Emergent Strategy – adrienne maree brown


Really incredible book. Highly recommend for anyone doing social justice work.

all that you touch
you change
all that you change
changes you
the only lasting truth
is change
god is change

  • What is Emergent strategy?
    • Emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies. Emergence is our inheritance as part of this universe; it is how we change. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.
    • plans of action, personal practices and collective organizing tools that account for constant change and rely on the strength of relationship for adaptation.
    • strategies for organizers building movements for justice and liberation that leverage relatively simple interactions to create complex patterns, systems, and transformations — including adaptation, interdependence and decentralization, fractal awareness, resilience and transformative justice, nonlinear and iterative change, creating more possibilities.
    • ways for humans to practice being in right relationship to our home and each other, to practice complexity, and grow a compelling future together through relatively simple interactions. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.
    • it’s a philosophy for how to be in harmony and love, in and with the world.
    • principles
      • Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small.)
      • Change is constant. (Be like water).
      • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
      • Never a failure, always a lesson.
      • Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy).
      • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships.
      • Prep less, more presence.
      • What you pay attention to grows.
    • “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” – Bruce Lee
  • critique
    • Staying focused on our foundational miraculous nature is actually very hard work in our modern culture of deconstruction. We are socialized to see what is wrong, missing, off, to tear down the ideas of others and uplift our own. To a certain degree, our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defenses.
    • critique is a seductress
      her door is always open
      so what if you get some
      we are going further
    • The energy it takes to resist and bemoan the change can instead fuel positive movement forward.
    • We have a way of doing things that is so steeped in critique that i have often wondered if we would strangle movement before it could blossom. Sometimes I think we put up the critiques to excuse ourselves from getting involved, and sometimes i think we do it to protect our hearts from getting broken if it doesn’t work out. Critique, alone, can keep us from having to pick up the responsibility of figuring out solutions.
    • I have noticed that at the most basic level, I feel better about myself because I’m on the right side of history… or at least the news cycle.
    • These takedowns make it seem as if massive problems are determined at an individual level, as if these individuals set a course as children to become abusers, misogynists, racists, liars.
    • If the only thing I can learn from a situation is that some humans do bad things, it’s a waste of my precious time — I already know that.
  • Organizing
    • If love were the central practice of a new generation of organizers and spiritual leaders, it would have a massive impact on what was considered organizing. If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression. We would suddenly be seeing everything we do, everyone we meet, not through the tactical eyes of war, but through eyes of love.
    • The most powerful thing for organizer to have, I believe, is faith. This belief that we can win, that we can change the world, that we can all be better. – Terry Marshall
    • If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves — how do i learn from this?
    • In terms of the demands, it seems the central demand is to build and expand a conversation that is long overdue in this country, a conversation that doesn’t have simple cut and try demands. We are realizing that we must become the system we need — no government, political party, or corporation is going to care for us, so we have to remember how to care for each others.
    • What is it we need to practice as individuals and communities to come into alignment with the emergent practices of the universe we know as home?
    • Feminine leadership (not just women leaders, but leaders who shift our understanding of how power can be held.)
  • Imagination
    • We are in an imagination battle.
      • Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, radicalized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable.
      • Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’ imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.
      • We must imagine new worlds that transition ideologies and norms, so that one one sees Black people as murderes, or brown people as terrorists and aliens, but all of us as potential cultural and economic innovators. This is a time-travel exercise for the heart. This is collaborative ideation — what are the ideas that will liberate all of us?
      • Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together. I suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories. It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.
    • At this point, we have all of the information we need to create a change; it isn’t a matter of facts. It’s a matter of longing, having the will to imagine and implement something else. We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us, or included us as enemy, fright, other.
    • Perhaps the most egregious thing we are taught is that we should just be really good at what’s already possible, to leave the impossible alone.
    • irresitable
      • I suspect that to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have.
      • We must make must make just and liberated futures irresistible.
      • “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” – Toni Cade Bambara
    • We have to create future in which everyone doesn’t have to be the same kind of person.
