the tools for emotional resilience, then they understand."

Locally, Ohlone Elementary School teacher Terri Feinberg helped Project Happiness develop a K-5 curriculum last summer and pilot-tested it last fall with her class of fourth- and fifth-graders.

Internal happiness is "basic to kids being successful or not being successful in life," Feinberg said in an interview with a Project Happiness staff member posted on the organization's website. "To me, dealing with the social-emotional happiness of a child in the classroom can, in a very real sense, cause more learning to occur. Grades and test scores and all those things we focus on in education can rise."

Elementary students learn to try to listen to their "inner friend" — the encouraging inner voices that help them learn from mistakes — rather than their "inner meanie," which is self-critical and tells them to give up.

"We disseminate the curriculum, but we're always revising it and bringing in the newest research and so on," Taran said.

From Project Happiness headquarters on the fifth floor of an El Camino Real office building, Chief Operating Officer Seema Handu, a former biotech CEO, oversees general operations. Handu said parents and educators from 80 countries have downloaded the group's materials, with particular interest from Britain, India and Australia.

Research Director Samantha Feinberg comes up with postings for the project's Facebook page for every day of the week with titles like: Mindful Monday, GratiTuesdays and Wednesday Wellness.

Feinberg, a 2003 Gunn High School graduate who earned a psychology degree from the University of California, Berkeley, said the pressure-cooker atmosphere at Gunn "really informed my story on why I'm here."

"I recognized there's a better way. That's what I think we stand for here — offering people ways to come alive."

"We're honored that we won an early-entry prize from Packard and Ashoka," Taran said.

"Empathy is one of the bedrocks of Project Happiness. We believe it can be taught, and that this ripples out not only to affect children's futures but also their families and their communities," she said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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