The World Is a Miraculous Mess, and It’s Going to Be All Right

In her latest book, author adrienne maree brown envisions a world of abundant justice, abundant attention, and abundant liberation.
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“We keep trying to get these massive numbers of people to sign a petition, or to show up to a march, or to show up to vote, but we’re not building connectivity between those numbers, authentic relationships between those people.”

Photo of adrienne maree brown by Bree Gant.

When you talk to author and activist adrienne maree brown, you feel everything is going to be all right. You’re inspired by her hope, belief, and commitment just enough to muster your own. This must have to do with the way she sees possibility for change absolutely everywhere, which came about through her many roles. Brown is also a poet, social justice facilitator, science fiction scholar who is co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, and a doula.

It’s the first anniversary of her book, “emergent strategy”—inspired by Octavia Butler’s ideas of the human relationship to change. And after a year of back and forth scheduling, we were finally able to sit down and talk about what it means to see the world through an emergent strategy lens. She describes the concept as “the way complex plans for action and complex systems for being together arise out of relatively simple interactions.”

Applied to social justice work, it’s a way of being, a way of approaching facilitation and movement-building that helps us to allow action to organically happen. It is necessary groundwork, she says, to enable another important idea—put forth by her friend and mentor, the late Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs—that of transforming yourself to transform the world.

And since the release of “emergent strategy,” brown has been facilitating trainings at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute in Detroit.

Brown spoke about movement-building and the opportunities she sees to include racial justice in conversations around not just Black Lives Matter, but Parkland and #neveragain, and #metoo.

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This interview has been edited for length.

Zenobia Jeffries: In movement-building, organizing we often hear the idea of needing a critical mass. But you talk about needing critical connections, instead. Why is that more important?

adrienne maree brown: We keep trying to get these massive numbers of people to sign a petition, or to show up to a march, or to show up to vote, but we’re not building connectivity between those numbers, authentic relationships between those people. And so, everything becomes a trending space for these numbers to move to a kind of groupthink. I think the numbers dissipate because [people] get dissatisfied. Because they’re like, “I showed up, and you treated me like a number. I wanted to support, I wanted to help. I needed something in my community, and you treated me like a number.”

There’s so much trauma that we’re holding being Black in this country. We are facing this trauma that is so vast and is so complex, and it’s been our only experience on this land. And even when we have moments of moving ahead, or succeeding, we get reminded regularly: “You’re still not free,” in the sense that you can just walk anywhere with that skin and feel safe.

The critical connection is one that can recognize that and say I see you in your trauma, and I also see the whole self beyond that, and I see that you are resilient, and you have the capacity to heal. That is what resonates most for me.

Jeffries: “Have the capacity to heal.” When I think of that, I think of restorative justice. But you talk often about transformative justice. What is the difference between the two?

brown: They’re these three levels: There’s punitive justice, which is what we live inside of. You do something wrong, you get punished for that. Period. And that starts from childhood. It’s like, you do something wrong, I’m gonna hit you. I’m gonna send you away by yourself—timeout, spanking, whatever. And then as [you get older] those punishments become more severe. You’re getting suspended, kicked out of school. You’re getting into the juvenile injustice system. You’re getting into prison. You’re getting these massive fines, or your freedom taken away, death penalty.

And then restorative justice—which I think we need— says, when harm happens rather than punishing people, we need to restore the condition. We need to figure out how do we get back to good here. If someone stole your purse, what do they need to do to get right with you, and sort of restore some peace.

The transformative justice for me is going further. You restored the original conditions but if in the original conditions there was imbalance or inequality, those original conditions are going to continue to lead to the same crimes, the same transgressions. It’s like, I stole your purse, I’m really sorry. I returned the purse, I painted your sidewalk. I’m still broke, and I’m still hungry, so I gotta do [harm] somewhere else. The society has not tended to the hunger.

“What’s going to be coming for people is first a self-assessment: What am I embodying?” 

