According to the psychologists who measure such things, we’ve become a lot less empathetic over the last few decades. “The average person in 2009,” reports Jamil Zaki in the science magazine Nautilus, “was less empathetic than 75 percent of the people in 1979.”
But we particularly lack empathy when it comes to homeless people, Zaki, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and head of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, wrote in the excerpt from his book, The War for Kindness. “Homeless individuals present one of empathy’s most difficult tests. Acknowledging their experiences is painful; it induces guilt; it damages our sense that the world is just.”
There’s evidence, according to Zaki, that we’ve gone blind to their suffering, and sometimes “fail to see their humanity at all.” When neuroscientists scanned the brains of people who were looking at images of groups of people including businesspeople, athletes, parents, and others, “parts of the brain associated with empathy were activated by every group except the homeless,” he wrote.
Convene’s own look at the attitudes toward homelessness in the meetings industry show that a number of meeting professionals are bucking that trend: Thirty-five percent of those who responded to a survey last August reported they had organized CSR activities to benefit homelessness in the destinations where they hold meetings.
One meeting professional, William Thomson, founder of Gallus Events in Barcelona, organized Homeless Hackathon Glasgow last year, after reading statistics about homelessness in Glasgow, Scotland, his hometown. Meeting professionals have a lot to contribute toward finding innovative ways to address the problem, Thomson told Convene last year. “Event organizers have got essential skills,” he said, “not just in organizing a team, but their contacts and knowledge of how things work and logistics is really, really positive and powerful.”
Next month, Thomson again will be looking for innovative ways to address the issue, this time as part of “Hackathon: How the Events Industry Can Help the Unsheltered/Homeless,” at PCMA’s Education Conference in Los Angeles on June 25. The preconference workshop will address the challenge, “How might the hospitality/tourism industries reduce or prevent unsheltered/homelessness?”
It will be led by consultant Donna Kastner, an entrepreneur and expert on meetings design, and Jamie Murdock, vice president of sales at Experient, who have both facilitated successful hackathons at the Education Conference over the previous two years. (“This was truly the best adult education experience I have ever attended,” said one attendee about participating in the hackathon.) Some things about the format will stay the same, Murdock said, including the emphasis on peer-to-peer learning, networking, and design-thinking-inspired methodology that uncovers new approaches to problems by first asking questions and not turning directly to finding solutions.
What will feel different to participants, he said, is that it is the first time that the hackathon will focus on a challenge that’s “not tied to what planners are working on in their day-to-day lives.” The issue adversely affects the industry, however — the Convene survey showed that 42 percent of respondents had rejected a meeting site because the problem.
Thomson will serve as a mentor, sharing what he has learned about homelessness and unsheltered people with hackathon participants, along with Illah Schalles, the program director of Back on My Feet Greater Los Angeles, a nonprofit that uses running as a way to combat homelessness; and Josh Dean, co-founder of Human.nyc, a nonprofit that works to connect the street homeless in New York City to housing.
Bombas, the sock company that donates a pair of socks to the homeless for every pair sold, also will play a supporting role, donating socks and sponsoring Dean’s travel to the conference, Murdock said. “Anybody who [like Bombas co-founders] has started something from the grassroots, can be inspiring to us as a team and fuel our creativity.” But in addition to modeling an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset — Bombas co-founders David Heath and Randy Goldberg successfully pitched their idea on “Shark Tank” — the company’s success has a practical message for event planners, Murdock said. In creating its charitable giving program, the company used a model developed by others, such as TOMS, the shoe company that donates a pair for every pair sold, he said. That should encourage event designers to borrow other ideas, including from consumer spaces, he said, to “look outside the event space.”
Bombas also serves as an example of what can happen when, in search of new ideas and growth, business owners don’t turn away from, but instead include painful realities in the innovation process. Bombas, which will do $100 million in business in 2019, has given away more than 18 million pairs of socks and t-shirts to those in need of them.
All of the things that most of us take as absolute fundamental necessities, “people who are homeless don’t have that,’” Thomson said. “What can we do as an industry to help? With the skills that we’ve got, we can do a lot of good.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.