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    Shanti Project 45th Anniversary: Celebrating a Legacy of Compassion

    Kaushik Roy

    By Kaushik Roy–

    2019 marks Shanti Project’s 45th Anniversary, and as we celebrate our unique legacy of compassion in San Francisco and beyond, I believe, more than ever, that the way Shanti asks us to be in the world is exactly what our world needs right now.

    The contemporary research indicates that a majority of Americans desire more compassionate interactions in their lives, while simultaneously feeling that society as a whole is becoming less and less compassionate. According to a University of Michigan meta-analysis, these feelings reflect a disconcerting trend in our country: over the past three decades, empathy in the U.S. has been on the decline, while narcissism has risen notably during that same time period.

    In this context, the Shanti Model of Peer Support provides a roadmap for any of us who would like to try to be more compassionate in our own lives. The most profound feature of the Shanti Model is that every single person, regardless of how adamantly we disagree with one another— or how different we believe we are from one another—is still connected to each other by virtue of the shared humanity we all experience. From this philosophy springs the foundation of how we serve clients. Namely, that every single human being deserves dignity and compassion.

    My own introduction to this way of service started when I went through the Shanti volunteer training back in the Spring of 2004. During one of the most transformational weekends of my life, I was given a glimpse into what it feels like to come together with another human being as equals, who share a common humanity. I fell in love with Shanti that weekend because what that training was truly about was how we could live by some of our highest values; how we could, in the words of Lincoln, be the better angels of our nature.

    And what does striving to be our better angels mean as service providers? It means, for people who have been told they are the “other” in society, we say we recognize and respect our differences, because our common humanity is so much greater; it means for folks who have lived their lives in the face of systemic inequities and disparities, we say, your life story matters as much as anyone else’s life story, and we are here to be compassionate witnesses to yours. In short, it means, that for individuals who have been deemed invisible in our society, we show up for them and say, “I see you.”

    Dr. Charles Garfield

    Shanti was founded in 1974 by Dr. Charles Garfield, who was the UCSF Cancer Ward’s first mental health professional. Several years later, as the nightmare of the AIDS epidemic enveloped San Francisco, Shanti was one of the world’s very first community-based organizations to help support people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

    Today, the Shanti Model is utilized by over 50 staff members and 600 volunteers in providing compassionate support to more than 2,000 clients in diverse marginalized communities. And all of our services today continue to be grounded in the timeless ideas prescribed by the Shanti Model: that the most powerful gifts we are capable of offering to one another are our compassionate presence and our affirmation of each other’s human dignity.

    In these dystopian times, it is easy and understandable to feel helpless, as I’m sure we all have done, at least on some occasions, over the last few years. What is particularly demoralizing about feeling like the world is becoming a less compassionate place is just how few courses of action are actually available to us to increase the level of compassion in society.

    We cannot force anyone to feel compassion—there is no way to physically compel someone to be more compassionate. We cannot legislate compassion—there isn’t a bill any politician could pass that would require people to have more compassion in their hearts.

    In fact, there is only one thing we can do, and that is to be more compassionate—to exercise more compassion—and to teach others who want to be more compassionate how to do so. This is the enduring legacy of Shanti’s near half century of compassion. And, we invite anyone who may be interested in providing this kind of from-the-heart service to join us, for it is exactly what our world is yearning for in these difficult times.

    Kaushik Roy serves as Executive Director of Shanti Project and President of the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Interfaith Council. To learn more about volunteering at Shanti, please email