Living Emergently

By Nellie Bateman

An Encounter

I first encountered adrienne maree brown’s (brown does not capitalize their name) work at a volunteer group. I was staving off climate collapse anxiety by working with an organization that fights civic disengagement in young people. The leader of my group was an artist, student, and activist, and they frequently mentioned brown’s work as an influence in their art. After one particularly effusive description of Emergent Strategy, brown’s most widely-known work, I immediately bought it to understand the hype. 

Adrienne maree brown is a writer, organizer, and trained doula. They are also the author of nine books, creator of three podcasts, and founder of the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute. Their work was launched beyond activist and organizer circles after publishing their book, Emergent Strategy.

It would be months until I finally got around to reading the book. I was busy wrapping up my undergrad and figuring out the next steps after leaving the small, Canadian East-coast liberal arts university where I had spent the last five years. I knew what I wanted my life to look like, I didn’t know what to do to get there. Enter a dismal maritime “spring” afternoon spent reading a set of coursework materials that proclaimed the end of academia — where, as far as I knew, I wanted to end up. Feeling as despondent as the drizzle outside, I turned to my bookshelf where I found the cheery green and pink cover of Emergent Strategy. Little did I know, I was holding the future blueprint for my life in my hands.

What is Emergence?

Ostensibly, brown’s book is a handbook for a new kind of grassroots organizing aligned with them and their co-conspirators’ philosophy of “emergence”:

“A humble philosophy and a way to acknowledge the real power of change. It speaks to practices, responses, visions, and plans that embrace complexity[,] interdependence[, and] transformation. This strategy has been observed from the natural world and is ancient and constant.”

Brown, in a 2013 speech at the Allied Media Conference, quoted one of their influences, Science Fiction writer Octavia Butler, when referring to emergence: “All that you touch, you change, and all that you change, changes you.” That’s the philosophy behind emergent strategy (ES) in a nutshell.

Despite appearances to the contrary and spending a fair amount of time volunteering throughout my degree, I do not consider myself an activist. I am deeply passionate about making the world a better place, but all the traditional activities of grassroots organizing — protests, community meetings, canvassing, etc. — overwhelm this comically anxious introvert. And I think a lot of left-leaning but center-identifying individuals feel the same. Part of the Left’s PR problem is the same as the Right’s: only the loudest voices get heard, thus the image of revolutionary action becomes brash and perhaps even scary for reserved folks like myself. 

At least, the above is what I believed before reading Emergent Strategy. Through a careful study of mycelium, ants, ferns, dandelions, starlings, and waves, brown explains the following principles of ES:

  1. Small is good. Small is all. (The Large is a reflection of the Small.)
  2. Change is constant. (Be like a wave). 
  3. What you pay attention to grows.
  4. There is always a conversation in the room that only these people and this moment can have. Find it. 
  5. There is always enough time for the right work.
  6. Move at the speed of trust. (Focus on the critical connections rather than the critical mass — build resilience by building relationships.)
  7. Never a failure. Always a lesson.
  8. Less prep. More presence.
  9. Trust the people. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)

Principles for Living Emergently

Reading this manual for organizing, I realized two things that I never would’ve learned in a conventional volunteering environment: grassroots organizing is small and only loud when needed. Additionally, we don’t have to be the voice on the megaphone to participate in action for the world we want. We can lead the charge in other, quieter ways, too. True change only occurs at the micro level; only then can the macro respond in a meaningful way. In other words, brown’s book is as much a handbook for how to live our lives as it is one for organizing effectively. On a personal level, I realized ‘only’ having a vision for my life is enough. As long as I live each day like the person I want to be — kind, just, rational — I will arrive at a point where my life is a manifestation of those values. Upholding my values in my everyday life matters just as much as making big decisions and moves in accordance with them.

Again in their 2013 speech, brown said:

“Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. It emphasizes critical connections, authentic relationships, and listening with the body and the mind.”

We can extend the philosophy of emergence and the practice of ES to the tiniest of interactions within our communities and outside of explicitly activist settings. Treating each connection we make with another person as “critical” and meaningful, listening with “the body and the mind” and being more present are principles that make us better citizens as well as changemakers. In this way, emergence is just as applicable to everyday life as it is to organizing for social and political change. Or, perhaps, this understanding of the quotidian as being separate from action and revolution is actually antithetical to ES.

If “The Large is a reflection of the Small,” isn’t everyday life; our interactions with the barista, our siblings, our coworkers, our friends; the building blocks of the change we want to see in the world? The rest of brown’s principles flow from this assumption. In this way, the remaining eight principles of ES become both a way to organize our communities and a way to live:

Principles To Live Your Life By

  1. Change is constant. (Be like waves.)    

Change is inevitable. Live your life expecting your circumstances to vary. Renounce entitlement to the world around you to let go of unjustified rage at people who do not deserve it. 

