When I moved from San Francisco to Oakland in 2014, I was just trying to pay cheaper rent. I never expected to be influenced by the movements that flow through Oakland’s veins: the movements for social justice, for environmental justice, and for black liberation.
I’ve since had the privilege of working with some of the most extraordinary black leaders, organizers, and activists in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through the courses I’ve taken at Landmark, through local groups and events such as the East Bay Meditation Center, and through exposure to the network my partner Lauren has developed through UC Berkeley and the Greenlining Institute. I’ve stayed only on the furthest outskirts of this incredible community, but even that light exposure has profoundly changed how I think about my work.
It was through Lauren that I first heard of a book called Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown. The title immediately caught my eye, echoing my interest in Emergent Productivity from several years ago. I began to hear about it through different channels, from different people, and could see this book was catching fire in the movement-building world.
I decided to read it, and found a new world of ideas and stories that were somehow both completely novel, and deeply familiar. I found a new language to talk about healing, growth, liberation, forgiveness, and change. I found a body of work bridging and connecting a stunning diversity of sources and fields, much like I try to do myself. But with a far stronger connection to what is happening on the ground, in the lives of people who don’t have access to the same resources and opportunities.
This is my summary and interpretation of the book, in the hope that it will reach more people who might not otherwise pick it up. I’m going to paraphrase in my own words, and incorporate some of my own experiences and learnings from the world of productivity and effectiveness. Assume all substantive ideas come from the book.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Worlds, Shaping Change by adrienne maree brown
Adrienne maree brown is an author, activist, social justice facilitator, healer, and doula living in Detroit. She has been a part of many of the most significant social movements in recent years, including Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.
Her book is a summary and exploration of what she’s learned from her experiences as an organizational leader and facilitator. It’s not written at all like a typical non-fiction book. Paragraphs of meandering text are interwoven with poems, song lyrics, quotes, lists, and diagrams. She moves freely from the most concrete advice to the most philosophical ideas. Her influences include famous activist leaders like Grace Lee Boggs, but also the science fiction author Octavia Butler, ideas from biomimicry and permaculture, and popular culture and music.
Emergence and biomimicry
It all begins with the idea of emergence. Emergence to AMB is not an abstract concept from information science. She draws instead from nature – her examples include roaches, ants, deer, fungi, bacteria, viruses, bamboo, eucalyptus, squirrels, vultures, mice, mosquitos, and dandelions. She studies how mycelium grow underground in thread-like formations, gaining strength by connecting their roots to one another. She admires how ants and starlings are able to coordinate in large numbers and react to their environment by following simple, local rules. Ferns and their fractal patterns are the inspiration to look for small-scale solutions that propagate outward and impact the whole environment. Dandelions are admired for their extreme resilience, that they can thrive and spread despite being uprooted and trampled on.
Humans have traditionally identified most with the “kings” of the jungle, like lions. We aspire to be powerful as individuals, claiming a territory and defending our reputation. But Brown notes that despite their isolated ferocity and alpha power, it is these very animals that are going extinct as our climate changes. The resilience of more decentralized, interdependent life forms is that they adapt and collaborate, while maintaining core practices essential to their survival.
This model of emergence is practical instead of theoretical. It emphasizes “critical connections over critical mass” – it is the depth of relationships that determine the strength of a system. Brown’s definition of emergence comes from Nick Obolensky: “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” It is these “simple interactions” – from how we relate to the thoughts in our own heads, to how we show up in our relationships, to how we exist as local communities – that create the patterns that give rise to our ecosystems and societies.
From this perspective, deep systems change starts with shaping the smallest patterns of our daily lives. We can, in Brown’s words, “…intentionally change how we live in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” This is very much in line with my work, examining how the smallest and simplest of daily work practices, upon closer examination, unfold into fractal worlds of amazing complexity and depth. It is much faster and more effective to look for insights inside these worlds, then to go searching for an answer outside ourselves somewhere.
Brown is also, whether she knows it or not, a fan of compression. Here are her core principles of emergent strategy:
- Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small)
- Change is constant (Be like water)
- There is always enough time for the right work. 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
- Less prep, more presence
- What you pay attention to grows
These principles resonate deeply with what I’ve discovered in the world of personal effectiveness. Here is how I translate them:
Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small)
To find deep insights, look closely into the inner workings of how you manage your daily work, from how you manage email and your calendar, to how you decide what to work on next.
