Page Illustration: adrienne maree brown, Black Heroes of the Internet – adrienne maree brown, 2020
ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA
brown, adrienne maree (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Oakland: AK Press, pp. 1-190.
In this course we have studied the relationship between social change and popular culture, but we have yet to focus on a key question:
How does social change happen?
In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown [note that brown uses lowercase letters in the spelling of her name], suggests that the possibilities of the Black radical imagination (among many other types of change) must come about through an intentional and complex process.
Quoting Nick Obelensky, brown writes, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”
Let’s sit with that sentence for a moment, because there is a lot to unpack.
For brown, Emergence, is not a cataclysmic event. It is not something that we can describe in the same way that Jemisin discusses, for instance, a “fifth season”. Instead it starts with micro-processes and simple interactions. As these interactions multiply they form complex systems and patterns that bring about something new.
Said, differently, poet and theorist of the Black radical imagination, Fred Moten, describes these as “small scale actions with infinite proliferations.” These small scale actions (i.e. protests, changing the culture of dance parties, information campaigns, uprisings, riots, electoral campaigns, etc.) all make up the ecosystem of social and political change.
To flourish, according to Moten and brown, social movements must proliferate, they must use a wide range of strategies and tactics, and they must innovate, but perhaps most importantly they must communicate and be in relationship with one another. This is what the Zapatista’s describe as “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” or “A World in Which Many Worlds Fit.” In this sense, brown suggests, “Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”
It’s not simply enough to fight for a different world!
We need to learn to grow together in intentional ways so that we can embody those very worlds we want to create in our practices, relationships, and engagement with the land.
To help social movement activists think through what that would look like, brown draws on the science-fiction work of Octavia Butler because she sees the value and importance of “science-fictional behavior” in the process of social change. This means being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations. This should resonate as a clear link to the Black feminist and Black queer futurities we studies in Weeks 4-7.
A Guide to Survive the End of the World – Inspired by Octavia Butler
adrienne maree brown and her sister Autumn host a podcast called “How to Survive the End of the World” and I think this concept resonates very strongly with how we will study the Black radical imagination in the context of contemporary social movements.
Emergent Strategy is structured (partially) through the paralleling of contemporary real-world politics with a passage from Octavia Butler’s book Parable of the Sower. Interestingly, Octavia Butler’s books started charting for the first time on the NYT bestsellers list nearly 15 years after her death and nearly 40 years since the publication of her first books, during the global pandemic in 2020.
The passage reads as follows (with brown’s sub-titles for chapters in brackets):
“All successful life is adaptable, opportunistic, tenacious, interconnected, and fecund. Understand this. Use it. Shape God. ∞ = Δ.”
To unpack these terms more, we can think about them this way:
Fractal: How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.
Adaptive: How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change.
Nonlinear & Iterative: not arranged in a straight line and involving repetition.
Resilient & Transformative: How we recover and transform
Interdependent & Decentralized: mutual dependence and dispersion of power.
Creates More Possibilities: infinite proliferations not subcultural or proprietary.
adrienne maree brown uses these concepts above to explain the processes and relationships needed for social movements to create change. But how does change happen?
This is still the question we are trying to answer!
It is the final part of the quote that gives us direction in this regard: “Understand this. Use this. Shape God. ∞ = Δ.”
(Understand this) Scholarship/Reflection: brown suggests that social movements do not simply rely on knowledge from books/theory, but rather are in the active process of producing knowledge.
This is akin to what Fred Moten and his collaborator Stefano Harney distinguish between what they call “academics” and “study.” Academics within the realm of the university often relegates students to the “state of those without interests (Harney & Moten 2013).” This means that in the structure of the contemporary university as a space where grades, credits, tuition fees, deadlines, plagiarism, and codes of conduct are more important than the act of actually studying – we see a demobilization of the student and a loss of interest. The topic that once inspired them has become alienating, job-like, and more aligned with social status than the pursuit of knowledge.