    • It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future. All organizing is science fiction.
    • afrofuturism
      • We say, Black lives matter!
      • An afrofuturist assertion
      • We bend the world to assert and embody that Black lives matter.
      • Africans leaping off of slaver ships were afrofuturists.
        Slave-area parents teaching their babies a foreign alphabet in the candlelit dirt were afrofuturists.
        Black women dissociating themselves through to tomorrow while being raped into motherhood were afrofuturists.
        Those who raised the children of violence, and those who chose not to, all were predicting the future and articulating their choices.
        Slaves who ran to freedom, and slaves who ran to their deaths, were afrofuturists.
        It is the emphasis on a tomorrow that centers the dignity of that deed, particularly in the face of extinction, that marks, for me, the afrofuturists.
        And of course there are the big ones, whose names have made it through the erasers of history books, into our mouths — Harriet, Sojourner, Frederick, John, Malcom, James, Ella, Martin, Nina, June, Toni.
      • We are creating a world we have never seen. We are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves into war regalia to turn and face us.
        Because of our ancestors, because of us, and because of the children we are raising, there will be a future without police and prisons. Yes.
        There will be a future without rape. Without harassment, and constant fear, and childhood sexual assault.
        A future without war, hunger, violence. With abundance.
        Where gender is a joyful spectrum. Where my nephew would not be bullied for his brilliant differences. Where each of our bodies is treated like sacred ground, whether we have insurance or not.
    • Occupy and Black Lives Matter are two large-scale recent efforts that take this collaborative ideation to a movement level, proliferating futures from a place of possibility, of multitudinous paths forward towards a shared dream.
  • Observations on humanity / current system
    • all change is not system change or even political change. Sometimes positive change upholds the status quo. We are not here to feel good all the time, but to do good.
    • Octavia Butler, one of the cornerstones of my awareness of emergent strategy, spoke of the fatal human flaw as a combination of hierarchy and intelligence.
    • So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the water we’re swimming in. But it creates patterns. Some of the patterns i’ve seen that start small and then become movement wide are:
      • Burnout. Overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations
      • Organizational and movement splitting
      • Personal drama disrupting movements
      • Mission drift, specifically in the direction of money
      • Stagnation — an inability to make decisions
  • Burnout / self care
    • Yes to passion, no to obligation. Good ideas become great movement growth strategies with the touch of passionate hands and work. Ideas that emerge from obligation tend to go stagnate waiting for water.
    • When a group is scared of saying “no,” it quickly ends up spread too thin. “No” is as important to realizing your vision as “yes.” There is a lot of work that is not yours to do. There are millions and millions of people at work. “No” creates the space for your “yes.” “No” also creates the space for other groups to do the things you can’t, and to do them with enough time and focus and expertise to do them well.
    • What is easy is sustainable. Birds coast when they can.
    • As an individual, get really good at being intentional with where you put your energy, letting go as quickly as you can of things that aren’t part of your visionary life’s work. Then you can give our all, from a well-resourced place, when the storm comes, or for those last crucial miles.
    • “We have to learn to count victories even as we continue to agitate. We cannot become so jaded that we lose joy in everything because the flaws loom too large. The journey is the work, the work is the journey. The ocean’s ebbs and flows may remind us of this better than anything.” – Tananarive Due
    • Black Zen teacher Angel Kyodo Williams once said that our access to the global scale of suffering has become immediate, through technology, but we have not developed the capacity to be with that increased awareness of suffering.
    • In nature it’s more like we all get our day, our time. Nothing blooms 365 days of the year.
    • Remember you are water. Of course you leave salt trails. Of course you are crying.
    • Your grief is a worthwhile use of your time
    • Rock Stars
      • Rock stars get isolated, lose touch with our vulnerability, are expected to pull off superhero work, and generally burn out within a decade.
      • We learned the hard way that rock star status is a cyclical thing. It becomes it’s own work, maintaining and promoting the rock star in the organization.
