Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown

What is emergence?

Adrienne writes: “Emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies. Emergence is our inheritance as a part of this universe; it is how we change. Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for…. In the framework of emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. Existence is fractal—the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet.”

It struck me that this is another way of saying All My Relations. Mitakuye oyasin, as the Lakota say, meaning: we are all related, connected, not only to each other humans, but to all the other living things and inanimate things and the planet, and also the Creator.

As I write in the pages of Decolonizing Wealth: “The principle of All My Relations means that everyone is at home here. Everyone has a responsibility in making things right. Everyone has a role in the process of healing, regardless of whether they caused or received more harm. All our suffering is mutual. All our healing is mutual. All our thriving is mutual.”

I feel such synergy between Adrienne’s book and mine.

Where I invite the sector of philanthropy to actually embody the meaning of the word: phil (love of) anthropy (humankind), Adrienne calls for progressive activists and organizers to practice love:

“If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression. We would suddenly be seeing everything we do, everyone we meet, not through the tactical eyes of war, but through eyes of love. We would see that there’s no such thing as a blank canvas, an empty land, or a new idea—but everywhere there is complex, ancient, fertile ground full of potential.

We would organize with the perspective that there is wisdom and experience and amazing story in the communities we love, and instead of starting up new ideas/organizations all the time, we would want to listen, support, collaborate, merge, and grow through fusion, not competition.

We would understand that the strength of our movement is in the strength of our relationships, which could only be measured by their depth. Scaling up would mean going deeper, being more vulnerable and more empathetic.”

Where I call for funders to listen, really listen, in an open way, with empathy, and holistically—listening to what is said beyond the words spoken—Adrienne calls for humility, relinquishing the resistance to let wisdom in. She writes:

 “Understanding that you can be wrong, have been wrong, helps to increase the compassion needed to work through the emotional and material impacts of being wronged by another. We often think that we must hold our position, regardless of what we learn or feel. But in fact, the opposite is true. We must learn to develop positions together, adapting to the changing conditions around us—sometimes this means we must relinquish our positions, to voice our feelings and thoughts, and hear and be influenced by other people’s opinions and information.”

Where I critique funders for reinforcing and sustaining white supremacy and colonial dynamics of dividing, controlling, and exploiting, Adrienne critiques progressive movements for perpetuating the status quo:

“We have lived through a good half century of individualistic linear organizing (led by charismatic individuals or budget-building institutions), which intends to reform or revolutionize society, but falls back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing. Some of those tendencies are seeking to assert one right way or one right strategy. Many align with the capitalistic belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change, even if they don’t use that language…. So many of our organizations working for social change are structured in ways that reflect the status quo. We have singular charismatic leaders, top down structures, money-driven programs, destructive methods of engaging conflict, unsustainable work cultures, and little to no impact on the issues at hand. This makes sense; it’s the water we’re swimming in.”

Where I find inspiration for leadership from the Native name I was given by an Indigenous medicine man— Niigaanii Beneshi, which means Leading Bird in the Ojibwe language—Adrienne explores what we can learn from flocking behavior in birds:

“There is a right relationship, a right distance between them—too close and they crash, too far away and they can’t feel the micro-adaptations of the other bodies. Each creature is shifting direction, speed, and proximity based on the information of the other creatures’ bodies. There is a deep trust in this: to lift because the birds around you are lifting, to live based on your collective real-time adaptations. In this way thousands of birds or fish or bees can move together, each empowered with basic rules and a vision to live.

Imagine our movements cultivating this type of trust and depth with each other, having strategic flocking in our playbooks. Adaptation reduces exhaustion. No one bears the burden alone of figuring out the next move and muscling towards it. There is an efficiency at play—is something not working? Stop. Change. If something is working, keep doing it—learning and innovating as you go.”

As a whole, this book is not just insightful and practical, it’s also a pleasure to read, so I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety.


An enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Edgar Villanueva is the chair of the board of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a trustee of the Andrus Family Fund, and the vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Follow @VillanuevaEdgar and @DecolonizWealth on Twitter.  Decolonizing Wealth is available to purchase at all major booksellers and many local bookstores. 

Edgar Villanueva