'Emergent Strategy' is food for thought during the time of Trump

Aug 23, 2017 at 1:00 am

Somebody put a copy of adrienne maree brown's new book in my hands a couple of months ago. Then a few weeks ago I was in a workshop for which she was the facilitator. After that I decided to actually read her book and scheduled time early last week to read brown's Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.

It turned out to be fortuitous timing. As President Donald Trump came out swinging in support of white supremacists and it seemed the world was totally askew, brown's book gave me a bit of succor and hope in a time of despair.

The despair came from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Nazis, Klansmen, armed militia groups, and numerous other actors of the far right marched, chanted racist slogans, and physically attacked counter-protesters. They also included homophobia with "Fuck you faggots" in their sloganeering.

One woman was killed when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Then came President Trump, with a series of unclear statements that waffled from blaming counter-protesters for the violence to support for far right.

Among the many things I learned about the racist right wing the past couple of weeks is their apparent belief that people who are not white are stupid. So stupid in fact, that according to former white power activist Arno Michaelis, they believe that without the support of white people everyone else would just "wither on the vine."

In an interview that ran on cnn.com, Michaelis described the discussion within the white power movement and their questioning about whether it will be necessary to exterminate nonwhites and Jews. They determined that it wasn't necessary. "They won't survive," Michaelis says. "They're too dumb to feed themselves."

That idea is belied by the urban agriculture movement. Activists on the ground across the country are well aware of the implications of food insecurity and have been working hard helping people organize communities around food issues — including teaching them how to produce it themselves. Water is another issue that progressives have been organizing around. Activists are well aware of what's coming down the pike around resources for basic survival.

Which brings me back to brown's Emergent Strategy. brown only mentions urban agriculture in passing (although she is supportive of it). She is more focused on water, not so much access to it but water as a basic entity that reflects the natural world and our place in it.

From the start of Strategy, brown focuses on elements of the natural world because we are part of it and reflect its organizing structures. I have believed this for a long time but generally don't go there because I can't articulate it. brown can. On the first page of the first chapter, in fact. Among the core principles of her practice of emergent strategy, brown lists:

"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 failure, always a lesson. ... "

So Strategy is not so much about how to overcome the opposition with ... um, something like five killer arguments to take down your racist uncle. It's more about overcoming your own issues as an activist and maintaining a focus on the best objectives and strategies.

brown is part of the orbit that coalesced around the late Grace Lee Boggs, and as such she shares the perspective that the world order is going through massive change right now. Where that change is going is not evident or ordained. Where the world goes will be affected by the forces that are currently at work. To a certain extent Trump understands that the post-WWII order has pretty much outlived its usefulness. The exploitation and racism that have driven the industrial age no longer function. This is a moment in history where the world could be pushed in a number of directions.

To a certain extent Strategy is a self-help book that points the way for the work to help activists become more functional. But since "small is all," it's also a self-help book for changing the world. Changing yourself in the right direction is changing the world in the right direction. As the book's subtitle says: "Shaping Change, Changing Worlds."

Beyond Boggs, brown seeks and disseminates wisdom from a dizzying array of sources. Strategy is indeed a book, but reading it is like reading the internet as brown eschews standard narrative and allows herself to go in numerous directions of inclusivity. Where Boggs was fond of handing books to people who came into her orbit, brown just cites what she wants you to ingest in ingestible nuggets.

In some ways the whole thing is a book-length poem with all the singing, insight, and inspiration of that art form. If we are to transform the world we must be transformative people. Or is it speculative fiction with audience participation? As brown writes at one point, "Walidah and I articulated that 'all organizing is science fiction,' by which we mean that social justice work is about creating systems of justice and equity in the future, creating conditions that we have never experienced," regarding their work with Octavia's Brood.

It seems that brown's form in each chapter is dictated by the chapter's subject matter. This approach to form reflects a decentralization in some lanes of movement work made possible in large part because of technology. Look at how traditional news outlets are called "fake news" by the Trump administration as a way to discredit news that belies their positions.

While we're speaking of the devil, I just have to add that Trump's vision is the scary version of where the world goes as the geopolitical economic world turns. The kinds of things that brown asks of readers involves introspection and openness — things Trump seems incapable of.

But back to my original point, the reason I guess it was so comforting to me during those batshit crazy days, with Trump seeming to legitimize violence against nonwhite people by white supremacists. Strategy helped me to find my people when I was out of town for a few days. It reminded me that there are numerous and capable people working for the same cause that I desire. It grounded me. It helped me to look at myself and step back for a moment.

It is the end of the world as we know it, thanks to a lot of reasons. Now is the time to gird ourselves for the fight for a new world. Right now I can't think of better girding than Emergent Strategy.