Jeffries: You’re currently doing emergent strategy training. In your book, there are various descriptions of emergent strategy. Can you give an example of it?

brown: The Movement for Black Lives.

The simple interaction is Alicia Garza is so hurt by what’s happening with the Trayvon Martin case, she comes on[line] and she says, “Ya’ll, we have to do better than this, we can’t get used to this and just act like it’s nothing. Our lives matter. Black lives matter.” And a relationship formed around Patrisse [Cullors], and Opal [Tometti], and many others [who] came together and said there’s something here: “Black lives matter.” And that thing took on an organic life of its own and began growing, spreading, lots of people claiming it, and saying “Yes.”

And then getting to a point where other Black formations are growing and saying there’s something beyond just what Black Lives Matter can hold. That is, there is an organic set of relationships here we need to be in. So we have the Movement for Black Lives, which is both organizations that existed before the Ferguson moment, and the organizations that came into existence after that which are saying, together we need to articulate a vision for Black lives, together we need to articulate a policy platform.

adrienne (standing in hat) facilitating Emergent Strategy Training in Atlanta. Photo by Jenn Willsea.

Now the next stage is happening. They’re moving projects. They have a 2021 strategy, and all this work is happening. And now we move to the next level, which is a multiracial, people of color alliance that is hosted by the Movement for Black Lives action table, but has immigrant justice folks, climate justice folks, Black feminists, education workers, folks who’re doing anti-war/anti-militarism work, folks who are veterans. All these folks, now, coming to the table off of that articulation that Black lives matter and that we need to center an anti-Black analysis in our movement space.

Jeffries: What’s the training like?

brown: [We offer] a set of elements that you can [try on for self-assessment]: Do I embody this element? [For examples], do I embody “fractal,” am I paying attention from the smallest to the largest scale to how change happens? Do I embody being “decentralized,” am I actually sharing leadership with people in an authentic way all around me? Do I embody “creating more possibility,” or am I regularly trying to narrow everyone down to my way only? Or, can I actually allow biodiversity of ideas and ways and being?

What’s going to be coming for people is first a self-assessment: What am I embodying? What am I not embodying? How would I grow in the areas that I’m not embodying? How do I teach and model the things that I am embodying and bring those into the work?

And then there’re the principles. These are fundamental, underlying truths that if we hold them well in our facilitation it changes what’s possible. So, one of those truths for instance is, “There’s always enough time for the right work.”

That, to me, is a fundamental truth. If you’re not having enough time, there’s something wrong in what you’re trying to do.

“I think we can hold more than one thought at the same time.

Jeffries: It sounds like a deprogramming in order to allow yourself to let this process unfold versus this is what you need to do.

brown: Exactly. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu talks about, trust the people and they become trustworthy. It’s like a core principle. People don’t let things unfold ’cause we don’t trust each other. We’re like, “If I just leave this open, y'all gonna waste my time or you’re gonna waste each other’s time, or you’re not gonna know what to do with each other.” Instead of saying, “Let me provide some structure, but then let me leave some open space so that I can see what y’all wanna do with each other, what you need from each other.”

[When] the agenda is not working, it’s because you’re trying to get people to focus on something that is not actually important to them, and there’s something else that they really want to be there [for] and talk about. If you actually get out of the way, and let them get to the thing they want to talk about, they’re gonna walk away happy. They’ll have actually done the work they needed to do.

Jeffries: Seems like everything is a “movement” now—#metoo #neveragain. What makes a movement a movement?

brown: I will say this. There’s a quote I use in the book from [activist and professor] Loretta Ross, where she says, “A group of people moving in the same direction thinking the same thing is a cult. A group of people moving in the same direction thinking different things is a movement.” And I really love that idea because I think we can hold more than one thought at the same time.

[With] #metoo, there’s a movement thing happening. But then there’s also very specific movements for reproductive justice, movements against sexual violence. So within a sort of meta movement, there are also articulated movements.

