Book/Author and Year Published: Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown (2017)

Reviewer: Jeriann

Age/Genre: Self-help, Visionary Nonfiction, Sociological 

Preferred Reading Environment: Your favorite natural environment – a hammock, a room with a couple plants, or the middle of the woods.

Reading Accoutrements: Something to take notes! 

Content Notes: This book talks about oppression and social justice, most prominently around racism. 

I really wanted to review a book about unions for Labor Day, but most of the ones I found were either pretty expensive or not really what I wanted to focus on. Then, I remembered that I have Emergent Strategy. I picked this up at the Compassionate Communities: We Choose All of Us conference I attended in Boise in 2017 and hadn’t read it yet. Now seemed like the perfect moment.  

Emergent Strategy is a compilation of essays, interviews, conversations, quotes, and musings by adrienne maree brown. Brown is a facilitator, social justice activist, healer, doula, writer, and much more. Emergent strategy is a concept she has built in conjunction with countless other activists, writers, and professionals from various fields. The core idea is that in order to build a new world without injustice, we must embody that world in our everyday interactions, and particularly in organizing movements. This doesn’t directly address labor organizing, but the ideas are definitely relevant and can be incorporated into labor movements. 

I was super engaged by the idea of this book, and brown uses this space to effectively lay out her concepts, define the terms she utilizes, cite the works that inspired her, and share examples of how the concepts work in action. If you have even a passing interest in how to build effective movements for positive change, Emergent Strategy is a worthwhile read.

So what is emergent strategy? Well, to have the complete answer, you really need to read the book, but I’m going to share part of brown’s definition and the six elements she uses to explain it. 

Nick Obolenksy describes emergence as: “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” This is the basis of brown’s theories – that everything is fractal, and that systemic positive change must be rooted in the actions of individuals working together to create a larger pattern. Brown uses the military definition of strategy, which is simply a plan to advance toward and accomplish a goal. I love that she points out that “strategic” is often used as a positive term, but the word itself is neutral. People use strategy to accomplish horrible things. This reminded me of internet devil’s advocates, who always default to “well they did the logical thing” or “strategically, this was a smart choice.” Just because something has logic or strategy behind it does not make it good or right. If we focus on how people are affected rather than whether something is “smart,” we get a lot further in progressing good. 

The six elements that comprise emergent strategy as brown defines it are:

  • “Fractal: The relationship between small and large”
  • “Adaptive: How we Change”
  • “Interdependence and Decentralization: Who we are and how we share” 
  • “Nonlinear and Iterative: The pace and pathways of change”
  • “Resilience and Transformative Justice: How we recover and transform”
  • “Creating More Possibilities: How we move towards life”

The bulk of the book is brown explaining each of these elements. Each has a chapter dedicated to its explanation. She defines the terms she is using, shares quotes from people in her circles that illustrate how these terms work, specifically in nature, and then shares an essay or two that she’s written that focuses on this concept. Most of the essays were previously published on her website or for various publications. Some are notes from keynote speeches she’s given. 

Brown is deeply grounded in nature, and most of the examples she uses are nature-based. “Fractals,” for example, are explained by dandelions, and how the spores are tiny versions of the community that is a full dandelion. Fungi are repeatedly used to illustrate patterns, transformation, and healing. Mycelium is the part of the fungus that grows underground, connects roots to one another, and breaks down plant material to build healthy ecosystems. This is the largest organism on earth. This book is full of super interesting scientific nature factoids . It repeatedly reminds us that humans are part of nature, not separate from it. We operate by nature’s laws, and technically everything we do is “natural.” Brown posits: “A mushroom is a toxin-transformer. A dandelion is a community of healers waiting to spread. What are we as humans? What is our function in the universe?”  The main point from “fractals” is that what we practice on a small scale sets patterns for larger systems. We must transform ourselves to transform the world.

When it comes to being adaptive, brown focuses on intentional adaptation. She is greatly inspired by sci-fi author Octavia Butler, and uses her concepts frequently. In her Earthseed series, Butler repeats “God is change.” Brown embraces this fully, and asserts that we must have a healthy relationship with change in order to exist in harmony. We must be able to accept change rather than fear it, but also be intentional in how we react to change in order to move toward the world we want.

