Saving our democracy isn’t just about registering people to vote, ending gerrymandering, and so on. It’s about getting back to the basics of living together well through micro, everyday moments. To kick off season four of the show, Baratunde talks with writer, activist, and fellow Virgo adrienne maree brown about how we can learn to practice democracy in every space we’re in and how our small, civically-minded behaviors in society create a culture that isn’t easy to shake. Stay till the end to hear questions from our live audience.
Baratunde Thurston 0:02
Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde. I'm Baratunde. What's up? If you've been a listener, it's good to have you back. If you're new, welcome to the journey. This is season four. Woo-hoo. Now, in season three, we focused on technology and how our relationship with it could help us citizen. In season two, we took a similar topical approach, but with the economy. In our first season, we sampled a buffet of awesome people who embody the idea of citizen as a verb.
And just a quick refresher, we've identified four key pillars upholding what it means to citizen. One, to citizen is to participate. Assume we have a role to play beyond outsourcing that participation via voting. Number two, to citizen is to invest in relationships with ourselves, with our communities, and with our planet. We are interconnected and there is no way to citizen alone. Number three, to citizen is to understand power and the many ways we have to generate and express it. From spending money and gathering in groups, to spreading ideas and giving our attention to something. And finally, number four, to citizen is to value our collective self-interest, not just our individual self-interest as we practice all the above. In this season, we're exploring how we create a culture of democracy, and we'll be highlighting ideas that inspire us to think differently and more deeply about this word, this word we toss around so easily and frequently, but rarely define.
Democracy at its root is literally people power. It's people wielding our power to govern ourselves, to manage our resources, and to benefit our communities. And as you've probably heard by now, we are in a crisis of democracy.
Reporter 1 2:09
Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades.
Reporter 2 2:13
Our democracy is in crisis.
Reporter 3 2:14
Democracy is facing a crisis of confidence.
Reporter 4 2:18
So is American democracy in crisis?
Baratunde Thurston 2:24
I think a lot of what we end up arguing over and fretting about with this democracy crisis is the mechanics. How does the Constitution determine who the president is? What's the makeup of the court system? Where are the borders drawn between voting districts? Hey, do we even count votes anymore? And don't get me wrong, the mechanics and the structures are important, but we need to go deeper. We need to dig into the soil out of which we grow the democracy we experience. I think of that soil as culture, the collective norms, behaviors and attitudes that establish the conditions for the ways we practice democracy. To me, a culture of democracy is one that encourages, incentivizes and prepares us to practice democracy and to engage in people power in a healthy way.
A healthy culture of democracy helps us citizen. And to help us launch this season's journey, we have writer, activist and movement facilitator, Adrienne Maree Brown. I first came across Adrienne's work nearly 20 years ago back in 2004 through this group she co-founded called The League of Pissed Off Voters. We were both part of a wave of activists trying to prevent George W. Bush from winning a second term as president, and I just loved their swagger. Their logo was the Statue of Liberty with a baseball bat. I'm like, "Yes. That's how you get free." Years later, I started hearing Adrienne Maree Brown's name all over the place when her book, Emergent Strategy, came out. In that book, and her work since, Adrienne focuses on that second pillar. To citizen is to invest in relationships with ourselves, our community, and our planet. She sees that relational work as essential to any political work. In this conversation, Adrienne helps us see democracy as a personal practice, and she and I get personal in ways I didn't see coming. After the break. Adrienne Maree Brown talks practicing democracy at home.
Writer, facilitator, activist, science fiction super nerd, Adrienne Maree Brown has been organizing with various movements for justice since 2001. We're talking the League of Young, aka Pissed Off Voters, The Ruckus Society. Writer of seven books that I know of, fiction and nonfiction, including of course, Emergent Strategy. Pleasure Activism, and her latest, Fables and Spells. Currently, Adrienne is a writer in residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, which she established. Also, she co-hosts two podcast Octavius Parables and How to Survive the End of the World. We've got a live virtual audience here with us. So without further ado, welcome to our podcast, Adrienne Maree Brown. How do you do?
adrienne maree brown 5:29
I'm so good. It's so exciting to be here. I feel like you hunted me down. I've never had so many people... I don't know how you did this, but you reached out and I had so many people like, "Baratunde wants to talk to you." And I was like, "Well, if there's a Virgo man out there trying to talk to me, then I need to answer that call and figure it out." So what's up? How are you?