However, Harney and Moten do not despair! They say that in the undercommons of the university, including among student-based social movements, there is a constant and continuous process of study. Here, study is unmoored from the institutional demands of school and it is able to live, grow, and mutate in the messy way that organisms and life does.
brown, like Harney & Moten, suggests that social movements too produce knowledge in this fashion. Through study, reflection, and sharing of knowledge (including the use of academic knowledge), participants in social movements are able to synthesize and theorize the possibilities of the radical imagination.
(Use This) Practice/Experiment: brown then suggests that the next part of the equation is practice and experimentation. theory is no good as a purely ideological pursuit – it must be tried, there must be failure, there must be vulnerability and willingness to enact the improbable to make it possible.
Here, I like to use the analogy of baseball to bring this concept home (pun intended!). A great baseball professional player, one who will one day be considered for enshrinement in the prestigious “Baseball Hall of Fame” succeeds at getting a hit 3 out of every 10 at-bats.
Willie Mays, pictured above, one of the greats of all-time had a lifetime batting average of .302 (meaning he got a hit every 302/1000 at-bats over his career). In most accounts, we might consider this to be failure because Mays failed to get a hit in nearly 70% of his at-bats. But, baseball like life, is a game that rewards adaptation, transformation, interdependence, resilience, and iterative learning. What made Mays great is that he learned from those failures. He learned to FAIL BETTER.
When we think about practice and experimentation, we are really dealing with the realm of failure. The ability to adapt, and this, brown suggests, is precisely what successful social movements do. They do not simply theorize the worlds that they wish to create and hope that they catch on with other people through mechanisms like voting or education or hiring more people of a certain background in the workplace – they “see the future first” (in the words of Frank Ocean) because they are experimenting with these possibilities in the present.
(Shape God) Intention – the next part of brown’s equation is intention. This part of the equation can often be forgotten in the male-dominated and misogynistic spaces of many contemporary social movements. The goal of “winning” becomes more important than “what does winning look like?” Often in these scenarios harming or defeating an enemy by any means necessary is synonymous with winning, but what if that creates a toxic environment within the social movement group that mirrors those same toxic environments the group is trying to win against?
In this case, like what we learned from Beyonce, the Combahee River Collective, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and INCITE! in Week 4-5, intention and process matter when we are trying to bring about social change. It’s not simply enough to win, our success is also measured by the intentions, heart, relationships, and interpersonal links we’ve created through our movements.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no conflicts!
Conflict is a big part of working through strategy, of dealing with failure, of calling each other to account for the sometimes shitty ways we treat each other despite our best intentions, trauma is real y’all. But winning is as much about the cultures that are created by our movements than it is about the material gains our movements secure (both of which can be volatile and temporary).
(∞ = Δ) Infinity = Change – this leads us to the final part of the equation. Using the mathematical symbols for infinity and change, brown, via Butler (notice that brown does not put anything in brackets here) suggest that our ability to be dynamic, to adjust, and to proliferate infinitely is critical to success of movements. There is no singular answer or solution (i.e. a style of Marxism, a political party, a form of Feminism, a political slogan, etc.), but rather that our collective well-being, that will allow us to survive the “end of the world” must be rooted in an acceptance of and willingness to pursue multiple pathways in communication and relationship with one another.
Biomimcry & the Radical Imagination
adrienne maree brown suggest that we can best understand “emergent strategy” through observation and mimcry of other living species. For brown, emergent strategy is not simply a human derived politics, but one that is based upon our interrelationship with the land and other living creatures. It is both speculative (like science fiction) and derivative (it derives from something already in existence). She suggests biomimicry is an ancient practice – “a recovery not a discovery.” This is not something new, human have and continue to mimic the natural world in many ways – but she says that these processes have been lost in some respect by urban social movements.
brown defines biomimetics or biomimicry as:
The imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems (23).
How do social movements learn from biomimicry?
