This story was produced by The Tyee, a We Are Not Divided collaborator

It started, like many modern relationships do, with a smile and then a swipe. 

On April 12, when Julie Arps first messaged Lynt Harris on Plenty of Fish, the world around them was growing increasingly unrecognizable. The novel coronavirus had infected just over a million people worldwide. New York’s skyrocketing death toll was front page news. The pandemic had sent the world economy into a tailspin and shut down international borders, including the one between Arps and Harris’s homes.

border love
Julia Arps (left) in the United States and Lynt Harris in Canada. Credit: David Tesinsky

Arps lives in Ferndale, Washington, just a 45 minute drive away from Harris’s home in Surrey, British Columbia. Before the virus came along, neither of them thought of the U.S.-Canada border as much of an obstacle. Arps says she’s a fan of Vancouver’s sushi and Stanley Park. Harris says he’s taken his family to visit Washington as many as eight times in a typical year. But 2020 refused to be typical. 

The ban on travel between Canada and the U.S. hadn’t registered when Harris was crafting his reply; instead he was worried about responding too instantly. Harris says he waited a full day before messaging Arps back, just to be safe.

But a few messages soon snowballed into long chats on WhatsApp and Zoom, often spanning late into the night. “As soon as we started the video chat I could just tell that he is special,” Arps told me over Zoom in late September. I found myself mirroring her smile as she talked about the moment she knew this wasn’t just a fleeting app-enabled flirtation. He’s a good man in a way that’s hard to explain, she said. Her beaming eyes said the rest.

border love
It was Julie’s son who first suggested that they take their dates to the Peace Arch park along the border. Credit: David Tesinsky

Harris found himself captivated by her calm and sense of humor in the face of so much strangeness. He gave Arps a grand tour over video chat — of his house, his job, his previous marriage, his two kids in their twenties, and everything in between. Arps has kids of a similar age and works as a teacher in Blaine, the last American stop before the duty-free parking lot. It was her son who first suggested that they take their dates to the Peace Arch park along the border, which straddles the 49th parallel and is accessible to residents of both countries. The Peace Arch park is unique — a green space in which U.S. and Canadian citizens can co-mingle, as long as they don’t cross the park’s perimeter into the other country. 

For their first in-person meeting on May 22, Arps was guided by immigration lawyer and family friend Len Saunders, best known for helping out Canadians who’ve admitted their cannabis habits to border guards.

border love
The Peace Arch park is unique — a green space in which both U.S. and Canadian citizens can co-mingle, as long as they don’t cross the park’s perimeter into the other country. Credit: David Tesinsky

“He’s actually a longtime friend of ours because my younger son is best friends with his son,” Arps said. “He walked me all the way through the park to meet Lynt. He told us where we could go in the park and where we were free to roam and hang out and everything.”

In those still-early days of lockdown, a reopened border didn’t seem too far away, Arps told me. They met two or three times a week in the afternoons when Harris got off work, which was a blissful diversion from all the state-ordered isolation. They held hands, ate snacks on a picnic blanket, and tossed a frisbee surrounded by other reunited couples and families. At one of their first meetings Harris gave Arps a remote to open the gate outside his building. “When she comes in, she can just kind of drive through,” he explained.

Then the goal posts moved back a month, and then another. Even though businesses were allowed to reopen and shelter-in-place orders were lifted, Canada’s ban on non-essential travel did not ease up over the summer. “It’s been extended six times now,” Arps said.

Credit: David Tesinsky

From my first look, when I saw them sitting less than a meter apart, I really felt it’s a love story.

Harris and Arps have continued to stay hopeful through rain, wildfire smoke, and even a temporary closure of the Peace Arch park. In June the park’s south entrance was barricaded over crowd concerns, so Saunders suggested a lesser-known meeting place along Zero Avenue at the international border near Abbotsford, B.C.

“It was not the safest place,” Arps said of the grassy “border ditch” where they met for just a few weeks. With tall grass and uneven ground in the middle, and a fast-moving highway on the edges, it was a short drive but a great distance from the stately “together in unity”-inscripted Peace Arch monument. 

