“Birds don’t make a plan to migrate… They feel a call in their bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.”

adrienne maree brown 

I received two books for Christmas — a tree guide I’d wished for, and a book about movement building I didn’t know I wanted. Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown (AMB) turned out to be exactly what I needed as I mourned my sudden departure from organizing. It helped me dig into questions like: what will I do differently if I ever go back? Why did the work so often make me feel like I was banging my head against a wall? How can we build a trusting community where collective action flourishes?

I feel lucky I encountered this book right when I was stepping far enough back to release my sense of “expertise” about organizing. In hindsight I see I’d been building up to that departure. Last fall I began using AMB and Sonya Renee Taylor’s guided workbook, Journal of Radical Permission. By answering prompts like “How can I bring more love to the parts of me I find unlovable?” I learned it’s okay to have a dark side, and that I can even like and accept those parts of myself. I also learned my recovering Catholic tendency toward self-sacrifice and harsh challenges didn’t serve me or the movement well; in fact, those combined into a recipe for burnout. I learned I deserve pleasure, calm, and beauty right now, before the revolution. This idea of radical permission — coupled with EMDR therapy — gave me the confidence I needed to confront harassment in my DSA chapter. It also gave me the wherewithal to leave.

So I was already an AMB fan! Then I received Emergent Strategy, a gentle guide on immersing ourselves in collective action while also embracing change as a constant force. Quoting from the back cover blurb:

“Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen.”

This book is an absolute trip. I love how AMB draws upon properties of nature that can be applied to movement work — the image of birds flocking without a stated plan, the underground fungal threads that form the largest organism on earth, the collective labor of ants, etc. This winter I stared at many trees as I walked miles around my neighborhood, imagining the massive root structures beneath my feet that mimic the canopy far above my head. When I ponder climate devastation, I remind myself that 150 years ago there were few houses and no cars in these spaces I wander. Everything I consider “normal” is recent and temporary. And yet the future isn’t written. We know big change is on the horizon and already happening. How do we make like birds, mushrooms, and ants as we navigate that change together?

Much of this book is about reimagining collective action and eschewing the mindset that capitalism has pounded into our heads. I absolutely love this quote:

“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.”

Y’all. I really, really tried subscribing to that vision of an ever-growing working class movement and THAT felt like banging my head against a wall. Because right now, in this midsize southern city, it feels almost wholly conceptual. For a brief, magic moment, I witnessed that model in action during the Bernie 2020 campaign. That was the one time I saw exponential growth in everyday people showing up to fight for a common cause. It was electric. When Bernie lost, some volunteers became very disillusioned because it was their first taste of mass organizing AND their first loss. Yet some of us would love to recreate the momentum of that campaign. For a short time, it felt like we had the power to change everything.

The most comforting concept I absorbed from Emergent Strategy is the nonlinear nature of change. As AMB says, “Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way… it happens in cycles, convergences, explosions. If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves — how do I learn from this?” This reminds me of the Medicare for All group I helped establish. We taught dozens of volunteers how to canvass. Obviously we didn’t win M4A, but we fed many experienced canvassers into the Bernie campaign. In turn, Bernie 2020 fostered a slew of dedicated organizers. Many have sworn off electoralism, and that’s fine, because they work in other directions. We all learned and adapted throughout these phases. I can honestly say none of our efforts were a waste. But if you think of change as linear progression, it can all appear pointless.

Meme // top text “what we think change is” with image of a straight line // bottom text “what change actually looks like” with image of a squiggly line that overlaps itself

And we know how much leftists love to debate tactics and criticize each other. That misapplied haterade always brought me down, and I’m glad to be away from it (quitting Twitter also helped A LOT). As I recover from movement burnout, the AMB wisdom most useful to me is a section called Liberated Relationships. In a series of tips on dealing with others authentically, this bit stuck out:

“Relinquish Frankenstein. You are not creating people to be with, or work with, some idealized individuals made of perfect parts of personality that you discovered on your life journey. You are meeting individuals with their own full lives behind and ahead of them. Stop trying to make and fix others, and instead be curious what they have made of themselves.”

I breathe deeply every time I read that. I’ve known this strong urge to “Frankenstein.” In my experience it quickly leads to the conclusion that others must become better, more evolved versions of themselves before we can work together and win. People need to wake up, pay attention, get mad, stop being so lazy, learn to CARE, quit flaking out, etc. Can you feel the resentment radiating off these assumptions? It’s toxic. 

Curiosity is the cure. What does that person care about, and why? Are they lazy or are they tired? What exhausts them? What excites them? I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with a loved one, asking them honest questions works better than jumping to judgment. Curiosity matters in all relationships, because you can’t really connect with a person until you try to understand them. 

After reading Emergent Strategy, I’m more certain than ever that movement building is all about relationships. And that’s why I’m on hiatus! Lately I’m enjoying hermitude, being a good friend to myself while I figure out what relationships I do want. The community I experienced as an organizer definitely had its bright spots, but I feel like we made a lot of mistakes without knowing it. There are reasons why so much work ends up falling on a small group of people, and it isn’t that others don’t “care.” AMB’s section on meeting facilitation — something I thought I was good at — felt like a gut punch. It turns out I have much to learn about collective brainstorming and decision-making.

I thought I knew so many things! If you’re a reasonably smart, capable person who keeps showing up, the very tired organizers who came before you might say you’re a natural. And with little mentorship or direction, it’s easy to believe you have all the answers. Or that you should, because so much depends on YOU. Again, recipe for burnout.

I take comfort knowing AMB experienced similar misconceptions. Near the start of the book she states:

“Once upon a time I was a burnt out executive director, tied to my technology and my sense of my own importance. When I was with friends, family, lovers, I was still working. I thought I was awesome at multitasking. I would say urgency, obligation, and specialness were the driving forces in my life.”

I’ve felt those forces, too. And in all honesty, I’d much rather function as a bird, a mushroom, or an ant.


This essay is the first in my new series Self Care Media, in which I’ll explore various pop culture works that have assisted me as I transition from “burnt out organizer” into “who knows what?” In the next installment, I’ll discuss the Adult Swim television program Joe Pera Talks with You.

One thought on “Self Care Media: Emergent Strategy

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