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Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: Pursuing Radical Candor and Emergent Strategy

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Senior Level
August 8, 2022 Becca Hartman-Pickerill Interfaith Youth Core

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 3, August 2022

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

As I watch the January 6 hearings, read about the wars abroad and at home, and consider the myriad effects of our ongoing pandemics, I find myself pursuing models of being and belonging that generate health and life. I invite you to imagine with me a conversation between Kim Scott, coming from the business world, and adrienne marie brown, whose focus is on love-centered liberation. In molten cultural moments like these, as people ask foundational questions of society, higher education, and work, we have opportunities to imagine something new and begin to practice it.

Kim Scott wrote the book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founded an organization aimed on skilling teams to care personally and challenge directly with one another (Scott, 2019). Radical candor grew out of Scott’s experience in business settings that often fell short of achieving a culture of ongoing feedback and therefore more effective teams and organizations. The idea is deceptively simple and challenging to practice. On the grid of challenge and care are four quadrants: “manipulative insincerity” and “obnoxious aggression” lie in the lower two quadrants while “ruinous empathy” (a common pitfall for many leaders in nonprofits and beyond) is strong on caring personally but lacks challenging directly. The ideal is to exist in the fourth quadrant of radical candor, in which people challenge directly and care personally.

There are myriad reasons people struggle to achieve space for both caring personally and challenging directly. In a work setting, this may be a discomfort with conflict, power differentials without evidenced trust, tight deadlines, and unclear communications, to name a few. I find the concept so helpful, however, that I believe it has a lot to teach any community seeking a shared good together, which is to say all civic spaces within our diverse democracy.

"On Being," Krista Tippett’s phenomenal weekly interviews with scientists, thinkers, social movement leaders and theologians, has been a steady model of curiosity and respectful conversation for nearly 20 years. As "On Being" shifts to a seasonal podcast, Tippett closed out this season with an interview with adrienne maree brown, the writer-in-residence and founder of Emergent Strategies (brown, 2022). Their dialogue explored how social transformation can be both a destination and the process by which we move toward it (though never fully arrive). While brown is a widely published author, speaker, and podcast contributor, I am anchoring this piece in her dialogue with Tippett for its ability to speak to this molten moment.

In her June 2022 interview with Tippett, maree brown quotes Octavia Butler in sharing, “[t]here’s nothing new / under the sun, / but there are new suns.” Rooted in her own movement work, maree brown maintains a high bar for how people engage with one another in groups and society and names that contemporary cancel culture doesn’t serve that aspiration. She works to cultivate communities marked by consequences (not punishment), invites us to create boundaries instead of blasting someone else, and to dig into the healthy tension that necessarily exists when diverse people work together. Emergent strategy, as it has evolved for maree brown, mimics nature, assumes constant change, and pursues life even in the midst of a clear eye view of the world (maree brown, 2017).

One of the points of divergence between Scott's and maree brown’s works is the question of who sets the norms and reinforces the culture. In business settings, institutions, or the academy, the formal hierarchy is clear, though of course cultural leaders often sit at various levels within that hierarchy. In maree brown’s movement work, part of the tension comes from co-creating a new way of doing things with organizations and associations that are less hierarchical or seek to subvert authoritative models by design. These are the kind of in-the-details ways of being, believing, and belonging that take time, energy, and investment to develop to address community-based challenges and needs together. 

I recently joined a Zoom call with my alderwoman who was considering a proposal for a special zoning permit for an old building that a community organization was seeking to transform into a shelter and program for people without housing. There was so much consensus on the call and multiple shared values at playdesiring a responsible use of space, a belief that people deserve the dignity and opportunity that comes with stable housing, a commitment that communities should have a voice in the spaces the inhabit, and an expressed value that no matter how long it takes participatory democracy should indeed take time to hear from people directly. The how of such decisions—the details of how to move from value to sustained equitable practice, was among the big questions at hand.

Scott’s radical candor, in partnership with maree brown’s work on emergent strategy, share underlying values with real world implications. We must challenge directly—it is not “nice” to stay silent, and we can challenge the idea or method without dehumanizing the person. That said, if there is harm that has been done, people must be held accountable for and make amends for that harm. That challenge needs to be interwoven with genuine personal care. If we do not know one another, as with public forums or an ever growing and changing community, it is difficult to speak and listen with the care of personal connection. Sometimes this care can begin to be cultivated because of the trust that a respected voice, moderator, or convener in the room has. I don’t have to agree with everything you do to care personally; I don’t even have to like you to care personally, though it is helpful if I can recognize and name some of the beauty of your being.

I am not the first to express these connections; organizers and civic leaders have been living, writing about, and enacting them for a long time. I am enthusiastic, however, about each of our abilities to begin to practice them in the spaces we inhabit seeking to do something a little bit new: work in a new way, sustain community with accountability and creativity, hold tension and belonging in the classroom for the sake of learning, or participate in an interfaith coalition to influence one’s neighborhood. The concepts of radical candor and emergent strategy invite a new dialogue about what is possible, alongside the hope and strategies to achieve it. We have always needed those things, and we need them now.


maree brown, a. (2022, June 23). On being with Krista Trippet: adrienne maree brown, "We are in a time of new suns". (K. Trippet, Interviewer). https://onbeing.org/programs/adrienne-maree-brown-we-are-in-a-time-of-new-suns/

maree brown, a. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. AK Press.

Radical Candor: Our Approach. (n.d.). https://www.radicalcandor.com/our-approach/

Scott, K. (2019). Radical candor: Be a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity. St. Martin's Press.