Earning Our Place on the Planet: An Interview with adrienne maree brown

Her planet/self-help guide for activists, “Emergent Strategy,” is going mainstream — maybe even in time to save the world.

 

Justin Scott Campbell | Longreads | April 2018 | 19 minutes (5,357 words)

 

When I was first introduced to the work of adrienne maree brown, it was through fiction. A mentor at the time suggested I read Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015), a science fiction anthology co-edited by adrienne and the activist Walidah Imarisha. Their goal was to produce a collection of “Visionary Fiction” written by social justice organizers; the grounding principle of their collaboration was the idea that “all organizing is science fiction.”

In that project, adrienne asked activists to imagine possible future worlds; in her next project, she’s asked her readers to imagine a future for the only possible world: this one.

The one that’s dying.

Described as a “planet/self-help” guide, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017) has quickly become a go-to handbook for organizers involved in social justice endeavors, in part because of the book’s innovative science- (and science fiction-) based observations about how change happens.

We spoke via phone; she in Detroit, myself in Los Angeles. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Justin Campbell: So can you tell us about your experiences growing up? Your family life and maybe even how you got to be in this work in the first place?

adrienne maree brown: Sure. I was the first child born to my dad, who is a black man, and my mom, who is a white woman. They’re both from South Carolina and they met and fell in love at Clemson University. They got married in the mid 70s. My father was in the military for about 30 years, so I grew up in Germany for a good part of my childhood. I have two younger sisters.

When my parents moved us overseas, I think their hypothesis was that racism in America was shifting and changing and that if we were in Germany, when we came back, it would be better. That didn’t happen [laughs]. We all ended up experiencing racism directly, in different ways, at different ages. So this is how I ended up doing the kind of work that I do.

You mentioned that you and your sisters experienced racism in different ways. What did that look like for you once you came back to the States?

I really remember it when we moved to Georgia and I was starting middle school. It was the first time that I remember being very adamantly told that I really needed to identify what I was, racially. I inferred then that the white people around me needed to understand what my race was and what my choice was going to be, as if it was a choice; it clearly wasn’t.

So did you stay in the South for college?

No, I didn’t. I went to school in New York at Columbia University and I happened to be there when Amadou Diallo was killed. This actually feels like the second major phase of my politicization. Granted, I was already doing political activism on my campus when he was killed; I was a part of a group that pushed for Dinesh D’Souza to be kicked off campus when he came to speak. But when Amadou Diallo was killed, it was Giuliani’s New York pre-9/11, and there was this culture of having armed plainclothes officers jump out of unmarked cars with guns and surround you.

Is that something you experienced firsthand?

Yeah. I was with friends right after Amadou Diallo had been killed. We’d been protesting on campus. [We’d been] out drinking and were stumbling home. Two of them were Latino, one of them was Arab, and one of them was me. So this car of cops pulls up, but because they weren’t in uniform, we didn’t know they were cops. They jumped out, pulled guns, and my friends started running — and literally ran off.

They left you there?

Yes, but to be fair, I had frozen and was kind of stunned in place as the cops surrounded me. I remember having this really visceral realization that my life was literally on the line. I had been surrounded and I was the brownest person that was walking down that street.

In that moment, all these sort of layers clicked into place: I realized that the freedom I thought I experienced and the protection [I thought] might come to me because I was a college student were an illusion. None of those privileges mattered because of racism and the way it was being institutionalized in the city at that time. They didn’t care anything about your background. It only mattered what your skin color was. The reality was that if your skin color was dark enough, the police could do anything they wanted to you.

We think of self-care and self-healing as something we go off and do individually. But there’s nothing that happens in a vacuum and there’s no such thing as a pure individual.

That must have also played a role in your politicization.

It did. I got very politicized by that. To be honest, all of my organizing that followed has come from two things, really. First, I started to ask, what do I know to be true about humanity? Then, I asked, what is being institutionalized? I asked these two questions because what I was experiencing then at the hands of the cops went counter to what I knew about humanity.

And so, a good portion of my work has revolved around [the question], how do I, in my lifetime, do my part to help return the species to itself?

So what did this work look like for you once you left college?

I started in Brooklyn with the Harm Reduction Coalition. Our main goal was to raise awareness of drug and sex patterns and also to raise awareness around who gets punished for those things and who doesn’t. We essentially wanted to know if we as a society could respond to these patterns in ways that are not centered in punishment, but in compassion.