Harris and Arps have continued to stay hopeful through rain, wildfire smoke, and even a temporary closure of the Peace Arch park. Credit: David Tesinsky

Despite the unglamorous setting, Arps and Harris smiled through unseasonably cold June weather. It was there they met Czech photographer David Tesinsky, who noticed their umbrellas and lawn chairs by the side of the road. 

“From my first look, when I saw them sitting less than a meter apart, I really felt it’s a love story,” Tesinsky told me for a story in July. Across a 50 kilometer stretch of road, Harris and Arps were one of two couples braving the elements in what looked like the middle of nowhere. 

Harris and Arps were able to return to their preferred transnational picnic spot later that month, and Tesinsky visited them there, too. As reporters like myself started to take interest in their blossoming relationship, fellow park attendees started recognizing them.

“Just the other day a young couple came up to us and asked if we were the couple in the article,” Arps said, referring to a heartfelt Maclean’s profile in September. “They had actually made this remarkable trip from Michigan and Ontario, just to meet in the park.”

Arps was amazed to hear that long-distance couples were making cross-country journeys just to share the same fresh air during a global pandemic. She’s since received social media messages from people in Oregon and Alberta asking about the park. “It’s such a special place for us,” she said.

border love
When the park’s south entrance was barricaded over crowd concerns, they began meeting at the international border near Abbotsford, B.C. Credit: David Tesinsky

Harris told me the attention takes him out of his comfort zone a little, but he’s glad to inspire others to connect. There’s a second wave of infections and a high-stakes American election outcome on the way, so spreading kindness and hope feels more radical than ever.

With Covid-19 cases rising, days getting shorter and rain coming down more than ever, Harris and Arps know their personal challenges aren’t going away soon. The park closes when the sun sets, which will mean less time together during the week over the winter months. “It’s just going to be kind of restricted to the weekends,” said Harris.

Both Arps and Harris say they’re still hopeful that restrictions will ease up a little, if not entirely. “We’ve got more control of things now, I think we’re safer than we were,” said Harris. “We’ve got more knowledge about how to protect ourselves.” 

Arps heard rumblings that the two countries were preparing to introduce exceptions to the travel ban in September, and sure enough, on October 2, the Canadian government announced it would allow families and couples of at least one year to apply to cross for a minimum 15-day stay. 

Credit: David Tesinsky

I’m obviously really devoted to Jules, so I keep a smile on my face. Eventually things will open up.

Harris and Arps are still a few months away from celebrating a one year anniversary, but their plans together extend a lot further into the future. “I’m obviously really devoted to Jules, so I keep a smile on my face,” Harris said. “Eventually things will open up.”

Arps knows that one day she’ll be able to use the remote Harris gave her. When that finally happens, she says she doesn’t imagine anything too fancy — just some quality time, and maybe a bike ride together.

“I try to keep it in perspective and think about the big picture,” Arps said. “In the long term, this isn’t as big a deal as it will be in the future. And we’re going to have a good story to tell.”

In a 2012 interview with The New Yorker, novelist Mohsin Hamid remarked, “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” 

By hearing more of these echoes, it stands to reason that we can build our empathy. But how does it work? That’s where the SPARQ lab comes in. Using insights from behavioral science, Stanford University’s SPARQ lab (Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions) is dedicated to finding new ways to break down barriers and build a more empathetic world. Its researchers produce and present academic research through toolkits, designed to teach us not just how to increase our empathy, but deploy it for the greater good.

Ellen Reinhart is a PhD candidate in social psychology at Stanford studying the intersection of psychology, culture and inequality. She is a graduate affiliate at SPARQ, having previously served as lab manager. Here, she discusses the psychology of empathy, its limits, and practical interventions for building more of it.

Ellen Reinhart

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your areas of research?

I study how psychological tendencies and cultural default assumptions perpetuate social inequalities, and I focus on social class and race. I’m also very passionate about research that addresses social problems out in the real world, beyond academia.  