Change is constant (Be like water)
Invest in your capacity to adapt, expecting your work and your life to change, instead of trying to prevent them from changing.
There is always enough time for the right work. There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Choosing what the work actually is, and with whom you will do it, has far greater leverage than how you perform it.
Never a failure, always a lesson
Every experience you have is fuel for creative inspiration. The bigger the failure, the better the fuel.
Trust the People (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy)
Learning how to trust people, and how to allow them to trust you, is a far greater source of leverage than all the productivity tips, tricks, and hacks ever conceived.
Move at the speed of trust
How fast you can move is determined by how much trust you have. And people won’t trust you unless you are vulnerable with them.
Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships
A relationship to the right person can have more leverage than a large group agreeing. Invest in that relationship because it is critical.
Less prep, more presence
Preparation has diminishing returns after a while, while presence has exponential returns. The sooner you move from preparing to being present, the better your results will be.
What you pay attention to grows
Attention is the rarest and most precious resource we have. It can be shaped and cultivated by investing attention in the first place, in an endless cycle.
Science fiction as visionary fiction
From studying the deep past of the biological world, Brown shifts our attention to envisioning the future. Specifically, she dives into science fiction as a tool to help us see worlds that do not yet exist. One of the biggest influences on her work has been Octavia Butler, a black woman who wrote science fiction far ahead of her time.
She argues that:
“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, racialized 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’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”
Brown embraces the tools of sci-fi to help paint a different picture of how the future could be. It’s not enough to make those futures plausible or realistic. Visions of dystopia are nothing if not plausible and realistic. We must also make just and liberated futures irresistible. I absolutely love this, as it aligns with all the research on behavior change. We don’t change our behavior out of shame, or punishment, or pressure, or even desire. We change out of pleasure and freedom and love. This is why Brown calls herself a “pleasure activist,” and I’m going to as well.
What’s so important to understand is that we aren’t trying to create a monolithic, homogeneous future. Brown notes that many sci-fi stories describe an antiseptic and boring future full of stark modern architecture and pervasive technology. It’s a future that few people would actually want to be a part of. Instead we need to equip everyone with imagination tools, so that they can create an abundance of futures, where everyone doesn’t have to be the same kind of person. As the Zapatistas say, “The world we want is one where many worlds fit.” The only way to break out of someone else’s imagination is to imagine ourselves into a new one.
Dialectical humanism and healing
As brilliant as these intellectual explorations are, where this book really shines is its exploration of the human heart. Brown returns to the idea of “dialectical humanism” that she learned from her mentor Grace Lee Boggs: that there is a cycle of collective transformation of beliefs that occurs as we gather new information and experiences, meaning that, over time, we can understand and hold a position we previously believed to be wrong.
This idea strikes to the heart of the modern age, where we each seem to be descending deeper and deeper into our private filter bubbles. The ability to change one’s mind seems to be the key capability we are losing as a society. Maybe we never had it. Boggs is quoted arguing that “…whenever a person or an organization or a country is in crisis, it is necessary to look at your own concepts and be critical of them because they may have turned into traps.” We are presented with fewer and fewer opportunities to do so in a world where we can increasingly hear only what we want to hear.
This is the point where an understanding of emergence is so critical. Often this topic leads to grand discussions of the state of our democracy, the role of social media and partisan politics, and blaming specific individuals or groups. I’ve always felt that this is an unproductive level to focus on, at least for me and my work, and Brown gives me the words to understand why: the trends we are seeing in the world are the result of simple, local interactions. They arise inexorably from who we are being in our private thoughts, in our relationships, and in our communities.
This has helped me understand the role of healing, which I’ve always been uncomfortable with. My story has been that I never had any real trauma growing up, at least compared to most people I know. Why should I have anything to heal? I saw healing as a process of remediation, of getting “back to normal.” And didn’t feel I deserved the luxury. Even as I’ve had experience after experience that can only be described as healing, I’ve resisted the idea that everyone can or should pursue it.
But Brown offers a series of reframings for what healing actually is that I find tremendously empowering.
First, healing is not “fixing oneself.” It is the re-opening up of the parts of ourselves that have closed. They closed for good reasons, to help us survive. We honor those experiences and those decisions, while gently inviting those parts to open up once again. Like a child who used to throw tantrums to get their way, but now has the words to say what they need. It can take us a while to exercise this newfound ability.
