Emergent Strategy

Book Review in Conversation

Leila Tamari

When I was asked to contribute a book review of adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds for the GIA Reader, I immediately perked up in disbelief and excitement. How could I possibly represent this book and this artist whom I admire so much? It seemed like a tall order for someone like me since I felt like just a fangirl. This book truly enhanced my life, giving me clarity in the relationship between my work and daily lived reality. It taught me about living purposefully.

Admittedly, I was more nervous about the audience I was writing for — arts funders — a group of people whom I perceive as upholding the status quo, despite their best efforts to help build a world of imagination and possibility. Once I was over my self-induced imposter syndrome, I tried to imagine how I could convince this audience that this book is worth their time, and moreover, how a book review could turn into a call to action for us to do things differently.

Throughout the book, brown defines, and redefines, emergent strategy, which is fitting since at its core it is about embracing change and the journey to living the change we want to see. That comes as no surprise, given that Octavia Butler’s work has deeply influenced brown and is offered as a grounding presence throughout the book. For example, in Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the new “religion” of Earthseed is founded on the core tenant that “God Is Change.” In her own words, brown asserts that emergent strategy is “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” The guiding principles include the following:

  • fractals: the relationship between small and large
  • intentional adaption: how we change
  • interdependence and decentralization: who we are and how we share
  • nonlinear and iterative: the pace and pathways of change
  • resilience: how we recover and transform
  • creating more possibilities: how we move toward life

Rather than list how each of these principles relates to philanthropic practice and offer my own opinion, I decided to ask brown what she thought. In summer 2018, we spoke about her work, the book, and reflections on emergent strategies in philanthropy. Excerpts from our conversation follow below.

I hope those who read the conversation will, first, read Emergent Strategy if they haven’t yet; two, have a conversation with a colleague about how emergent strategy can show up in their work; and three, commit to practicing a principle of emergent strategy in their daily life.

• • •

Leila Tamari I think I’ve heard you say “I’m not famous” or are now wrestling with how to deal with that …

adrienne maree brown It’s true. My sister and I were talking about this, because we’re doing this podcast together, and we’re sharing little fame experiences. We were laughing because it’s still in a micro, micro, microcosm of things. In the grand scheme, there are so few people on this planet that are doing social justice work, and inside of that, there’s a percentage of people who are beginning to know my work and beginning to know who she and I are. It’s not like a Beyoncé fame, but …

LT Social justice famous?

amb … It’s like social justice famous, but even still, I will regularly come across people who don’t know anything about who I am. I was just with [one of] my niblings,1 and I was asking her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said, “a famous writer, or a famous artist, or a famous actress.” And I was like, “Okay, I’m picking up on a theme here. So, famous. What does that mean to you?” She [described] sign[ing] autographs, people giving her things, everyone treating her nicely. [Fame] is a small part of things, and then there’s the other side. Signing autographs is not super great, after you do the first fifteen. Then it [becomes] how do I make a connection with the people that are coming out to get a book signed, or whatever it is. [I was] talk[ing] to this eight-year-old about what fame actually is like and trying to point her toward being fulfilled and satisfied, and successful, as opposed to being famous. The things that you tie to being famous are really when you are fulfilled and satisfied. You feel like the world is a gift, and you feel like you’re being treated like a special human being, because you’re very satisfied by life, and life is really beautiful and satisfying if you tap into your purpose. I feel very tapped into my purpose right now, and some fame is a result of that. We live in a different kind of time now, where the work that I do, facilitation and writing, are not things that people are generally famous for. There are some spaces where the fame is getting in the way a little bit of what I want to do as a facilitator. So that’s a new challenge that I’m dealing with, where people come in and they’re like, “Oh, I love you.” And I’m like, “Okay, but it’s not about me.”

LT I think I’ve heard that in the podcast you do with [your sister] Autumn.2 In one of the episodes, you talked about the cult of personality and ego. With emergent strategy, it’s about [letting go of centralized power and instead building] collaboration.

amb Exactly. For people who actually read the book, I don’t think you come away like, “[Let’s put] adrienne on a pedestal.”

