We interviewed Ayca Ariyoruk, cross-cultural facilitator and partnerships manager for Soliya Inc., a not-for-profit, technology-enabled organisation educating young people across difference. Ayca is an international development expert and a cross cultural facilitator with over a decade of experience in policy advocacy and in facilitating public-private partnerships for global public good. Previously, as the director for communications at Turkish Philanthropy Funds, a New York based community foundation, Ayca supported education initiatives to empower marginalised youth. At the United Nations Association of the USA (now the UN Foundation), she devised policy research and advocacy campaigns in favour of transparency, reform and US leadership on a range of issues that were on the UN Security Council’s agenda. She started her career as a young scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a public educational foundation dedicated to informed debate on US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Ayca’s commentary appeared on Financial Times, the New York Times, BBC, Radio France, Voice of America-Turkish, Toronto Star, the Christian Science Monitor, Business Channel of Turkey, the Independent-Uganda, China Daily and Xinhua Net of China. She has an MA from School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and a BA in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She speaks Turkish.
What is Soliya and what impact are you trying to create?
Soliya is a not for profit technology organization designed for conflict resolution. The digital revolution has put us on the edge of hyper-connectivity. True, we are connected, but are we connecting? Social media platforms and internet technologies are exposing young people to a world of difference without providing the tools or the know-how for how to engage. Digital communication tools have not kept up with the times. A menu of emojis just doesn’t cut it.
Big tech says they want a more human world but their products are pushing us in the opposite direction. How do you know you are not creating more enemies on Facebook than you are making friends, not to mention how these platforms have become the command and control centres for hate groups and violent extremists?
In order to fill this gap, Soliya created a video-chat platform to bring college aged students from across continents together for small group dialogue in the presence of highly trained facilitators to activate their socio-emotional learning. The trick is that we rely on humans. We train and populate the digital space with plenty of good humans doing what makes them human: enabling and advancing skills and attitudes around emotional intelligence.
How is technology an appropriate tool to teach human empathy?
The irony in the question is not lost on me. Conventional wisdom says the more time we spend online, the less likely we are to experience human contact, and so we lack opportunities to exercise our “empathy muscles”. That is true for conventional technologies.
Soliya is anything but conventional. For years, we have worked with conflict resolution experts, educators, technologists and anyone in between and come up with an innovative design for a video-chat platform. We paired the platform with a unique curriculum and put highly trained facilitators in charge. Voila: a powerful, scalable empathy “machine”. A technology that supports human connection.
How do you incorporate research, insights and evaluation into your work?
We have research that supports our hypothesis that synchronous on-line communication (live communication in real-time) when paired with new pedagogies can build human relations as effectively as in-person contact. In 2008, we were lucky to have caught the attention of cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Emile Bruneau while he was doing his post-doctoral research at MIT’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. Together we have collected years of evaluation data that consistently shows substantial skills and attitudinal learning. He has translated our goals into measurable outcomes and designed tools to capture behavioural change.
How do you measure empathy? We look at sense of identity overlap with another group, the willingness of a person to notice similarities with people whom they consider to be different. We also have an “empathy thermometer” that measures temperature from cold to warm of one’s reactions to ‘other’ groups.
How do we collect data? We can’t rely only on participants self-reporting, so we triangulate information from students, evaluations from facilitators and the professors both pre and post program. We have also recently joined forces with Dr. Miles Hewstone at the Center for the Study of Intergroup Conflict at Oxford University to look at more long term impact.
Are we going to be able to make a tectonic shift at the societal level with the people who have gone through our programs? I hope so. That will also depend on our growth. Sure we can scale further but at the moment we need investments in our model and in our organisation to support sustainable growth.
Why use facilitators, but not subject experts or teachers?
We learned that facilitators are more effective in cross-cultural communication which is not about how much you know and can teach about one’s culture but rather about how you approach someone who is different.
