Book Review: Emergent Strategy

by Ash Bruxvoort

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As a lifelong lover of science and speculative fiction, I was intrigued by the connections adrienne maree brown was making between Octavia Butler and facilitating groups working for social change. I found out about her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds through Instagram and read the book slowly over the course of 2018.

The book was so full of practical ways I could rethink and reshape my work (and world!) that it took months to read and integrate the lessons.

Connections to Ecology

brown starts the book by making connections between social transformation and ecology. As an ecofeminist, I really dug this. She references work Complex Movements, a Detroit-based artist collective, is doing to understand the relationship between complex science and social justice movements. They use an emblem system to “engage communities in thinking about the formations and movements of the future.” The eblem system includes mycelium, ants, ferns or fractals, wave-particle duality, starlings, and dandelions. By drawing inspiration from the resilience, adaptability, interdepence, and cooperation of each of these elemental emblems, we can apply the problem-solving abilities of the natural world to our own work bringing women together to change and heal communities.

The concepts of Emergent Strategy build on biomimicry, the process of imitating the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. The first half of the book focuses on exploring these elements individually and how they apply to social organizing.

Starting with the fractal element, brown is vulnerable and transparent about how she came to learn and apply these concepts in her own life and work.

I would say urgency, obligation, and specialness were the driving forces in my life. I was using food, drink, sex, and work to numb my way through life. My work was reactive; there was often a sense of time scarcity and sprinting, of hopelessness, of not being appreciated, feeling no trust, of working with a confused vision.
— adrienne maree brown

Many people who are working to change the world have gone through this. In my experience, during the past few years my work has often felt reactive and built from scarce time and resources. But there are other ways to approach life, work, and organizing.

Working Together

The solution to the burnout from brown’s experience was “learning to work collaboratively, which goes against my inner ‘specialness. 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.”  

Emergent Strategy, and the facilitation techniques that are part of it, are meant to bring out the best and most important conversation the people present in the room need to have. During the past few years I have facilitated Plate to Politics workshops for a wide range of women. I’ve found that the most meaningful conversation that happens in those workshops is often outside of the curriculum I came to deliver. The open-ended conversations women have about the culture of the communities they come from, the internal fears they are working to overcome, and the issues they are most passionate about, are usually what I remember most.

I’m often working and presenting to an audience of rural women—but the feelings of isolation those women face are not so different from the urban women and non-binary people I work with. In urban communities, growing food and farming can result in a feeling isolation from other urbanites. In rural communities, people are often geographically isolated as well as politically, culturally, and socially isolated. What sets all of the women I work with apart is their commitment to overcome these barriers and build community. Reading Emergent Strategy reminded me of my own roots and WFAN’s herstory. We are an organization focused on bringing women together to change foodscapes through community power.

Visionary Fiction

My favorite section of the book is about “Creating More Possibilities: How We Move Towards Life.”

Drawing on afrofuturism, defined by Mark Dery as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture,” brown talks about how organizing itself is science fiction. Through organizing, we are actively creating the world we want to see.

It’s easy to forget this when we run into barriers. Those barriers might be lack of funding, nlack of time, lack of people, lack of platform—and these barriers do exist. There is no doubt that those barriers do often exist for us. That means this work can be disheartening. Framing the work we do as actively reshaping the world every day, and knowing that part of that work starts with me and what I allow myself to think, believe, and do, is empowering.

brown finishes the book with tools for practicing Emergent Strategy in our work and facilitation. There is also an assessment that can be used for individuals and organizations to show where there is room for growth and possibility.

How Are We Applying This

The transformational process of bringing Emergent Strategy into the work I do at WFAN is only beginning. I started early by recommending the book to other staff members. We’ve started working through the individual and organizational assessments on our staff calls. I’m eager to share this work with more women in our network. Below I’ve included a list of resources I have returned to after reading this book.

Favorite Resources

There are too many resources in this book to list them all. Here are a few of my favorite resources to explore.

Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley

The Social Transformation Project

Collective Sci-Fi Writing at octaviasbrood.com

Windcall.org

Insight meditation app

Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project

Grassroots Global Justice

Leadership Dojo by Richard Strozzi-Heckler