Baratunde Thurston 5:51
What's up, Virgo sis? I'm great.
adrienne maree brown 5:53
Baratunde Thurston 5:53
And our birthdays are very close together.
adrienne maree brown 5:55
Yes. You're a September?
Baratunde Thurston 5:57
I am a September baby, September 11th.
adrienne maree brown 5:59
We're the best.
Baratunde Thurston 5:59
adrienne maree brown 6:00
Baratunde Thurston 6:00
I've been telling my wife, I've been telling anybody who won't listen.
adrienne maree brown 6:03
You got to tell them all, especially the significant others. They need to understand.
Baratunde Thurston 6:06
They need to recognize our Virgo greatness. It is just really, really an honor and a beauty to exchange this time with you. So thank you.
adrienne maree brown 6:17
I feel the same. Thank you.
Baratunde Thurston 6:19
All right. You often use this term, right relationship, in your work. Can you provide an overview of that? Well, how do you define right relationship as distinct from something else?
adrienne maree brown 6:32
Yeah. I heard that term when I was working with indigenous communities for the first time, really embedding myself and trying to understand really in the biggest picture way, what went wrong here on this land? What has happened and how do we get ourselves back into a relationship that is not transactional, not abusive, not oppressive, not even now, I think, highly distracted? I think a lot of our relationships are ones where we're barely there. We're always passing in the night, passing in the night, passing in the night. Everyone's so busy with living lives that they're not even satisfied by.
So this idea was taught to me that it was like there's actually an order of things. There's a right relationship between humans and the earth that we live in and humans amongst ourselves and humans with all the other creatures that are here, and my sci-fi throws in and probably, humans and other life forms. But there is a way that we can be in relationship that is not just peace and blessings all the time, but there's a way that they can have equanimity, that it can have justice in it, and I got really intrigued. Instantly, it resonated throughout my system that I was like, "Yes."
At that time in movement work, everything was very siloed. So you were either working on environment or you were working on racial justice, or you were working on electoral organizing. Everything was very separated out. And so it was very easy to see all the problems as these distinct separate things. Right relationship is this idea that there's a wholeness to it all, and there's a way that we can drop into a whole world perspective and see ourselves as a part of that world. And yeah, that set me down a whole other life path.
Baratunde Thurston 8:22
I want to rewind into that path, and I think a part-
adrienne maree brown 8:27
Baratunde Thurston 8:27
Yes. Oh, we going to have some tunes. I don't know if we can license these things, but we can acapella it. So-
adrienne maree brown 8:33
Baratunde Thurston 8:34
... your journey into getting into right relationship with democracy. I'm old enough, Adrienne, to remember the League of Pissed Off Voters. I had you all stickers. I'm pretty sure it was a Statue of Liberty with a baseball bat.
adrienne maree brown 8:50
That's right. That was like, I think it had-
Baratunde Thurston 8:51
There were some emotions being processed-
adrienne maree brown 8:54
It was a field. They were in some fields.
Baratunde Thurston 8:54
... through that attempt to stop George W. Bush from gaining a second term. And so can you take us back to this effort that you co-led to get President George W. Bush out of office? What motivated you to do that work back then? And were you just trying to get Bush out, or were you trying to accomplish something more or different than that?
adrienne maree brown 9:17
I thought of myself as a very young, feisty revolutionary. I was like, "We got to figure this out." And I had been doing harm reduction work with active drug users and sex workers through the Harm Reduction Coalition. And George W. Bush had cut the funding for all that work because he was only funding abstinence related work. You had to be cold turkey, no sex, no drugs, or you weren't going to get any support. So I was upset. And then the buildup was happening. It's 9/11. So 9/11 happened, and then we're having this reaction from the US that was like, "We've got to go to war and we're going to bomb Iraq. We're going to bomb Afghanistan." And I got moved into direct action through that because I was like, "We've got to stop this. We're misunderstanding what this moment is. We're misunderstanding our role as a nation, and he's foolishly leading us into a vengeful fatal situation. We've got to stop him."
