Book Review: ‘Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds’

by Larry Gabriel


‘Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds’

by adrienne maree brown


AK Press, 2017, 280 pages


Politically speaking, the past year has been a disheartening series of events that are enough to try any progressive soul. When the President throws his support behind Nazis and white supremacists, one might be tempted to despair.

However, adrienne maree brown’s new book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, is just what those in fear and despair need to help them face the battle. Big things are happening in the world and one can feel so small; but you can take heart with author, adrienne maree brown.

From the start of ‘Strategy’, brown focuses on elements in the natural world because we are part of it and reflect its organizing structures. Among the core principles of her practice of “emergent strategy,” brown includes:

Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)

Change is constant. (Be like water.)

There is always enough time for the right work.

There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.

Never failure, always a lesson.

‘Strategy’ is not so much about how to overcome the opposition with — um, something like five killer arguments to take down your racist uncle. It’s more about overcoming your own issues as an activist and maintaining a focus on the best objectives and strategies.

brown is part of the orbit of activists who coalesced around the late Grace Lee Boggs, and as such she shares the perspective that the world order is going through massive change right now. Where that change is going is not evident or ordained. Where the world goes will be affected by the forces that are currently at work. This is a moment in history where the world could be pushed in a number of directions.

To a certain extent, Emergent Strategy is a self-help book that outlines the ways activists can become more functional; but since “small is all,” it’s also a self-help book for changing the world. Changing yourself in the right direction is changing the world in the right direction. As the book’s subtitle says: “Shaping change, changing worlds.”

brown seeks and disseminates wisdom from a dizzying array of sources. Strategy is indeed a book, but reading it is like reading the internet, as brown eschews standard narrative design and allows herself to go in numerous directions of inclusivity. Where Boggs was fond of handing books to people who came into her orbit, brown just cites what she wants you to ingest in small nuggets.

In some ways the whole thing is a book-length poem with all the singing, insight and inspiration of that art form. If we are to transform the world, we must be transformative people.  As brown writes at one point, regarding her work with Octavia’s Brood, “Walidah and I articulated that ‘all organizing is science fiction,’ by which we mean that social justice work is about creating systems of justice and equity in the future, creating conditions that we have never experienced.”

It is the end of the world as we know it, thanks to a lot of factors. Now is the time to gird ourselves for the fight for a new world. Right now, I can’t think of better girding than Emergent Strategy.


Journalist Larry Gabriel is a lifelong Detroiter. He has written and edited for the Metro Times, Detroit Free Press, and UAW Solidarity magazine. Gabriel writes the Stir it Up and Higher Ground columns for Metro Times and contributed Rebirth of Tribe in Heaven Was Detroit (2016) from WSU Press.


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