Creating a Generation of Empathic Heroes

Congratulations! This Entry has been selected as a finalist.

Creating a Generation of Empathic Heroes

San Francisco, United StatesSan Francisco, United States
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Heroic Imagination Project teaches students to stand up, speak out and take empathic action in the face of challenging situations.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The Heroic Imagination Projects unlocks the everyday hero inside of young people. Too often, young people fail to stand up, speak out and act in the face of challenging situations such as bullying or discrimination. This inaction is not inevitable, and it largely stems from students not understanding how situational forces -- the social psychology at work at any given time -- block their capacity for empathy. In other words, peer pressure, the Bystander Effect (the feeling of paralysis when part of a group - especially in a crisis situation) and other psychological phenomena play more of a role in whether or not an individual displays empathy than most people realize. Bullying is perhaps the most common and damaging manifestation of these "situational forces."

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Founded by esteemed Stanford emeritus professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, one of the world's foremost social psychologists, the Heroic Imagination Project aims to give students a deeper understanding of how social pressure impacts them, giving them agency and ownership to display empathy. Specifically, we provide interactive lessons to students in middle and high school, teaching them about psychological forces, how the basic properties of a given situation can exert influence over them, and what concrete steps they can take to ensure they act wisely. With lessons on topics such as The Bystander Effect, Peer Pressure & Conformity, Obedience & Authority and Ingroups & Outgroups, students gain both an awareness of why they feel the way they do in difficult situations as well as the skills to step up and act, becoming mindful change agents and demonstrating everyday heroism and empathy to promote pro-social behavior and prevent bullying and discrimination.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Since we base our work in research-based, measurable practices, HIP piloted its lessons over the 2010-2011 school year through ongoing partnerships with ARISE High School in Oakland, CA and Foothill Middle College in Los Altos, CA. In addition to high levels of engagement and interest, formal pre- and post-assessment results showed a meaningful increase in students’ knowledge about the Bystander Effect versus a comparison group – scoring on average 40% higher on a six-point scale. Similar effects were also seen in the students’ knowledge about conformity and prejudice. With an increased understanding of how situations can shape and affect people’s actions, meaningful increases were also seen in the areas of empathy, forgiveness and compassion for others. A powerful example of the potential of HIP comes from Phillip Johnson, a senior at ARISE who participated in the pilot. In an interview with a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio program, Phillip explained, “I used to be the kind of person who, if someone asks for something, I’d wait a moment and see if anyone’s going to budge, but nobody does. So now if I see somebody in need I just walk right up. Recently [on the bus], there was a guy who was having an asthma attack. Everybody on the bus was talking about ‘I don’t want to see this guy die, put him off the bus, let’s keep going.’” Instead of conforming to the Bystander Effect like everyone else, Phillip remembered what he had learned, had the driver stop the bus, and ran to get help – a life-saving act of everyday heroism.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Due to our innovative programming and the potential for our work's impact, stemming from the lifetime of experience and expertise that Dr. Zimbardo brings to bear, the Heroic Imagination Project has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the magazine Science and on the Dr. Phil show and National Public Radio, among others. While other organizations exist that work against bullying and youth violence -- No Bully and Green Dot, for example -- our distinguishing factors are how deeply we ground our work in social psychology research and how we focus on teaching individuals to become aware of and mitigate the effects of situational forces. We believe that there is more than enough room for multiple approaches in the field of building empathy and ending bullying.
About You
Heroic Imagination Project
About You
About Your Organization
Organization Name

Heroic Imagination Project

Organization Country

, CA, San Francisco, San Francisco County

Country where this project is creating social impact

, CA, San Francisco, San Francisco County

Your role in Education


The type of school(s) your solution is affiliated with

Public (tuition-free)

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

The information you provide here will be used to fill in any parts of your profile that have been left blank, such as interests, organization information, and website. No contact information will be made public. Please uncheck here if you do not want this to happen..

How long has your solution been in operation?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Now that you have thought out your entry, help us pitch it.
Define your company, program, service, or product in 1-2 short sentences [136 characters]

HIP teaches students to stand up, speak out and take empathic and courageous action in the face of challenging situations.

Identify what is innovative about your solution in 1-2 short sentences [136 characters]

"Our solution is focused on the power of situations and is research- and science-based." Stanford prof. em. Phil Zimbardo.

Social Impact
What has been the impact of your solution to date?