And so it was about him, but it wasn't just about any one issue. It was like, "I can see how he's impacting my work. I can see how he's impacting all of us" and his worldview, which was this white male conservative worldview. I was like, "This is dangerous for all of us."
So I didn't really know anything about electoral politics. I always say this. Coming into that, I was just like, "I know about organizing. I'm learning about how we move people." And at the time, it felt very innovative to be like, "We need to bring everything we know about organizing into how we do electoral work." And I still think that. I don't think we've mastered that bridge. I do think that I came to understand the placement of these different strategies as part of a larger way of doing the work, but at the time, it was actually really invigorating to go... I ended up book touring that book because we had something like 12 or 13 authors and hi-jinks ensued. I didn't plan to book tour. I thought I was just going to be editing. But then something happened when I got up in front of people. A spark would come through me, and that's where I learned that I could get up in front of people and that I could channel something of the moment into a room of people.
But yeah, we were lit up about this idea that electoral organizing should be part of a larger strategy for how we build community and how we change policy. And we just had this moment of none of us even know how to... We're trying to change the world, but none of us understand how policy gets developed. None of us understand how our electoral system even works. None of us understand where the loopholes are. And so we're getting redlined. We're getting misdirected. We're getting disenfranchised from a system that has actually a lot of power over our daily lives. So I felt really hopeful. I thought we were going to win. We didn't-
Baratunde Thurston 12:06
Yeah. I remember that painfully.
adrienne maree brown 12:07
... as everyone knows, but I felt like I learned a ton about organizing there because the way election organizing works is cyclical. And so it's these cycles where you're like, we're going to go do our thing. Oh, now, Community. Hey. Hey, Community, we didn't forget about you.
Baratunde Thurston 12:23
On the back end. As opposed on the front end.
adrienne maree brown 12:24
We still need your support and then forget about it. And so it was like, how do we make this a sustainable process? Something where the people who are elected see themselves as every day a part of a larger movement of change?
Baratunde Thurston 12:36
It's holistic politics in some way. Holistic power contention. Just thank you for Emergent Strategy.
adrienne maree brown 12:47
Oh, you're welcome.
Baratunde Thurston 12:47
A 2017 book. We have it in our house. My wife quotes you all the time.
adrienne maree brown 12:52
Oh, that must be so fun for you.
Baratunde Thurston 12:53
And the word emergent is just a part of our relationship.
adrienne maree brown 12:57
Oh, I'm glad.
Baratunde Thurston 12:58
Yeah, it's very cool. On your journey to publishing that book, you were publicly chronicling what I would describe as the evolution of your thoughts and practices around this right relationship concept-
adrienne maree brown 13:13
Baratunde Thurston 13:13
... around emergence itself. And in 2013, you wrote the following on your blog. "The invitation of Emergent Strategy is to come together in community, build authentic relationships and see what emerges from the conversations, connections, visions, and needs. I don't see this as creating something from scratch, but rather innovating from need." So I want to share a brief thing and then ask you a thing.
adrienne maree brown 13:35
Baratunde Thurston 13:37
Our podcast is How to Citizen. And in developing it, we developed core principles. One of them is that to citizen is to invest in relationships with yourself, with others and the planet around you. And so I feel very simpatico right now. We're swimming in similar waters and honestly, probably influenced by you, but this overlapping key that relationships come first. Yeah, they're like an input into a development, not an afterthought or just a money raising concept. How did you arrive at this inside of prioritizing these authentic connections? And is there a line from your Stop Bush work into a deeper respect and prioritization of community and relationship as the first step?
adrienne maree brown 14:22
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I think that loss taught me a lot because we were surrounded by people who were supposedly the most strategic people. We were getting trainings and we were going through so much work to try to understand how this all worked. And I was like, "Something's not working." At the time, I was really calling it manipulation. It felt like there's a sense of manipulation inside of this that we're only engaging in relationship to the degree that we can manipulate people to do what we've already decided they should do, which is to vote for this person whether or not of most service to them, whether or not we understand what their needs are.
