Bobby in front of a statue of Ronald Reagan

Bobby Ramkisson

International Affairs

November 14, 2017 | Being accepted into the American University Gap Year program was an incredible opportunity for me. The program can be a home for political enthusiasts, and politics has been my passionate purpose and intended career path for as long as I can remember. I entered the program ready to jump into the political scene in Washington D.C. When applying to internships, I predominantly applied to congressional offices. I always knew I wanted a profession in politics and working on Capitol Hill just seemed like the most obvious first step. But after having interviewed with several congressional staffers where they had laid out my responsibilities as an intern, I didn’t feel as interested in the internships as I thought I would be. I wanted to be proud of the work I had completed at the end of the day and felt as if I was contributing to something greater then myself. I hoped that through participating in this program, I would be making a difference by impacting someone in a way that I’m not entirely aware of. I was hopeful that my presence would enhance or inspire, or even challenge, the people around me, and in turn, help me reach for the best that there is and give the best of myself.

As a result, I decided to look for opportunities to develop intellectually and professionally in a deeper way. Through much research and deliberation, I inevitably found myself in the realm of non-profits. Non-profit organizations establish themselves with the goal to meet a tangible need, instead of the goal to make money by meeting that need, which seems contra to our current political system. Out of the hundreds of non-profit organizations in Washington D.C., the one that stood out to me the most was Split This Rock.

The mission of Split This Rock is to cultivate, teach, and celebrate poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. I have always been fascinated by the power of the arts. All through high school, I was an active member of the Performing Arts department. As an actor, I spent time living another person’s life and seeing things from their perspective. I had prejudices about people and places that blocked me from seeing their uniqueness and individuality. But through theatre, I was able to get beyond these labels to appreciate the personal stories of the people in their circumstances. I am able to have conversations with people who I may never meet outside of a fictional setting. Acting has nurtured an unyielding curiosity about others and, in turn, broadened my sense of personal identity. Reflecting on this experience, I gradually became convinced that the most effective way to achieve social change was not through the traditional means of party politics and introducing new laws and policies, but through changing the way people treat each other on an individual basis, in other words, through empathy. And I have found, that there is no better tool to elicit an empathic response than art.

Art has a better chance of changing hearts and minds over black and white statistics. The numbers are readily available, but the stories are not. Stories are an empathic magus that can enable us to shed our own skin and step into another way of looking at the world. Empathy has the power to erode our cultures of violence and racism and extend boundaries of our moral concerns. It may just be that empathy is the key to what will change the political culture.