One of the important questions facing social movements is: how do we bring about a “world where many worlds fit” without creating more conflict? The social movement theorists Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery ask a similar question in their book Joyful Militancy: What makes radical spaces and movements feel transformative and creative, rather than dogmatic, rule-bound, or stifling? (Montgomery & Bergman 2018).
In her explanation of how emergent strategy is derived, in part, through biomimicry, brown highlights the work of her home-town (Detroit) based organization Complex Movements. Complex Movements uses an emblem system with ferns, ants, wavicles, mycelium, and more to engage communities in thinking about the formation and movements of the future.
As shown on page 45 of Emergent Strategies, Complex Movements encourages workshop participants to observe, learn from, and study the processes of other living creatures in our world as potential guides and pathways to creating the futures we wish to bring about.
AN EXAMPLE: THE MYCHORRIZAL NETWORKS OF SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
Let’s break down what brown is getting at. How can we understand social movements through the lens of biomimicry? Well, for one thing, let’s return to a question we investigated earlier in the term:
How can we tell if a social movement has been successful?
This is a lingering question when, as we have learned from our work in the first section (utopia/dystopia), that the notion that we are going to reach some form of utopian state seems unrealistic and far-fetched and, as we have learned from our work in the second section (futurities) through the words of José Esteban Muñoz, “queerness is not yet here. We may never reach queer.” In other words, how do we measure success when the process seems to be in a constant state of becoming?
The media, governments, academics, and historians often ask questions like: has this or that movement been a success?
Occupy Wall Street: Has Occupy Wall Street Changed America?
Black Lives Matter: How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter
Idle No More: Idle No More: Where is the Movement Two Years Later?
It’s not that the questions that these actors are asking are incorrect, but they are often incomplete because they are short-term in scope. People want to see the results of their actions in real-time, but that isn’t how social change takes place. It is an ebb-and-flow between periods of extreme and active struggle and periods of slow and intentional building.
The activist and theorist Rebecca Solnit uses the mushroom as a means of understanding how social movements work. Here, Solnit draws on biomimicry to ask different questions than those of the journalists/academics looking for real-time evidence of a social movement’s success or failure.
Here, Solnit makes the point that “uprisings and revolutions” often seem spontaneous – as though they came from nowhere! But, in fact, what most people see and experience as social movements is the result of years (sometimes decades or centuries) of tending to relationships, learning/unlearning, practice, adaptation, failure that happens below the surface and outside of the purview of people who are living their lives within the confines of the society as it currently exists.
For brown, this is the site of the radical imagination. She suggests, “Imagination is shaped by our entire life experiences, our socialization, the concepts we are exposed to, where we fall in the global hierarchies of society…We are in an imagination battle…but we are living in the ancestral imagination of others…”
Moment of Reflection: What does she mean that we are living in the ancestral imagination of others? How does this relate to our analysis of past/present/future earlier in the term?
Activity 1: Beware of the Dandelions
Check out the above video by Complex Movement called Beware of the Dandelions. Check out the website here: https://emergencemedia.org/pages/beware-of-the-dandelions Reflect on the modes of the project. Why do you think that they have convened three modes? What is the importance of the intersections of art, biomimicry, and social movement organization in Detroit? According to the video how are people being engaged in real life-skills work that has a political and historical purpose? What are the movements that you can identify as contributing to this project?
Elements of Emergent Strategy: A Case Study of Black Lives Matter
Using the elements of adrienne maree brown’s “Emergent Strategy” we can begin to gain a deeper understanding of Black Lives Matter as a movement. In this section we will briefly engage with brown’s articulation of each element and relate an example of BLM organizing associated with that element.
a) Fractals (the relationship between small and large)
b) Intentional Adaptation (how we change)
c) Interdependence and Decentralization (who we are and how we share)
d) Non-linear and Iterative (the pace and pathways of change)
e) Resilience (how we recover and transform)
f) Creating More Possibilities (how we move towards life)
Fractals (the relationship between small and large)
A fractal is a pattern that the laws of nature repeat at different scales.
