Radical empathy is the most important spark that can ignite social transformation.
At Calliope, we believe radical empathy is the key to unlocking innovation and driving progress in our society. A radical customer focus is critical to ensure we meet the seen and unseen needs of our clients as we approach what can seem like daunting societal issues.
But empathy, especially radical empathy, is incredibly hard work. It’s an active process of breaking through our own judgments to unearth new perspectives and knowledge – insights that should lead to new questions.
As the term has been popularized and romanticized, the true meaning of radical empathy has become conflated with sympathy or signaling that you understand. But a quickness to understand is short-cutting the hard work of real, authentic compassion. As my friend Jeff Proctor recently said in a strategy meeting, “It’s virtue signaling at best and, at worst, could be grounded in our own arrogance.” Have we really done the work to fully contextualize and understand the other perspective?
I believe radical empathy is a process, a journey, a commitment to a path of curiosity anchored in humility - a continuous learning loop. As our society at large is becoming more extreme and polarized, our perceptions of one another run the risk of transforming into contorted caricatures of the truth. Many of us have rooted and starkly different perspectives about the world, so it is very easy to demonize “the other.” This polarization is worse when you are not proximate with one another and when you ignore, do not acknowledge, or try to understand the true intent or purpose that grounds the “opposition.”
We have lost our ability to see one another. To hear one another.
We take these shortcuts because we tend to interpret new knowledge through our own autobiography. As Stephen Covey wrote about in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” we unpack a story by thinking about our own motivations. Rather than active listening, we draw conclusions based on our own experiences. To really understand, we have to drop our own story and truly hear their story.
As the third employee of the Stand Together Foundation, I moved my husband and two-year-old across the country to build and launch an organization without a name, website, or mission statement. After years of working with Fortune 100 companies, I was thrust into what are often seen as some of the most challenging neighborhoods, prisons, and schools. And what I realized quickly was that I knew very little about the barriers that individuals in poverty face and that I wasn’t there to help. I was here to listen, learn, and amplify - that most of what I thought I knew about poverty was wrong.
In philanthropy and in our society overall, we are incredibly paternalistic and, although we have good intentions, our way of helping people in poverty puts the helpers in a position of authority and those in poverty in need. We tend to paint people living in poverty as deficient or broken rather than seeing their strength and resilience as an untapped well of knowledge and the key to unlocking opportunity.
As nonprofit leader Mauricio Miller wrote in his book, “The Alternative,” his low-income mother only had a third-grade education in Mexico but she was an amazing dress designer and seamstress. She observed, “They never ask me about what I’m good at doing. We would be so much better off if they just gave us a fraction of what they spend trying to help us.”
Lauren listens intently to her friend Alice Johnson share her story and the importance of second chances as a criminal justice reform advocate and former federal inmate for a first-time drug offense. After serving 21 years in prison, she was released from prison after President Donald Trump commuted her sentence. In August 2020, Trump granted Johnson a full pardon. Alice is CEO of Taking Action for Good Foundation (TAG).
If we really listened and heard their story, they could show us how to build their own lives.
One of my greatest mentors was Bishop Omar Jahwar, a gang intervention specialist who somehow convinced the most ardent of enemies to put down their weapons and become change agents instead. He held up a mirror to everyone he met so they could finally see their strengths through a new lens. And when he did, gang members transformed their hustle and became entrepreneurs instead of drug lords. Rivals saw their shared struggle and those common bonds became the threads for peace.
Bishop also acted as a bridge between “the streets and the suites” by creating exposure, proximity, and strong mutually beneficial relationships - both parties pouring into each other and making one another stronger as a result.
He would always lean in and say, “Trust me. Walk with me. I got you.” He never judged anyone by their title, accomplishments, or their conviction or past. He understood that you never really could predict what lies underneath - the real story and essence of a person.
And that is because he dropped his own story and preconceived notions. He probed. He listened. He observed. He encouraged and motivated people. And he found inspiration, innovation, greatness, and potential at every corner, in the most unlikely places.
Through our work at Calliope, we highlight radical empathy as a value for our company and as a mantra to recenter ourselves and our work – both for our clients and the people they serve.
Radical empathy is an act you must conjure with intention. It also is an untapped force and the most important spark that can ignite social transformation.
We hope you will join us by embracing the journey, leaning in, and going deep to shock and awe your operating system with new data and new perspectives.
Let’s lead through times of conflict and discomfort with courage, openness, and wonder.
Let’s work to illuminate otherwise unseen common ground opportunities and forge new solutions to drive collective progress forward.
Let’s honor and meet each other with love, care, and appreciation.
We are ready to listen, learn, and create something beautiful together.