Melody Porter

Compassion and Community

portrait of melody porter

Q: How did Inner Architect begin?

Inner Architect began with some planning efforts two years ago. It arose out of these collaborative conversations with Anne Arseneau of Student Leadership Development, Margie Cook who was with the Center for Student Diversity, Kelly Crace, Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellness, and myself. After a year of talking about ways that we could be working better together to support students’ growth, we added in Holly Alexander from Residence Life and Lauren Garrett from First Year Experience.

So, over time, the six of us came up with this program. The idea was to give students a space to explore things they cared about in more depth and for us to be able to do the same. Another goal was for people to integrate all that they’ve been participating in and gathering along the way into some sense of meaning and purpose for their lives now and as they look ahead. So, the way we developed it was that each of us thought about what we would like to talk more about with students but don’t have time to do so. How could we take these things into a deeper conversation?

We developed sessions based on those interests that last over the course of the semester. During sessions, we will present some material then ask students a question, ask them to find a partner to talk about the answer with for 10 minutes, then do the same with someone else. It’s sort of like conversational learning. In those interactions, I see a lot of compassion. Every session ends with asking students to express one thing they appreciated hearing from someone else that day. Many times, people will say that something someone else said made them feel less alone or that it made them feel better in another way. Self-compassion arises out of that exercise.

Q: Is the growth of students in this course interdependent?

Yes, it is in a way, because they’re growing as a result of learning from each other.

Q: Is there any culmination of the course?

The process that occurs during the program is lifelong but at the end we do have a session where people will reflect on something they learned during the course of the semester. The work does continue though, especially as students get into the habit of reflecting on the experiences they have in class.

Q: Your primary focus is community engagement and active citizenship. How, then, did you get to starting Inner Architect?

My work has always been connected to students through community engagement but it’s been nice to broaden the conversation a bit with regard to the topics we discuss in Inner Architect.

Q: How does compassion relate to Inner Architect and community engagement?

I think that compassion always happens in community engagement when people bring their full selves to the work. When you open your heart, there’s a lot of space for compassion to arise between two people. Where I hear people talk about it a lot is during critical reflection and discussions after service where they are talking about their experience in community, what that means to them, and how they want to be a part of a community in different ways in the future. When people hear from each other about different kinds of experiences, they’re able to see things from another person’s point of view. It happens a lot in reflection because those are really targeted conversations. I know also that our students who work on a weekly basis with the same kid doing tutoring or mentoring have a lot of compassion when they see new layers of that child’s life, too.

Q: Are there any other projects in the works?

Next semester, we will have a project called “The Daily Work of Justice.” It’s another collaborative thing. It’s come to be a group of around 10 people, ranging from grad student, campus ministers, faculty members, student affairs people, and we are all working together to focus on the issue of criminal justice this year. The idea behind the program is that we would bring people who are grassroots level workers on a certain issue to be able to talk about their personal experience with the issue for the purposes of cultivating empathy and understanding in the people that they talk with. Criminal justice is such a divisive issue right now but we are hoping that when people speak from their lived experience, then other people can hear that and honor the truth of another’s experience. Hopefully, listeners would consider what it means for them and what directions they might go as a result of hearing those perspectives. That’ll happen in February. We will bring in people who have been incarcerated, had family members incarcerated, people who work in the system as lawyers, judges, police officers, as well as people who are advocates and nonprofit workers. That’ll be over the course of three weeks. Each guest will be seated at a table with students who attend the sessions. The whole purpose of the program is to cultivate compassion and empathy for people around a charged issue.

Q: What else happens during Inner Architect sessions?

We started off this semester talking about values and the work that Kelly Crace does with authentic excellence and then how people can apply that to planning for their lives, goal setting, and making a vision become reality. This past week we talked about resilience and how to cope when things aren’t going as you’d like. The next time we meet, we’ll be talking about diversity, issues of privilege, and how to maintain space in charged conversations. Then we will move into the work I’m doing with active citizenship. We’ll consider what it takes to change the world and come to the realization that none of us is going to do just that but that we are all able to make differences in the lives of those around us.

Q: Can too much compassion be a bad thing?

That brings up the term “compassion fatigue” for me. There have been points in my life where I really felt that. I had lived in Johannesburg for almost a year right before I went into theology school. That transition was super hard. I went from working with and being in relationship with people in homeless communities in Johannesburg to then doing an internship with people experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. I was taking a lot of that pain in and didn’t know how to process it well. I remember having that thought – that “maybe what I have right now is compassion fatigue.”

I have compassion on my younger self for that too. It’s not something that I struggle with as much now because I see how important it is to see the value in whatever action you do take and to have some sense of meaning from that. It’s essential to see the good that is a counterpoint to the deep difficulty people are facing in their lives. It’s a hard thing to deal with. So, I don’t think it’s wrong for people to have too much compassion or that one could have too much but I think there are ways that we process experiences that elicit compassion that don’t always contain as much compassion for ourselves, trust in time, and a greater context. We have to realize it’s not just us doing the work. I think that’s part of what I struggled with when I was younger – feeling not just compassion but also wanting to bear all the responsibility for what was hard for people.