Survival of the Kindest: Stories of Compassion

By Lia Mandelbaum

This past January I had written an article for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) newsletter about a profound intervention taking place around the globe, called the Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest, and how they were implemented for the first time at a prison, the California Institution for Women (CIW), located in Corona.  At the heart of the Compassion Games’ purpose, is the belief that within each of us exists an innate, powerful, and ready kindness.   The women at CIW were a poignant example of this truth as eight of their housing units agreed to compete for the greater good through a “co-opetition.”  During the 11-day period, 4,600 acts of compassion were recorded through a shared measurement system, and there were no reports of violence.

CIW was very courageous for being a pioneer in implementing this rehabilitative intervention.  It was wonderful news to hear that CIW plans on hosting the games again this year and set an example.  (See video below.)

Bringing the Games to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)

As a first-year Master of Social Work student at Cal State Los Angeles, I interned as a psychiatric social worker at the Roybal Learning Center, which is a high school located in Downtown Los Angeles.  I shared the NASW newsletter article with my supervisor, Cherie Hudson, LCSW, PPSC, and after she read it she was immediately inspired to challenge Roybal students and staff with the mission of cooperating to compete for the greater good of the school community.

Before you knew it, our team of social workers, which included the other MSW interns Karina Rivera and Nicole Rodriguez, began developing an infrastructure, programing, a shared measurement system, school-wide involvement and outreach to supporters, including Monica Garcia, who represents Board District 2 with the Los Angeles Unified School District.   

Student leadership came up with three school-wide activities: a compassion pledge, a compassion rush and a gratitude wall.  We appointed students into leadership roles, with the title “Compassion Guide and Peacemaker.”  Student involvement is key!

We developed a shared measurement system using our Titan Tokens to record the acts of kindness.  A count was submitted at the end of each week by all four of the “co-opetating” learning academies.  Announcements were made over the school intercom, during meetings and in the classrooms, and packets were made up explaining the Games and distributed.

Roybal became the first school in LAUSD to host the games.  

Planting seeds

Our goal was to help create a culture of compassion, which is obviously not a transformation that occurs overnight.  As soon as the games began, it became clear to me that one of our biggest hurdles was the significant uncertainty of what compassion is, and that it was critical to have discussions with students that would add a greater depth and understanding about kindness and empathy.

Several presentations were done by outside speakers to discuss compassion in its many forms.  Because a good deal of the students are personally impacted by our criminal justice system through a friend or family member who is/was incarcerated, I thought it would be great to bring in a criminal defense attorney and human rights activist, who would talk about people who are incarcerated in a way that isn’t dehumanizing, and how there is a tremendous need for more compassion in our criminal justice system.

Another speaker explored compassion through music by examining popular songs from a variety of genres, and how different artists have reached out to people through lyrics and melodies of compassion, hope and solidarity.  This was a popular topic, especially amongst the males.  I had been concerned about male participation due to the stigma of how compassion can be seen as a sign of weakness, but was touched by how they showed tremendous insight and vulnerability by being open with their feelings.  One male student described the games as a way to “wear your feelings on the outside.”

I brought in a Muslim and Jewish woman to co-lead an Islam and Judaism 101 course from a lens of compassion to give students exposure to other cultures.  A couple of students shared that they weren’t aware a woman could be a Muslim or a Rabbi.   The women gave a powerful message, because although these two people are from groups that are commonly seen as enemies, they showed the students how they too are capable of showing compassion and solidarity.

Another speaker discussed conflict resolution and how having compassion and understanding for “the other” is important.  I purposely placed her in a specific classroom to address a chronic issue with bullying between two students.  Similar to many other bullies, this student had a lot of really painful challenges going on at home, and was transferring her pain.  Although I didn’t give the other student any details of her situation, after the presentation, she said to me that she wished the other student would tell her what’s going on so that she could be there for her.  It was her empathy and desire to understand that helped her to personalize less and better cope with the situation.

The movement to promote compassion continues as we have been receiving wonderful support, especially from the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health (LADMH), to bring the Compassion Games to schools and other various institutions throughout the city and beyond. 

Setting the bar

For some students, what inspired them to compete was the desire to put a positive message out there about their community.  Roybal is a high school that sits in an area where there is a large concentration of gang activity.  One student said with conviction, “I want show others that Pico Union isn’t just a bunch of pickpockets, and that we too can be a compassionate community.” During the games, students felt like they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

These students should feel incredibly proud that they not only helped to set the bar of what it means to be a compassionate community, but we also co-created a movement to make our communities safer, kinder, more just, and better places to live.

To hear from the people involved in the Compassion Games in Los Angeles, please watch this video:

To join the Compassion Games, click here.


Lia Mandelbaum has had a varied and interesting career through activism and community building.  She is a student at Cal State LA getting her Master’s in Social Work, where she also received a bachelor’s in social work.  Over the past two years, she interned as a psychiatric social worker at both a mental health care agency, Barbour and Floyd, serving South Central, and at a high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Roybal Learning Center.  She is a graduate of the Jeremiah Fellowship with Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and just completed a fellowship with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.  She has become a leader in developing cultures of compassion as an organizer of the Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest.  She also recently became a member of Future50, which is a project just launched by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, in partnership with the Interreligious Council of Southern California (IRC), and is composed of 50 emerging leaders who are beginning to shape the future landscape of faith in Los Angeles.  Lia has a blog with the Jewish Journal, called Sacred Intentions. You can find Lia’s publications in the Jewish Journal by clicking here.

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This article appears in: 2014 Catalyst, Issue 15: Summer of Peace - Inner Peace and Practical Action - Yoga, Veterans and Forgiveness Day

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