Case Study: Reducing Bullying with the Empathy Toy

In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine boldly declared that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city. The article was written in the wake of numerous incidents of racial discrimination and violence that took place everywhere from schools to local election campaigns and disproportionately targeted Indigenous people. The community was struggling, and had just sworn in a new mayor. While some people were hopeful for change to come from people in traditional seats of power, many people had been taking action on their own; long before the Macleans article, Winnipeggers of all ages were taking action to combat racism and discrimination in their own community.

With the leadership of Vice Principal, Cree Crowchild, guidance counsellor, Robin Wilson, and other supportive staff members, the students of St. John’s High School in Winnipeg’s north end decided they were tired of letting their divisions define them. Instead of taking a reactive approach to dealing with racism and bullying, they implemented positive behaviour intervention and a restorative practices plan, a method that centres around empathy and accountability.

Cree Crowchild sat with us to share how The Empathy Toy helped launch a 21 Leaders program at St. John’s High School, an initiative that empowers students to usher in a new culture of respect and understanding that has reduced conflict-based office referrals by 85%.

How did you feel when Maclean’s Magazine named Winnipeg The Most Racist City in Canada? Were you surprised?

Cree Crowchild:
I was pretty upset. To peg one city as being the most racist was shocking because I’ve lived in a variety of cities and all of them seem to have aspects of racism. Racism is everywhere – it’s about how you deal with these issues that sets you apart from other cities. In this case, the lack of what Winnipeg was doing was at the forefront of labelling it the most racist city. But, there is a lot of good things going on in this city that many people don’t know about. And if people don’t hear about the good stuff, those negative comments come to the surface. So for me, this negative article helped in a positive way. I took this negative experience and thought, wow, what a great platform to showcase what we’re already doing, not just what we’re going to do in response to this article.

The Empathy Project had been going on at our school for 3 years before the article came out. I think [racism] is bred by a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy, and a lack of acceptance. And we’re trying to use The Empathy Toy in our toolbox to bridge those gaps between the communities about understanding, acceptance, and empathy.

Tell me about the decision to take a restorative practices approach to addressing bullying and discrimination in your school.

Cree Crowchild:
Restorative practices, for me, is what I feel it is to be a human being. We all make mistakes but we should all have an opportunity to fix those by listening, understanding, and empathizing with people. Does it always work? Not always. Kids and adults have to be ready to use these strategies. You have to have participating individuals and that’s where the teaching comes in. We need to teach empathy, or unlock the empathy within – not from a textbook – but from experience, nurturing, and leading by example. And now kids come in and say, “You know, Mr. Crowchild, if that would have happened to me, I would know why that kid pushed me. Cause I would have done the same thing.” So I know it’s working. Or if kids come in and they say, “I respect you, Mr. Crowchild, and thank you for always being understanding. Even though you had to suspend me, I know why you had to do it – I wasn’t ready to fix the problem.” This all happens through modelling, through creating a leadership group, and by creating a school where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have a place and a purpose in this school. This all starts from the general knowledge of what empathy is and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Describe a moment of transformation that you saw in the 21 Leaders program.

Cree Crowchild:
The transformation for me is when I talk to parents of kids who are on the leadership team. We had a leadership night where all 21 Leaders brought their parents, which meant all 60 (kids and parents) in the library. We celebrated it by having pasta and salad, and talking about the leadership roles of the kids. You could see the pride in the parents’ eyes knowing that their kids were chosen to represent the school. And when the kids played the game with their parents for the first time, it was amazing!

While we were playing with [The Empathy Toy], one family was speaking in Tagalog to start, which was fine with me – whatever you’re comfortable with. Then they started having problems, so they went to English and were still having problems. Then, they went to a combination of English and Tagalog to the point where they finally figured it out. That’s what the game does – you do what you need to do until you figure it out. And to me that was, like, wow! Kids and parents are working together. That’s the purpose of the game, to find a common language – whatever that may look like. Finding a common ground where you can build an understanding. For me, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can still get along.

Tell me about Mayor Bowman’s connection to this program.

Cree Crowchild:
The mayor has been a great supporter of our school in general. After the [Maclean’s article] was published, we reached out to [Mayor Bowman] and said “Hey, this is what we’re doing”. We sent one of the 21 Leaders out to city hall and lent the Mayor [an Empathy Toy kit] to play. He thought it was wonderful and instantaneously jumped on board when we talked about the Everybody Has The Right Conference. He came out and spoke at [the Winnipeg School Division’s kick-off to Everybody Has The Right week]. There were 77 schools in attendance and the media was there. We talked about how important the game was in building empathy and understanding.