We are definitely not teaching sensitivity. That’s why we need people who are first and foremost aware of their own biases and emotional triggers so that they can create an optimum environment for participants to be inquisitive, reflective and critical to reach their own conclusions about themselves and how they view difference.
Our facilitators go through a very rigorous training and are exceptionally skilled and aware people. They refrain from being perceived as an authority. It just doesn’t work when you tell people their culture is wrong or right. The starting point has to be one that all groups have a legitimate cultural interest and a right to an identity.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Overcoming the stigma against emotional learning has been a challenge. There is a big hype around “hard skills” and emotional intelligence is viewed as secondary, despite growing research that says empathy is not an emotional weakness that hampers with ability to reason but rather an integral part of the reasoning process. The real weakness is to deny the existence of emotions in daily cognitive abilities. The first step is to achieve awareness. My name is Ayca Ariyoruk, I am a human and I have emotions, there. We need to come out of the closet and embrace our humanness.
To overcome this challenge, last year we commissioned social science research on skills that are associated with conflict resolution, cross-cultural communication and empathy, plus their linkage to the 21st century job market and employability, targeting multinational companies across sectors.
One thing that is becoming clear is that as cross cultural facilitators and empathy trainers, we don’t need to be worried about losing our jobs to robots. Not only can these jobs not be automated, but moreover, the recent advancements in machine learning that aspire to integrate “emotional learning” into designs and codes, indicate that the demand for authentic human emotional intelligence will only increase.
Why is it so important to you, personally, to build bridges and understanding between the ‘Western’ and ‘Muslim’ worlds?
Soliya’s model targets difference across all cultures and values. The so called “Muslim versus Western” fault line is a major one but is not the only one that brings out the strong views people have about those they think of as other than themselves, or what we think of women’s role in society, or what role should religion play in governance or how we approach refugees.
As a Turk, I have firsthand experience in identity threat, a concept that is explored at depth in Soliya’s virtual dialogue rooms. Growing up in a culture that is torn between a European and a Muslim identity certainly influenced choices I made in life. What matters is that now I am at peace with it because I can make sense of it all.
I have been blessed with Soliya’s education and would love as many young people as possible to have access. After spending over a decade in think-tanks and policy advocacy organisations helplessly watching the world’s conflict zones, I am convinced behavioural education can be more transformational than policy change. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you have policies that value such education!
What is the biggest mistake you made getting started, and how did you learn from it?
I think the biggest mistake was to underestimate the scale of the problem we were setting out to tackle. With populist politicians on the rise and powerful repressive governments exploiting the new technologies to their advantage, all the while when for-profit tech companies driving the economy, we were guilty of wishful thinking that universities could be our paying customers.
Who funds higher education? The answer to that question varies across states and even more so across the continents. Technology is expected to be very cheap or free and often we are compared to for profit models who are one or the other. There is no level playing field for a not for profit technology organization. Figuring out the right business model is key to sustainable scale.
With over a decade of banked experience, we are well placed now to sell our “tech-enabled empathy services” across various sectors and client bases. Our ideal investors are those who are more concerned with social return than capital gains. Our eye remains on the mission — proliferating the skills and attitudes required to make that tectonic shift. Make our Connect Program (and others like it) an expected and demanded part of all young peoples’ education — and make it the price of a textbook.
What positive impact are you most proud of and why?
As of Spring 2017, we have brought together 8,450 college-aged students in small group, face-to-face dialogue in partnerships with 159 institutions in 30 countries and 26 states across the United States. The program runs for 8 weeks, totaling 16 hours of meaningful interaction for each student, not to mention the over 1,600 cross cultural facilitators trained at the fraction of a cost if we were to be done in the physical realm. The proudest moments come when we hear a student or a facilitator share the story of an ‘aha’ moment that transpired during a program session. There is nothing more fulfilling than witnessing your impact as it happens.
*If you are professor and want to enroll your students in the Connect Program, apply here. You can find more information on how to become a cross cultural facilitator here.