      • Lifting people up based on personality replicates the dynamics of power and hierarchy that movements claim to be dismantling.
      • The shiny stars are rarely the ones actually getting the work done, or even doing the most exciting thinking in the organization.
  • Interdependence
    • Humans are unique because we compete when it isn’t necessary. We could reason our way to more sustainable processes, but we use our intelligence to outsmart each other. We compete for fun, for ego.
    • The idea of interdependence is what we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us. It means we have to decentralize our idea of where solutions and decisions happen, where ideas come from.
    • My core responsibility is to be a benefit to whatever I’m engaged in. I may not always know HOW that will happen but it has to be my aim. I want people’s lives to have been better (even in very tiny ways) from having participated with me in this work. This means to me that I bring beautiful words, actions, ideas, and behaviors into spaces. At the end of it all, even if we don’t see the fruits of our labor, shouldn’t we be able to say we loved and enjoyed each other? – Aisha Shillingford
    • Are you actively practicing generosity and vulnerability in order to make the connections between you and others clear, open, available, durable? Generosity here means giving of what you have without strings or expectations attached. Vulnerability means showing your needs.
    • In a beautiful twist, being soft in your rightness, as opposed to smashing people with your brilliance, can open others up to whatever wisdom you’ve accumulated.
    • I’m leaning that interdependence is not about the equality of offers in real time. I had to ask most of these things of people I didn’t necessarily know, or who i knew but wouldn’t be able to offer anything to in the foreseeable future. I had to trust in that karma-ish idea that the support I’ve offered in the past, or will offer in the future, would balance this scale, which felt so me-tilted.
    • “It’s not enough for any one uf us to be okay if others are in dis-ease.” – Rusia Mohiuddin
  • Deepening
    • Grace started asking us what our movements would look like if we focused on critical connections instead of critical mass. We need each other. I love the idea of shifting from “Mile wide inch deep” movements to “inch wide mile deep” movements that schism the existing paradigm.
    • Woes / Coevolution through friendship
      Woes stands for “Working On Excellence,” and I’ve reveled in it as a way to note those people in my life with whom I am intentionally growing.
    • our potential success lies in doing deep, slow, intentional work.
    • Everything we attempt, everything we do, is either growing up as its roots go deeper, or its decomposing, leaving its lessons in the soil for the next attempt.
  • Transformative Justice
    • Acknowledges the reality of state harm.
    • Looks for alternative ways to address/interupt harm, which do not rely on the state.
    • Relies on organic, creative strategies that are community created and sustained.
    • Transforms the rot causes of violence, not only the individual experience.
    • “healing is our birthright” – Lisa Thomas Adeyemo
  • Facilitation tips
    • At it’s most fundamental, facilitation is the art of making things easy, making it easier for humans to work together and get things done.
    • Invite the right people
      • Question to ask when shaping the invitation list are: “Who is directly impacted by this issue?”; “Who is doing compelling work on this issue?”; and “Who can move this work forward?”
      • Inviting the right people means we aren’t wasting time by renegotiating the goals nonstop throughout the meeting and/or managing the dissonance that occurs (righteously in my opinion) when a participant, who shouldn’t be at the meeting, tries to make it worth their time by derailing the process of advancing the stated goals. Everyone should be able to be themselves and move their own agendas in the space if the invitation list is right.
      • Now, right people doesn’t mean easy people — conflict and difference are often an important part of advancing the work, bringing the real issues into the room.
    • Folks are so used to not being heard. So used to not getting their needs met. When people feel heard, the time starts to expand as people move past expressing and start to be able to listen.
    • There is always time for the right work. Try it! It’s magical.
    • There is a conversation in the room that wants and needs to be had. Don’t force it, don’t deny it. Let it come forth.
    • “What is the next most elegant step?”
    • Fist to five for voting – where people use their hand for call out a number from zero to five to indicate their level of agreement with the proposal. Anything less than a five calls for some discussion, and you move a proposal forward if the participation’s are all above a three, or above a four, depending on the nature of your group.