  1. What you pay attention to grows. 

Your circumstances are shaped by attitude. Have an uncle whose political worldview you fundamentally disagree with? He can either be the catalyst of a heated and aggressive Thanksgiving table debate or an opportunity to open someone’s mind, including your own to how other people live and think.

  1. There is always a conversation in the room that only the people at this time can have. Find it.

Be alive to the spaces you share with other people — your partner at the dinner table, the customers in line at the grocery store, your friends circling around a bar high top. What do we have in common? What commitments do we share, no matter how small? Approach other people as potential lessons rather than obstacles.

  1. There is always time for the right work.

Pause. Take a deep breath. There is no need to snap at the waitress because she messed up your order and you will be late for your meeting. Time is abundant and anger only slows down our experience of it and leads us to unjust, unkind, and irrational actions.

  1. Move at the speed of trust. (Focus on the critical connections rather than the critical mass — build resilience by building relationships.)

More people are not always better. Focus on maintaining the relationships in your immediate vicinity to grow belonging. Relationships based on common values and visions for the world, or ones that challenge our thinking and encourage us to grow, matter more than a large group of acquaintances.

  1. Never a failure. Always a lesson.

Mistakes happen. We waste a lot of time worrying about mistakes when we could be learning from them when missteps inevitably happen. No one is beyond reproach, especially ourselves.

  1. Less prep. More Presence.

Change and mistakes are a part of life. Instead of preparing for the worst, how can we see the best in the worst situation? Can a traffic-clogged commute make time for meditation? Is a rude coworker an opportunity to empathize? Obviously, there are real tragedies. However, we do a disservice to them when we equate the disaster of everyday life with actual disaster and emergency.

  1. Trust the people.

The jury’s out on whether or not humanity is naturally good or bad. However, choosing to believe humanity is naturally good spares us a lot of anxiety and spares others our paranoia and irrational anger. Moving from a place of trust leads us to tread more gently and behave more kindly. Give people and relationships among them a chance to surprise you.

Live the Revolution

I’ve moved from the quaint Canadian maritime town to the bustling city where I grew up. Every day, I come into contact with hundreds of different people, living their conventional lives. There is now enough space between me and graduation day that I’ve had time to enter a field and leave it. What motivated this leap only a year into a career? ES. I embarked on a career in publishing because I thought that goal was more realistic. I felt like I had to choose what I wanted right away; that choice was permanent; I was locked in.

A few months ago, I had a very real crisis even though nobody told me you could have a crisis in your early twenties. The publishing job was sucking my soul, which led to anger, paranoia, and disconnect in my closest relationships. On a different drizzly day, I looked at my bookshelf and encountered the familiar cover of Emergent Strategy, brightening up the drear of the few feet of space my partner and I called our “living room.” It was one of the few books I brought with me on my journey halfway across the country. I re-read the introduction and was reminded of the blueprint I’d held in my hands a year prior. 

I scrolled through brown’s Instagram page: Greeting Me was poems outlining visions for a better world (brown shares her poetry primarily through their blog and social media). I wanted to be the kind of person who vulnerably shared her hopes and dreams with strangers rather than the irritable, lost, and despondent person I become. I had the following conversation with myself:

Me: What are my values?

Myself [looks down at the book her hands]: These ones.

Me: Am I living them?

Myself: No. 

I: I guess I know what to do, then.

I’ll admit that I clung to the soul-sucking job in publishing for longer than I should have. But in the weeks that followed, I decided to live my life emergently. I considered my values: kindness, justice, and rationality. I examined my day-to-day life. I asked myself in every interaction if I was behaving in a manner that lived up to those values. I tended to my most important relationship: the one with myself. Was my inner dialogue kind, just, and rational (hint: the answer was “no”)? I decided to apply for grad school even though I believed I wouldn’t get it; I scoured my relationships and let go of those that brought out anger, frustration, and irrationality and cultivated the ones that helped me grow the values of ES; I reoriented my mindset from self-centered and mind-lead to others-centered and heart-lead. My life hadn’t changed very much, as I was still working the same job I hated in the same dingy apartment, but I was something approaching happy and fulfilled. My life’s emotional terrain was taking on the shape of the life I wanted, despite the material circumstances being less than ideal.

How we treat the people in our day-to-day lives is the fabric of revolution. Being an intentional and kind person outside of explicitly public spaces, when we are “just” living our lives, matters as much as the hours we clock at a foodbank or the protests we attend. Each hope for a better world contains a set of values that inform it — otherwise, our hope is a fantasy. We become the first seed of a better world by living in accordance with the values that inform the revolution we want to see. When we act from a heart-lead, others-focussed place, we derive fulfillment knowing we are the seed of change in our own lives as well as others. I want to see a world guided by the principles of ES: one where we treat each other with more intentionality and kindness.