Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy

As part of our ongoing series on Relational-Cultural Theory, we present Maureen Walker’s keynote address from the conference referenced below. Dr. Walker gives an excellent history of the RCT movement and her vision of the future guided by its principals.

Read the first part of the series, What is Relational-Cultural Theory? here.

Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy

Keynote Address, June 9, 2016
Transforming Community: The Radical Reality of Relationship Conference

By: Maureen Walker, PhD

As the Director of Program Development at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute of the Stone Center at Wellesley College, Dr. Maureen Walker explores the linkages between social-cultural identities and relational development, as well as the impact of power arrangements on mental health. Through her publications and her work as an educator and licensed psychologist, she often uses Relational-Cultural theory as the lens to illustrate the interface between spiritual practice and social justice. In addition to journal articles and several papers in the Stone Center Works in Progress Series, she is the co-editor of two books which convey her strong interest in disruptive empathy as an essential practice for all who are engaged in the work of transforming community. Dr. Maureen Walker can be contacted at

Here we are at a Kairos moment. We have the gift of this time to contemplate, collaborate, and challenge each other as we engage a very special project: transforming community. When we talk about community, we often do so in ways that take for granted a level of shared assumptions and expectations. We come with our shared assumptions, hopes, and expectations, but we each come with our particular claims on community: claims that may be at once aspirational, insistent, and conflictual. The radical reality of our relationships is that we ourselves are in the throes of transformation. And who are we?

Four decades ago, our “we” was self-described as “five, white, well-educated women” who found a community of place at Wellesley College, specifically the Stone Center. Who are “we” now—this motley collection of us—gathered here in 2016? And more pertinent to our purposes over the next four days, who do we hope to become?

When Connie Gunderson and I first talked about the theme of this talk, I have to say I was completely undaunted and completely in love with the title: Transforming Community through Disruptive Empathy. All of the right words were put together in one evocative phrase. But then the inevitable happened; the more I reflected on the title the more aware I became that I really didn’t know what it meant. And that was okay. Because the more I participate in these kinds of gatherings, the more I make peace with the reality that my starting place is often in a state of profound befuddlement—which is also okay particularly since I’m never content to stay in that place alone. I invite other people into it with me. So I started asking: What comes to mind when you hear the word community? What makes community different from an organization, or working group, or network? It’s probably not surprising that the first associations that came to mind were words like trust, like-mindedness, nurture, commitment, and belonging. And just to make sure our thoughts were not overly lofty, we threw in reminiscences of the Cheers Bar, the setting of a popular 1990s sitcom. Community, according to the promotional jingle, is a place “where everybody knows your name, and they’re oh so glad you came”—even if they give you a hard time once you get there. In other words, community is a place where we can be known; people miss us when we don’t show up; and, perhaps, someone even cares.

We are social beings—born to thrive in connection with each other—so it is no surprise that we find the life blood of our dreams, our values, and our expectations in community. We feel more alive when we are bound together by captivating ideas; we feel that we matter when we are in pursuit of compelling goals. Right here, right now, we are enlivened as we gather around this evolving body of work that we call Relational-Cultural theory. Right here, right now we are enlivened as we gather to insist on our right to forge a narrative of human possibility to heal the suffering in the world as we know it now. We are here—right now—to press our righteous claim and lay the groundwork for future we want to call into being. And somewhere, perhaps not too far away, so is the Ku Klux Klan. They too are enlivened by their connection to a communal narrative, perhaps one that promises to restore America to its greatness. Like us, they are captivated by a vision of possibility. The content of that vision may be different from ours; but, like us, they derive meaning from their connection to a narrative grounded in an imagination of justice, fairness, and the right order of relationships. We learn every day about young people who are drawn into terrorist activities—whether it is the terrorism of ISIS or the terrorism that led Dylan Roof to murder nine people in a house of worship. They too have an audacious vision of possibility and a yearning to belong. So right here, right now, a question worth asking ourselves is: What makes our claim on community different from theirs?

They have a compelling mission – just as we do.

They have powerful rituals – just as we do.

They believe they are right – just as we do.