And again, the cyclical nature of it meant by the time I wrote the book, it was 10 years of different kinds of organizing and direct action. All this stuff had passed. And I was like, "Do we even know how to do democracy?" And I started asking this question to people. I would be in a room full of people and I'd be like, "How many of you practice democracy?" And I'd have everyone, "Raise your hands if you think you practice democracy in your actual life." And people sometimes, "So what do you mean by that?" "Yo, do you sit down together and talk about how you're spending the resources of your home and your community? Do you talk about how you're agreeing to keep each other safe? Do you talk about how you're agreeing to share time and who has decision-making power and do you make those decisions together?" And all this.
So there would always be these confident people who'd raise their hands. I'd be like, "Do you do this in your household? Right." And I was like, "Are the kids involved? Hands come down. Are your parents involved? Is anyone else involved?" And that's just in the household. So I was like, "Okay, great. For the people who still have your hands up, do you practice it in your neighborhood just on your block? Anybody practicing democracy on your block?" More hands come down. I almost never made it to community, that people in whatever they think of as their community, they weren't practicing democracy. Most people in our organizations aren't practicing democracy.
And so something about the fractal nature of that clicked for me, because I was learning this concept of fractals that we're each these small cells of something much larger than ourselves. So I'm like, "We are trying to change what's at the very top of this structure, the president. If we change that, but I'm like, "But no one's actually practicing democracy." So even the people running for office are often people who've never actually practiced democracy in that way, and they're not practicing it intimately. So I got excited by that problem because I was like, "Well, that's something solvable. There's practices. I like solvable problems.
Baratunde Thurston 16:50
I respect that there's a problem and any problem is solvable.
adrienne maree brown 16:55
Yeah. I was like, "Ah, got it. Okay." So we need to figure out how to practice democracy, small D democracy. And I was definitely influenced by my mentor, Grace Lee Boggs. I had moved to Detroit. I was learning from her. And that's one of the things she was often talking about is we need to get people back in the practice. She would say democracy is a really beautiful thing if you actually practice it but very few of us do. We opt out. We find ways to reinstate hierarchy to move around having to actually do democratic practice. So that piece around, "Well, who am I in relationship with enough that I would want to practice democracy with them?" Very few. I have a very high standard for who I want to make decisions with and that's actually not how the world is structured. You don't just get to decide.
Baratunde Thurston 17:39
And if you were to boil down your definition of democracy with a practice of it, is it as you seem to imply just now, shared decision making? Joint decision making? You just said, "Who am I in community with that I want to practice democracy with?"
adrienne maree brown 17:54
Baratunde Thurston 17:54
Those are the precursors. So how do you define it?
adrienne maree brown 17:56
There's this group called Movement Generation who I adore, and they define economy as the management of home, the management of the resources of home, which I really love because they're like, "Anytime we're talking about how we manage our shared resources of the earth, of our community, of our family, that's an economic conversation." And so to me, democracy is in that vein that I'm like, "We're talking about how do we make the decisions about our resources?" Including the resource of time, the resource of money, the resource of land, the resource of food, the resource of water, the resource of air, the resource of education.
And fundamentally, I think that's what governance is about. We're living our lives, but at a certain point, we have to say, "There's finite resources in a finite lifetime. How are we going to make the decisions related to that?" And for me, I don't enjoy debating for the sake of debate. I know some people do. I'm always like, "Okay. What's the most logical, practical way that we can share these resources that everyone can actually share them?" And this, I'll say braided into also the science fiction work and reading that I was doing at that time, because Octavia Butler said, "You don't know who you're going to end up in the apocalypse with." And so that always felt like this, like, "Oh, wow."
