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The First Amendment lets you speak freely. Empathy lets you listen | Ronnie Polaneczky

To be invited encouraged to get close to a stranger at a time when so many forces are intent on keeping us apart seemed to be a gleefully subversive act."

Anna Deveare Smith
Anna Deveare SmithRead morePhiladelphia Theatre Company

When I signed up for a "Master Class in Empathy," I didn't expect it would require me to do something ridiculous in front of Police Commissioner Richard Ross, former Mayor Michael Nutter, and too many big-name CEOs to list here. But the joke was on me and 130 others who were instructed to change our physical appearance for the sake of a laugh.

That's why my necklace was on my head, my glasses were upside down on my nose, and my unzipped boots flapped around my ankles like bats.

When it comes to improving my empathy (I need help), I'll try anything. Especially if I'm ordered to by actor Anna Deavere Smith, who led Tuesday's afternoon workshop at World Cafe Live.

The MacArthur grant winner creates one-woman shows in which she uncannily reproduces every word, inflection, and movement of real-life characters she interviews for her documentary-style productions, which take on our most loaded social issues.

The results are feats of extraordinary empathy for even those we may not feel inclined to empathize with.

(Want to be blown away? Watch Smith's "Notes From the Field," HBO's presentation of her award-winning stage show about the school-to-prison pipeline. Her impersonation of U.S. Rep. John Lewis will leave you speechless.)

At World Cafe, Smith was to teach us how to listen to others with the same kind of attention to detail she gives her subjects, which she says is the seed of "empathic imagination."

It's the antidote to the rhetoric that's polarizing our country. The only thing Americans agree upon is that we all have a First Amendment right to speak our minds. But the amendment doesn't mean we'll be heard, with compassion and curiosity, by those who disagree with us.

Reasonable people on all sides of the issues that divide us know, deep down, that empathy is the answer. But what does that mean? And what should it look like?

Elizabeth Dow, CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, thought Smith could guide us to some answers.

For Leadership's 60th anniversary this year, Dow has created a project called "Move in Closer" that brings together a diverse group of local leaders to learn lessons in empathy that they can take back to their communities.

"Who better than the City of Brotherly Love to start a national movement in empathy?" Dow asks.

And what better time?

Smith's master class Tuesday was its kickoff event. The opening exercise, where we messed with our appearance, loosened us up before we moved on to the uncomfortable work of listening to each other in pairs.

We were expected to let go of every preconception we might have about our partners. Then we'd "perform" what we heard, replicating the words and gestures they'd used  to describe a pivotal moment in their lives.

Three questions got us started: Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do? Have you ever been close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth?

The theater got animated as attendees opened up in a way that's rare among strangers.

Participant Ed Tettemer found the experience awkward – and exhilarating.

"To be invited — encouraged — to get close to someone — a stranger — at a time when so many forces are intent on keeping us apart seemed to be a gleefully subversive act," said Tettemer, an independent creative director. "It was too soon to be able to truly empathize with my partner, someone of the opposite sex and half my age, but I was able to begin to imagine her perspective, and that in and of itself was a wonderful wake-up call."

The afternoon became extraordinary when Smith pulled duos onto the stage to perform for us. Their efforts were sincere and funny, surprising and moving.

The bravest came from a young white woman, Lauren, who earnestly "performed" the experience of her older black partner, Greg, who had been accused by police of a crime he did not commit. She then said she couldn't empathize with Greg's experience, as she could never know what it's like to be a black male.

Smith wouldn't let Lauren off the hook, telling her she had the capacity to expand her empathic imagination if she'd only dig deep enough to feel his pain.

Greg then did a rather campy representation of Lauren's being accused by her parents, during her college years, of ignoring school rules she actually hadn't known existed.

Greg saw her experience as minor to his, given how his was embedded into who he has become.

Smith gently chided Greg, explaining that he was responsible to portray Lauren as she presented herself, not as he judged her.

"My job as an artist," Smith told us, is "to work as hard on behalf of Lauren as Greg. If anyone would [feel] that I had judged her or made fun of her innocence, than I [wouldn't have done] my job."

The class ended soon afterward, leaving me wanting more. But attendee Geoff DiMasi left feeling free. The class, he said, had permitted him the freedom to experience empathy for and with people who are not like him.

"I think I have been very hesitant to do that," said DiMasi, principal of the P'unk Ave design studio. "It makes me feel more connected to what connects us."

Maybe empathy is simply giving our hearts permission to care, when our biases say we shouldn't.