LT As a pre-question, I don’t really know how you got involved with philanthropy at all, other than [leading] facilitation; and secondly, I’m curious about the cult of “the darling” in philanthropy … where [is] there room for it in [operationalizing] emergent strategy … or not?

amb The way I first encountered … philanthropy is when I was executive director at the Ruckus Society, and I was a lowly nonprofit worker trying to get access to funds, not really understanding how the system worked, really coming up against the hard edges of the nonprofit industrial complex, [and] realizing, slowly, this is a mess. This system is really perpetuating the harms of poverty, inequality, and white supremacy. So, my first interactions were developing this analysis, and then when I came out of being an executive director, I was still doing my facilitation. I think because I had played a role as executive director, I had a different insight, perhaps, on philanthropy than maybe a facilitator who had never played that role. When people asked me to facilitate, I would be like, “I will facilitate, but I’m holding a hard line with the funders. It’s not teacakes. We are going to have a hard conversation.” And I think what happened is that people got to appreciate that.

Now, maybe I am a darling, [although] I haven’t tapped into the actual darling part of it. What’s been interesting to me is that a lot of people are embracing the ideas. The next piece of the question is, Is there a place for it? I think it’s a complex question, because the word philanthropy suggests a monolithic thing, and what I have found instead is that it’s a lot of relationships with people. Program officers are a very interesting body of people, because a lot of them come from having done social justice, see themselves that way, and get into this position now where people are treating them very strangely. They are struggling to have continuous authentic relationships with people. That’s what they need to have for their work to be any good. And because they are sitting with money behind them — and we live in a scarcity-based economy particularly for social justice — it becomes almost impossible for them to have those kinds of authentic connections that they want. So, the people who are then becoming the darlings are often people who are like, “I’ll try to be as authentic with you as I can,” or “I will play along with what you perceive as authenticity.” It’s very complicated, because you are still in scarcity, right?

The reason I don’t do fundraising is so that I can keep the relationships clean. I can have authentic relationships because I’m not asking them for money and I don’t owe you shit. I don’t know if that’s going to work for me for much longer, because of Emergent Strategy going beyond what I and this small team can cope, right? How do I not turn into something charming and inauthentic in the process of accessing resources? I think it’s a very active question. I don’t think it’s one that there’s an easy answer for, because ultimately, just like capitalism, philanthropy has to fall apart in a lot of ways. I think it’s about how do we get authentic enough to hold onto the humans while the system falls apart. And that’s the question everywhere, not just in philanthropy, but philanthropy has to contend with it too.

LT Yeah, 100 percent. Does philanthropy even exist in the world that we want to create? Probably not, because what we’re trying to do is dismantle the system that even makes philanthropy a necessary thing, right? A question you helped answer is what emergent strategy looks like in a tangible way, what it looks like to practice. I wasn’t really thinking about the authenticity piece; I was thinking more about the truth telling that you talk about in Emergent Strategy.

amb There’s this piece that I keep bringing up, and I wish it was in Emergent Strategy, but I learned about it after the book came out. It’s N’Tanya Lee’s framework on principle struggle, and one of the things it talks about is “being honest, with compassion.” Sometimes when we come across great difference, we’re like, “I can be truthful, but only in a really hard way,” [which] ends up othering and creating so much space that, again, we end up back to inauthenticity because we’re so far away from being able to just be self-responsible. But that “honesty with compassion” [recognizes that] you’re just a human being, and we’re trying to figure out how to do things better. You feel comfortable in this role, I feel comfortable in this other one. You have access to these resources, I have access to these other ones. [We have to] understand that having people and creating change is such a huge necessary resource, and that the way we want to orient things instead is if you have the great resource of organizing skills and great base, that should be something that is automatically invested in. Instead, we come at it like, “I don’t have anything. You have money,” and that’s not the case. There’s always an exchange happening, and it’s how to make relationships authentic versus transactional since there is always an exchange happening. How can we be compassionate [and shift to], “Oh, your skill set is organizing money, the way mine might be organizing people.” And if your skill set is organizing money in the fall of capitalism,3 how are you going to get yourself liberated? I’m much farther into my freedom from this system. But I want to make sure that you also get free and, in the process, distribute as many funds as you can.