As brown writes,
A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.
Maybe one of the best examples of a fractal pattern in social movements is the way that a strategy or protest might be replicated in many different places, many different contexts, all spurred by a specific moment. We saw this in May 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police. Protests that erupted in Minneapolis that night spurred global protests – often using similar tactics, strategies, and messages.
Check out this interactive map that shows just how widespread the protests following the death of George Floyd were!
While this is cool in and of itself, many of the conversations that were happening locally in Minneapolis about strategies and tactics (including the idea of defunding the police), were being discussed in other cities and towns! There was a desire to align strategies across time and space to respond to a specific moment, and yet each organism in this larger social movement had the autonomy and ability to decide for themselves what to emphasize and how to grow. Despite this, a coherent and broad-based movement could be seen (in the mainstream) as the fruit of the labour of social movements over the past few decades became visible to a broader public.
Intentional Adaptation (how we change)
Social movements need to adapt to local contexts, to historical moments, to the lived realities of their participants, to threats and challenges, among many other things. Adaptation can often be reactionary – in which a movement adapts in reaction to something (i.e. a new law is passed or a terrible President is elected). The problem with reactionary adaptation is that your movement is always responding to an external stimulus (i.e. a school administration’s policies for student activists or the rhetoric of a bigoted politician). This constant state of reaction leaves very little room for intention.
brown, suggests, that healthy social movements do not simply react. They adapt with intention. Intention is the “thing that you plan to do or achieve,” it is decided upon internally. An adaptation means that you are pre-figuring the context of your struggle (i.e. imagining the future) and then acting according to what that future might look like.
Take for example the actions of Bree Newsome in June of 2015. As part of an anti-racism movement in her home state of South Carolina, Newsome scaled the 30 foot flag pole in front of the South Carolina State House and pulled down the Confederate Flag, a symbol of pro-slavery and Southern racism in the United States.
Bree Newsome’s action (as part of a collective of anti-racist organizers) inspired other groups to intentionally adapt their strategies to see the value in removing racist symbols and statues as direct acts of resistance – as opposed to going through the long and often unsuccessful process of appealing to different channels.
This political strategy was adapted and became part of the tactics of protesters over the next five years resulting in a wave of statue removals and graffiti during the uprisings this summer. Even the scientific magazine Popular Mechanics got into the frenzy publishing a scientifically studied article on the best way to safely and efficiently topple a statue.
In the UK, the website “Topple the Racists” using mapping software to list all of the racist statues in the country and updates (in red) once a statue has been removed.
The politics of toppling/graffiti tagging statues was in the news in 2020 in Toronto when BLM targeted the statue of Egerton Ryerson, a noted racist, and the founder of Canada’s residential school system (the namesake of Ryerson University).
Interdependence and Decentralization (who we are and how we share)
brown defines the terms interdependence and decentralization as follows:
Interdependence is mutual dependence between things. If you study biology, you’ll discover that there is a great deal of interdependence between plants and animals. “Inter-” means “between,” so interdependence is dependence between things, the quality or condition of being interdependent, or mutually reliant, on each other.
Decentralization is the dispersion or distribution of function of power, the delegation of power.
This is a very important concept as many social movements throughout history have relied on structures that emulate those already in power, including a hierarchical and centralized power structure (think of authoritarian communism or charitable movements) or a structure that seeks to promote independence and self-sufficiency (think of self-help movements).
brown suggests that contemporary movements succeed largely when they move in a different direction – recognizing the way in which our lives our interdependent means that we have to build stronger systems where we can rely on one another (i.e. solidarity not charity) and promote leadership amongst the greatest number of folks in our communities (i.e. the point is to create more leaders and not more followers).
During the pandemic, a number of projects burst on the scene engaged in a practice called mutual aid. Mutual aid is not charity. It is not doing something for the good of other people out of the kindness of your heart (and sometimes for recognition). Instead mutual aid is the notion that the government is not and will not respond to poor people’s needs during a crisis, because it is not in the interests of the elites. Instead, regular people need to self organize to help each other.