We really wanted to know how we could reduce the harm we were and are being fed by a really unhealthy and traumatizing societal system. One of our working theories was that when people are faced with inequality and oppression, those people turn to those things that will give them some peace, some comfort, some pleasure. And instead of responding to [our] need for these things with compassion, we punish each other.

I’ve found that working on projects that deal with trauma tends to end up causing me to have to work through my own. Did you find this to be true for you as well?

Yes! As I got really interested in looking at trauma and harm reduction, it helped me understand more about my own experience with the trauma of sexual harassment and harm in my younger life. It also gave me the chance me to examine my own patterns of coping with that, which definitely involved drugs, alcohol and the other usual suspects.

I was in the midst of doing all of that work when George W. Bush came into office and I started getting more politicized around wanting to get him out of office. One of the main reasons at that time was that his administration was cutting funding to anything that wasn’t an abstinence program.

So I’m assuming you were doing this work when 9/11 happened.

That’s right; I lived through 9/11 in New York City. This began a really intense period for me in which I was an ardent anti-war activist trying to figure out how to do work that was really important to me. At that time it felt like we were all watching the way the rest of the world was saying to the U.S., please don’t bomb Afghanistan, please don’t go to war with Iraq, and we were powerless to stop it. This got me into electoral politics for a period of time. As a result of our frustration with the administration, I helped start an organization called the League of Pissed Off Voters. Our main goal was to figure out how we could take our anger and anguish to the electoral process.

Did you feel like you were able to affect the electoral system at all?

Most us of us in the organization didn’t really know what we were doing. But I think we did a lot of good work around building the bridge between the electoral politics and community organizing. I also learned that the strategy around electoral politics goes through trends, right? Like, right now it’s trending again, because people are like, this administration is horrible! How did we end up in this situation? People go through an election like the one in 2016 and are kind of like, Wait, what the fuck is going on with our electoral process?

Anyways, we’ll see how far we can get this time. I have hope this time around because there are some really smart folks who have been around the cycle a few times and I think they’re coming at organizing around electoral [politics] in a smarter way than we have before.

So when you say you have hope this time around, I’m assuming you feel as though you weren’t as successful as you hoped you’d be with the League of Pissed Off Voters.

I’m sure this sounds like an obvious statement, but we weren’t able to get Bush out of office. At the time, it was a really humbling experience.

I [eventually] left electoral politics and transitioned to facilitating. I had started to be asked to come and help people’s meetings go well.

Was this your first time doing this type of work?

Basically. I started doing facilitation in high school but I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I was regularly the person who would hold the meeting, help come up with the agenda, help move us through it. And after college someone asked me for the first time to actually hold the meeting. She paid me to facilitate and I was like, you can get paid to do this?

So facilitating was always something I was doing on the side. I wanted to learn how I could get people to come together and create with as much ease as possible so that we could really move ourselves forward. After I had facilitated the Social Forum, I decided that I never really wanted to have a real job again.

How were you able to come to this decision?

You know, I love facilitation. I like the freedom of it. I think that’s the best way for me to serve. After the Social Forum I was kind of exhausted with movements and the ways movements are treating each other and I realized I needed to recover from that before moving forward. I took a sabbatical and [it became] really clear that I wanted to be writing fiction.

That led to the Octavia’s Brood project, which became a book of science fiction from social justice movements leaders. While I was doing [the book], it became clear to me that emergent strategy was something that I was meant to highlight and shed light on in the world. And so the last two years of my life have been moving those projects into the world.

The book is basically asking people not to ignore what they have already been noticing.

That’s a great segue into talking about Emergent Strategy. You have referred to it as a radical self/planet help book. What do you mean by that?

You know, I think my editor came up with that term for it, but I think that it works. We think of self-care and self-healing as something we go off and do individually. [But] there’s nothing that happens in a vacuum and there’s no such thing as a pure individual. We live in a super interconnected world. This means that anything we do that improves how we are being with each other is of benefit to the entire planet.

We can’t do things in the U.S. and not realize [the ways we are] impacting people in every other country. It’s very naive and ridiculous to deny the impact we have, at this point. We’re outsourcing jobs, and shipping out a culture that really encourages a carelessness in our relationships with the planet and a carelessness in our relationships with each other on an international and cross-border level.

