COiL Reflections on Emergent Strategy

We are members of a radical collective called COiL, Communities Organizing into Liberation.

We were excited to read Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. A group of us spent 6 months reading Emergent Strategy cover to cover!

We want to start by saying THANK YOU directly to adrienne maree brown. We are a multiracial, multi-identity group of people who found this book instrumental in illustrating some very important realities for us. We appreciate deeply what adrienne maree has brought forward to the current conversation. We think this is the kind of book that may actually influence a whole generation of radicals and shape the ways we do the work and the choices we make about how to pursue liberation.

Many of us in the collective have been exposed to the work of generative somatics and deeply affected by it. A few of us have used generative somatics as a guiding framework for healing and political transformation; others of us were skeptical, dipping only a toe in. But we were all eager to see what this book could show us, since we knew the author was deeply informed by some of our own inspirations like generative somatics and Octavia Butler. Grace Lee Boggs, too, has been one of our collective’s inspirations, reminding us of the need for dual power and growing what we need to sustain us while we remove what is toxic and harmful in society.

One aspect of our politics includes openly receiving the gifts and lessons of a political tradition or movement while being able to think carefully about the complexities and harms it may pose as well. In that spirit, we have read many texts, learned from many movements, and humbly attempted to understand how we may make our own contributions.

There are ideas in the book that we drooled over, felt inspired by, felt were incredibly insightful and that connected us to our humanity and nature in ways that we deeply appreciated and loved.

There were also ideas that we think can confuse or mislead people. Ideas that, applied in a different context, can be harmful to our broader goal of cultivating justice everywhere. We know an author can’t do everything in one book. Yet we see these as useful additions or adjustments. We share our thoughts on some of these ideas that might confuse or mislead people for the sake of our collective ability to have a fuller conversation in the service of a broader movement for deep social transformation.

Our reflections center around a handful of themes throughout the book. Here are our appreciations, concerns, critiques and additions.

A Long View of Time

We loved and deeply appreciated adrienne maree’s invitation to spaciousness.

We understand it as an invitation to slow down and let go of urgency. With this understanding of progress, our time-frames are extended. We receive the lesson of dialing back urgency. We have deeply appreciated what Carlos Saavedra shared on the Healing Justice podcast (Episode 15, 2/6/18): “We tend to overestimate what we can do in 1 year but we tend to underestimate what we can do in 10.” We have found it to be true and are actually using it to re-orient our collective so that we are more modest about what we do in one year yet also more ambitious about what we do in 10 years. It has brought us valuable new perspectives about the benefits of taking the long view. It encourages us to reflect on the ways that our capitalist and white supremacist economy creates unnecessary urgency and stress in our daily lives that pull us away from being in rhythm with the earth’s cycles and each other.

And while we embrace the importance of re-examining urgency and the impact this decision has on our lives as we engage in movement work, we also believe that the invitation to put down urgency may inadvertently remove what we would call “necessary” urgency.

People may forego timelines and due dates, and this is not what we need. We think it’s important to give ourselves markers and benchmarks to work with while recognizing the importance of flexibility when life’s challenges emerge.

We also know that we live in a society where there is urgent need. Life is hard for people, and much is at stake. Climate change or climate disruption is being caused by humans. There is necessary and rational urgency to address climate disruption. It is urgent to end state violence that targets Black people. We need to stop the killing of Black people by the police. But we also understand that this violence is not new, or not recent. It has been going on for decades or centuries and resistance has also been going on for centuries. This led us to questions about what fuels people’s urgency?

Our urgency can be fueled by fear. There is much to fear in the destruction caused by climate disruption and the violence committed by police, historically and now. Fear can be a motivator, but it should not be our sole motivation. We don’t want to be motivated by unhealthy or fearful urgency. We thought about orienting ourselves more in the urgency that ties us to what we desire, what we envision, what we long for and find joy and life in. This raises a question for us – how do we raise up urgency that springs from Love and not based in fear, shame, guilt, or other unhealthy sources? The urgency to stop climate disruption can also be fueled by a desire to care for nature and life on earth. The urgency to stop police violence against Black people comes from our longing for a different world, and for our love of Black people and humanity, to “increase love” (page 10) as Emergent Strategy so beautifully says. How can we sustain, honor and heal the impact our struggles have on our hearts, bodies and minds while still being rigorous, fierce and relentless on our paths towards liberation? This long view might allow us to find fuel from other sources.

Movement Strength Comes from the Depth of Relationship

We agree. We cannot treat each other as superficial numbers to be gained, votes to be counted, or as mere numbers in a dehumanizing system of CEMSCAWSHIP.

(In COiL, we have named the interlocking systems of oppression “CEMSCAWSHIP” - which is short for Capitalist- Eco-Murdering-Settler Colonial-Ableist-White-Supremacist-Hetero-Imperialist-Patriarchy. We look for creative ways of dismantling all oppressions even while engaging specific struggles around a certain form of oppression.)