How does SPARQ address real-world questions?

Overall we think of ourselves as a “do tank” rather than a think tank. It’s creating science and psychological insights… in partnership with change makers, which people in criminal justice and economic mobility and education spaces and health-related spaces [can use] in an applied setting. 

But another version is also taking what psychology has already found and packaging that in a way that non-academics can use in everyday life circumstances. That’s where the SPARQ Solutions Catalog comes from — it’s over 50 entries taking a psychological intervention written about in an academic paper… and packaging it in a way that anyone who comes to the website could learn about what the insight is and how they can apply that in their real life. 

What institutions have used these solutions and toolkits? 

One of the big branches of SPARQ is with criminal justice. Under the criminal justice branch, we’ve partnered with agencies and communities to make data-driven change. For example, one paper found that officers in a department used less respectful language with community members of color. The methods of how they found that was incredible, it was across audio from many weeks and many different recordings of body-worn cameras. 

“One of the powers of this study is that it demonstrates in a real-world setting that when instructed, participants could follow the reappraising of emotions.”

SPARQ is using that finding and saying, “Okay, we know it’s less respectful language and that impacts how community members see the police department. How can we help this department create an intervention that teaches officers how to use the same type of language regardless of the person they are interacting with?” 

What exactly is an intervention, and how can it lead to change?

An intervention is some kind of systematic change, targeting a very particular outcome. An individual-level intervention would be, for example, a teacher in a classroom having their students read about Harry Potter because that increases empathy for marginalized groups. But there can also be interventions at institutional levels, like a police department rolling out policies and protocols about language in these stops.

One study SPARQ features addresses political and social intolerance through “reappraising emotions.” What does that mean?

This study was run by psychologist Eran Halperin. He and his colleagues wanted to see if this common technique for managing emotions, which is called reappraising emotions, could be used to influence political intolerance. To reappraise your emotions is to be somewhat detached from them, to take an outside perspective and try to be more objective and analytical. 

How did the study work?

They had Israeli college students read an article about the Arab minority population, and it was taking place at a time when tensions were very high. This was a very inflaming piece to read. It was designed to elicit very strong negative emotions. Some students were told to read the passage in this cognitive appraisal way. They were told to take the outside perspective, be objective, be analytical, try to be like a scientist and don’t think about it personally. 

What they found is among those who were right wing in their political orientation, the experiment reduced the level of political intolerance towards Palestinian citizens of Israel. Part of the reason why they think this works is because it reduced the negative emotion that participants felt while they were reading the passage. The thought is, it allowed participants to have a more balanced perspective as they were taking in this new information, and that reduced their intolerance for others. 

What are the broader implications of this?

One of the powers of this study is that it demonstrates in a real-world setting — this was a very tense political situation taking place on the ground — that when instructed, participants could follow the reappraising of emotions, they could follow those directions. Reading these short instructions before reading the passage changed how participants read the passage, reduced their negative emotions and then changed their intolerance. I think it’s a positive sign that it’s possible.  

SPARQ also featured research on how native-born citizens and immigrants can reconcile and navigate their differences. How did that work?

With this study, psychologist Jonas Kunst and colleagues divided European-American adults into three groups. One of the groups, they focused on facilitating this common identity between European-Americans and immigrants who had [more recently] come to the country. For example, one of the quotes from this passage read, “Because we are all immigrants or descend directly from the immigrants who came to this country and built it, the United States of America and all its citizens are true and proud products of immigration.” 

A different group read a passage that emphasized differences between those who are native born versus those who are immigrants. A third group was a control condition and didn’t read anything about immigrants in the U.S. 

They gave participants a small amount of money and they were able to decide how much they wanted to keep for themselves and then how much to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports immigrants. The researchers found that participants who had read about immigrants with this common identity were more likely to give more money to the ACLU than the participants in the other two conditions. There was something about emphasizing the shared group that allowed participants to show support for immigrant communities by supporting the ACLU at a personal cost to them.