6 people stand in a school gym in front of a projector screen that shows the message His Worship Brian Bowman. The people standing in front are guidance counsellor Robin Wilson, Mayor Brian Bowman, Vice Principal Cree Crowchild, and 3 St Johns’ High School students wearing matching orange t-shirts. The students and the mayor are each holding up a piece of the empathy toy to cover one eye, making a peace sign with their other hand, and smiling.
St. John’s High School guidance counsellor Robin Wilson (left), vice Principal Cree Crowchild (second from right), and three students meeting Mayor Brian Bowman (centre).

[Mayor Bowman] played the game with a student and said, “Wow, this is so great! It’s such a simple idea!” I could tell he was interested in exploring it further. So, when he [hosted the Mayor’s National Summit on Racial Inclusion, in response to the Maclean’s article], we were asked to meet with him in his chambers. When we arrived, he had the toy set up to play with. Other politicians were there to see the game. That told me that he believes [The Empathy Toy] isn’t just a one-and-done type of thing. He’s supporting the spread of knowledge and sees the impact and potential [The Empathy Toy] can have. When he spoke, he mentioned multiple times the great things we’re doing at the school in regards to the empathy project. He even posted it on his social media.

What advice would you give to other educators who would like to start a restorative practices program?

Cree Crowchild:
It’s really about first understanding your kids and the community you are serving. I believe that’s my role as an educator: to serve the community and understand who the people are and what needs they have. The better you understand your community, the easier it is to support and model restorative practices. And the more tools you have, the easier it is to promote, because you can’t teach empathy from a textbook, you’ve got to experience it. Tangible things like [The Empathy Toy] are tools that can help support a movement. Once you know your community, what tools you have, you can streamline everything around the concept of empathy. Empathy is where it starts. It’s right at the centre. If you can’t build an understanding of what empathy is, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

A quote from the interview is written on a blue geometric background. The quote reads The better you understand your community, the easier it is to support and model restorative practices. And the more tools you have, the easier it is to promote, because you can’t teach empathy from a textbook, you’ve got to experience it.

We started this program with grades 7/8, but the younger you start this type of program, the more capacity you have to build for success as they get older. Starting with younger kids really sets the tone for the future of your school. If I worked in an elementary school, I would be starting The Empathy Toy with the kindergarten classes. I would make sure that by the time they grew up and left the school, they had a clear understanding of what empathy really means, in their words, not what I think it is. The earlier you start with kids, the bigger opportunity you have to mould your community and your school. Empathy is behind everything. If young people can use these strategies at home or in their communities, they can make situations a little bit better, and one day, teach that to their kids.

One of our Aboriginal student leaders was talking to me about what we can do better for the different generations. He said to me, “Mr. Crowchild, I think we even need to forget about my generation now and start focussing on the next generation of little ones.” And it’s true! To foster change in society, we’ve got to think about the new generation of young leaders.

Plastered prominently on the walls of St. John’s High School are posters reminding students of the values that guide them: empathy, trust, accountability, patience, and respect. Through their service inside the school and throughout the community, the 21 Leaders have become proud embodiments of these principles. Empowered with the Empathy Toy Educator’s Guidebook, the staff at St. John’s were able to provide the 21 Leaders with important facilitation tips and tools to lead Empathy Toy sessions with their peers and younger students at other schools. This training gave students practical leadership skills and most importantly, instilled in them a sense of confidence, purpose and pride as they stepped out into the greater community and declared themselves as leaders.

6 people stand in front of a series of flags inside Winnipeg City Hall. The people are standing in sort of a pyramid formation, with Twenty One Toys Founder Ilana Ben-Ari in the centre. On the left side of the picture are Twenty One Toys team member Ryan Burwell and Mayor Brian Bowman. On the right side of the picture is Vice Principal Cree Crowchild and 2 St Johns’ High School students wearing matching black and white shirts.  Each person is holding up a piece of the empathy toy to cover one eye, holding their other hand with the finger stretched out next to the opposite  side of their face, and making silly faces.
Twenty One Toys and St Johns High School in a picture with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman after receiving their Certificates of Appreciation.

It is heartening to witness the incredible impact initiatives like 21 Leaders have had on St. John’s High School. Since the inception of this program, the school has seen an astonishing 85% drop in conflict-based office referrals. And the students’ influence has not stopped at the walls of the school. Accompanied by 21 Leaders delegates and Cree Crowchild, the Twenty One Toys team travelled to Winnipeg City Hall where founder, Ilana Ben-Ari was honoured with a Certificate of Appreciation for “creating empathy games and educating students around the world about the importance of empathy.” This award is shared with the incredible young people at St. John’s who have harnessed the power of The Empathy Toy to make a difference in their community.

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