Riding the rails due west through the rolling hills and plains of breadbasket America, I stitch some letters into a felted pillow for a friend. His wedding is this Saturday and the gift we bring is a pillow with scenes of abundance, home, and place sewn into its body. At the bottom it reads a simple quote by poet Wendell Berry, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
Sitting in the lounge car of the Amtrak Zephyr I hold in my hands a reminder of the last few weeks. A souvenir from the Rage and Hope workshop at the Highlander Center, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, its edges beginning to curl like an orange peel missing its contents. But the contents of this book are all there, and I am immersed in them like I devour a cool watermelon slice in the heat of summer.
The workshop was a momentous experience as complete strangers came together in a room and faced one another with unadulterated vulnerability. We shared deepest thoughts and fears not holding back on the emotions that poured forth. Like the song we sang together said, “The Ocean refuses no rivers”, we created a collective river in those few days together, its path leading to the bigger pool of human experience, joy, and pain. And as the river leaves us, the river heals us, too.
A friend gifted this book to me, knowing that from the small minute of time we shared I would enjoy the value it carries. And I do. I remember a time in my early twenties when I had only begun to think of what the experience of this world means to me, as I started to challenge the Christianity of my childhood and look for a spiritual rational that fit what I truly knew deep within myself. I landed on relationships. Not simply romantic or familial, but a bigger belief that all interactions are relationships even if just brief in existence. I found that the definition of relationship was so broad and untethered in my mind, a constantly moving force that changed with time and action. A relationship between two individuals will become an entirely different organism with the addition of another being, and so forth. So I decided at that point I would personally replace religion, with relationships.
Emergence is described by Nick Obolensky as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” Emergent Strategy is the practical lessons we can pattern our life around that put the simple and small in the forefront. Many small relationships and connections lead to something much bigger and more powerful than any state government or large corporation could ever even imagine. Many drops in a powerful river, perhaps.
Emergent strategy is dynamic, changing, chaotic, and at its roots requires collaboration and love that is based on the designs of the natural world from which we come. We often fail to see that the patterns of nature have designed us and brought us to where we are today. It is my personal belief that we ignore these lessons, but only through them will we be able to move forward to a better society.
Brown draws influence from inspiring leaders like Grace Lee Boggs who tells us that “critical connections instead of critical mass” are what truly lead to lasting change. We can get thousands of people to march on Washington and we can get thousands to sign a petition. But before the soles of their shoes have cooled from the pavement protest, people are back to their everyday lives that literally embody all the -archy and -isms we stand against when we stand on the streets.
Why is that? Have we derailed from our original purpose? It seems to me that we have failed to focus on making lasting change in the ways in which we carry ourselves through the world. What do Adrienne Brown and Wendell Berry and Grace Boggs all have in common? What I see in all of these leaders is a passionate emphasis on “good work”, “community”, and of course “relationships”. Right now people go about their lives: some organize, some work in non-profits, some small businesses. AND we go home to our apartments. We cook dinner. We eat over the sink. But organizing social change doesn’t just happen between 9-5 or the hours that we have a scheduled event. It is a part of all aspects of living. And people are hungry!...for food, for community, for change. So let’s give it to them by creating new ways to connect, to share, to dance, to celebrate, to cry, and to laugh. And if we do this under the auspice of working together to cover the many basic needs we all have for safety, food, shelter, art, and love….then we will be on the right track.