And so how does this idea of interdependence mesh with your concept of emergent strategy?

The main question for me with emergent strategy [is] how do we improve relationships with each other, as well as improve how we are in relationship to the planet. If we can do these two things, we may stand a chance of earning our place on the planet.

That sounds pretty dire I guess. But I really do think that we’ve gotten to that place where it’s just like, I don’t know that we’re earning our right to be on this planet.


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And so is the book for activists, or for the species as a whole?

The book has gone a little beyond what I was expecting. I wrote it really for organizers. I was thinking that if you’re trying to do social and environmental justice work in the world, then you need to be in right relationship with each other and the planet. In aligning our relationships, I found that there were some guidelines from the natural world that could teach us a lot about how we can be in better collaboration and be in better relationship with each other. That was the intention when I wrote it. I’ve been blown away, though, by who has responded to it. It’s gone further than I expected and a lot of different audiences are reading it. But I feel good about that.

How do you feel about the book going beyond what you expected?

Well, when you’re in the process of making something, you think, here’s what’s realistic — and then there’s always the wildest dreams part. The wildest dream part [for] me is that I think emergent strategy is a way that all humans could shift how we operate with each other. But you can’t publish something with the intention of like, I want all humans to read this and to be changed as a result of my work. You have to mitigate those expectations and get realistic.

The thing that’s been helpful is something I learned from Octavia Butler. I’ve read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents no less than 70 times in my life now. The protagonist Olamina talks about the fact that what she is observing and what she is bringing forth to the world is not a system that she’s making up and asserting, but rather truths that she’s observing and truths that she can feel. That’s what inspires me, because emergent strategy does not feel like something I [created] in my head; but rather, it occurred to me because I was paying attention to the world around me. I think the reason a lot of people are responding positively to it is because it also occurs to a lot of other people.

I think the reason it occurs to us is because you look up in the sky and there it is — there’s birds in a murmuration pattern. And you’re like, what are they doing? Are they avoiding predation? Are the migrating? We do those things too! We have to avoid predation, we have to migrate; how can we do these things more effectively? If you look at the natural world in any way, you’ve already had these thoughts and awarenesses. I think that if you work with other people, you [also] have these awarenesses. It’s like we suddenly realize that, oh, competing with all my co-workers for the approval of our boss in a highly socialized situation does not produce the best work! It only produces this kind of cutthroat, ever-shifting hierarchy; a hierarchy that doesn’t actually serve our brilliance!

In social justice work, we see this realization happening a lot. And so the book is basically asking people not to ignore what they have already been noticing. Once people stop ignoring it, then they can teach themselves new ways of being with each other; you can help yourself do better, in terms of being more collaborative and more and more relational, [which will then] improve the work. And in doing that you will become a better part of our species, which will make a better impact on the planet.

We’re working so much because we know that if we slow down, then we’ll have to look at how heartbroken we are.

In the book you talk about embodying a just and liberated world, a world we all long for. What does embodiment in this sense mean to you?

[I have] been really learning a lot about practice and this idea that we are what we practice. We do things over and over again and that actually becomes our being.

[What] I see in practice is that people still default to punishing in each other — as soon there is a break in communication, as soon as there is a misunderstanding, as soon as there is a difference in political opinion, there’s this attitude of, you know, we cancel this person, we’re throwing them away. And so I pay attention to people’s beliefs and their practices and I try to question people and call people into thinking about, what are you practicing?

So for you, what does this alternate way of engaging with people look like in practice? Could you say more on that?

Here’s what I mean. [I want to get to] a place where I’m not just saying I don’t believe in white supremacy, but my practices line up with that. Or that I’m not just saying I believe that we should have equity or equality, but that my practices line up with that. I think that people are what they practice. I almost don’t care at all about your analysis if I don’t see what you’re practicing that lines up with that.

Anyone can talk. Anyone can write. It takes discipline and rigor and a true commitment to a new world to actually get into some other practices. And emergent strategy is primarily about getting into other practices. It’s asking people to get very intentional.

You talk about at length about generative conflict as one of those other practices. Why is it that in most families and organizations, which can often feel like families, conflict doesn’t feel generative?

