In Memoriam: The Political Empathy Project

Reflections on Three Immeasurably Meaningful Years

I launched the first iteration of the Political Empathy Project (PEP) in August 2021. Born of both a sincere desire to act against a threat I believed — and still believe — to be one of the most urgent issues of our time and a vaguer pandemic-related restlessness, I knew then that it would be an ambitious endeavor. But while I felt that I had clearly defined the ground I meant to cover, I nonetheless ultimately failed to acknowledge just how demanding, intense, and all-consuming the work could, or would, be.

Today, I’m killing the Political Empathy Project. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Political Empathy Project is coming to its natural end. I’ve managed to accomplish more in these last three years with PEP than I ever could have hoped to before setting out on this journey, but it’s time for me to pursue other avenues of impact and forms of personal expression. Consequently, this open letter will serve two purposes: first, it will give me a chance to autopsy the project and explain the reasoning behind my decision to end it, and second, it will give me an opportunity to find closure and say farewell.

Good Night, Sweet Prince

When I first conceived of the Political Empathy Project, I made a calculated assumption that I could fill a niche not yet satisfied by the expanse of already-established bridge-building and democracy reform organizations in the field. In complete transparency, I originally approached PEP more as a marketing scheme than as a substantive organization in and of itself — it always existed as its own entity, of course, but I hoped for the project to serve more as an entry point into the broader democracy-first space than as a final endpoint for anyone who might stumble onto it.

The second iteration of the Political Empathy Project home page.

The second iteration of the Political Empathy Project home page.

I think that approach more or less succeeded. It feels today as if that immediate need has been answered, by the Political Empathy Project and any number of other organizations; there’s now an entire industry comprised of committed, passionate political revolutionaries that can do this work more effectively and efficiently — with better resourcing and systems of operation — than I can. In other words, PEP has become redundant, and I want to use my personal energy, platform, and time to amplify and support the work of those who can maximize their impact in a truly meaningful way.

In parallel with this democracy-first industry growth, many of the reforms that the Political Empathy Project championed have begun to make their way into mainstream national conversation. If you’ve paid any attention to our uniquely American political culture over the past few years, then you know that ranked-choice voting is no longer an enigmatic idea for the average voter — it’s a system used in all sorts of various elections nationwide, on both sides of the aisle. The Supreme Court of the United States has adopted a new ethics code (though there’s undeniably more work to be done on that front), independent redistricting commissions have become a painfully common-sense solution to gerrymandering, and open primaries are increasingly on the table across the country. I won’t pretend that we’ve revolutionized our broken electoral systems or ended polarization — far from it — but the movements for better government and a generally kinder political culture seem to gain traction by the day.

On a more personal note, I simply no longer have the time that I would need to make the Political Empathy Project everything I feel it could and needs to be. I just don’t. I still care about these issues immensely — more on that to come — but I don’t have the emotional or logistical bandwidth to continue running a volunteer project, unpaid, at the expense of energy, money, and time that I could otherwise put toward different creative endeavors that leave me feeling more fulfilled and gratified. I’m sure that sounds relatively selfish in the grand scheme of things, but please rest assured that I’m in no way abandoning my ideals or passion for the work that PEP did — I just want to be able to treat my free time like it’s actually free, rather than time that must be spent on what has, over the years, ultimately amounted to something akin to a second job.

It may feel bittersweet to bid a final farewell to the Political Empathy Project. I won’t pretend it’s easy for me. But it’s time, and I’m both proud of everything we accomplished together and excited at the prospect of continuing this work in new ways.

High-Value Organizational Impact

In the last three years, the Political Empathy Project has grown exponentially. Thanks to a rockstar network of freelancers, supporters, and volunteers, we’ve been able to create and do so much in support of our mission. At its time of death, we have:

  • developed and launched two distinct iterations of the Political Empathy Project website;

  • produced two professionally animated videos with top-notch voiceovers;

  • built one exceptionally eclectic bridge-building Spotify playlist with a two-hour run time;

  • shared 20 blog posts from eight different authors;

  • published two comprehensive, PEP-branded action guides (one for advocacy writing and one for calling your representatives);

  • released two podcast episodes, with several more recorded and still sitting in production purgatory;

  • compiled a filterable and searchable digital library of 250+ unique organizations and resources, created with an emphasis on accessibility and ease of use (if you would like access to the Google Sheets version of this catalog, already organized by resource type, please reach out me at your convenience);

  • reached 1,000+ allies following along across our email lists and social media accounts;

  • welcomed just over 10,000 unique visitors to our website.

