How an organization uses technology to connect people and encourage greater understanding and empathy

The Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center hosted Waidehi Gokhale, CEO of Soliya, for an interview on using technology to create an interconnected world. This interview aired on The Ismaili TV on June 22, 2020.

Soliya is a non-profit that fosters organized, cross-cultural dialogue in youth through technology, with the goal of creating empathy for those different from ourselves. Its name comes from combining the Latin word for “sun” with the Arabic word for “light”, exemplifying the bridge between cultures. This New York-based organization was a finalist for the 2019 Global Centre for Pluralism Awards, where Gokhale met with Mawlana Hazar Imam and received praise for the work of her organization. Now in its 17th year of programming, Soliya expects to reach around 6,500 youth and train 1,400 facilitators this year. Soliya connects youth across the world through a virtual platform, where they are able to engage with their global peers through crafted content that is facilitated to help them see beyond themselves and cultivate empathy.

Soliya was started as a collaboration project between Lucas Welch and Co-Founder Liza Chambers—one who was based in conflict resolution and the other who came from a media background. Both recognized a key problem: the way we stereotype individuals from other ethnicities and backgrounds, and how this leads to isolationism and lack of concern. They saw new media and technology as a vehicle to bring people together to have meaningful conversations, thereby challenging biases and stereotypes.  

When asked about the importance of interconnectivity as a solution to a fragmented world, Waidehi responded, “It is not enough to think of us as being linked, but what we do with those linkages.” She sees technology as a way of connecting the divided world and said, “if you can harness the potential of technology and use it in a deliberate and intentional way, you can potentially overcome massive hurdles. Through our technologies, we are able to bring together young people who would otherwise be impossible to connect.”

Waidehi was born in India, grew up in Hong Kong, and has lived and worked in the UK, Singapore, Canada, and the United States. She holds a MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, an MA in Counseling Psychology from Boston College, and a BA in Literature & Philosophy from the University of York, UK.

According to Waidehi, having young people view others with a lens of empathy is the key to changing the next generation: “They take this learning when they are synchronously face-to-face with each other and use their skills to become different citizens in their digital spaces. That is when you’ve generated real connectivity.”

Regarding the role greater connectivity can play towards fostering anti-racism, Waidehi shared that the key is to empower people to practice the art and science of dialogue while thinking critically. This will allow individuals to examine their own biases and commit to hearing the "why" of others. “If we can get the rising generation to commit to the power of empathy and pluralism and understand their responsibility and ability to make things happen, technology can then play its part,” she said.

When asked about Soliya’s emphasis on connectivity to achieving a greater understanding of the “Other,” Waidehi believes that just because you are connected, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are connecting. This echoes Mawlana Hazar Imam’s own comments about knowledge gaps leading to empathy gaps, the theme of his 1996 Commencement address at Brown University, and about technology, also made at Brown in 2014:

      “Communicating more often and more easily can bring people closer together, but it   
       can also tempt us to live more of our lives inside smaller information bubbles, in          
       more intense but often more isolated groupings. We see more people everywhere
       these days, standing or sitting or walking alone, absorbed in their hand-held
       screens. But, I wonder whether, in some larger sense, they are really more “in
       touch?” Greater “connectivity” does not necessarily mean greater “connection.”

Waidehi describes two challenges that she encounters; the first is regarding authorship, and the second is around the consumption of information. We should commit to creating savvy consumers and savvy authors of information, by ensuring that young people are coming to this information and thinking critically about it, using a lens of understanding and empathy. If young people are engaging with content, then we can make it more possible for people to communicate more effectively and understand the value of that constructive engagement.

Soliya’s approach to achieving greater connectivity is by having the same group of people meet under the guidance of facilitated dialogue. They are there to make a greater commitment to understanding and deepen their engagement with one another. These individuals then use these skills to become different citizens in their digital spaces. Albina Bhimani from Atlanta has been accepted into the fall advanced facilitator training course endorsed by the UN-Habitat.

Waidehi shared two inspiring examples of how her program is helping youth better understand each other. When discussing the perceptions of Islam in the context of the Boston Marathon Bombing, there was a clear change in participants' views on Islamaphobia after they participated in discussions through the Soliya platform. In another example, during the Egyptian Revolution, male participants stood guard outside an internet cafe in Egypt, so that their female counterparts could share first-hand experiences of this revolution through the Soliya program. This helped participants around the world learn about the revolution from those who were living it, rather than relying on information that trickled in through the media.

Soliya’s Connect Program has been available since 2003 and has linked post-secondary youth from 30 countries in 222 universities across North Africa, South Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. It offers a facilitator training program where graduate students, young professionals, and others can develop their skills in leadership, engagement, and facilitation. Soliya’s partners include the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, UN-Habitat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Soliya is doing remarkable work to shape the next generation of leaders to become more pluralistic and to lead with empathy. “We’ve learned that you can affect change on empathy. To us, empathy is not a soft skill, it is a hard skill. It is a commitment to a way of life, you deliberately sign up for it,” Waidehi said.

The interview with Waidehi Gokhale can be viewed here: