Rhys Lindmark: Hello listeners. Today, I'm excited to chat with adrienne maree brown an author, doula, women rights activist, and black feminist based in Detroit, Michigan. Adrienne thanks so much for being on the show and welcome.
adrienne maree brown: Thank you for having me, Rhys.
Rhys: Yeah, excited to dive in and I think that you're circling around a lot of topics that I'm also very curious about and the first one I want to dive into today is Emergent Strategy, which is a book that you wrote. Could you tell us how biomimicry and thinking like a bottom-up organism, how that has changed how you think about organizing?
adrienne: Yeah, absolutely. I think for a long time I felt that revolution and total change of society was going to come because of how we thought that if we could just think ourselves free and if we just had enough facts that we were going to be able to liberate ourselves and others. I feel like watching creatures, watching nature, I recognize that there has to be so many factors involved. It's not just a decision that we make in our minds, but it's a set of practices, iterations, adaptations, things we do over and over and over again, and all through nature you see that this is how things change. It's how canyons are carved out. It's how sealines change. It's how mountains form, like everything big that changes, changes because of the pressure of small, small, and repeated simple moves. So that made me think, well, what do we need to be doing in movement?
What are the small repeated moves that we could be engaged in that might actually create a larger shift in our entire culture than trying to just convince people that they're wrong? If they're racist or something. It's transformed how I approach the work that I do. I'm much more interested in how people are relating to each other and how people are accountable to each other and how people are honest with each other, what it means when we are acting from and towards love. All of that feels much more central to me in the way that I think about how I support movements than it did when I first started, which is like we can think ourselves free.
Rhys: I love that overview because I think that we all kind of start in a place that where we can think ourselves free or we can just make this one big policy action or something. In fact, this bottom-up thing and I really love what you said about how these small repeated movements and then you start to think, okay, if we're all like these little nodes in this system, how are we relating to each other? If we can change how we relate to each other then that change is kind of the emergent phenomena above. So do you think that there are ways in which we could be relating to each other better or currently relating to each other well?
adrienne: I think there's a lot of ways we're currently relating to each other very well, very beautifully, and I've actually been very moved by seeing the kind of communities that I love and that I am attuned to move through the pandemic. I've seen so much mutual aid. I've seen so much turning towards each other, so much having each other's back, so much organizing resources to move where the community most needs them to be, so much protection of each other. It's been incredible, really, really beautiful. I think there's obviously, yes, places where we could do much better and I'm becoming more and more skeptical of social media and the impact that it has. On one level, I think there's a lot of beauty that happens there. I know for myself that I have had a lot of really incredible eye-opening connecting and comforting experiences in that space.
But I also think that it started to land in a way that's like this can confuse us into thinking it can take the place of our real life, relationships and that accountability and other things that are actually quite complex and require community and face to face and patients and like a compassionate approach to each other. Those things can happen in the realm of social media. So I think one thing we can do better will be learning how we navigate those spaces, and if we can use it for good without giving our souls over to places that don't care about our tenderness. Then I think we need to learn to fight fair. So I'm in a big question. A big exploration of like what does it actually mean to fight fair? What does it mean to be in principled struggle? What does it mean to engage in conflict as a way that empowers and changes and generates new possibilities for all of us rather than something that shuts us down or makes us disposable?
Rhys: That second one, I wanna dive in on that for a second because I think it gets at what you were saying earlier, which is, okay, if we want to get toward the ends, we want to get to something in the future, let's just make it happen, like the ends justify the means or whatever. But it sounds like you may be saying a little bit more, actually, we have to go through life in a principled process way. Could you say a little bit more on that?
adrienne: Yes, so there's this beautiful writing and thinking and concept around principle struggle that I learned from my comrade, Tanya Lee, and that she picked up from Marks.
But the idea is that when we are in a struggle, we are struggling for the sake of something larger than ourselves and that we have to have integrity to that thing that is larger than ourselves. For those of us in movement, there's a long-term vision we have for a radically different future and we have to be accountable to that and one of the aspects of that is that we are abolitionists. So we believe that we have a future where there's no prisons or policing.
So in the here and now to engage in principle struggle means how do we fight? How do we argue? How do we have discontent and disagreement in ways that don't dispose of anyone? Don't require us to police each other, don't require us to put each other behind ideological bars as we were. So I really am attuned to what does it look like to engage in mediation? What does it look like to engage in community accountability processes? How do we begin to lay the groundwork, lay the foundation for a future in which we can say, defund the police and people? Yes, that feels possible.
Rhys: I think there's a prefunctionalness to it where, okay, we want to live in this amazing future world, how can we actually be in integrity with that? And though a short-term thing might be okay, we do, maybe XYZ person should get put into prison or jail right now, but if the end result goal is full prison abolition, how can we start building the foundation? So that as you said, when the future without police or without that, that can actually be a reality 'cause we've built so much of the foundations for that to be a reality. Is that kind of making that correctly?
adrienne: Yeah, one of my teachers Miriame Kaba, who I quote all the time she has an incredible book out with Shira Hassan called Fumbling Toward Repair that really gives you step-by-step workbook-level tools of doing these processes. But and she has a new book that's coming out as well, so she's one of the great teachers around this, one of the things she talks about is that we've been in the experiment of a carceral justice system, and a punitive justice system for 250 years. It's been well funded and it has not resulted in relieved harm, right?
We’re still experiencing crime, harm, rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, everything that we would think. We have this incredible system that navigates justice for us and it's well funded and it's supported by the government everything and it just doesn't work. So part of the struggle I think we have to be in is if that doesn't work and we know that doesn't work, how do we start to create the groundwork for other experiments to get space and to get time and to get funding?
But we often hear people say to us, this is impossible.
What about these people who cause such harm? And it's, well, we've never actually been supported to fully fund and to fully try out alternatives, including things like what would it look if anyone who was having a mental health crisis actually had adequate support? Not just adequate, oh, these are trained therapists, that trained therapists rooted in the community, trained mediators rooted in the community, people who are like I can show up for you. I recognize you, you're not someone I want to punish or not someone outside of myself, right?
Rhys: Well, check out that book, Fumbling Toward Repair. I'm just really excited as we continue to build out those kinds of other parallel alternatives. I'm excited by that. One thing that...
adrienne: There's so many people 'cause I'm doing it right now. I'm very excited about the experiments that are happening across the country like the Twin Cities is actually in a really beautiful experiment right now, not just saying it, but what does it look like to have the city align behind that and actually try the experiment solved?
Rhys: So one other question I have is this Emergent Strategy, this idea of biomimicry and building up from the bottom and thinking about those relationships as crucially important. How do you see that? Perhaps being like you could call it weaponized. You could call it remixed. You could call it applied by some of these bottom-up movements like the stop the steal, capital insurrectionist. How do you think about that and differentiate a mob from a movement?
adrienne: It's interesting 'cause I think that one of the things that has always felt like an important distinction for me with the way movements orient towards mass gatherings or towards organizing of marches. I was actually in another interview talking about this with my friend, Margaret Killjoy, we care for each other, fundamentally care, taking care of each other, and restructuring society towards care is right in the heart of it and what we saw, January 6 was what it looks like when people who are organized around superiority and individualism come together to try to assert their right to something they literally trample each other, right?
They're literally not looking after each other, not caring for each other, and I've been to so many mass gatherings of people who are progressive and organizers and on the left, and I've never seen anything like that happen. I think there's a real distinction. First of all, I had the level of what is the impetus inside of the people that are coming to the table? What are they trying to do? Then I think there's something around and there's this beautiful quote from Loretta Ross that, “a group of people moving in the same direction, thinking the same thing is a cult. A group of people moving in the same direction but thinking a lot of different things is a movement.” I think cult and mob in that entity feel a little interchangeable to me.
That's like we're not going to think for ourselves. We're going to take something that has been supplied to us and we're just going to move and act on whatever that thought was that was supplied to us. I think a movement’s responsibility is to think for ourselves. It might mean being uncomfortable. It might mean asking hard questions, and it might mean we still come to the same conclusion, right? Which I think is also important. There are instances in which, you know, we're talking about calling out or canceling of someone who everything else has been tried and this person is still causing egregious harm. And there are instances where that is the only possible move left.
But there's a ton of instances where that's not the only possible move. We haven't tried everything. We haven't actually tried mediation. We haven't tried community accountability process and where that move is not necessary to be successful. I think part of being in a movement is also constantly thinking strategically. Strategically. How do we actually reduce the most harm for the most people in our lifetimes? How do we actually restructure the ways that we are with each other so that we create conditions in which movements can be an invitation to everyone else towards a new future towards a new society? Right now, I feel like movements are attacking each other so much that it makes it difficult for us to be a compelling invitation, and I think we owe ourselves more than that, and I think we owe the world that we're trying to reshape more than that.
Rhys: Thank you for sharing all that and I think that there's a bit there about within a movement. It's like how much care is happening within the members of that movement and then there's also this piece, I love that quote that you shared, it’s like, okay, within a movement and instead of a culture or mob, people are still thinking for themselves. So that's another crucial piece, and I think that maybe the most crucial one is the impetus piece. What's the goal of this thing?
adrienne: Absolutely. What has us moving together and are we fundamentally moving together because there's something we want to do together or there was something that we’re moved by or we're excited around, right? That produces a different result and one of the other like areas of my work in areas of my life is pleasure activism, right? It's this idea that there should be a deep yes at the center of the work that we're doing.
I think you can really feel that the distinction right now.
There are people who are in the streets or doing movement work or what they call movement work the radical right. They're moving their big bodies of people, but at the heart of their existence is a big no, right? No, we cannot be equal with other people. No, we cannot share the wealth and the resources of this world, with other people. No, we will not get in right relationship with the planet. Those are some massive no’s that serve no one, and so at the heart of our movement work we have to keep a yes, that is invitational and that can be expansive because ultimately we do need as many people on the planet as possible to get in right relationship with the planet.
That's our best strategy for actually being able to survive, which means we need as many people as possible to wrap their heads around the long-term impact of white supremacy and how illogical it is and how they can outgrow it, right? We can see it as something in the soil that is no longer a relevant way of being same thing with patriarchy, same thing I think with capitalism with certain ways of nationalism, right? That there are other ways of being that don't require us to be turning against each other all the time in the name of belonging. I think about this a lot. What does it actually look like to focus on the belonging? How do we learn to belong to each other and belong to this place in this time? And I think, to me, that's an exciting question. That's an invigorating, enlivening question that has a room for a lot of people to join into the thinking and the practicing of it.
Rhys: I want to dive on that for a quick second longer. We have the belonging piece. I think it's amazing to focus on that because to some extent I think, and I obviously was not at the stop the steel purchase, but what I understand is they're gaining a sense of community and a sense of and these are kind of folks, quote, unquote they’re low education kind of poor folks or if they're like, oh, we don't want this new future, we gotta keep what we have here, like a scarcity mindset. So if we can create just like you're talking about making other alternatives to police and prisons and industrial complex, how can we make other ways for these folks to feel belonging and community that they might not be getting? Is that the line of what you're saying?
adrienne: Yeah, I think you're getting close to it. One of the things I'm always careful about is we cannot discount the actual pleasure of superiority, right? So there's the belonging component, and then I think there's something around having been socialized that everything you could see as far as you could see belongs to you in some way and was yours. So I think there is a belonging component, but I think it's also a belonging that makes it feel like you're meant to have power over others, and I think that that part is hard to let go. I think it's really, really difficult to let go of, and I also don't believe, and I did for a long time, I was like, okay, I gotta jump in there and help white people understand this stuff and now I feel less and less that that is the case. I feel there's so many resources now available for white people or for men, for straight people, for able-bodied people like everything that people need to unlearn the patterns of oppression is out there.
So one of the things I think of now is that the work of people who are oppressed is actually to reclaim our own instead of our power and our right to exist or pleasure to reclaim our own relationships outside of our relationship to oppression. I think that's going to be a final frontier or next level that's actually very difficult for white people, or for those who have benefited from oppressive practices. I think that's going to be the hardest thing to get with, right? A lot of people are, oh, I don't mind this change as long as I don't have to change, and now we've reached the oppressive. They've gotten as far as we can with that, right?
We've gone as far as we can with philanthropy. We'll fund change as long as it doesn't actually take our money in the long run. There are all these things that now the complexity has outgrown the container. So now we go into a period, I think of some chaos. Some grappling for hope and hopelessness and trying to figure out what our new models of power that we can imagine with each other. What does it actually look like? How do we get into the practice of it? And as devastating as Covid-19 has been, I think it's also really unveiled for people what it might look like to be an authentic community that is not defined by oppression of someone else but is defined by a lot of different people getting their needs met within from each other.
Rhys: Thank you for the pushback on the, oh is it all belonging and you're like, no, there's a sense of superiority here and I think, for me, personally, as a rich white American, straight man, you know, I have had to wrangle this myself like, okay, I need to actively be game to decentralize power away from myself. That's part of the game now. You got to embrace that and once you do that, oh, sweet. So I think that paying attention to that is important.
In our last four minutes here, I want to transition to one other thing. Thank you for all the good convo on Emergent Strategy. You just wrote a new book called We Will Not Cancel Us, the cancel culture or what have you. Could you tell us a little bit more, the thesis of the book and how you feel about modern-day cancel culture?
adrienne: Yeah, I will say that I wrote the book merely with a specific audience in mind, which was people who claimed to be abolitionist, and but then are in the public sphere, calling for the cancellation of people or calling people out in certain ways and I was really wanting to ask the question of, are we just going to cancel everyone and call everyone out until no one is left? I asked the question initially as an essay on my blog and it got a huge response.
A lot of people saying that they were sharing this question with me, right? How do we talk about accountability and how do we get in right relationship with each other when we are causing each other harm and a lot of people are causing that harm or caught up in these harmful patterns of behavior. But then there was also really good pushback from people that was like we need to be a lot more precise about how we talk about these things and so that led into the book project and the book project attempts to do a number of things. It really attempts to ask how do we be abolitionists with each other in this period of history. When defund the police had a big questions are on the table but we also have the access of social media that allows us to call for the destruction or disposal of people in our community if they do things that we don't approve of. If they do things that we feel are distant from us. So that's the big kind of premise with the book, and there's a lot of small pieces. I tend to work in thinking sort of small thesis, small pieces.
So there are sections of the book that I wrote years ago that were about this idea of not canceling ourselves, like canceling those that we are in community with. How do we actually practice accountability at the community level? Then there's sections on what I learned. How do we do a better job of making the distinctions between abuse and harm and conflict and learn to fight fair? That is a big thing that I'm thinking about a lot right now. What is generative conflict actually look like in practice? How do we have disagreements that are just disagreements that don't necessarily mean anybody has to be canceled? Just means we have a serious political or emotional disagreement. How do we do that in the principal principled way? And then, how do we actually turn towards each other and recognize that even when people have caused egregious harm, part of our work is to figure out what solutions look like in our community. Solutions that don't put people in front of the state as the only solution for justice.
Rhys: I think the bottom-up solutions that you talked about, like the solution orientation. And then there's the differentiating what the different words mean, abuse versus harm versus conflict as or that becoming more precise that all sounds important.
One final question and then we'll wrap this. What was it like for you, as a black feminist, to kind of come out and say, hey y'all, we need to ask ourselves more about this cancel culture and what it means for our community? How was that responded to by folks? Or was that hard?
adrienne: It was hard. It was hard for me because I feel like a lot of the people who are engaging their behavior or people who I really respect as I respect them strategically. I respect them as thinkers and you know, it's people that I know who are calling me in to ask me to be a part of these cancellations and other things and it's such a huge number of people, so it really felt like one of the places where I was committing to go against the grain a little bit more than I'm used to. One of the things I've really reflected on is the work of facilitators and mediators, which is what I have been my professional life is often to be a neutral voice, to really hold a neutral space so that community can come to you.
This was me stepping out and saying I actually have an opinion here on this and everyone's not gonna like it, but I think it was really good practice for me. I have always believed in people who stepped out and said things that were not necessarily popular in the moment that they said them. I think it's important to do that sometimes, especially, if you see something like, I think I can make an intervention here that may be of use to my community and the people I love.
It's really informed by the work. I've been facilitating for 20 plus years, and these are movement people that I really, deeply love and care about. I've seen a lot of them cause harm to each other, and I think they will continue to because we are swimming inside of the same conditions that we are up against in fighting in the world. We're not outside of those, and as long as we can remember that there we’re not outside of them, that we’re also swimming in them, that we also have to liberate ourselves from them. I think there's a number of other possibilities for how we move towards justice together.
Rhys: Thank you for your bravery and for continuing to lead this kind of multi-faceted, multi-perspective view on each of these different things. I think it's cool and thank you for what you're doing and I guess, for our listeners, is there any place that they should find you on the interwebs or go deeper if they want to learn more?
adrienne: You could always go to my website adriennemareebrown.net and I blogged there and I also have an archive of all the different things I did there. You can find my different podcasts there. I host three of them now and you can find all kinds of stuff there. That's probably the best spot.
Rhys: Great. All point there and just as a note for our listeners, I was checking out adrienne's blog and she has this amazing piece on the blog. If you say you're good, you're good. So it's a blog worth checking out and so thank you for coming today, adrienne. And thank you for listening everybody. Goodbye.
adrienne: Thank you. Bye.