With regards to interdependence and decentralization, brown talks about the importance of collaboration, and the dangers of tying a movement to any one person. A lot of our societal problems come from how humans interact with power, and we cannot move forward by perpetuating those systems. We must change how we interact at a microlevel, which in part includes embracing that everyone has strengths – no one is “special” but everyone is vital. One of brown’s foundational questions that she uses to guide her musings is: “How do we turn our collective, full-bodied intelligence toward collaboration, if that is the way we are to survive?” This book itself is a collaborative work, with tons of quotes, conversations, and inspiration from other people. Brown, however, is the thread that weaves the piece and concepts together as a whole.

I wasn’t surprised at all that “nonlinear” was a huge part of brown’s ideology. Brown’s writing is not always linear (though this doesn’t affect readability for the most part), and she sees all of existence as very organic (which by its very nature, it is). One of the main takeaways I took from this element is that failure is not a useful construct. We are not on a straight line of progress and just because we didn’t accomplish something we wanted to, or because we committed a harmful act, doesn’t mean we have lost the chance to continuously improve and make things better. It’s never too late. The world is constantly changing, adapting, becoming something new, which we also must do.

In the resilience section, brown focuses on how nature heals itself, and how in nature, nothing is wasted. In the aftermath of natural disasters like volcanic eruptions or forest fires,  detritus is intentionally decomposed to heal and create new life. When explaining transformative justice, brown also touches on “cancel culture” and how destroying a harmful person does not stop the harm from existing and perpetuating itself in the world. We must hold people accountable, but violent destruction is not the way to eliminate the systems of violent destruction we want to cease.

At the end, there are two interviews with social justice organizers that really spell out how these concepts and theories can be put to use, using the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter as examples. Then there is a whole workbook section to guide you in reflecting how you can incorporate these concepts into your life and organizing. 

I learned so much reading this book. It has me thinking about every interaction, every reaction I have and whether it’s useful, whether I’m making something negative when it doesn’t have to be. It also introduced me to a ton of activists, authors, and artists who are doing work that I want to learn more about.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from Emergent Strategy:

  • The phrase “(r)evolutionary journey.” This emphasises that revolution involves growth and evolving – it’s not just a static change that we enact.
  • The importance of learning to listen without assumptions or defenses. This could seem preachy, but brown practices what she preaches, being open to criticism. I often think that current political discourse is largely absent of willingness to listen, with everyone thinking they have the correct answers, or at the very least that their opponent is wrong.
  • “If the goal [of organizers and spiritual leaders] was to increase the love rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could imagine liberation from constant oppression.”
  • “A visionary exploration of humanity includes imagination.”
  • “Radical ideas spread through conversation and questions, one-to-one interactions.” 
  • Brown talks about how we demonize pleasure, and how counterproductive that is to a positive existence.
  • Taking up space in a world where you’re not supposed to – where your body is not valued and your worth is minimized – is an act of revolution that creates a new world.
  • “Perhaps the most egregious thing we are taught is that we should be really good at what is already possible – that we should leave the impossible alone.”
  • Brown talks about not experiencing failure much anymore, but rather experiencing growth. I have been feeling this way a lot lately and hope to embody it even more in the future.
  • Brown asks a lot of questions, and isn’t afraid to be wrong in order to reach progress. She doesn’t claim to have the answers. She puts this work out there as a way to further the conversation and get more people involved.

There’s an emergence strategy website with a ton of resources to expand on this text, which I am excited to explore. I also plan on rereading this book, in part and full, and returning to the journalling parts on a continuous basis. No matter where you are in relation to social organizing, even if your involvement is zero, this book has concepts that can positively affect your life. Brown’s combination of dictionary definitions, specific examples, quotes from fiction and non-fiction, and so many other sources, in addition to her repeated explanations of important concepts, made it easy to understand what she meant as she explained large, complicated ideas. I think her writing style is accessible to many different learning types. Even if you have an aversion to terms like “social justice” because of over-politicized punditry, I believe you’ll find a lot to ponder in this collection.

What book has you inspired this Labor Day? Share in the comments!

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