Second, healing is painful, but not as painful as continuing to ignore it. I think often we think that the healing process will be as painful or more painful than the thing that originally hurt us. But healing is, in fact, always occurring. It is a natural phenomenon of the human heart, and therefore we need only embrace it and let it proceed. Paul Ferrini says that “Your life is your spiritual path. Don’t be quick to abandon it for bigger and better experiences. You are getting exactly the experiences you need to grow. If your growth seems to be slow or uneventful for you, it is because you have not fully embraced the situations and relationships at hand. To know the self is to allow everything, to embrace the totality of who we are—all that we think and feel, all that we fear, all that we love.”
Lisa Thomas Adeyemo says that “Everything, given time and nurturing, is moving toward balance and healing. The mushrooms that cleaned the land after nuclear trauma…the process of forest growth after a fire…the way our skin heals after a cut…stronger than before. Healing is organic, healing is our birthright.”
Third, that healing opens up tremendous capacity to think, to feel, and to know. It unlocks vast new channels for creating the life we want to live, and for impacting others. This is why social impact and personal growth are so intertwined. You cannot create change that you yourself have not experienced. You cannot create freedom for others via your own suffering. You are a seed, and that’s not how seeds work. When you open yourself up to the lessons that life is trying to teach you, new things start to flow: truth, comfort, ease, joy, wholeness, acceptance. These things are not achievements far out on an endless horizon. They are waiting at the intake valve, ready to arrive the moment you allow it.
And fourth, that healing is not a linear, one-way process. It’s not that everything gets better and easier and happier all the time. Healing is not synonymous with self-improvement. Brown asks us to consider a bold series of propositions:
- That the broken heart can cover more territory
- That perhaps love can only be as large as grief demands
- That grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life
- That grief is gratitude
- That water seeks scale, that even your tears seek the recognition of community
- That the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction
- That death might be the only freedom
- That your grief is a worthwhile use of your time
- That your body will feel only as much as it is able to
- That the ones you grieve may be grieving you
- That the sacred comes from the limitations
- That you are excellent at loving
In other words, taking on the work of healing involves more heartbreak, and more grief. Feeling more involves feeling more in all dimensions, including the ones you’re not currently comfortable with. It involves losing control of what you allow yourself to feel. This is why it’s scary sometimes.
Returning to her work in movement-building, Brown says that change doesn’t come simply from thinking differently. This is the deep misconception at the heart of self-improvement. That you can just think different thoughts, thoughts you read in a best-selling book or online course, and that everything else will unfold automatically from there.
It isn’t true. The factual learning is necessary, but only as a staging ground. Change actually occurs through direct experience, doing exactly the thing you are scared to do, which allows you to shift what you are capable of understanding, what you are capable of feeling, and what you are capable of practicing. Change emerges from the correlation between feeling more, and having more choices.
The book rather unexpectedly becomes a how-to on “How to Build a Movement.” Brown has an unapologetic practical bent, which I appreciate.
She starts with what the current paradigm teaches, in our homes, in our schools, in our organizations, and in society:
- That we should deny our longings and skills, in favor of work that fills hours without inspiring our greatness
- That tests and deadlines are the reasons to take action, which favors people with good short-term memories and who respond well to pressure, who become leaders who depend on urgency-based thinking even when it’s not required
- That we need to compete with each other in a scarcity-based economy that destroys the abundant world we actually live in
- That the most valuable skills involve being able to manipulate and sell to each other, instead of learning and collaborating
- That the natural world is to be manicured, controlled, or pillaged to support our consumerist lives (including the natural lives of our own bodies)
- That factors beyond our control – our skin color, gender, sexuality, ability, nation, or belief system – determine our path and quality of life
- That we are valued only to the extent we can produce – only then do we deserve food, home, health care, and education
- That our success is measured in financial results, regardless of its impact on others and the environment
- That we should swallow our tears and any other inconvenient emotions
- That we should just be really good at what’s already possible, and to leave the impossible alone
But Brown’s criticism is not reserved for “the powers that be.” She turns next to social impact organizations, who so often replicate the very same power structures they claim they are trying to dismantle. They often have singular, charismatic leaders, top-down hierarchies, money-driven programming, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work schedules, and a lack of accountability to prove they are having the impact they claim.
This is why nonprofits can have the most challenging and destructive work cultures, characterized by burnout, overwork, underpay, unrealistic expectations, personal drama, movement splitting, mission drift, and the inability to make decisions.
