My name is Timothy Kurek, and my life was irrevocably changed several years ago when I met first met Lucas Olson. It was October 2012, and Lucas was preparing for a bike trip down the Pan-American Highway. That same week, I was also about to leave on a life-changing trip. The next morning I would fly to New York City to begin the press tour for my first major book, The Cross in the Closet. Lucas showed up to the Hawthorne Theater on that chilly October evening, and we talked about the roads we were both traveling, lamenting that it would be nice one day if we were able to work on a project together.
Growing up, I was raised a hyper-conservative, fundamentalist, Bible-belt Christian and for the past several years have worked as an ally/activist in the LGBT’s struggle for equal rights. But as I have traveled, keynoting conferences in Australia and Italy, Canada and here in the United States, I realized that the lessons I learned and documented in my book are much more broadly applicable towards society as a whole. My “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” experiment has become a lesson in intentional empathy that I know I want to dive into and explore on a much deeper level.
Last spring, Lucas and I spent hours discussing the different ways in which we had arrived at the same existential question—he from the road of Academia and me, from the road of immersive experience. And it was over these hours of conversations that his brainchild, Developing America, was born. If Developing America is the journey, Lucas is Frodo, and by some beautiful twist of fate I have lucked into the role of Samwise.
Renowned author Anaïs Nin said “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I believe the mission of Developing America is to help inspire people to learn to see things are they actually are, and not just through the lens of their own individuality. And yes, it’s a very “millennial ideal,” as many older people have deemed it, but as it stands right now we are a part of the most apathetic generation that this country has ever seen. Only 25% of us own passports. A full 60% of us chose not to vote (for various reasons) in the last election. Why are we so apathetic? Is it that fewer and fewer are financially able to afford to travel, or afford college tuition and study abroad programs? Or are we simply just losing interest while we witness the ugliness of partisan politics broadcast on twenty-four hours on cable news?
I would place a bet with anyone on this one thing. The political and social arguments raging in D.C. are not going to determine change. Instead it will be the young people that bring stories back home of the beautiful people and work being done in other developing nations, with other ideals and other practices. The thing that is going to change this country, and our identity as American citizens, will be the moment we embrace our role as a part of a much larger narrative in the global story because sometimes the best role life affords is that of the supporting character.
How can the act of intentional empathy, the act of someone walking in the shoes of “the other,” really change a person and the community to which that person belongs? In other words, to the audience of this blog, are you developing America(n)?