Baratunde Thurston 19:16
Yeah. Who am I going to be the community with? Who am I going to have to practice democracy with?
adrienne maree brown 19:16
Exactly, right? So I was like, "Right now, we have the privilege, many of us, of getting to choose who do I want to live with and who do I want to make decisions with and how do I want to do this." But actually, long term, we need to learn how to just do this whoever we land with. And that got me excited because I was like, "Okay. What is the future I actually want? And how can I start practicing a democratic way of being that moves me towards that?"
Baratunde Thurston 19:43
The fractal thing and the democracy thing are so intertwined. And I think for me, it's been a relief honestly, to hear someone describe the value of the small.
adrienne maree brown 19:53
Baratunde Thurston 19:54
So much of our save democracy conversation is a lot of words and debate and not actually a lot of practice. It's inches, column inches of thoughts and op-eds and whatnot, but it evokes large scale structural reform.
adrienne maree brown 20:09
Baratunde Thurston 20:10
And your based question, your basic, not in the insult, but in the true elemental level question of how are we practicing democracy in the communities we're a part of, what communities are we a part of first? How are we practicing? What are some of the small practices, the small activities that you think reverberate upward into the larger structure?
adrienne maree brown 20:32
Yeah. One thing I always say to people, because sometimes, people are large versus small. I'm like, "Everything large is made up of small parts." We live in an atomic world. So every single thing that you can look at from another person to a super structure, to a governance, to a nation, everything is made up of smaller parts. So it's not an either or. It's saying, "If I want to impact something large, I have to be able to tune into the smallest practice of that large thing and then be able to zhuzh it up.
Baratunde Thurston 21:07
Oh, thank you for using zhuzh-
adrienne maree brown 21:07
Baratunde Thurston 21:07
... as a verb.
adrienne maree brown 21:07
We need to zhuzh.
Baratunde Thurston 21:07
adrienne maree brown 21:07
We need to zhuzh. We need to zhuzh more. And so some of the practices, and this has really guided a lot of what Emergent Strategy has focused on. So conflict, being able to be in conflict with integrity. I call it generative conflict, which I learned from generative somatics, but this idea of conflict, if we do it well, actually generates more possibilities for us. It really makes it clear that, oh, we can have differences of opinion and we can work through them and find a way for it. So generative conflict. Our nation is basically broken when it comes to this idea of generative conflict. Right now, conflict is dropping to the lowest common denominator, throwing insults at each other and seeing the person who you're arguing with, you're trying to dehumanize them.
Actually, the democratic process of that generative conflict would be, how do I humanize you? Even if I totally disagree with you, how do I find the places where there's some potential alignment? And the thing I always come back to is we only have this one planet, so we have to figure out how to get along enough to keep going on this planet, right?
Baratunde Thurston 22:10
Right. It's the ultimate resource we're figuring out how to share.
adrienne maree brown 22:13
Exactly, right? And as much as I pray every day, I'm like, "Aliens, just help us. You don't even have to come rescue us. Just let us know if you know a little bit more about how to do this." But generative conflict feels like a really big one. And then actually being able to talk openly about power dynamics is another one that feels really important in most of our organizations. So a lot of my work during this time was facilitating organizations. And I would come in and what always surprised me was the people in power didn't seem to know they were in power, or they didn't seem to be comfortable talking about how much power they had, and often, they would even take a victim role. "It's so hard being me trying to just do what I'm doing." And I know as I've ascended into more powerful positions, how quickly this happens because you're like, "No, it really is hard." It's hard being responsible.
Baratunde Thurston 22:59
Well because power is this dirty word.
adrienne maree brown 23:00
It's a dirty word. We don't hold as well.
Baratunde Thurston 23:02
It comes with a baggage of undeservedness.
adrienne maree brown 23:04
Baratunde Thurston 23:05
So you're like, I don't want this thing that I don't deserve. I don't want to feel like I have more than you, but I do.
adrienne maree brown 23:10
Exactly. And we both don't want to have it and we don't want to give it up.
