At this year’s Biennial of the Americas festival, the headliner is empathy.
That’s not the name of a hip new noise band. Empathy as a concept is the focus of artists and big thinkers gathering in Denver this week from across North and South America.
Biennial CEO and executive director Erin Trapp said the inspiration for the theme came from the divisive, tense national political conversations happening several years ago.
“When we looked to North and South America to see what was the ingredient that might be missing in the conversations at that time, it really did seem like the deeper understanding, that empathy, was missing from our everyday interactions with everyone from world leaders to people you met on the street,” Trapp said. “We wanted to focus on something that had a positive implication. Empathy, and how you put it in action, can really change those interactions, so that's what we were going for.”
This year’s Biennial will feature a number of clínicas featuring discussions led by people who think a lot about empathy across a variety of fields, whether that’s housing, education or the economy.
One sessions that Trapp is particularly excited for is called “Sustainable Fashion: Slow Your Fashion.” The clínica will focus on how changing the way consumers buy clothes can be good for the Earth and the livelihood of workers.
There’s also a workshop called Applied Empathy, designed to help people build their own capacity to be empathetic.
“The fundamental idea here is that empathy can be taught. Empathy is like any other skill. It's like a muscle. You have to exercise it and use it, otherwise it goes dormant,” Trapp said. “The idea is just to put yourself in the perspective of another person and really understand, not just give lip service to what might be going on in their lives, but to really, in a way, take a viewpoint that isn't your own before you start making a judgment.”
The big event, the Americas Symposium for the 2019 Biennial, features Richard Branson, the owner of the multinational conglomerate company Virgin Group. While the choice of the wealthy businessman may seem odd for an event about empathy, Trapp said Branson is a good, unexpected fit with lessons to share.
“Richard Branson might not be the first person you think of when you think about the business of empathy, but as an innovator and a disruptor, he has spent the better part of the last decade really refocusing his efforts on things like sustainability in the Caribbean, things like leadership that can make big differences in the serious problems around the world.” Trapp said. “He's someone that I think has an image that isn't necessarily aligned with the real substance that he brings to the conversation. We wanted people to really hear from him and understand how someone from that stature, from that level, can use the position they have to try to build empathy and leadership among other people.”
The Biennial of the Americas will also feature a public art installation in Civic Center Park for all to enjoy. The piece is a “extraordinary large-scale jaguar sculpture that has lights and sounds coming out of it” and highlights the plight of the Amazon. The installation also marks the location of the Biennial’s closing party, and as a stage where local bands including Kiltro will perform.
However attendees engage with the Biennial, Trapp hopes they walk away with the confidence to act in some way.
“In some cases it might be something very small,” she said. “What we want people to come away with is a sense of inspiration and hopefulness, and hopefully an urgency to actually engage in solutions.”