“What time is it on the clock of the world?” The late warrior-philosopher, community-builder, and movement-shaper, Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) used to ask this question at the start of most meetings in her home in Detroit. In her 100 years on the planet, she witnessed a world of constant change. In 1974, two years after Donella Meadows and her team published Limits to Growth, Boggs and her husband, Jimmy, published Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, outlining what it would take to create a revolution of consciousness and new economic structures that could support all life on earth. Meadows and Boggs knew that the social and ecological crises they witnessed reflected (1) a crisis of imagination, and (2) the perils of righteous attachment to mental models. Grounded in the lifework of their local communities, Meadows and Boggs danced with systems, embraced the power of generative tension, and understood the inexorable connection between the “local” and the “global” in living systems. As Boggs said: “Changes in small places affect the global system, not through incrementalism, but because every small system participates in an unbroken wholeness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”
As time would have it, Boggs’ and Meadows’ lifetimes have ended. Thankfully, their guiding questions and pragmatic approaches are carried forward in Emergent Strategy: shaping change, changing worlds, by adrienne maree brown. This book is a lyrical testament to the timeless wisdom living systems offer human beings seeking to unleash our powers for radical imagination, intentional adaptation, and intersectional liberation. Looking to dandelions, starlings, mycelium, ants, ferns, the wavicle and other miracles of evolution for inspiration, Emergent Strategy is brown’s exploration of the core question, “How do we turn our collective, full-bodied intelligence towards collaboration, if that is the way we will survive”?
A student of Boggs, brown opens Emergent Strategy with a dedication in memory of her mentor, “who opened the door to emergence and pushed me through, who taught me to keep listening and learning, and having conversations.” Indeed, Emergent Strategy reads as an intimate conversation with brown, and the multitudes of human beings with whom she is in conversation. The dedication also includes Boggs’ key advice: “Transform yourself to transform the world.” This call to action is a central theme: brown makes clear that “how we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale” (p52). Embodying the leadership practices she recommends, brown generously, authentically, and vulnerably shares her experiences practicing love through her hybrid identities as “an auntie, sister, daughter, woe, facilitator, coach, mentor, mediator, pleasure activist, sci-fi scholar, doula, healer, tarot reader, witch, cheerleader, singer, philosopher, queer, Black multiracial lover of life living in Detroit” (p29). She notes, “What we pay attention to grows – this is a hard world, but it is also a world full of love and pleasure. I am of that, attending to and growing that” (p34).
Brown’s unique voice, born of intersectional struggles for healing and liberation, offers important contributions to conversations on sustainability and regenerative development that have been historically dominated by white, heterosexual (mostly male) environmental scientists and professionals. Emergent Strategy opens its readers to alternative ways of knowing and cultivating power, drawn from observing the natural world and from brown’s experiences organizing on the frontlines of the climate justice and Black Lives Matter movements.
Alternately sharing detailed accounts of the murmurations of starlings and her work with Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, brown invites her readers to explore their own somatic intelligence. She finds that this full-bodied, sensory awareness of oneself in space and in right relationship with others enables our intentional adaptation, individually and collectively. She’s learned that “feeling is an important and legitimate way of knowing” (p38). Moreover, “love leads us to observe in a much deeper way than any other emotion” and that “when we are engaged in acts of love, we humans are at our best and most resilient” (p9). She postulates that should we “wage love,” we could unleash the curiosity, compassion, courage needed to heal and create the world anew at a time of unprecedented change. She reminds readers that “regardless of what happens, there is an opportunity to move with intention – towards growth, relationship, regeneration” (p71).
Essentially, Emergent Strategy offers a pattern language and nonlinear playbook for waging love in dark, uncertain times. As such, it is a must-read for any pragmatist seeking to develop the practical skills and expanded awareness needed to transform grief and trauma into hopeful movements for regeneration. It offers a fresh view into timeless strategies for transformational leadership inspired by living systems.