Baratunde Thurston 23:15
And that's tension.
adrienne maree brown 23:15
Once you have a little bit of it, you're like, I'm not sharing this with you now. Mine is kind of nice. And then I think we need to get really good at redistributing resources. And that is actually very difficult, especially right now we're socialized in America and to a capitalist worldview that says, accumulate as much as you can, as individually as you can. And that's how you'll know you lived a good life. And even though we see that doesn't seem to pan out, we see a lot of people who are very wealthy, who are very depressed, very isolated, spinning out all the time. Now we get to see it all on social media, taking over social media, ruining it. All kinds of fun things are happening for the wealthy, but what we see is they struggle deeply with actually relinquishing the amount they've gone over what they need. So those are some of the things that I'm like, oh, do I know how to redistribute my resources? Do I know how to share decision making power? Do I know how to have integrity in a fight? Do I know how to decentralize power and make decisions with others? I'm great at it in some context. I'm not great at it in all contexts. And I think even being able to be clear with ourselves about that is useful.
Merger strategy, I had a friend reflect back to me recently that so much of it is can you become self-aware of where you are in the organization of all things? Can you become self-aware? And from that self-awareness, have agency over the choices and the decisions you make and how you operate, the way you do your relationships.
Baratunde Thurston 24:45
And the beauty and the challenge of that is it requires internal assessment, internal work, and other than our training and hyper individualism and growth at all costs, we have an external training too. Go out there, be active out there. Activism is an external thing.You find an enemy, you find a villain, and you protest them.
adrienne maree brown 25:08
And you go against them. Yeah.
Baratunde Thurston 25:09
Point at them, and the me and the us and the I. It's like, well, I'm fine. I'm the activist.
adrienne maree brown 25:16
I'm a revolutionary.
Baratunde Thurston 25:18
I'm going to go and proof that thing that-
adrienne maree brown 25:19
I could never be the evil overload.
Baratunde Thurston 25:21
I'm the Virgo. I'm damn near perfect.
adrienne maree brown 25:24
I mean, I'm literally perfect. Yes. I mean, well, this is what my mentor, again, Grace Lee Boggs said to me, " We must transform ourselves to transform the world."
Baratunde Thurston 25:33
Yeah. Can you briefly remind us of who Grace Lee Boggs is, not everyone knows?
adrienne maree brown 25:38
Totally. I would love to. Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American activist who threw her lot in with the black liberation struggle in Detroit. And she was an incredible thinker and writer. She was always finding a new learning ground. And when I met her, she was 92 and she lived to be 100. And so those eight years of overlap were really meaningful years for me. But yeah, she started a ton of organizations. She was always starting new experiments and projects. She and her partner Jimmy Boggs in Detroit, they started Detroit Summer.
They started a bike cooperative. They helped with the Avalon Bakery, getting off the ground, but they were always figuring out, like the mayor at one point said, "You guys are a bunch of naysayers." And she was like, "Oh yeah, we can create stuff too. We're not just saying no to you. We can also create." And so really abundant creative force and thinker.
Baratunde Thurston 26:34
You were bringing up Grace in the context of this internal work and what we want to see in the world, we kind of have to be internally.
adrienne maree brown 26:41):
Well, I think when I first heard her say that, I was like, we've got such big problems out here. I don't need to go meditate and be quiet with myself. That's not what's necessary. We've got to save the whole world. And what has happened as I have matured and been humbled by life has been this recognition that the front line of all these systems is actually inside of me. And again, just like there's not a small versus large, there's not an in versus out. That's an illusion. It's like all these systems I'm trying to fight against live within me as well. And so even as I'm doing the external work, I also have to be noticing where it's showing up within me. That I'm like, oh, I'm yelling at Jeff Bezos for his billionaire behaviors, but using Amazon to buy my holiday packages. I really look back at my life and I'm like, oh, transphobia had taken root in my life. I've had to work to clear that in my heart and to be aware of it. Fat phobia landed in my life. I had to work to love myself. I had to feel, how do I heal that?