Let me be very, very clear. I am not in any way suggesting some kind of moral equivalence between the mission of KKK and of this assembly gathered here tonight. What we share in common, however, is the fact that we come together to forge a narrative about power—the power of belonging. Relationship, like any currency of power can be used to dominate and exclude; to determine who is in; who is out; who can never belong; and, in the extreme, who must be destroyed. When we talk about our own beloved community, we often speak of Ubuntu as a relational ideal: that cultural ethos of “I am because we are”. What I am saying tonight is that as much as we might aspire to build our communities around that narrative, we cannot take refuge in linguistic niceties. “I am because we are” speaks to relationship as a currency of power. And unless we are mindful of how we do that power, “I am because we are” can quite easily devolve into “I am because we are” and “we are because you are not”. We all know that it can happen: that there can be a “disconnect” between our explicit narratives—who we say we are in relationship—and, our implicit, sometimes largely unconscious narratives—how we actually do our relationships. We all know that as much as we might like to associate the dogma of disconnection with corporate board rooms and the global political stage, an implicit narrative of disconnection can play out in our class rooms, clinics, and churches—presumptive spaces of health, hope, and healing. It’s a fair guess that we all have known the heartbreak of good work gone bad—when we embarked on some noble mission, with righteous ideas and fierce resolve and noble intentions, only to find that our good intentions are not enough. Unless we are mindful of how we do the politics of belonging, we too are susceptible to the same faults we so readily recognize in others.

And speaking of the others, who do we think they are? Two great thinkers, Albert Einstein and Jean Baker Miller, have given us our theoretical foundation to start answering that question. If we truly believe as we say we do that separation is an illusion, then we are free to embrace disruption. If we truly believe that we grow through relationship for the purpose of relationship, we can free ourselves from the constrictions of the ego—those boundaries ostensibly built to protect us—to ensure our survival against those pesky intruders who are trying to invade our borders. We are also freed from constricted notions of community that are defined by ego boundaries. “We are” because “you are not” is simply a variation on a very old theme that we must use our boundaries to protect us from each other. Indeed, we may be tempted to follow the advice of no less a personage as Freud and use our boundaries to protect us from what we perceive to be intrusive stimuli.

At core of our communal narrative as Relational-Cultural practitioners is the notion of boundaries of spaces of meeting and transformation. Jean Baker Miller (1976) put it this way: the essence of life is movement and change. She went on to say that we become more fully human by engaging difference—not just theoretical difference—by engaging real bodies whom we perceive to be other, opposite, and even enemy. So who do we think we are? And who do we think the others are? If we truly believe that as we say we do, then we are challenged to continually interrogate our notions of self and other. [Frankly, that scares me! I don’t want to be Donald Trump…which is not too much of a problem because I’m pretty sure Donald Trump doesn’t want to be me either.]

But isn’t that the very fear that causes us to misuse the power of belonging? Isn’t that the very fear that can cause us to weaponize our relationships—to use our relationships as fortified boundaries against engagement and inclusion? We do that not because we are bad people, but because we want to protect that which we know to be good. When we narrate our history and our hopes, we talk about growth through authentic connection.

And the radical reality of that narrative is that it calls us to transformation. The radical reality is that the power of belonging can support and propel us toward ever more expansive enactments of our humanity.

Or… we can ignore the call to transformation. We can say what we have is so good and so never want it to change. But to do so is to become reduced to a smaller and smaller version of what we call community.

So what are we to do? How can we use our powers of belonging—our powers of relationship—to foster hope and healing? It is important for us to start by asking the question “who are we” to develop an explicit, well-articulated narrative. But it is equally important for us to notice how we live the question: to embrace community as process, community as movement, and as evolving narratives of co-creation and human possibility.

I propose that we start with disruptive empathy. Disruption and empathy: I know—the words don’t seem to go together. But it captures the paradox of relationship, and what Keltner (2016) calls the paradox of power. And actually if we refer back to the foundational tenets of Relational-Cultural theory, the pairing of these two words may not be as peculiar as it might initially seem. When Judy Jordan defined empathy about three decades ago, she described it as a process of thinking and feeling, of joining with clarity and awareness (Jordan, Surrey & Kaplan, 1983). In other words, empathy requires engagement with paradox. Disruptive empathy both anchors and overturns.

It leads us to challenge our most sacrosanct notions of community while grounding us in the shared power of belonging.

Just a few days ago, I witnessed this shared power of belonging enacted on the sidewalks of lower east side Manhattan. There were two gentlemen in conversation, one of whom definitely appeared to be homeless, and the other, who if not currently homeless appeared to be quite familiar with that condition. The latter gentleman was explaining to his companion how to obtain services, what would happen on certain days in one agency or another, how to avoid getting caught up in a bureaucratic tangle when searching for shelter. And I thought: now that is power. Jean Baker Miller (1976) defined power as the capacity to induce responsiveness—a relational energy. Similarly, Keltner (2016) defines power as the capacity to make a difference, particularly through connections with others. In other words, power is not the exclusive province of the rich and the famous—as the burgeoning growth of reality TV would have it—the rich and the infamous.