I’ve experienced these patterns firsthand. Most of my career was spent trying to “do good.” Teaching English in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, working in microfinance in Colombia, teaching leadership and community service in the Peace Corps. I ultimately left because, more often than not, these organizations had the best of intentions but lacked effectiveness. They simply couldn’t accomplish what they set out to accomplish, and the aura of social impact shielded them from any scrutiny that might have changed things. I moved to business, where results were measured and companies were at least sensitive to one source of feedback – their customers.
I so admire Brown’s insistence on taking personal responsibility for how these events play out. She tells story after story of her raging individualism, her challenges in staying connected to her body and spirit, and resistance to leaning on others. Like me, she is naturally brainy and self-reliant, yet has come to realize that these wonderful qualities are simply not going to be the important ones moving forward.
She says: “I am socialized to seek achievement alone, to try to have the best idea and forward it through the masses. But that leads to loneliness and, I suspect, extinction. If we are all trying to win, no one really ever wins.”
And continues: “I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose. This has meant increasing my intentionality about being with others. Adapting to the changes of life, yes, but with a clear and transparent intention to keep deepening with my loved ones and transforming together…I am living a life I don’t regret. A life that will resonate with my ancestors, and with as many generations forward as I can imagine.”
The banner she flies is a quote from Albert Camus, given special meaning as a black woman: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
What building a movement requires
So what does it take to successfully build a movement, with ourselves as the starting point?
It is all too easy to project our desire for change onto the outside world. To seek to fix others as a way of avoiding fixing ourselves. It was this impulse that drove me for years.
Which is why the first step is allowing yourself to be seen. And to be known. It is being seen and accepted as whole beings that begins the healing process. It begins to release our resistance to loving ourselves exactly as we are, right now. Which allows us to love those around us, just as they are. Instead of making our love contingent on something, or withdrawing it as a threat.
The modern world gives us so many ways of not being seen, including allowing only part of ourselves to be seen. It takes great courage to put down the social media handles, to allow the flattering frames to fall away, to show up and to be vulnerable when we feel most at risk. There are always moments of trauma and loss of control where we have no choice but to be seen. But we have the choice to make it a way of living, to do it on purpose.
When you allow yourself to truly be seen, an amazing thing happens: you realize that your very existence, who you are, is in itself a contribution to those around you. Not what you do or what you produce, but just your presence. Have you ever heard a more radical idea? We are taught that love is about belonging exclusively to one person or community. That therefore we must contort ourselves in order to ensure continued belonging. We are taught that our value comes from what we produce, and that certain emotions impede production. Vulnerability is the fundamental reversal of this logic.
Brenda Salgado writes: “Nature has taught me so much about moving with the seasons, that we need to honor times of harvest and times of rest. That the frenetic pace of doing, doing, doing, without being present with each other and the season we are in, what is happening around us, is unnatural and counter to life. So it has made me realize how important community ceremony and celebration is to our efforts to transform the world.”
A friend of mine has a Post-it note in the corner of his laptop that says: “Be wrong more.” I love that. As a thinker, I am addicted to being right. Like any addict, I will burn relationships to the ground if I can have just a little bit of “being right.” I’ll leave communities, betray my values, and justify it all with my self-righteousness, as if my very survival depended on it.
Brown describes her experiences with leadership, how the ability to be wrong and then to quickly pivot her position is key to her ability to lead. I’ve found much the same thing. That the longer I wait before releasing my viewpoint, the more painful and heavy the experience of life becomes. Often this begins with just naming something, pointing out a pattern that is present in my family or the company before I know the cause or the solution. This feels risky, because more often than not the cause is me, and the solution is not-me.
Brown notes that the capacity to be wrong allows you to be in relationship in real time, instead of defending the past. She asks us to consider that “…the place where you are wrong might be the most fertile ground for connecting with and receiving others.” If you are not able to be wrong, you can’t access this most fertile ground.
Art is also a critical component of building a movement. Brown notes that “Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice.”
She recounts the teachings of her meditation teacher, Black Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams: 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 her meditation retreats, Williams teaches people how to choose where their attention goes. When overcome with grief, sadness, loss, desire, anger, or restlessness, to really be with those emotions, and to sense what is needed.