Capitalism, patriarchy, all these things are within us, and that's why we're not able to succeed when we just go with this external fight because they call out our hypocrisy and our community calls out our hypocrisy. I think right now we're in this very tender moment inside of movement space because everyone's pointing in every direction like, wait, you are the that. No. It's like, yeah, we're all are.
Baratunde Thurston 28:06
You're the hypocrite. You're not perfect. You're not perfect.
adrienne maree brown 28:06
If we let go of this idea that some of us are good and bad, we could get so much more done. It's like we're all infected by these viral systems and we can actually infuse our mycelial networks with other energy that actually helps us heal.
Baratunde Thurston 28:24
Yeah. So if the inside is the outside and the small is the large, these ideas come from your obsession with fractals. And I just want to spend a beat on my memory of fractals goes back to probably high school, maybe middle school, some pubescent time where my hormones and physiology are confusing my ability to locate it in time specifically, but I remember pretty pictures.
adrienne maree brown 28:49
Baratunde Thurston 28:50
And I remember the idea of this small pattern replicated to this large and beautiful scale, which had the exact same pattern in the meta. How are you defining fractals? And tell me a little bit more about the importance of them from the science to the application of movement.
adrienne maree brown 29:10
Yeah. I mean, I feel like I'm still constantly trying to understand it scientifically. And sometimes I'm like, do I have it? Is this it? But the way I understand fractals is this, the way that we can understand patterns that replicate themselves in the same way no matter what scale you find them at. So from the very small to the very large. And we live in a fractal universe. So there's patterns that we can find all over all around us that replicate from the smallest to the largest. And it's simple stuff like looking at broccoli or ferns or looking at the way the roots of a tree look and looking at the way our lungs look, looking at the way deltas look from the sky, looking at the way blood moves through our systems. We are a fractal representation of the way the earth looks and works-
Baratunde Thurston 29:59
And the universe.
adrienne maree brown 29:59
... and the universe. It's really exciting.
Baratunde Thurston 30:03
Yeah, and the universes.
adrienne maree brown 30:03
I always say we have these the same shape on our fingerprints as a galaxy. It's really cool. You can just geek out and be like, cool. Do mushrooms, have a fun time.
Baratunde Thurston 30:11
I know. Now I can't stop staring at my finger.
adrienne maree brown 30:14
Exactly, right? But the revolutionary potential inside of that is what makes me even more excited, almost titillated. Is that, oh, if these patterns replicate, then when we notice a pattern, we could start to shift it at a small scale and possibly change what is able to even replicate up into the largest scale. That excites me.
Baratunde Thurston 30:36
Do you have a brief story that exemplifies where a small pattern shift rippled out and led to a bigger pattern shift, a demonstration of the power of fractal theory in movement?
adrienne maree brown 30:52
Yes, I do. So there's a young black woman that I hired to work for me back at the League of Young Voters, and stuff was a mess. The organization was trying to figure out how to organization. She did not get handled well, but I knew she was a genius. I knew she was brilliant. I knew she deserved every chance that she could get. So when I went to Ruckus Society, I hired her again. I was like, "I know that they didn't treat you well, but I'm bringing you to work with me." And she was a black strategist and she learned everything about direct action.
And she was like, "Black people need to have this skillset." And I was like, "Yeah, run with that. Build it out." She ended up becoming one of the co-founders of something called the BlackOUT Collective, which trained all these people in Black Direct action, including tons of people who were part of the Black Lives Matter movement. So when it was time for Black Lives Matter to escalate and do all this action, they had some of the best training that you could have that came through the channel of this black woman who stays behind the scenes. She's like, "I don't want all the attention. I don't need all the light on me."
But because of her, they were some of the most coordinated, brilliant, effective and media delicious. The media was like, "Oh my goodness, this action." I'm like, "Yes." And I look at, to me, those stories where I'm believing in one person and seeing how one person has a particular bridge available in them that maybe no one else can see. And letting them build that bridge leads to a whole movement being supported and effective and changing the conversation of our time. Every time I see anything about Black Lives Matters impact and people on the cover of the magazines and everything, I think about her. I think about that trajectory.
