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Why your summer reading list could be the most effective tool for building empathy

June 24, 2022, 10:08 PM UTC
Summer beach reads can be great escapes that also help us develop empathy for others.
Liam Norris—Getty Images

Happy Friday.

Readers sounded the alarm over the erosion of LGBTQ+ rights this week. The consensus was that leaders must speak.

One reader name Anne wrote in to say that conservative leaders often use one of two paths to manipulate perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community for political ends. That’s the cycle that needs to end, she says.

“One is to mock the failure of the progressive community to understand that the ‘electorate’ is only interested in how people are doing economically and sometimes foreign policy threats. The second is to cherry-pick individual incidents that conflate criminal acts with sexual identity.”  Political operatives, behind the scenes, gleefully watch the public respond to these incidents and count on misplaced outrage to drive votes, she says. “Leadership….all leadership….needs to find its voice.  It is a tricky political calculus but so are most issues when there’s such a deeply and emotionally divided public. And sadly, there will be little probative reasoning in the media. I hate that I think we have some more lost battles though I still hope there’s a war to be won.”

Keep the mail coming.

Now, in the spirit of understanding each other better (and in the search for more micro-moments of joy) I’d like your help in crowd-sourcing a new reading list that might also help us have an inspiring summer.

I’m looking for fiction works, from any era or style, to give our imaginations a boost and offer a legitimate break from the news of the day. And I’m looking for one of two things.

  • A book that helped you feel seen in a particularly powerful way.
  • Alternatively, a book written by someone very different from you which has inspired you, or helped you better understand the lived experience of others.

I’ll start.

I am currently in the middle of The Book of Form and Emptiness, the glorious fourth novel by Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian-American Soto Zen priest who in an earlier life was an art director on low-budget horror films. That checks the “different from me” box in several delightful ways.

The novel recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so—it is an original and inspiring story of love, family, grief, and the power of books, elevated by Buddhist ideas. It follows the story of a 13-year-old boy who begins to hear the voices of the objects around him after the tragic death of his father. I loved it from the very first word.

“As a child, I related to objects as though they were semi-sentient, and even now I think about the stories that things could tell if only they could speak,” Ozeki said. “Do things (trees, pebbles, toaster ovens, nuclear reactors, etc.) speak? Can they teach us about life? About reality? Obviously, the answer is yes, if we could only learn to listen.”

In her acceptance speech for the Women’s Prize, she also made a plea for the power of stories to change the world.

“I wanted to call out the names of the women who have supported me, because now more than ever this is a time that we need to speak out and rewrite the dominant narratives that have landed us into quite dire straits,” she said.

Sounds like a job for a good book.

You can use this short form to submit your recommendations. I look forward to seeing the world through your eyes.

Wishing you an imaginative weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

If you work for a company that has vowed to protect abortion rights, life in a post-Roe v. Wade world is going to get very complicated. You’re not going to just have passing laws that vary state to state. You’re also going to have states that are in conflict with each other; you might have the federal government intervening. In the middle of all this, you have this unexplored piece about what employers can do,” Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University tells Fortune. Click through for how other companies are preparing.

Levi Strauss releases its first-ever full diversity report and shows slow but meaningful progress from its post-George Floyd commitments. It’s also the first report during the tenure of Elizabeth A. Morrison, the company’s first-ever chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. One of her first acts was to create a diversity and university recruiting team; the company launched a series of partnerships aiming to help Black design students find meaningful roles in the fashion industry. Among the tidbits in the report: A 4% increase in Latinx and a 1 % increase in Black executives in top management positions, and a 2% increase in Black and Latinx representation in corporate roles. Although the racial make-up of the executive team did not change, there are now more women than men.
Levi Strauss

Exploring Harvard’s deep ties to slavery Harvard was late to explore this troubling history; it published its complete report back in April of this year. (Peer institution Brown University published a comprehensive report and action plan back in 2006, hoping others would follow suit.) The university has pledged to spend $100 million to address this legacy, but this segment from Democracy Now sheds new light on the report and those efforts. Enslaved people were forced to work for Harvard professors and presidents, served Harvard students, and the university enjoyed financial benefits related to chattel slavery well into the 19th century. But the actual horror was far worse. “The report documents an extraordinarily extensive, deep history between the university and slavery,” Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony and Ivory, says. “It begins at its founding in 1636.” A compelling watch.
Democracy Now

If you’re happy Paolo Banchero is the number one NBA draft pick, you can also thank his mom, the former University of Washington women’s basketball star, Rhonda Smith-Banchero. In addition to sharing a love of the sport, including the WNBA, she is also helping him to understand his mixed-race Blackness. “Black and Italian is unique, and it’s been a great experience growing up,” Banchero said. “My mom, she’s real adamant about just teaching me how to navigate in the world we live in.”

Will Chinese game developers spark a worker revolution? I don’t know, but it's a fascinating question. One of the most popular genres in China is “realistic” survivor simulations. Instead of dodging zombies or monster bosses, these games are based on real-life challenges living in real places: Finding a livable apartment, working dreary jobs, dodging bill collectors. One such game “Survival in Beijing,” the game player “is always one bad break away from being beaten or even killed over unpaid debts.” Current versions may be too realistic to enjoy playing, but designers are using their art to ask big questions about equity, consumerism, and society, says lecturer Kong Degang in this essay. “[U]nconscious biases and the tendency to patronize the working class are challenges that anyone who makes art must face, and game developers shouldn’t be exempt from criticism.”
Sixth Tone

Your micro-moment of joy is the greatest wedding vow you’ll ever hear Just trust me on this.

Parting words

“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”

—Argentine essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges


This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.