The People’s Pantry in Toronto is one such project. You can read more about the project here, but it is a multi-faceted poor/racialized people led project of mutual aid that provides food to folks in our community who need it. It is meant as a mutual aid project in the sense that those involved could themselves be food insecure at any moment and they are creating a network of interdependence in which a structure exists to help those who are in that situation.
This project also included fundraisers for Maggie’s Torotno Sex Worker Project’s Black sex worker survival fund among other projects to support member of the community.
Non-linear and Iterative (the pace and pathways of change)
While we often are projected this idea that “progress” is linear by the media and liberal commentators (i.e. things always get better each generation), social movement actors know that this is a farce. Instead, what people think of as the natural progression and perfection of human kind’s humanity and goodness is a myth created by those in power to demobilize and quell conflict. If we believe that time is all that is needed for positive change to happen (i.e. the commonly spoken tome: when my grandparents generation dies out then racism will be over), we fail to see the myriad of successes, failures, tragedies, and hardships that go into progressive social change.
brown explains that social movements are non-linear (not denoting, involving or arranged in a straight line) and iterative (involving repetition).
We can clearly see this in terms of the multiple waves of uprisings that have happened under the slogan “Black Lives Matter”
Read this interview with Opal Tometi, one of the creators of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and founders of the Movement for Black Lives in The New Yorker. How does Tometi reflect on the iterative and non-linear pathway of BLM?
Resilience (how we recover and transform)
We often think about resilience as a personal thing, but it is perhaps misunderstood as such.
As brown defines it:
Resilience is the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
Resilience is the outcome of working through collective grief. In social movements successes and failures, changes in social context, new members, interpersonal conflicts, burnout, etc. can test the resilience of a movement.
In Cindy Milstein’s edited collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief, she suggests, “We can bear almost anything when it is worked through collectively. Grief is generally thought of as something personal and insular, but when we publicly share loss and pain, we lessen the power of the forces that debilitate us, while at the same time building the humane social practices that alleviate suffering and improve quality of life for everyone.”
For social movements, the ability to collectively work through grief is paramount to their success. When movements fight against a deportation to finally fail and see a friend, community member, and loved one forcibly removed on a plane – members experience grief. When a protest results in arrests, beatings, and pepper spray and the trauma that comes with such violence – members experience grief.
When individuals within social movements experience conflict or burnout or some other form of trauma in their personal lives – members experience grief.
Go back briefly to the BLM protest in LA where those assembled begin to sing the lines from Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright.” How do you identify the work of collectively grieving that brings about resilience in this video?
Creating More Possibilities (how we move towards life)
The final element in brown’s Emergent Strategy is “creating more possibilities” and for brown this is the key factor in how we move towards life. What does that mean? As we’ve noted throughout this course, the ability to collectively imagine (and then enact) multiple futurities all at once is a critical element of social movement organizing.
Creating more possibilities means opening more and more people up to the worlds that are bubbling beneath the surface.
During Pride in 2016, the largerly queer/trans* leaders of Black Lives Matter-Toronto were named the honoured “Grand Marshalls” of both the Toronto Pride Parade and World Pride. They took this title seriously and led a sit-in that included a list of demands for Pride Toronto before they would allow the march to proceed.
Read about the sit-in and watch the videos here.
Thinking about the list of demands proposed by BLM-TO and imagining the history and iterative processes that went into trying to make these a reality before the sit-in, reflect on how in that moment BLM-TO was creating possibilities in order to “move towards life.”
Reflect also on how this action impacted the LGBTQ+ community and Canadian society more generally since 2016! If you have the time and interest you can definitely follow this story right up until today!
Activity 2 - Assess Yourself: Your Emergent Strategy Journal At the end of the "elements of emergent strategy" section of the book, adrienne maree brown provides a helpful self-assessment tool to think about emergent strategy in your own life. You could engage with this tool in relation to your own life and relationships or you might be involved in a social justice group and could try to tool with members of your collective. The point here is to take a moment to pause from thinking about other moments/people and to think about your own life. Does Emergent Strategy resonate with you in terms of a way to live your life? Does it not? Why or Why not?