I think the reason that conflict doesn’t happen well is because we’re really trained not to be very honest about what we actually want and need. I think that that’s primarily [because of] capitalism. Ignoring wants and needs makes sense in the realm of capitalism; if you’re not expressing what you need to the people around you, then you’re having to go and find ways to meet those needs [outside of your relationships], which means you go to find products that will meet those needs. And I think most of our systems are structured on, how can we get people to purchase things? rather than [on how to] rely on each other.

So how does our inability to talk about our wants and needs relate to creating more generative conflict in our families and organizations?

We live in a society right now in the U.S. which I feel is pro-war and conflict averse. So it’s like, we will go to war with anyone. We will provide weapons for anyone. And we’re even kind of pro-war within our borders. This idea of gun control has been such an interesting thing to watch recently. It’s like everyone has to be armed with the kind of guns that you would take into a war scenario. And we all have to have the right to have these guns even though the primary collateral damage so far [has been] children and civilians. But we still really fight hard for this as something we have to have the right to do.

And so we have a pro-war mentality — but then we’re very conflict averse. For example, in school, we don’t learn how to be in good conflict. If you get into a fight, you get suspended. You’re sent home and sent away from each other. There’s no mediation skills learned. You’re not taught how to sit and turn and face each other and figure out what’s actually going wrong here, and how do [we] get back to a place of doing right with each other.

That’s a great point.

You know, I always wonder where those skills are supposed to come from. So this idea of having generative conflict was my way of saying [that] we have to come up with ways [of disagreeing] where we’re not locking each other away or exiling each other or discarding each other. When two different ways of being come into contact with each other there’s also an opportunity there to generate a new way of being or a new agreement or a new set of possibilities that neither one person could have come up with on their own.

And this is where emergent strategy comes in, because when we look at the natural world, the systems that are the most resilient and the systems that last are those that are the most biodiverse. They are literally the systems where you [have] the most kinds of living things in right relationships with each other, and not trying to be each other.

We have to imagine something different from what we’ve ever experienced.

How does this relate to the the idea that “all organizing is science fiction?”

One of the things you learn about creating a new world is that there are tipping points — tipping points of behavior, tipping points of risk — and that you have to be in communities to actually see things change. Just being by yourself and recycling, or being by yourself and changing your light bulbs is not gonna save the planet. But if millions of people take on a new behavior, you start to see an impact. We actually have to change our consumption pattern and our addiction to traveling all the time and other things. That’s stuff that you learn by being in practice in community over time rather than just being an individual taking an action.

You wrote a couple years ago about how movements are structured in such a way that do not promote sleep much less healing. How do you see this playing out and what are the implications for movements if this continues to be true?

I was just reading something yesterday that was talking about how when you don’t sleep, you’re more likely to get in arguments with everyone around you. You have less capacity to really hear what other people are saying. You’re more likely to misunderstand. You’re more likely to forget the tasks that you’re doing.

I see so many people right now for whom everything feels urgent. And I don’t think it’s just a feeling. There are a lot of urgent things right now. But if you start to live your life in a paradigm in which every single thing is urgent, then I think it can [bolster] your sense of self importance to [the point] where you start to believe that, if I don’t sleep, then I will be able to save the world. And it doesn’t matter how I behave with people because of my lack of sleep, or the quality of work and how my work will suffer because of my lack of sleep.

In other words, you end up living as though treating people poorly is just one of the side effects of saving the world.

Exactly. I find that I meet activists on regular basis who will tell me, I’m so tired. I think [that] sometimes we’re working [so much] because [we know that] if we slow down, then we’ll have to look at how heartbroken we are about the conditions that we’re in right now, and we’ll have to look at how heartbroken we are about the conditions our children are in right now.

Which ultimately means the goal you want to accomplish never gets accomplished because you get burned out.

Right. This is why the work that I do is much more about how do we make that turn, and look directly at what is, and make our best offer against reality. And then, even in our fantasy world, [how do we] do the work, do the work in that space; radical work [that says] we have to imagine something different from what we’ve ever experienced.

We dream in our sleep. We need to sleep in order to dream. We need to sleep in order to have well resourced brains that can imagine something other than just being on a hamster wheel of reacting to the current political conditions. I think that it’s our responsibility to future generations.