This is where our work crosses paths most clearly. I find it very curious that the word “organizing” is used primarily in two contexts: organizing physical spaces or computer files, and organizing people in social movements. Maybe this isn’t a coincidence. What they have in common is that they involve “Organizing and fortifying ourselves so that we can source from our longings, health, love, dreams, and visions, from our strength and our connections with each other.”
Being organized, in both senses, involves arranging your environment so that you have ready access to the greatest resources at your disposal. It involves clearing away what is obscuring your vision and your movement, making hard decisions about what matters and what doesn’t, distinguishing between what you can control and what you can’t, and acting with more elegance and power. The heart of efficiency is that there is nothing dragging or diverting the energy of the work. From digital files to physical spaces to people, there are ways of making it vastly easier and more enjoyable to move in the direction we want. And what is easy and enjoyable is sustainable.
Cultivating small practices
The ground level of emergent strategy is made up of small practices we integrate into our daily lives, which draw the patterns that metastasize into the structure of society.
Brown lists the practices that she has integrated along her own path: “meditation, somatics, visionary fiction, facilitation, working out, yoga, intimate community on social media, check ins with woes (those who are also Working on Excellence) and buddies, orgasmic meditation, sex, self-documentation (self-love selfies! Learning to see beauty and power in my standard breaking appearance), sugar shifting, sabbatical (big one in 2012, annual mini-sabbaticals since then), poetry, unscheduled time, moon-cycle rituals, tarot (I am such a fan of this practice that I have bought five other people tarot decks), sage and frankincense cleansing of my home, journaling.”
The key words, I think, are “integration” and “practice.” You can attend a weekend training or retreat that introduces you to a new practice. But it is the regular routine that gives it power. Notice that tightening feeling in your chest? Being willing to try on new practices in such a fluid and unattached way requires releasing the high stakes game of success vs. failure we often adopt when it comes to “habit formation.” Maybe you’ll stick with the new practice, and maybe you won’t. Over the years I’ve discarded far more than I’ve adopted. And many are appropriate only for a season of life, and after that can fall away.
Deep, slow, intentional work
I found this fascinating: that Brown traces many of our current challenges back to “urgency-based thinking.” This involves approaching everything as an urgent problem requiring extraordinary measures, and seeking quick fixes instead of addressing the root of the problem.
Changing the economic or political system won’t magically fix the situation. So often these systems are alternatives in name only, and amount to changing the window dressing. More fundamental is the aura of scarcity that pervades so much of our thinking: not enough, not good enough, not fast enough, not big enough.
The real alternative is to take on the deep, slow intentional work of personal growth. This work is messy as hell: letting go of our stories, taking responsibility for our lives, giving up our pride and ego and self-righteousness. This work isn’t glamorous, doesn’t give you status points, and never ends.
But it opens up tremendous new capabilities for speaking, listening, and being with each other. As we expand our capacity to feel our bodies, we become more honest, because the body never lies. As we heal our wounds, certain forms of hierarchy naturally fall away, as people realize they don’t have to consent to it. Other forms of status remain as people realize it is not a threat. Brown says, “When we can stand in knowing another person’s power without feeling threatened, that can be powerful in itself…Being able to really see another person’s expertise without being upset by it.”
It is comforting for me to realize that the societal transformation described above is inexorable. Yes, it depends on us. But it also doesn’t. I always remind myself, when things get too weighty and dramatic, that it’s all just the laws of thermodynamics at work. We are the ones who add the meaning and the emotion.
This movement of movements can be seen as just the next stage of our evolution. Richard Strozzi-Heckler writes, “The evolutionary thrust surges through us as dreams, sensations, longings, images, and inexplicable utterances and gestures. We are constantly adapting, creating, filling, emptying as we become the dream.”
Removing the sense of personal risk opens up this moment in history as an opportunity. Something is going to happen, and our choice is in what part to play. We can be the friction, or we can be the flow. We can withhold our ideas and our energy, or we can share them.
The amazing thing is that there is room for every single person’s contribution. When we share our ideas, they become more complex, more interesting, and more likely to work for more people. When we share our ideas, they become bigger than ourselves, which means they also become bigger than our fears, our doubts, and our insecurities.
My question for you is, “What are you embodying in your work and in your life?” Given that you are a seed of the future, what are you a seed of?
Loretta Ross teaches us that, “When people think the same idea and move in the same direction, that’s a cult. When people think many different ideas and move in one direction, that’s a movement.”
What are you sharing? And which movement are you sharing it with?
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