HIP’s educational curriculum has been presented to nearly 100 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. The initial impact is encouraging. Pre- and post-assessment data show that participants display the following:

1.) meaningful increases in awareness and understanding of the power of situations and groups to influence individual behavior;
2.) greater skill in resisting negative social influences;
3.) increased ability to overcome challenging situations - social, emotional and academic;
4.) greater belief in their own abilities to become catalysts for positive change, in their own lives and in their communities.

In Southern California, 20 high school students designed service-learning interventions in everyday heroism that they "taught back" to more than 200 younger students in their community.

Additionally, workshops in HIP’s curriculum were presented to 500 educators in Tijuana, Mexico and 60 officers during Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy.

What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?

The next 1-3 years will mark exponential growth. We plan to move into five additional high schools and directly reach 500 students through those efforts, and host 50 "train-the-trainer" workshops for educators, counselors, mentors and other youth workers.

These workshops will allow us to reach approximately 15,000 students. Moreover, we will work towards having HIP’s curriculum receive wide adoption by major school districts and other institutions, as well as publishing it in electronic and print book forms.

Within 3 years, we will see measurable decreases in bullying and youth violence, and increases in civic participation, in areas where HIP's programming has been delivered, as young people's capacity to practice empathy increases.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

The major barrier that may hinder our success will be finding entry into schools, which tend to have little extra capacity for non-academic interventions. However, we believe that we can overcome this challenge because our curricula are extremely adaptable, able to be delivered in large-group assemblies, after-school clubs, during counseling periods, homerooms, etc. Moreover, with the main thrust of our work aiming towards training educators, we will be preparing individuals to take our programming into the schools in which they already work. Finally, we can make a compelling case that our work in fact IS an academic intervention, since activating students' empathy and increasing feelings of safety & security at school have been shown to have a substantial impact on academic achievement.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

Deliver our innovative curriculum to at least 500 students by forming partnerships with 5+ Bay Area high schools

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Task 1

Take letters of support and make a pitch to local school districts.

Task 2

Schedule time, adapt our curriculum to the specific school contexts.

Task 3

Deliver the lessons.

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

Deliver our innovative curriculum to at least 1,000 educators and other youth workers through a series of 10+ workshops

Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Task 1

Leverage places we have already delivered our curriculum (e.g., L.A. County Sheriff's Department) to find new prospects

Task 2

Reach out to prospective locations and find partner organizations that will sponsor our work (e.g., corporate sponsorships)

Task 3

Adapt our curriculum to the particular audiences' needs and deliver the workshops

Founding Story: We want to hear about your "Aha!" moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution's potential to change the world [125 words]

Prior to founding HIP, Dr. Philip Zimbardo was finishing a distinguished career as a prof. of psychology at Stanford University; he is renowned as one of the world's leading social psychologists and a pioneer in the field (best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment). In 2006, when he was called as an expert witness the Abu Ghraib trials, his intellectual and emotional interests underwent a profound transformation. No longer content to focus on man’s inhumanity, he turned his attention, intellect and passion to how people can embody heroism, empathy, courage, integrity and action in the face of evil. It was not long before he would become the founder of HIP, a new organization designed to do just that: to promote heroism in all its facets, a subject that had received hitherto little, if any, formal academic attention. It was to be an organization rooted in science and research, an organization that would spawn countless everyday empathic heroes on every continent.

Tell us about your partnerships

We have formed many partnerships, most notably with our pilot schools (e.g. ARISE High School in Oakland, Ca.), the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and with the Fundacion Internacional de la Comunidad (which is helping us put on workshops for youth workers and educators in Tijuana, Mexico). We also work with such institutions as the Greater Good Science Center and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Additionally, we have an ongoing relationships with the Dr. Phil television show, on which Dr. Zimbardo has been a guest several times and will continue to appear to discuss HIP issues.

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section? [75 words]

We currently have a strong team with decades of experience. Our Education Initiative is led by Clint Wilkins, a lifelong educator. Clint is the former assistant headmaster at Sidwell Friends school in Washington, D.C. and was the founding Head of School at Sage Hill school in Orange County, Ca. and principal of Civicorps Elementary in Oakland, Ca. We envision hiring additional roughly 3-5 veteran educators as staff members to deliver our curriculum both directly to students and through our "train-the-trainer" workshops

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list

More than anything, we require short-term funding to allow us to scale our operations to a place where we can be self-sustaining. Additionally, having access to networks of educators would allow us to better meet our programmatic goals. We are happy to offer our expertise and thought partnership to organizations in a similar space as us.