And here’s the paradox. Power is also intoxicating. Keltner (2016) describes it as a dopamine high. We are not much soothed and made to feel calm by it, as we are made to feel more confident, more competent, and more deserving of whatever it is that we want. We now have tons of research showing that feeling powerful makes us—all of us—more likely to use others to our own advantage: whether that’s cutting in line or taking up more space than we need, or consuming more goods than we need, or taking candy from a baby. [Literally, not metaphorically.] In other words, the paradox is that this same power that can be used for good can foster a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. Of course, we can see how this plays out in the world of national and global politics, but it happens in small ways as well. Let me give an example. I spend way too much time in my favorite grocery store in Wellesley, MA. It’s a very special store and all of us who feel like very special people like to shop there. I can’t count the number of times I have seen loving, suburban mothers trying to shop with their children in tow—all the while grabbing fruit for their children to eat while they shop. What I’m saying is that they haven’t paid for it. And I’m thinking: why isn’t this called shoplifting? I don’t see any signs that say “this is free; you can take it”. Yet they feel entitled to appropriate someone else’s property for own use. [A client of mine once told me that’s the key to all successful shoplifting: you just have to believe it’s already rightfully yours.] I’m fairly certain the store owners calculate theft into the cost of goods sold; so, in fact, we’re all paying for that bunch of grapes. I’m also fairly certain that the shoplifters are upstanding, law-abiding, good-hearted mothers who are just doing the best they can to mollify cranky toddlers. I’m not saying they are bad people. I am saying they are people who are so comfortable—and confident about their status in this specific culture of shoppers that they feel entitled to exercise power without question. Whether it’s in a grocery store or a community of scholars and practitioners, disruptive empathy counters this sense of exceptionalism by anchoring us in awareness. It focuses our attention on the text of our narratives, as well as the context and the subtext. I think of it as relational corrective. To the extent that we are prone to deny our power—or to use it without regard to its impact on others, it prompts us toward mindful appreciation of what is real, what is present, and what is emerging in relationship. In our communities, disruptive empathy helps us to see what we prefer not to see; it helps us face down our implicit narratives that define who can be one of us—and who cannot. Disruptive empathy gives us the courage to name reality as we see it—to tell our multiple and conflictual truths—the cliques, the secrets, the taken-for-granted understandings that build impenetrable boundaries that may belie any explicit story we might tell about ourselves. It helps us to speak the unspeakable with humility and compassion and an occasional dose of good humor.

There is something that is core to our humanity that impels us toward authenticity. We want to be real; we want to be known. Yet we know that the central paradox of relationship is that we are often afraid of being known. We are drawn to community because of our deep yearning to be known and connected. Ironically, our fear of being known sometimes results in an implicit narrative framed around isolation and subterfuge. Not because we want to lie, but because community brings us face to face with what Audre Lorde (1984) called our fear and loathing of difference. This is the same fear and loathing that might deceive us into believing that we can use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the same fear and loathing that would cause us to shirk away from good conflict. Again, the explicit narrative of relational-cultural community is that conflict is both inevitable and necessary for growth. And growth means change—transformation. You simply can’t grow and keep the same boundaries. That brings us again to the heart of disruptive empathy—respect for otherness. We don’t have to settle for pseudo-empathy or sentimentality. I find that absolutely liberating, because it means that we don’t have to always pretend to like each other all of the time. The good news here is that disruptive empathy is not about mutual attraction. I should be clear: I think mutual attraction is a good thing, but we don’t always have to go along to get along. There is no way that strong-willed, creative, and passionate people will avoid going into conflict with each other. We do have to enter conflict with respect, curiosity, and openness to the possibility that we just might learn something.

You also have to care enough to go into conflict. I say that as a personal confession: I know that one of my preferred strategies of disconnection is being nice. I know that because my family has told me so—many times. It often sounds something like: “Okay – sure. Peace out”. Let me say that there may be times when that strategy is absolutely appropriate. It may be all the relationship can bear—at the moment. But let us also be clear: a lot of exclusion and relational violence happens under the guise of being nice. Being nice—pseudo-empathy—is the antithesis of authentic engagement; it fortifies our boundaries against the other; it is refusal to invest the time and energy required to sustain relationship. Pseudo-empathy is a refusal to relinquish our attachment to the relational images we have stored in our brains about how our relationships should work. Disruptive empathy, on the other hand, reminds me of a quote by the 13th century poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” (Moyne & Bark, 1999, p. 8).