I use the plural of movements instead of saying “the movement” because I don’t see some singular movement. And I don’t know that that’s a relative desire any longer. I see a need for a coherent left flank in this country that’s able to overcome our differences and assert some common beliefs, common ways of being where we don’t all have to be deeply politically aligned. But we do need to say we reject conservatism, we reject inhumanity in the form of policy and in the form of budgeting, how we spend our money as a nation. I think that needs to be a coherent left that could be made up of many movements.

“We currently live in a reality of scarce justice, scarce attention, scarce liberation.”

Jeffries: The terms that emerge in social justice circles are appropriate for the conditions in which they arise. But then they’re used in other spaces, times, settings that then seem to change the meaning, or at least the focus of the original usage. For example, the term intersectional—first used politically by the Women of the Cohambee River, and the phrase and project “me too.” What impact does that have on movement-building? 

brown: “Move at the speed of trust.” That’s one of the principles that has been articulated many times. If you don’t move at the speed of trust when you can, when you’re at the size in which you can, then it all falls apart when it gets bigger. Because it’s like, this isn’t based on relationships of trust. And we still do live in this capitalist world where, when growth happens, it happens in a very viral way.

Like Tarana Burke. She wasn’t focused on the “me too” work when that started blowing up, she was doing other work. In this moment, she was able to step up gracefully, but not step up in an egotistical way. She’s not like, “Me, me, me.” She’s like, “Since y'all mentioned it, I did come up with this, and I do have a very specific articulation of what I’m trying to pull off here.” And now she’s able to hold that inside of this larger conversation so that it doesn’t feel like everything’s just spilling out of control.

Things are growing and burgeoning in the ways that they will, [yet] Tarana Burke’s voice is very clear. And those of us [who] stand with her have a very clear place to be like, “Yeah, and we are talking about transformative justice, we are talking about something more than just calling people out and getting them fired. There is a deeper piece of work happening.” So, she’s a great example to me when I talk about the element of adaptation. It’s adaptation with intention.

And I think what you’re talking about is when something gets appropriated. Like, oh, something’s adapting without intention. And we have to say, “That’s fine. That’s actually fine. You heard us.”

Jeffries: I guess that’s what I’m always looking to illuminate, because what is the harm in that happening? For example, Parkland happened, and all eyes are on Parkland and the teens who are leading the campaign for “never again.” But then you have this narrative going on that this type of attention and funding would not have happened for Black organizations—or didn’t happen for Black Lives Matter.

brown: I don’t think that’s harmful. I mean, I think it’s harmful that that’s the truth. But I get excited because 10 years ago, we didn’t necessarily have the tools to immediately say, “Here’s the analysis.” Now we’re in a position where, pretty quickly, we can give that feedback to each other in a public sphere.

“How do I use this moment to help educate my community around internalized White supremacy?”

Jeffries: What is that feedback supposed to do other than to say, “They’re getting this, and we’re not—or didn’t?”

brown: We currently live in a reality of scarce justice, scarce attention, scarce liberation. It makes us believe that we must pit ourselves against each other with our harm, with the worst things that have happened with our lives. Where we’re like, my worst thing is worse than your worst thing. We’re like, “How come your worst thing gets attention and my worst thing didn’t?”

That scarcity is the lie. Actually the society we want to build, the society we want to structure and move toward is one in which there’s abundant justice, abundant attention, abundant liberation, where there is enough for all of us to feel attended to.

There’s nothing to take away from these young people. A 17-year-old in a class room standing there, having lost all their friends, we don’t need to be in a comparative battle with them. And [at the same time] we can hold an analysis that says we want to continue unveiling White supremacy, that it shows up even in moments like these. Why do we pay attention to shootings in a White school and we don’t pay attention to how many young Black people have been killed this year?

It becomes educational [in these] moments to continue unveiling how deep the rabbit hole of White supremacy goes in this country. And if we’re gonna change it, we need to make good use of these opportunities.