LT Right. A phrase that’s thrown around a lot by people in philanthropy is, “money doesn’t solve problems, people solve problems.” But [my question is] how are we all going to share in the responsibility of making sure those people [actually] can? Of course, they already can [and do], but they’re operating constantly, like you were saying, in environments of scarcity. There’s a lot of contradictions [like this] in philanthropy. In listening to your podcast’s “money talk” episode, you or Autumn said that money doesn’t move without harm. I’m curious what that means to you in terms of how — if you’re working within the system or alongside it — you embrace its contradictions, and where there’s room to incorporate emergent strategy in that?

amb The first harm of money is always disconnecting us from an actual resource. Money is a stand-in for water, for food, for land, for intimacy. Or it becomes a path to you, so in between you and the visceral experience of being on the planet, of the Earth, of a community. Unless you have money, you have none of these other things. What I see happen over and over again is that money creates division, creates hierarchy, creates othering, creates space and harm and fighting amongst the people who were just organizing together. I also find that money protects itself and is harmful in the process of protecting itself. Whenever social movements are relying on money, and we get successful [in a way that would] actually impact capitalism in a major way, money finds a way to backlash. Right now we get to see that writ large. Harmful billionaires [are] at the helm of our country right now, buying, selling, transacting everything… I’m hoping it’s just a capitalism-dying frenzy, who knows, right?

LT And, more specifically, where have you seen transformation in addressing the harm that the movement of money creates?

amb In terms of who I think is addressing the harm, well, I would say Solidaire and Resource Generation,4 in different ways that I really respect. Resource Generation brings in folks at a formative age, who are people of wealth, and says: Understand where your money comes from. [It confirms that] you were [not] just born lucky or born with some higher merit than anyone else, actually your money probably comes from slavery, or the Holocaust, or pillaging the planet, one of those things, or some combination thereof. Once you name that, it slowly begins to change your sense of responsibility and, hopefully, your orientation around distribution of wealth. It helps people see that [they] have, because, at some point, [their] people took more than was needed. That’s really crucial work to understand [because] then [they can] follow that ownership with new decisions. Maybe some healing from that harm is possible in [their] lifetime.

Solidaire is a next step in that, where now you are part of a donor body of adults who are interested in redistributing [their wealth]. A lot of the people that I was interacting with [want to] redistribute [their] funds [in their] lifetime, so that it’s not something that just stays in [their] lineage. I think that’s very scary work to do. The whole socialization for us is to get to a place of solidity that we can then pass on, and we’ve been tricked into thinking that comes from money. One of the things that has always been helpful for me is interacting with folks who are from and still hold an indigenous worldview. They [know] connection to land. Knowing how to be in right relationship with the land is the greatest resource. Something about returning to wilderness helps you remember what resource actually is. Those are some of the ways that money is harmful, and I think those are some of the practices I see institutionally. [It’s just as important to do this work within] a household. It matters the more that parents raise their children in a relationship with nature and help them fall in love with a place. [It is] going to matter a lot in the apocalypses that are coming.

LT Agreed. There’s an element of having to repair our relationship with the land and that requires healing. I think people don’t like to talk about healing. One of the things that’s so prevalent in emergent strategy is love. You have to lead with love, and I remember when I read the book, I even started taking that to my MTA commute! (Laughs) So much of this work actually starts with the self, yet encouraging people to bring [themselves] into their work, into professional spaces, feels impossible. It’s not how we’re trained, not how we’re taught to behave, not how we’re rewarded. What kind of culture change do we really need in order to start leading with love and start [bringing] that in [our] work?

amb I think, first of all, [this kind of culture change requires] getting people to say love in a non-vague way. I try to get more and more specific about love, like, not necessarily talking about romantic love, although I think that’s very good, but think about love in a community, “What does it mean to love people?” For me, to love the self does tie into healing. It’s saying, “I’m worth my time. My community is worth my time. Looking at these things that have caused harm and trying to find new ways forward is worth my time.” And simultaneously getting away from this idea that love will save the world or is generic peace. I’m trying to be more precise. I love when people talk about “No justice, no peace.” What we mean when we say “peace” here is that peace is tied to a rebalancing of how things are.