What happens in that field between rightdoing and wrongdoing? For one thing, anxiety happens. No one wants to feel anxious. Interestingly, the poet W.H. Auden (2009) encourages us to seek truth in the kingdom of anxiety…to go into the land of “unlikeness”…to stay in the here and now…to encounter rare beasts (the other)…to have unique adventures in the world of the flesh.

Jean Baker Miller (1976) was slightly less poetic, but just as clear—that we become more fully human through embodied engagement with difference. Becoming more fully human requires a little bit more of us than an eloquent theory or good intentions.

Let me give a quick example. One of our traditions at Harvard Business School—probably much like other schools—is that very senior administrators or faculty will hold informal lunches with small groups of students. This is a favorite ritual: the students get to feel good about themselves and the hosting faculty or administrator can feel good as well. At one of these lunches hosted by a senior faculty, an African American male student recounted his recent encounter with campus security. He had been detained, had a flashlight shone into his face, and had been required to produce his student identification because someone fitting his description had committed a robbery in a nearby neighborhood. He was hurt and angry—and actually reeling in disbelief that all of his accomplishments (which included a law degree from Yale) did not protect him from the indignity of racialized bias. When he told his story, his listeners were appropriately horrified; and the hosting faculty, a white male, suggested that he report the incident to another high-level white female administrator. So far, so good: Everyone is acting with the best of intentions. Later that month I was inadvertently included on part of an email trail. A part of the trail was meant for me; the other part was a private debriefing conversation between the two higher-level administrators—clearly not my business, but of course I read it! And the conversation went something like:

Female: “He certainly had very strong emotions”.

Male: “Oh my, I hope he spoke to you respectfully”.

Female: “It wasn’t too bad. I just hope he will channel his anger appropriately”.

I later met with the student, and his mirror neurons were fully functional. He knew what had happened in the field. People, who might have exercised their power to facilitate change and cultural healing, used it instead to curate his narrative of heartbreak. We have a choice when we enter into the field between rightdoing and wrongdoing: we can wrap ourselves in our protective boundaries, or we can shed the mantle of entitlement and become open to the possibility of learning something—maybe even becoming something new.

Our beloved scholar Irene Stiver (1997) taught us that when we enter that field of anxiety, between right-doing and wrongdoing, we must move out of the protective boundaries of image and authority and orthodoxy and toward relationship.

It is in this field of anxiety—between right-doing and wrongdoing— that we might exercise our power to say just one true thing. The poet Mary Oliver (2006) remarks on the important of silence.

To create a silence in which another voice may speak is at the heart of community transformation. It doesn’t sound that hard; in fact, it sounds like just the kind of thing we say we want to do. But we would do well to recognize from the outset that making a space for other voices is in fact a disruptive process. It may quite literally take us out of our communal skin. Fifteen years ago we probably couldn’t have imagined that our skin/our boundaries stretch from Waban Pond to the shores of Lake Superior. But here we are tonight, making a space into which other voices may emerge and speak to our communal narrative.

When I was very young, my primary babysitter was my great grandmother. I was about four years old and I thought she was about 217; and, frankly, we did not get along. I don’t know what I could have done at four years old to cause her to characterize me in this way, but she would complain to my mother that I was “mouthy” and “brazen”. To her enduring consternation (and mine) she would complain that I, “Always wanted to have the last word.” I confess that I still struggle with that, and sometimes as a community, so do we.

We have struggled long and hard to speak our truths to a power-over culture that did not always care to listen. And we have become quite good at it; we have filled vast spaces with our spoken word. And we have defined ourselves with our spoken word. This year 2016 is the 49th anniversary of the publication of Jean’s book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. After 40 years, we might say that we have established ourselves as members of the pantheon of thinkers and theorists who are trying to tell the story of what it means to be fully human.

Now, right here, we are gathered as a community because it is equally radical to listen: to embrace the reality that the practice of empathy may just disrupt who we think we are. Listening leads to transformation and what makes this radical is that we live in a culture that posits impermeability as a measure of strength. In fact, we are taught to fear that if we listen too well—if we allow ourselves to be influenced by others—we may lose our selves. Perhaps that is precisely what community calls us to do: to loosen our death grip on this construction of images, expectations, and entitlements that we call self. The paradox of listening to another voice is that we may come to more deeply appreciate who we truly are and who we may truly become.