We must build genuine relationships. By centering relationship building, we again re-humanize our movement building work. We remember to come from a place of love, rigor and what we care about and we remember to not only see our own dignity but the dignity of others, as generative somatics has so powerfully taught us. Depth teaches us to slow down in our conversations so that we are organizing and relationship building on the practices of listening and consent, not just agitation and action.

We are moved by the importance placed on building depth in relationships and the way that sets us up for building connective tissue between movements. We understand that our movements will not win unless we are coordinated and decentralized. This approach means we must strengthen our capacity to relate to each other in new and healthy ways between individuals and between groups. It requires trust and building each others’ capacity to lead. It means there may be harm to repair and trust to be re-established as we move our work and for that we understand the importance of depth.

While we recognize that deep relationships are essential, we also see the need to go wide and be strategic and visionary.

There is power and meaning in deep relationships. However, people who read these ideas may feel it’s okay to limit our political activism and work to a few people with whom we go deep and see it as sufficient or as a good model. It’s possible to interpret the concept of deep relationship in a way that prevents people from also going as wide as we need to in order to make the type of change we need in the whole world. We worry about that. We don’t think this is what the book is suggesting that we do.

Relationships are vital. Yet the relationships themselves are insufficient. With whom are we building relationships? We must be able to build relationships with a variety of people and connect with people who may not be open to depth with us, but who may still want to be part of the flock eventually. How are we building strategic relationships that build across sectors, issues and geography? How do the relationships we are building connect to opening possibilities for powerful, transformative change? When it comes to relationships, going deep is hella important; being wide, strategic and visionary is just as important. We risk becoming irrelevant or marginal if we focus only on depth.

Also, we need to consider ‘for the sake of what’ – in other words, we think it’s important to know that depth is not the only important aspect of relationships. While deep relationships are important, wide-ranging relationships are too. We want to think about how deep and wide relationships connect to opening possibilities of deep change from a wide layer of people.

Our Labor and Movement Work

We deeply appreciate adrienne maree’s thinking about balance and boundaries in movement work.

Our relationship to our labor and our work as human beings has been harmed by centuries of capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and ableism. Some people are deeply and psychologically manipulated and exploited about our paid work boundaries at non-profit jobs. This is why people need to hear the idea of turning one’s phone off at 5pm. Some of us have had the experiences of being expected to come early and stay late at work and have been manipulated into doing so to show that we care about the work or are committed to people. The intervention in this is powerful in making sure that the overwork patterns that capitalism and other oppressive systems train us in do not simply transfer over into working harder and without boundaries for a good cause.

However, our paid work is not the same as political work.

We think that in order to build the movements and the world that we envision, we cannot limit our eagerness, our pleasure, our joy and longing for liberation to our paid jobs. The majority of our collective members do not work for non profits and most people fighting for justice around the globe don’t do it through paid work. We need to have a concept of the way that movement work must exist beyond and outside of paid work. Otherwise it sounds like the only way to be political is have a paid job doing political work. The lack of clear distinction between “the job” and “the movement” concerns us for a few reasons. We will give 3 different examples:

  • Not all of us have jobs that are political work or places for us to realize our desires. For example, if I am a working class woman who drives a bus or cleans houses or works in a restaurant all day and then goes to Black Lives Matter or other movement meeting spaces at night, those meetings may be deeply fulfilling. They may help me get through the bullshit of my day job, or they may even help me to transform what feels like an “apolitical” job into one that can be more connected to people’s movements and transformation. Telling such a person to turn their phone off at 5pm is actually not useful and might be counter to the kind of vibrant movement building that we want to back and support. We know this advice is valuable because we see that people in non-profits and unions are hyper-exploited because there is no separation between politics and the work and their commitment to social justice is getting manipulated and exploited. Yet it underplays how liberating it can be to do this work, how it can transform our day-to-day lives.

  • If I am an organizer in a non-profit or a teacher in a school, I cannot get swept up into the idea that if I just put a few more hours into this meeting or this grading then it will help the people. Instead, we have to tell people in these jobs to STOP putting in all the extra hours and engage deeply in a transformative movement beyond that job.

  • If I am a worker in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, drawing boundaries around paid work equates to drawing boundaries around politics. This can be harmful, because we believe that non-profits will never be able to bring about the types of change that we need in order to end CEMSCAWSHIP.

Many Social Justice Non-Profits and Progressive Non-Profits, and certainly the foundations that fund them, perform political cover for neoliberalism in the U.S. and around the world. We see a problem in over-emphasizing that non-profit employees are being exploited and overworked. We also see a problem in under-emphasizing the role that these non-profits often play in masking systems of exploitation and directing people away from more transformative visions and strategies of change.

If certain people of privilege are reading this (like a middle class white woman) she can interpret this book in a way that commodifies and lifts up self-care. We know that is not the target audience for this, but we also feel it’s important to note that the book doesn’t consistently distinguish between individualized self-care and a transformed society that cares for everyone and supports us to care for each other. Similarly, in the hands of someone of privilege, the argument of setting boundaries and saying “I don’t have capacity” or drawing really strong boundaries may actually add work onto the other women of color she works with and do little to change her relation to the privilege that may allow her to ‘turn off’.