So, instead of focusing on, “Why them, and not me?” I want to focus on, “How do I use this moment to help educate my community around internalized White supremacy?” Or, “How do I use the moment to grieve for those young people, and then continue to the work I’m doing for young Black people?”

Jeffries: In Patrisse Cullors’ memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, she says the narrative around accountability is that harm to Black people is our own doing, whereas harm to White people results in a collective sympathy. Using the Parkland shooting and Black Lives Matter as examples, can we talk about individual versus collective accountability through an emergent strategy lens?

brown: Society structures what is possible for the people within the society. [So] how do we become a large enough force within the society to shift the shape of it so that new things become possible for the people in it?

[In] the individual harm narrative, I think people feel safer in that because they don’t have to take on any responsibility. It’s someone else’s problem. “That individual has a problem.” And even in the White world, when a mass shooting happens, or whatever, White folks can’t take it on like it’s racism. It’s like, “That person’s mentally ill.”

We don’t know how to talk about this stuff in this country. [So if I label you] schizophrenic then I don’t have to take responsibility for this action that you’ve taken and [for] the whole society that shaped the action that you took. I can just dismiss it. I can put it over there. [But in] collective responsibility, any time a White person commits an act of terrorism against people of color, which happens now so often, all White people have to say is what are we doing that allows for this to happen? Then I think, our country would change so fast.

You don’t have White nationalists without White complicity. It just can’t happen.

“Our climate condition is not gonna get better anytime soon.” 

Jeffries: Earlier you talked about a coherent left. In the book Loaded, Georgetown University law professor David Cole is cited as saying, “Gun control advocates will not make progress until they recognize that the NRA’s power lies in the appeal of its ideas, its political engagement and acumen, and the intense commitments of its members. Until gun control advocates can match these features, they are unlikely to make much progress.” Through the process of deprogramming and relearning, exploring ourselves— sort of rebooting, and setting this new path in movement-building, is there a lesson in that? Where does that single-issue passion come from?

brown: This fall I have a book called Pleasure Activism coming out, and it’s all about this question of how do we make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have with each other?

I think that organizations, movements and groups, collectives need to attend to the quality of being with each other. We have to remember we’re social creatures. …[We]… need to feel good being here, or else [we]won’t come back.

We have to get passionate about each other, not passionate about our position, necessarily because positions shift, and change over time. …The NRA people are not able to adapt their actual position. …Where it’s like, you cannot—even in the face of children en masse, innocent people [dying]— you can’t adapt your position to bring some humanity to this situation?

But, our folks have to be careful not to be like, “Our position is just this.” …[Because] there’s a multitude of positions. I do know Black folks who’re like, “…I’m gonna not give up any gun rights right now because that doesn’t make any sense to say they’ll have them, and we won’t. I also know folks who’re like, “We should never ever pick up arms…” Both of those folks are on the same side.

Our left has to be that strong to be able to hold those two ways of feeling. But inside that positionality we say, “And, we want to make humane choices at a policy level to serve the majority of people in this country.”

Jeffries: This question, I wanted to begin with but maybe it’s a better one to end: How do you see the world?

brown: I see the world as a miraculous mess.

Our climate condition is not gonna get better anytime soon. We are not doing the things that we need to do to turn it around.… Our economic conditions, we are not doing anything to lead to better situations there. Our foreign policy is a hot mess, so we are leading into warlike conditions. Under just those three things, or if you look at the materialism, militarism, racism, … the pillars that people have talked about forever, there’s nothing that indicates we’re gonna suddenly turn around and start getting back into right relationship with ourselves and the planet.

So then, we have to be in small compelling experiments. We have to say we’re gonna be undeniably brilliant at surviving as a species in these transforming conditions—because some of us will survive. And we don’t know what it will look like, or how it will look.

I’m very committed to and interested in the problems that we’re solving right now, and I hope we find a way to have more ease with each other in this lifetime—in many lifetimes. But I think we are a miraculous mess.