The Art of the Playlist
The final assignment of the term is the “BLM Playlist” and while this may seem like a simple (and perhaps enjoyable) final project, don’t sleep on the depth and complexity that you can elicit through a well compiled playlist.
Read this article in NYT and think about the various components that the author goes into when thinking about creating “the perfect playlist“.
Thinking about this article, start to brainstorm a little bit about what criteria, concepts, feel, angle, vibe you want to have for your playlist!
Here are the instructions for the Assignment as a review:
Assignment 3: The Black Lives Matter Playlist (30%)
Due: Friday, April 16th 2021 11:59pm ET via LEARN
Music plays a critical role in giving life, voice, and a rhythm to collective mobilization. Certain songs can become a defacto soundtrack of political movements. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” was vital to the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was the backdrop for 1970s Gay Liberation struggles, A Tribe Called Red’s “Sisters” was heard at rounddances and protests during the Idle No More movement. The history of movements is often intertwined with the creativity of musicians and some songs can capture stories, feelings, or histories in ways that rally chants, books, articles, or interviews cannot.
Black Lives Matter emerged as a #hashtag rallying cry in the face of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. In 2013, three radical Black organizers (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opel Tometi) advanced a political project that they dubbed #BlackLivesMatter. This #hashtag helped to organize a set of disparate but connected Black resistance struggles in the United States and brought this movement into the realm of mainstream [white] public consciousness. Numerous musicians and artists have both been influenced by the emergence of BLM as a movement and have been affected by events and killings of Black people in their music.
The Black Lives Matter Playlist assignment prompts students to research and identify songs and artists who have been central to this nascent movement in all its multiplicities. Working in parallel with the cultural shift towards playlists as a listening mechanism for music, this assignment prompts students to intentionally create a tracklist between 6-10 songs that are in
some way influenced by or influencing the broad movement for Black lives happening in the United States, Canada, and globally. Your playlist may focus on a specific subtheme (i.e. police brutality, highlighting Black excellence, global Black resistance, Black Lives Matter Canada, etc.) or can be more general. Your playlist will be accompanied by a written component that will draw from the writings/speeches of adrienne maree brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Saidiya Hartman in its analysis.
1. You will curate a 6-10 song playlist with the broad theme “Black Lives Matter”.
2. The playlist can be one on streaming platform (i.e. Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) but for the purpose of this assignment, will need to also be submitted in written form.
3.Your written playlist will include the following components in this order: Artist Name/Song Title/Album Title/Year of Release/Song Length
4. You will include with the playlist a written booklet (between 1250-2000 words) that does the following: (1) explains the theme of your playlist and the method you went about to compile it; (2) an analysis per track listing of why it was included, how it relates to the readings in the course, and its relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement; (3) a works cited page that includes all music, writing cited in the paper (not included in word count).
1. The are some “rules” to completing the playlist. As noted above you must have a minimum of 6 tracks and a maximum of 10 tracks.
2. You must have no more than 2 tracks that were released before 2013 (the year Black Lives Matter began)
3. You may choose from any genre, but need to be sure that you can effectively argue each track’s connection to Black Lives Matter
4. You must have a minimum of 2 tracks performed by women/trans*/nonbinary people (i.e. it can’t be filled with cis-men)
5. You must have a minimum of 2 tracks released in 2020
1. Your final submission will include a screenshot of your streaming service playlist and a typed list of the tracks you’ve selected
2. You will submit an accompanying written booklet (1250-2000 words) that will respond to the questions noted above
3. Your submission will cite from and draw analysis from at minimum 2/4 of adrienne maree brown, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Saidiya Hartman.
4. Citing external books or academic articles and some theoretically detailed blog posts (ask me before using) is encouraged!