What do these stories tell us about bridging divides?

At a larger individual narrative, this common identity intervention with immigrants is showing how they are we. It’s drawing on this bigger story of what America is and saying we’re all immigrants and that’s something to celebrate and share, and because we’re all one in this group, then I’m going to treat you like you’re a part of my group, my family, my team. That impacts how people think about distributing resources and other kinds of downstream consequences.  

SPARQ has something called toolkits, which are about applying sanitized laboratory results to trickier, more complex real-world situations. Tell me about that.

The Solutions Catalog is step one of how we take social science, package it in a way that is not academic jargon, and give it to the public. The toolkit instructions show how to implement the intervention in an almost cookbook recipe way. Step one is to take your baseline, see where point A is. Step two is the change we’re going to ask you to take: read about this article, try to take a detached perspective, whatever the intervention that has already been tested academically. Step three is take that measure again to see if you’ve changed. You get your score so you see if there’s been any change over time. 

Step four that SPARQ is helping to promote is to share your story on the website, to work with others, to see what part of this is really working. It can be this iterative process because it’s not just getting science into the real world, but how do we get more of the real world back into science? That makes society better and makes research and theories better. We hope it can be this more symbiotic relationship.

Cyprien Mihigo has witnessed firsthand the destructive power of tribalism. Before settling as a refugee in Syracuse, New York, he spent years traversing the Congo, his vast and politically unstable homeland, as an International Red Cross field officer, crossing tribal borders at great personal risk to provide aid to the sick and dying. 

After moving to Syracuse in 2001, he watched the local Congolese refugee community grow from four families to hundreds of people — and saw the old tribal rivalries continue to haunt them. The intergroup strife that had plagued the immigrants back at home had followed them, 7,000 miles to their new country and right into the new neighborhoods in which they lived side by side. 

“This Atlantic Ocean is so huge that you can travel with the hatred, and after 25 or 26 hours in an airplane, bring it back here — and there is nothing to fight for,” says Mihigo. “Carrying the hatred will kill that person.”

For Mihigo, with his background in humanitarian diplomacy and his own inter-tribal marriage — his wife, a Tutsi, was so vulnerable to tribal violence in the Congo that at one point she went into hiding —  the urge to move beyond these conflicts and unite the Congolese community in Syracuse was irresistible. He organized a women’s soccer team. He hosted gatherings with Congolese music, the familiar rhythms transcending tribal boundaries. And then he had an even more ambitious idea: he would put on a play. 

cry for peace
Some in Syracuse’s Congolese community worried that the play would dredge up bad memories “for no reason.” Credit: Jamie Young. Courtesy of Syracuse Stage

“The idea of doing the play was because some tribes would not give other tribes the time to communicate — the opportunity would not happen,” says Mihigo, who projects the energy of a young idealist despite being a father of eight with a sixth grandchild on the way. “But if you have somebody using euphemism, not speaking directly to the person like, let’s talk about this, they can talk about it indirectly while having fun. Instead of talking to that person directly, talk to the audience…  At the end, they come together.”

Having never produced a play before, Mihigo literally started knocking on doors at Syracuse University’s theater-in-residence, Syracuse Stage. One of those doors led to associate artistic director Kyle Bass, who introduced Mihigo to internationally renowned director Ping Chong. Their collaboration, Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, premiered in Syracuse in 2012, then played in New York City and Washington, D.C. It remains a powerful model for how theater can heal divisions between fragmented communities. 

Five performers sit in a semicircle, illuminated by spotlights.They are Congolese Syracusans, Cyprien Mihigo among them. Over the course of 80 minutes, they deliver a narrative that weaves together their life stories, each uniquely harrowing and uplifting, along with a brief history of the Congo and acapella interludes of traditional songs. Though the performers do not move from their seats, the show is mesmerizing, a whirlwind of information and emotion. 