    • Answer clarifying questions before starting discussion
    • Taj often says that for each group, each convergence of people, there is a conversation or a set of work that only that group can have or do, and the work of the facilitator and group is honing in on that specific work and doing it, having those conversations.
    • I have been working on listening for the opportunity.
    • consensus
      • Autumn Brown: [People think consensus is too hard]. Part of that is because they want it to be an antidote to power. And it’s not. So that would be the other core aspect of my approach: recognizing that consensus doesn’t not mean or require equal status. It rather requires equal voice.
      • Consensus is like water. Many paths, but the future is the ocean. We can resist, but it is inevitable, we will have to get together eventually.
  • Principles
    • Having clear principles or intentions means, that as conditions change, there is a common understanding of what matters, a way to return to shared practice and behavior.
    • We begin by listening
    • We will not wait to be perfect, because we believe the time is now and we would rather be held accountable for our mistakes than forgiven for our inaction. – #Asians4BlackLives’s principles
    • Group agreements
      • Engage Tension, Don’t Indulge Drama
      • W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking?
      • Make space, take space – a post-ableist adaptation of step up, step back to help balance the verbose and the reticent
      • Confidentiality — take the lessons, leave the details
      • Be open to learning
      • Be open to someone else speaking your truth
      • Building, not selling — when you speak, converse, don’t pitch
      • Yes/and, Both/and
      • Value the process as much has, if not more than, you value the outcomes
      • Assume best intent, attend to impact
      • Self care and community care — pay attention to your bladder, pay attention to your neighbors
    • The four agreements
      • Don’t make assumptions
      • Don’t take things personally
      • Be impeccable with your word
      • Always do your best
    • Practice saying “yes” to the ideas that come from others, growing the idea with yes after yes. When you are tempted to say “no,” try asking “how?” instead.
    • “If you do not trust the people, they will become untrustworthy.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  • Visioning
    • The vision of an organization is the furthest it can see. It is looking into the future, dreaming together, predicting impact, flexing the imagination muscle, and saying aloud what we long for. I cannot overstate this — the more people who deeply share a vision, the more possible that vision becomes. Build the vision across your group.
    • I love the time-travel newspaper headline exercise for finding the common ideas that bring everyone together.
      • You imagine yourself in the future (set a date that people can imagine — twenty years out, say), walking to work, and you see a newspaper. You pick it up and the headline is celebrating the work of your organization/group/movement. Recreate the front page: What paper is it? Is it a hologram? What is the headline? Picture? Leading article? Put the front pages up on a wall where everyone can see each other’s vision — discuss the patterns and longings that your future headlines unveil.
    • For organizations, I recommend three or four annual advances. (Calling them “retreats” when they are work sessions is disingenuous. Plan retreats too! Just don’t confuse them.) One can focus on reflection and evaluation; once can focus on applying lessons from reflection to the next period of time (planning); and one can be about big vision, meta discussions of the work, the field, the patterns emerging, skill development. Looking back, looking ahead, looking up and down.
    • In movement work, i have been facilitating groups to shift from a culture of strategic planning to one of strategic intentions — what are our intentions, informed by our vision? What do we need to be and do to bring our vision to pass? How do we bring those intentions to life throughout every change, in every aspect of our work?
  • Misc
    • These thirty minutes of being late to a meeting in Boston traffic are being lived by my miraculous irreplaceable body in a dynamic and outstanding system of life moving towards life.
    • (After MLK assassination) I have heard the stories from elders, stories about how the non-movement public perceived an absence of leadership, how that perception shook the movement’s self-perception.
    • Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice.
    • “When forced into a binary, you always choose wrong.” – Jelani Wilson
  • This is, finally, a book about the preciousness of time. It’s limited and it’s so sacred, friends. And everything we do, every single thought and action and relationship and institution, everything is practice ground. So practice emergent strategy, yes, but only as much as you understand that it is a way to practice love. For this, for all of this.