How roots of empathy became “Canada’s olive branch to the world”

When I first learned that I would be receiving a 2011 Ernest C. Manning Foundation Innovation Award for my work as founder of Roots of Empathy, I was stunned―in a good way.

“We have to change the people in the world if we want to have peace.”

This award, one of the most prestigious and traditionally science-based awards in Canada, provides not only huge encouragement for our organization and for me personally, but also for hundreds of social entrepreneurs in Canada. In giving me this award, the Manning Foundation has raised awareness about the contribution made by innovators who struggle with intransigent social problems. What all of this says is that there is a shift in our collective understanding about how we can change the world. It’s not just about science and technology anymore. We have to change the people in the world if we want to have peace.


Like the MaRS community, the Manning awards are a magnet for creativity and innovation. Both provide a platform for innovators and opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. Roots of Empathy has benefitted a great deal from our involvement with MaRS, and now we are just starting to benefit from the doors that the Manning Foundation is opening for us.

The innovation behind Roots of Empathy is the idea that we can change the world in the next generation by starting with young children in their classrooms today. Specifically, Roots of Empathy harnesses the power of the attachment relationship that forms between an infant and their parent in the first year of the infant’s life―an ideal model for empathy. We bring this relationship into the classroom where children can learn from it, almost like scientists in a laboratory. For me, empathy is the ultimate human trait and acts as a brake against aggression, marginalization, and, in childhood specifically, bullying. Long ago I learned that a lack of empathy is the common denominator in all cases of cruelty in our world.

Although the field of neuroscience has come to recognize the power of the infant/parent relationship in the last decade, we’ve recognized it since 1996, the year the Roots of Empathy program was created. Today, Roots of Empathy is a global organization, operating in seven countries on three continents, and so far we’ve reached about 450,000 children. The path to scaling up our innovation was not easy, however. We began with a small pilot program for 150 children in Toronto. I ran Roots of Empathy from the side of my desk while continuing my regular work as the founder of the Toronto District School Board’s Parenting and Family Literacy Centres.

Working in school systems to launch our program was extremely challenging, as each one operated independently. Building relationships and delivering on promises was key. The McConnell Family Foundation, one of our early funders, convened groups of social innovators like myself and exposed us to new learnings and a supportive group with which to test thinking and share failures. I reluctantly followed their recommendation to write a book and it proved to help our mission enormously.

My participation in many speaking engagements and media interviews also helped our growth tremendously, creating demand for our program. However, we have always been careful not to grow faster than our capacity could handle, which has meant saying “not yet” to offers to have the program in many countries. Our commitment has been to deliver top-quality programming to every child rather than diluting our efforts by expanding too quickly.

Good early advice also came from Dr. Dan Offord and Dr. Fraser Mustard, who supported my gut feeling that we should have research to prove that the program delivered on what it promised. This has been a huge enabler as we grew. Now, we have more than a decade of research showing that Roots of Empathy is extremely effective in doing what it says it will do.

And so, there is a coming together. Innovation in the hard sciences is beginning to line up comfortably with innovation from the so-called softer sciences, which are now appropriately seen as fostering skills for the twenty-first century. We are thrilled and grateful to the Manning Foundation for their incredible support and their recognition of the vital importance of social innovation.