By: Renée Sanjuán and Kevin Causey
“I have to learn more. How is it that an army officer, just off her third deployment, is passionate about underprivileged youth??” Kevin stood there in amazement as Renee explained her West Point Mentorship initiative working with inner-city youth. This is not what Kevin expected from a decorated Army officer. He assumed her ‘deep/PLS work’ would have been military-focused. She was equally dumbfounded. “Why is this successful senior healthcare professional so interested in ME,” she thought to herself, as Kevin made light of his work building innovative community health programs in the toughest neighborhood in San Francisco—including the creation of a heroin safe-injection site to mitigate the ravages of public drug use on the neighborhood’s children. Renee stood in amazement, recognizing that a policy she never would have imagined was being introduced by her soon-to-be close friend. Renee opened Kevin’s perspective to the broad and enlightened work of the Army, and Kevin opened Renee’s perspective to a drastically different security perspective.
That first interaction was the start of a deep and lasting friendship.
From the moment they met, the bond was immediate, yet they couldn’t be more different. When they arrived to the PLS kickoff mixer in Washington DC, Renee just came off a quick train ride from NJ, and Kevin flew across the country from California. Renee, a 30-year-old Army officer, and Kevin, a mid-career progressive heath care professional, had little in common.
Reflecting on this interaction, they credit the thread that ties PL scholars together: civic-minded service. They were able to break through assumptive expectations quickly. It was the mutual trust they gained from genuinely caring about each other’s work, and each other, in an environment where leaders of all walks of life convened. Their world views were framed through life experiences, making even the most controversial topics fascinating to explore together. When thinking about how to replicate what seems so natural to them, Renee and Kevin consider this friendship and working relationship as one of the most impactful outcomes of their PLS journey.
Two years later, Renee asked Kevin to speak on a panel at West Point. Kevin agreed before Renee finished explaining what he would be speaking about. He hung up the phone and immediately booked a flight from California to New York in order to spend just three hours with them: because Renee asked. Their car ride from the train station to West Point was one of catching up on parenting, work, relationships, politics, . . . life. Their relationship broadened and deepened (and Kevin was more than a little impressed to see Renee in her medals and black beret).
It was only natural that when Kevin became the Board Chair for a new non-profit organization called The Fierce Civility Project, he turned to Renee to become one of the founding board members. The purpose of their new work is to provide members of a divided community the tools necessary to build solutions together, in a productive and civil way.
They have come together to help the Executive Director of the project, Joe Weston, show our communities that cross-ideology collaboration not only CAN happen, but DOES happen. Their goal is to bring this work into communities and organizations throughout America to share skills that break down intractable issues and build collaboration. They hope to have as diverse an impact on organizations and governments, near and far, as their interests and world views. They hope to impact community groups; companies and non-profits; city, county and state governments; PTAs and school boards, etc., etc. They not only believe but practice, and can showcase, the benefits of being fiercely civil with one another.
In Renee and Kevin’s words, “We have all been chosen as Presidential Leadership Scholars to bridge gaps that seem endemic in our society. We believe that the most detrimental issue facing us as a nation is our divisiveness. As the pandemic brings our families and communities to a halt, let’s reflect on what can bring us together. The need to step into this work on a granular and localized level is not theoretical. It is real, it is urgent, it is paramount.”
And it is possible, as evidenced by Renee and Kevin’s example—who have come together from a place of mutual respect, admiration, affection and trust—to do this very difficult work.
To learn more about their work, or how to bring this work to your community, go to www.fiercecivility.org, or reach out to them individually. Let’s lean in.