A secondary section of the Political Empathy Project home page, highlighting an animated video welcoming people to the initiative.

A secondary section of the Political Empathy Project home page, highlighting an animated video welcoming people to the initiative.

A handful of articles posted to the Political Empathy Project blog.

Two action guides produced by the Political Empathy Project.

Two action guides produced by the Political Empathy Project.

The first two episodes of the Political Empathy Project podcast.

The first two episodes of the Political Empathy Project podcast.

The Political Empathy Project resource library, including filters across areas of focus and resource type.

The Political Empathy Project resource library, including filters across areas of focus and resource type.

It’s an exceptional portfolio. And one that just includes the things we’ve been able to accomplish as an organization — but we’ve also managed to do so much more in conjunction and partnership with a fantastic network of authors, entrepreneurs, musicians, practitioners, researchers, students, and everyday Americans that came together to make their voices heard in support of a better and more representative national political landscape.

The Friends We Made Along the Way

Since introducing PEP to the world — something that, it’s worth noting, would not have happened without the excellent advice and unwavering support of my life partner, Julia Hook — we’ve connected with so many caring, intelligent, kind-hearted, and passionate individuals from around the world truly committed to improving our democracy and national political culture alike. From graduate students at Georgetown University (special thanks to David Schulz for his support in crafting an exceptionally well-researched outreach and marketing plan for the organization), Harvard University, and the University of St. Andrews to democracy-first authors, entrepreneurs, and researchers like Claire Yorke, Seth David Radwell, and Jonathan Denn of PolicyKeys™, it’s these relationships that have made this work feel so gratifying and meaningful.

I would also like to extend my personal thanks to the leaders in the bridge-building and contra-polarization movement that have taken the time to engage with me, learn more about my work, and support the Political Empathy Project in all its operations. June Klees (of Compassionate America) and Ann Reidy (of Bridge Entertainment Labs and the Civic Health Project) both deserve enormous gratitude, as does every single member of the Bridge Alliance, the Global Compassion Coalition, and the #ListenFirst Coalition, respectively. It’s been a true honor to work with them all, and to support national initiatives like America Talks, the National Week of Conversation, and Vote Early Day.

Finally, I would also like to thank the hosts of America’s Caravan — formerly the Democracy Caravan — for inviting me to share my story and work on their podcast, and to anyone who ever so much as liked one of our Political Empathy Project posts on social media (a group that I am proud to say includes both New Pluralists and YelloPain). I always intended PEP to be accessible and welcoming to as diverse an audience as possible, and digital community has presented one of the most exciting opportunities to accomplish that goal.

While the Political Empathy Project has reached the natural end of its life, my passion for bridge-building and democracy reform only continues to grow. It feels cliché to say that this is not an end but a beginning — and yet, that’s exactly how it feels. I’ll indubitably continue my own personal research into and work across these critical threats to our country, and hope to continue sharing any conclusions I draw or epiphanies I have through my new newsletter.

On that note: I have a newsletter! And you’re reading it right now! I’ve elected to forgo Medium (I can’t put my finger on it, but Medium unfortunately just never felt like the best fit for my work and I will shortly close my account there) and I refuse to join Substack given their refusal to clearly and explicitly condemn pro-Nazi content hosted on their platform, so beehiiv it is. I’ll be writing about an indiscriminate assortment of subjects and topics, hopefully including a range of issues well beyond the purely political realm, and would appreciate your support as I work to reinvest in myself and my literary endeavors. I’ve also gone ahead and migrated a handful of my already-published pieces — everything is completely free and will be for the foreseeable future, but I may start posting subscriber-only content soon, so I highly encourage you to sign up with your email address if you feel comfortable doing so!

I truly cannot express enough appreciation and gratitude for your support over the past three years. While the Political Empathy Project has been just a drop in an enormous ocean, the community that we have managed to build and the passion shown by everyone involved are only the tip of the iceberg as far as what we can accomplish together. Onward!

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