I always talk about the fact that during slavery, in the midst of slavery, when it was all that black people in this country had ever known, and it was what was going to happen for several more generations, there were still slaves who figured out ways to run away and to poison masters’ food, and there were still slaves that taught their children the alphabet. Teaching their children the alphabet is like — what does it take to be that radical? [It’s a way of saying] that, even though I can’t see freedom at all from this vantage point, I’m gonna give you this skill that you need to navigate this society, and you’re gonna pass it on and you’re gonna pass it on, and eventually we’ll be able to read and to write and to tell our stories. I think that kind of work [now] is, how do we, right now, give people the tools they need in order to tell their story? in order to speak the truth to each other and to get to see new truths?

Right. You often quote a line from Octavia Butler about change. 

Yeah. So the line is actually tattooed on my left arm now. It’s “all that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” And I love this line. It has really shaped so much of my life. This idea that change is constant and our work is to get in right relationship with it is so powerful to me.

The idea that change is a divine force resonates with me. So many of the things that we’re like, Why is this happening to me? Is it God? Is it many gods? Is it something else? are explained by this quote. I love the idea that across all the different religious belief systems, one of the things that we see god or the divine force holding on to is change. It’s like, Please change how my life is happening, or Please help this someone stay alive, help my family stay alive, something like that. We’re always asking for this help. And so Octavia says change is something that we can influence, that we have agency over. And I find that to be extremely empowering.

This is what you learn from flocking — how do we stay the right distance apart and the right distance in touch with each other in order to actually move together as a unit and stay alive and make it as far as we can?

Is there any part of that quote that stands out to you, specifically?

Well, in this period of my life, I’ve been focused on the aspect of, all that you change, changes you. I think for activists or social justice organizers, that’s super, super, super, super important to keep in mind. We’re not gonna be able to go out and create change if we are unwilling to be changed ourselves in the service of the work, if we’re unwilling to keep learning. I think there’s a posture right now that can happen in movement spaces, which is sort of like, I’ve got my analysis right, now I know everything, and I’m woke, or whatever. We get very intolerant of information, and we get very intolerant of even asking questions and reconsidering things. And just like any group in the species, we can get caught in groupthink where it’s like, well, someone told us this is the way that we’re going to respond to this and so that’s what we’re gonna do. I think that happens everywhere. I think it’s why we’re in tiki torch land right now.

So how do you integrate Butler’s idea of change into the work you do with organizations and individuals?

So, a big part of my work is to ask, how are you willing to let yourself be changed? How are you willing to continue to ask questions from a place of not knowing? How are you willing to be in an experimental phase instead of a permanent phase? [That’s why] you’ll hear me say I’m not really a big believer in strategic planning, because a lot of times it’s like trying to look ahead and create some rigidity for the future. I’m much more interested in how we create strategic intention, a strategic sense of vision in what it is we’re trying to move towards, and a strategic sense of principles about how we want to be with each other.

This is what you learn from flocking — how do we stay the right distance apart and the right distance in touch with each other in order to actually move together as a unit and stay alive and make it as far as we can?

So how would describe the change that still needs to happen?

[My mentor] Grace Lee Boggs talked about the shift from the agrarian phase to this technological age. She would talk about how the shift that we need to go through now as human beings is to grow our souls as big as that shift from agrarian to technological was. We have to be willing to operate in a way that says, yes, I’m willing to be interconnected and interdependent, and I’m willing to be in right relationship and see myself as part of a whole, and recognize that I’m not some individual who can operate and survive [alone]. We really need to start to understand that there’s times when revolution is like, oh, people are armed and they’re in the streets, and all this is going down, [but there are] also other kinds of revolution; and [that] right now we’re in a revolution of being, in an existential sense.

So where do we find this kind of change?

Well, it’s not gonna be given to us. No church is gonna give it to us. No school is gonna give it to us. Our family structure’s not gonna give it to us. It’s actually gonna be at a societal level that we start to have this shift happen.

[Our humanity] connects us, and it’s from that place that we’re gonna make a stand for our right to be a species on this planet. And I really do think that that’s where we are right now. I think Earth is like, I’m tired of you all. I’m gonna hurricane you all the fuck out of here. You’re just not doing your part. And I think she’s in the right to say that.

The reality is that it’s the same old stuff in some ways. If we don’t get over our addiction to militarism and capitalism and racism and patriarchy, then I don’t think we’re gonna be able to stay here for much longer.

Right. It’s not sustainable.

Correct. The good news is that I think that all of that work is in motion, and that’s where I get pretty inspired.

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Justin Scott Campbell is an English professor and freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work has been published in The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the African-American Review.

Editor: Dana Snitzky