It is a formula that Ping Chong has been perfecting for decades. Chong, 73, co-created Cry for Peace under the banner of his Undesirable Elements series, using performers who are, as Chong describes it, “outsiders within their mainstream community” to explore issues of culture and identity. The original 1992 production featured seven bilingual New Yorkers from different countries of origin. As the series grew in popularity, Chong expanded the scope beyond multiculturalism, creating Undesirable Elements productions around people with disabilities, child soldiers and sex abuse survivors. It didn’t take long for Chong to realize that the productions, intended to build connections between people from different cultures, also worked as a kind of therapy for the participants.

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    “I realized it was about creating a space for people to address things that they often weren’t able to speak about in the societies that they were in, and then people would just sort of pour their stuff out — stuff they haven’t had an opportunity to vent,” Chong says. “I was quite naive and willing to go places [during the writing process] that were tricky because I didn’t know any better.”

    More than 200 ethnic groups co-exist in the Congo, and decades of violence, civil war, Western exploitation and political corruption have turned tribe against tribe, resulting in massive death and human rights violations, and compelling millions of Congolese to seek international asylum. When refugees arrive in Syracuse, says Mihigo, they often carry the conviction that “living in a kind of division or segregation was their right, was normal, and was a way of defending themselves.” 

    Credit: Adam Nadel. Courtesy Ping Chong + Company

    Mihigo has seen changes in Syracuse’s Congolese community. “People are not afraid of each other anymore.”

    When Bass shared Mihigo’s idea for a play about these refugees, Chong was immediately on board. He knew Cry for Peace would be different from any other play he’d created — for the first time, he would be casting performers from ethnic groups that were in direct conflict. 

    Chong came to Syracuse, where, along with Bass and his associate director Sara Zatz, they would cast the play, write the script based on the performers’ stories and direct the show for Syracuse Stage. Mihigo was assigned the role of dramaturg and “cultural consultant.” No one was quite sure what to expect.

    On the day of his first meeting to gather information, Chong brought five pies for refreshments. The production team had invited Syracuse’s Congolese residents to show up and share their stories. They expected a small handful of participants. Instead, says Bass, “50 people in their absolute finest clothes showed up at Syracuse Stage. It was actually quite beautiful.” 

    As per the Undesirable Elements format, only five performers were selected for the final cast. Mihigo was among them. “I had to be in it, according to Ping Chong and Kyle Bass, and I had to force myself to be part of it,” says Mihigo, who had hoped to remain behind the scenes. Each member of the cast hailed from a different tribe and had a story they were burning to tell.  

    cry for peace
    Ping Chong, director and co-writer of “Cry for Peace” (right), with associate director and co-writer Kyle Bass. Credit: Jamie Young. Courtesy of Syracuse Stage

    Emmanuel Ndeze, 39, fled his village as a young man, relying on strangers for food and shelter. Mona de Vestel, 46, the daughter of a black African mother and a white Belgian father, was born into a family divided by Colonial history, violence and bigotry. Kambala Syaghuswa, 30, was a former child soldier who watched other boys in the Congo “kill each other over an avocado, when there are millions of avocados.” Beatrice Neema shared the nightmarish story of a woman who endured sex slavery and witnessed her family’s murder — she introduced herself by saying, “I am telling this story for someone else because her voice has been silenced by shame.” And finally, there was Mihigo, 48, who had to remove bodies from rivers and negotiate with a gun in his mouth during his time with the Red Cross. His story — of intertribal marriage, of atrocities witnessed, of efforts to create a united Congolese community in the United States — tied the others together. 

    At their first rehearsal, the cast read the play that Bass, Chong and Zatz adapted from their stories. Bass was struck by the cast’s deep nostalgia and love for the Congo, even as they shared their war stories. The first time they practiced with a projection screen, they were so excited to see a slide of the Congo that many of them pulled out their phones and took pictures of the giant map. “It was one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen,” said Bass. 

    Within Syracuse’s Congolese community, however, some were skeptical. They told Mihigo that the cast’s life stories would be exploited, or that the play would dredge up bad memories “for no reason.” But Mihigo believed in the play, and its capacity to ease “the little hatreds on the heart,” as Mihigo said to Bass in his pitch, that tribal conflict had planted. 