A lot of times, healing is something that happens [when] a trauma has been completed, and then you begin a healing cycle around that something which is completed. Right now we’re in this weird place where we never get to stop. We’re never past the trauma. Every day, you’re waking up into a highly traumatic world, where there’s been another bombing, another shooting, children separated from their parents, suicides. Any one of these things would be hard to deal with. So, where do you begin healing inside of a situation where the trauma has never paused? If I think about the question again, “What’s the culture that has to shift?” we have to accept that we are in traumatizing conditions, and we have to accept that we don’t just get to step aside, do individual healing work, and expect society to flourish from that. So far, that’s how healing gets framed. [We say] “Ah! Everything’s so hard. I’m personally going to go get a massage. I am personally going to go to therapy, etc.” Very early in my career, I decided to call the work that I was doing organizational healing, because I felt like it wasn’t really even facilitation in the traditional sense of, “Just give me an agenda and I’ll run you through it.” It really has always been, “Where is the place that hurts inside this organization, or these places, and can we go there? Can we shed light, can we shift, can we change it, can we begin new practices?” It’s not going to change overnight. But we can get new practices that allow us to get a new alignment inside of our organization that can stop what could feel like a pain that’ll never go away. Something has gone wrong in our society. Something has gone wrong in our organization, in our collective, in our families, and we have to say that the trauma is ongoing. Only naming it and getting into new practices will actually get us to new results in society, new ways of being with each other.

LT In Emergent Strategy you say that “we’re taught that we should be really good at what’s already possible and leave the impossible alone.” I’m wondering if you could offer approaches for diving into the impossible, particularly for grantmakers.

amb The thing that’s the hardest to get funders to understand is that communities doing frontline work should be the ones who are dictating where funding related to their work is going. A lot of the funders will do everything but that. They’ll say, “We’ll build relationships. We’ll do a program. We’ll do research — a white paper. We’ll do a presentation. We’ll even have an advisory body that needs to give us some guidance.” What about just gathering the funds, look at the people who are doing the work, and trust them to distribute?

The same [goes for] individual donors. Think about the things you care about. Who is inspiring? Give them the money to redistribute! Right now, it’s so impossible for people to imagine that there will be a time when what philanthropy meant was not distributing money to try to set the trends for how movement was going, but actually gathering resources that are ready for redistribution, and then handing them over to people who are doing redistribution work. That is my impossible philanthropy concept. I think it will include decolonization of philanthropy completely in order to get to that place, because it would mean that we actually trust these people, even though they weren’t born wealthy. That feels like a thing that we could make possible.

I’ve done a lot of these radical moves. You heard in the “money talk” episode that I didn’t pay taxes. [Now, I know] an experiment like that would only work if I had hundreds of thousands of people with me. I’m not giving up on it as a strategy for my lifetime, but it’s going to have to be something that I find community around if I’m going to be able to do it again. It was a very satisfying, exciting experiment for me — even though I’m paying the price now — but [wouldn’t it be great] to wake up each day knowing that I get to determine that my resources don’t go toward causing harm and death to other human beings? I slept very well for those years. This is the impossible constant: that we will not pay for things that we do not agree with. It seems so simple, yet so impossible right now. So, I think that as a practice for people to get into is to pick one thing that feels really impossible, and practice it until it becomes easy.


  1. This gender-neutral term for the children of her siblings, learned from Tanuja Jagernauth, is introduced by brown in Emergent Strategy.
  2. How to Survive the End of the World, podcast, https://www.endoftheworldshow.org/.
  3. In Emergent Strategy, brown challenges scarcity models and theories of individualism that we receive from neoliberal capitalism, arguing that collaborative efforts ground how to live in right relationship with the earth and one another.
  4. For more information about these organizations, go to https://solidairenetwork.org/ and https://resourcegeneration.org/.