Systemic Change is Necessary - but what is Systemic Change?

One of our concerns with Emergent Strategy is that the book speaks to the need for systemic change but doesn’t explicitly help people identify what that means or offer a clear definition. We agree with ideas like, “We are calling for a movement-wide shift away from action that isn’t grounded in a vision of deep systemic change, as that ultimately is a misuse of our time and energy” (page 64). Maybe everyone reading this book already agrees on the deep systemic shifts needed to not merely reform but actually end CEMSCAWSHIP. The book relies on us as readers to already understand these systems and how they work together. And it assumes that we agree on the necessary big, society-wide movements, changes, and shifts that need to happen. If the readers don’t already understand the value of people’s liberation movements, we worry that the writing in this book won’t provide that grounding context.

People need more of a frame and definition for systemic change. People can disagree with the frame, but having it stated more explicitly would be valuable. For example, someone reading this book who sees their main work as shifting foundations’ philanthropy dollars into the hands of non-profits of color isn’t getting a chance to look at how that is not deep systemic change. Such work actually operates profoundly within CEMSCAWSHIP. Corporations create foundations to fund non-profits that end up limiting or controlling what would otherwise be people’s movement work. It would be helpful to have a clearer political analysis and definitions, even if they are short and even if people disagree with them.

It’s possible to put this book down and think that doing liberation work in a non-profit job will bring about the deep systemic changes we need.

We think this book is written for people like many of us: upwardly mobile people of color who started off poor and working class, who maybe went to college, who got a job at a non-profit because we wanted to do something moving us all towards social justice; we didn’t want to be missionaries or work for corporations or the military. We talked about how maybe Issa Rae’s character from Insecure would pick up this book and see it as a lifeline pointing her in the direction of something bigger and more meaningful than that horrific We Got Y’All non-profit she is at. We recalled Lloyd Dobbler’s words from the 1989 film Say Anything. We think a lot of the people this book is speaking to end up at non-profits like We Got Y’All because they feel like him: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that. My father’s in the army; he wants me to join, but I can’t work for that corporation.”

We think a vision that positions non-profits as systemic change is a VERY LIMITED vision of what’s possible and of what is necessary. For one of our collective members, learning about how British colonizers employed Indian people as agents within the operations of British colonialism helped motivate them to get out of the non-profit industrial complex. We think we need more people to understand how corporations are using foundations to control resistance and influence movement work, therefore limiting it. And we think we need more people organizing and doing social justice work outside of the reach and control of these non-profits because of that. One of us who currently works in a non-profit felt that reading this book could easily lead others to say, “my non-profit job and the NPIC is just as bad as the bank… so I might as well go work at the bank.” We don’t want people to go down the road of throwing themselves into a non-profit or equating non-profits with just any other harmful corporation if in fact they believe in deep systemic change.

The Long Tradition of Afro-Futurism and Women of Color Visionaries

We deeply appreciate that adrienne maree centers writers and thinkers that see the power in imagining and visioning what liberation looks and feels like.

As COiL, we consistently have created spaces for envisioning now what we know we need for true liberation. Our imagination, our creativity, our longings and our visions help us imagine our liberation, as people have done throughout the entire history of oppression. Rooting us in this tradition of visioning into practice has profound impact on our minds, hearts, bodies, and society. It reminds us that we are not alone and not the first to see the oppressive society in front of us and to long for what is beyond that.

Movement Strategy Lessons from Nature

We loved the many revealing connections to, and lessons from, Nature.

There were so many amazing examples throughout the book that encourages us to look to Nature and understand the strategies that Nature uses for survival that can inform our own movement strategies. For many urban city folks like many of us in COiL, the lessons that Nature has to offer are not always so clear or visible. It takes care and patience to slow down, notice and learn what our surroundings can teach us. Lessons such as birds and flocks moving together and the effectiveness that comes from flexible adjustment. There is power in this collective uplift. The fractals that prefigure their large scale at every scale, including their smallest scale. The starling murmurations that model collectivity, adaptability, horizontalism. Understanding the role of organizers as earthworms who make fertile ground for the movements to come. Understanding movements as nonlinear and iterative natural cycles. And so many other inspiring examples! In this moment when Nature is figuring out how to survive from climate disruption, these lessons inspire us to be students of Nature’s strategy for the survival of all living beings on the Earth.

In conclusion, we urge people to read this book and understand its value. And we will also encourage people to not read this book by itself. It is a beautiful contribution to a larger conversation about how we orient to liberation work. Here are a few other books that we think can accompany it for a fuller conversation:

We are grateful to adrienne maree brown for writing and contributing to this ongoing work of revealing how we get to a liberated society both ultimately and every day. We are happy to be part of the flock with her and many others. We hope this can play a role in fostering some flight adjustments as we soar.

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