Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds — A Review

By Lyndi Hewitt

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown

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Detroit-based writer and trailblazing pleasure activist adrienne maree brown has been deeply engaged in organizing around black liberation, climate justice, and feminism for over two decades. Having previously served as a national coordinator for the 2010 U.S. Social Forum and as executive director of The Ruckus Society, brown is shaped by and remains a crucial voice in contemporary struggles for justice. Much to my good fortune, last year during an intersectional feminist faculty learning circle, a colleague* recommended brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017). Since then I’ve found myself returning to it again and again.

While Emergent Strategy was published 2 years ago and has since become wildly popular among activists of color, queer and feminist activists, and others interested in intersectional approaches to contemporary organizing, this innovative text has received far less attention among social movement researchers in the academy. That needs to change. If you don’t add this book to your reading list for any other reason, do it because some of the most vibrant movements of today are drawing inspiration and implementing concrete practices from brown’s work. Emergent Strategy is not only movement-relevant, it’s movement-centered.

adrienne maree brown understands the notion of emergent strategy as “strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions” and as “an adaptive, relational way of being” (p. 2). In a recent newsletter for Resist, a foundation that supports social justice movements, brown further distilled the concept: “For those not familiar, Emergent Strategy (ES) is the way we make moves towards justice and liberation in right relationship with each other and the planet, in right relationship with change, and learning from the great teacher of nature.”

brown compels us to draw lessons from the natural world and consider how they might apply to relationships in the social world, particularly where movement-building is concerned. For instance, she uses the imagery of fractals to illustrate how systems are constituted through a series of smaller, everyday relationships and connections. In so doing, she rejects individualism firmly in favor of a focus on the collective and on the practices necessary for building a healthier future. She writes that, “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” (p. 5).

brown begins the book with a thoughtful and thorough introduction elucidating how her ideas have been inspired by Octavia Butler’s science fiction, Grace Lee Boggs’s mentorship, as well as her relationships and experiences with other critical writers and activists. brown demonstrates an uncommonly refreshing intellectual humility, taking care to tell us who she is and where she’s coming from, inviting the reader to engage simultaneously with openness and constructive feedback. She then lays out the key principles of emergent strategy. Here’s a sampling (p. 41):

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.

brown then provides a more careful discussion of what she calls the elements of emergent strategy (e.g., fractals, intentional adaptation, resilience), devoting a full chapter to unpacking each one. The concluding chapters of the book shift focus toward concrete suggestions for facilitation among organizations, networks, or other groups. Peppered with powerful questions, relevant examples from brown’s experience as an organizer, interludes of poetry, prompts for journaling, as well as practical tools for building consensus, this book communicates in multiple languages, ensuring its value for activists, artists, facilitators, and critical academic researchers invested in dismantling systems of oppression.

A particularly appealing dimension of Emergent Strategy is the flexibility with which the reader can engage and still come away with useful insights. One need not read it in a linear fashion (brown makes this point clear) or in its entirety all at once in order to find ideas and practices worthy of immediate application. Part manifesto, part memoir, part self-help guide, and part explicitly anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist, queer update to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the book complements more traditional social movements research on topics such as collective identity, strategy, and cognitive liberation. At the same time, Emergent Strategy stands on its own as an essential text for those sustaining hope and working toward social change in this moment.

Why do we study social movements? To some extent, it’s because we want to understand how social change happens. For some (many?) of us, though, it’s because we yearn to maintain our belief that change is possible. What’s perhaps most intoxicating about Emergent Strategy is brown’s tenacious insistence not only that change is possible, but also that our participation is necessary. brown summed it up best in a 2010 interview that remains painfully relevant to current political circumstances: “It’s easy to be devastated…I think Octavia Butler’s work calls us to be inspired instead.”

If you’ve already read Emergent Strategy and are hungry for more of brown’s unique, creative, holistic brand of critical commentary, consider checking out her co-edited volume Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, her newest book Pleasure Activism, or her podcast How to Survive the End of the World.

*I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Lise Kloeppel, Chair and Associate Professor of Drama at UNC Asheville, for initially recommending brown’s work.

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