In Relational-Cultural practice, we have a narrative about the transformative power of mutuality—of being influenced by voices of others. To listen to the voices of others is an act of courage; it is to open ourselves to disruption and to risk knowing that which we thought was the final word has dissolved. The final word has not been spoken, and that, perhaps, it is not for us to speak. By no means am I talking about moral relativism. I am talking about moral humility. I am talking about the courage to stand for what we believe is right, without being self-righteous. This is the space where courage and compassion grow precisely because we encounter our indivisibility—our common humanity. This is the space where we lay down our sword and shield, and study war no more.

I can think of a no more beautiful example of the practice of disruptive empathy than the story told of C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in Davidson’s (2007), a book that I highly recommend: The Best of Enemies. Ellis and Atwater both grew up in Durham, North Carolina, in a culture where deeply entrenched racial segregation was the way of life. Segregation by race and class defined the narratives of identity and possibility: this is who you are and this is all you can become (Davidson, 2007). C. P. Ellis grew up as a poor white boy, who regularly witnessed his father’s humiliation when he had to step off the sidewalk, so that the “big white men”—men with money—could pass (Davidson, 2007). He grew up hiding under stairwells, so that his school mates wouldn’t see that all he had to eat for lunch was a lard sandwich, but he became a “somebody” (Davidson, 2007). He, like his father before him, was eventually inducted into the Ku Klux Klan, and he rose to leadership as the Exalted Cyclops (Davidson, 2007). Ann Atwater grew up poor and Black and female in this same culture (Davidson, 2007). She was deeply intimate with the indignities of being poor and Black and female—all of which according to the cultural narrative would relegate her to a status of nobody-ness; but she too became “somebody” (Davidson, 2007). She became one of Durham’s most audacious and outspoken advocates for civil rights; she was a single mother, and housing activist who could not be silenced (Davidson, 2007). During the 70s, in the midst of the cataclysm of racial violence sparked by school desegregation, Atwater and Ellis were brought together in a series of meetings called a charrette, where they were to tell their truths and listen to the truths of the other (Davidson, 2007). As C. P. Ellis described it:

Here we are, two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except her being Black and me being White…The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common. (Atwater, 2016, para. 13)

When C. P. Ellis died in 2005, Ann Atwater took her rightful place seated with the family; and when questioned, she said, “CP was my brother” (Davidson, 2007, p. 6).

By practicing disruptive empathy, Atwater and Ellis learned how to tell their own truths and how to listen to the truths of the other. They never backed down, but they created a pause—a silence into which another voice could speak. The poet Paul Williams puts to words so well the truths that I needed to learn as a “mouthy and brazen” little girl; the truths that every community needs to learn, that Ellis needed to learn, that Atwater needed to learn; and it is this:

When you just have to talk,
Try being silent.
When you feel reluctant to say anything
Make the effort
To put what you’re feeling into words…
Look and see
if you’re willing to trust
to misunderstand each other
and go from there…
Listen as if.
Listen as if you can’t always tell
what the truth is
Listen as if you might be wrong,
Especially when you know you’re right.
Listen as if
you were willing to take the risk
of growing beyond
your righteousness
Listen as if
love mattered.

And at the end of our days, isn’t love what community is all about?



Atwater, A. [Web page]. (2016). Retrieved from

Auden, W. H. (2009). For the time being: Xmas Oratorio. In R. Housden (Ed.), For lovers of God everywhere: Poems of the Christian mystics. US: Hay House Inc. Davidson, O. G. (2007). The best of enemies: Race and redemption in the new south. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Jordan, J. V., Surrey, J. L. & Kaplan, A. G.(1983). Women and empathy. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Keltner, D. (2016) The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. NY: Penguin Press.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. CA: Crossing Press.

Miller, J. B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Moyne, J. & Bark, C. (1999). Open secret: Versions of Rumi. Boston: Shamble Publications.

Oliver, M. (2006). Praying. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stiver, I. (1997). A relational approach to therapeutic impasses. In J. V. Jordan (Ed.), Women’s growth in diversity: More writings from the Stone Center. NY: Guilford Press.

Williams, P. (1990). How to tell the truth. Nation of Lawyers. Used with permission by Cindy Lee Berryhill.

Disruptive Empathy - Transforming Community

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