Leading with Empathy: Nonprofit Helps Design a Kinder Tomorrow

Page Shields

The call for change in the United States has become urgent. Young people are watching their peers drown in debt, homelessness, hate and hunger, and since older generations run the country, there’s little they can do about it. Now, when they are needed more than ever, a team of Millikin alumni are paving the way for new leaders to take initiative, to take back their power and create an empathetic future where all are welcome.

During the 2020 election, Millikin alumna Dominique Bates-Smith became acutely aware of the importance of young adults’ voting. She, alongside co-founder Kamryn Harris, decided they needed to help make sure these key voices were heard. The resulting event, entitled “Walk It Like We Talk It,” was a community-led walk to the polls that encouraged voters to make the trip to the polls, allowed them to meet the candidates in person and gave them a support system through the entire process.

The response was overwhelming. They continued attending protests, running “those in need” drives and hosting any and all events supporting their community, all under the Walk It Like We Talk It name. Before Bates-Smith knew it, her one-time event had become a movement, a wave of young people effecting change.

“There needs to be a place where we can be ourselves, we can lead, we can show we have a voice,” Bates-Smith says.

Thus, Walk It Like We Talk It was born—a nonprofit uniquely built to meet whatever needs the community may have, staffed entirely by activists under the age of 40. The organization’s four foundational pillars include social justice, volunteering, political engagement and mentorship. With these inclusive principles, Bates-Smith and her team are equipped to take on any community engagement project that calls for their attention.

“I have an obligation—for me, personally,—an obligation as a human being to actually try to make this world better,” she says. “Not just for myself, but for people in the future.”

Their recent work has gotten these activists directly into the community, engaging with others on an individual basis. Projects with face-to-face action, like distributing backpacks to local families and mentoring high schoolers who have struggled with aggression, equally serve young people that may need the support, and connect to young activists working with the nonprofit.

One of these young leaders is Deja Janae, a recent Millikin graduate who has joined the Walk it Like We Talk It team as chief of business. Janae was inspired by the organization’s mission, and was excited that her business skill set could directly help young people.

“A lot of what we’re based around is education because in order to help society grow, you need to educate everybody,” she says on the recent programs.

But change is never easy—a lesson that only made Janae more invested in supporting the cause. Even when facing combative community members with views that greatly contrast her own, she

remains focused. She offers patience and kindness, and knows that, as a result, she can make genuine change for the future.

“A strong thing for me is letting go of my feelings,” she says. “It’s like, do I want to be right or do I want to change somebody’s mind; do I want to change the situation?”

This empathy is a trait that Janae feels comes naturally to Bates-Smith.

“Dom is just a super good human being,” she says of her colleague.

As natural as it may seem now, Bates-Smith believes this is a skill she has developed over the course of her life. Having been one of the only Black students at an all-white school before Millikin, she is plenty familiar with microaggressions and, at times, blatant racism. It was using these experiences, but also understanding the experiences of others, that turned her to empathy.

“That’s the only way I know how to go about my life, is leading with empathy,” she says. “Because otherwise, I’m just constantly going to be upset with everything.”

It is with this mindset that Bates-Smith, Janae, and the entirety of the Walk It Like We Talk It organization approaches their work. With their influence, Decatur is on the path to a better, more human-centric future.

“I really think that the key is to try and to create a more inclusive and better community is to do it through empathy, education, and conversation,” says Bates-Smith. “I believe that those three things create change.”