    “The tribal element is very real,” says de Vestel, who was volunteering as a translator for Congolese refugees when she joined the cast. The Belgian-born daughter of a white father and a black African mother, de Vestel lived in the Congo before moving to the United States in 1979 with her mother and stepfather at the age of 13. Tribal violence had touched her extended African family, but Cry for Peace was the first time she had seen different tribes grappling with each other’s experiences together. “I was the only one that was biracial, but the others were from different ethnic groups and it was really super intense for me to even witness that,” she recalls. 

    Once performances began, the power of Cry for Peace was immediately apparent.

    “We got amazing responses from the audience,” says de Vestel. “I think it really resonated for people to see such a seemingly different group of people — people that should not like each other, with a complicated history  — tell the story and connect on a human level.”

    In the Undesirable Elements anthology published in 2012 for the 20-year anniversary of the project, Zatz writes that the plays are intended to have “three levels of impact.” First, they create community between people who might not otherwise know or speak to each other. Second, the performers open up to the audience during the performance, creating a kind of community within the theater. Third, everyone — participants and audience alike — returns home, where they can use that experience to impact their own communities. During the Cry for Peace production, de Vestel watched this process unfold. 

    “I know that [Cry for Peace] brought people together because I witnessed it,” she says. “We were very connected, at a very deep level… When your perspective shifts, I think that’s a wealth that you bring back to your community, to your life. And I like to believe that it trickles to other people, too.”

    “Did it revolutionize the community? I don’t know,” she adds. “But I think it was a revolution for us.”

    That was certainly true for one cast member. Beatrice Neema had recently moved from a refugee camp and spoke almost no English when she joined the cast. Nevertheless, she delivered the most devastating story in the production, of a woman raped into unconsciousness by soldiers while listening to her husband and child being killed in the next room. She said it wasn’t her own story, but rather the story of a woman she knew. “I have told this story for someone else,” Neema reminded the audience. “Syracuse, New York is now her home. Perhaps someday she will be able to tell her own story.” 

    “Did it revolutionize the community? I don’t know. But I think it was a revolution for us.”

    What the audience didn’t know is that the woman “silenced by shame” was actually Neema herself — afraid of being shunned by her new community, and embarrassed by her broken English. But over the course of productions in New York and Washington, D.C., something shifted. 

    “When we first did the show, Beatrice said, I want to say it’s somebody else’s story that I’m telling, and I want to speak French,” recalls Chong. “And I said, fine. We had a translator on stage and she told her story. And then we did the show again and she said, I want to tell the story in English, but still say it’s somebody else’s story.  By the time we had done the show a couple more times, she wanted to say it was her story. “

    For Bass, seeing Neema’s story change from the third person to the first person represented the ultimate reconciliation, “her own interior reconciliation with herself and her own story.” To some extent, he says, he watched all of the cast members have that same experience. Mihigo has seen similar changes throughout Syracuse’s Congolese community. “People are not afraid of each other anymore,” he says, though some longstanding cultural and language rifts remain. 

    Regretfully, due to an administrative change at Syracuse University, Ping Chong and Company lost their funding before Cry for Peace could be performed in additional cities. Still, almost a decade after he first pitched his idea, Mihigo has hopes of producing a new play for a cast of Congolese refugees. He sees the divisions in his adopted nation, the heated political debates over racism and immigration, as an opportunity for his community to speak a truth that the rest of the country needs to hear. 

    “I’m a very small person. Nobody knows me much, but the only way I can try to get the attention of people is by being in a play and to pass not only my message, but the message of the community, the message of people of color, the message of immigrants and refugees,” says Mihigo. “Our point of view is important. Our word is important.”

    After working with Ping Chong and Company on Cry for Peace, Mihigo knows that through theater, even the most divided people can learn to listen to one another. “We could make a play that would play in any country, and people would applaud it,” he says.