Baratunde Thurston 32:36
Thank you for that clarity. And I think there's such an interpretive tension where someone could say like, "Oh, she's saying I don't have to worry about the big stuff. I can just be me, myself, and I in my little abode in my nuclear family situation and kind of disconnect." And I think what when I'm hearing is it's all connected. Everything is everything. Hello Lauren Hill. And so if we start to adjust at the small, it can ripple out. It's the opposite of trickle down. It's specific the ripple out.
adrienne maree brown 33:06
Yeah. And it actually is like more than it can. It does all the time.
Baratunde Thurston 33:09
adrienne maree brown 33:10
So part of fractal awareness is just starting to take responsibility for what am I currently putting into the pattern. If I'm not paying attention, if I'm mindless, if I'm just operating by what I was trained to do or if I'm just reactive, most of the people who are operating that way are putting unhealthy conflict, unhealthy patterns, passive aggression. I tell people, look in your family, what are the patterns of emotional behavior and conflict resolution you see in your family? That's usually the same pattern that you are then helping replicate in the world. All these people coming from places where fighting is either done through extreme violence and yelling and anger and awareness or extreme repression. That was my way. Push it down, put a smile on it, keep it moving.
And if those forces are trying to come into relationship, it's going to be a total mess. And so what needs to change on both sides? And my family, we've been in this practice now like, "I'm upset with you." It's a shock to my system every time I have to be like, I'm upset. And I'm trying to close the gap between when I feel upset and when I can express that I'm upset. And then I'm also trying to work from that Buddhist principle of is it kind, is it true? Is it necessary, when I communicate that? So it's like, " I'm upset and I'm not trying to smash you or harm you or denigrate you or shrink you. I'm trying to tell you so that we can adjust so that we can find that right relationship again." And I always bring up my friend, Prentis Hemphill, who teaches us that boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.
Baratunde Thurston 34:52
You going to make me cry up in here.
adrienne maree brown 34:54
I cry all the time about this stuff, like when I'm like, "Oh my God." I'm in my mid-40s and I'm like, what'd my whole life look like if I started out learning how to fight fair and how to have good boundaries, and that it was okay to express if something hurt my feelings? And then how would that lead into the kind of governance that I have done in my life? What kind of leader would I be if I wasn't all the time trying to run away from conflict? And I could really say how I felt, and then what would my city look like if we weren't punitive with people? But instead we're like, "Oh, there's some harm here. How do we bring into the surface and adjust and hold it as a community?" I mean, it's all connected.
Baratunde Thurston 35:36
It's all connected. That conflict avoidance and desire not to fend, offend or push away by stating needs, by stating hurt, resonates deeply with me. And so that's where the emotions coming from. I am-
adrienne maree brown 35:51
Where has that shown up for you?
Baratunde Thurston 35:56
I think I have a very sacred story around my own mother and all the things she did for me to survive and just be here and be able to talk to you. It's a little too simplistic and binary in the good person.
adrienne maree brown 36:12
Baratunde Thurston 36:12
She was a good person.
adrienne maree brown 36:12
She's good. Yeah.
Baratunde Thurston 36:13
And so I didn't allow her a lot of shades of other ways of being or any real fallibility.
adrienne maree brown 36:19
Baratunde Thurston 36:19
And so I grew up very sensitive to her needs and saw my role as assisting in that. And so not really articulating my own. Like, I'm a good son.
adrienne maree brown 36:30
You're like, I'm a good son.
Baratunde Thurston 36:30
And this is what a good son does.
adrienne maree brown 36:30
She's a good mom, I'm a good son, that's what we're doing. Yeah.
Baratunde Thurston 36:30
And so I didn't have conflict. I accommodated, I supported, I stood by or I smothered my own sense of conflict because at some level I was worried that this one person who was taking care of me wouldn't.
adrienne maree brown 36:48
Baratunde Thurston 36:50
So that fear prevented my own full expression and prevented my own full reception, I think of her expression. Which was more than just good person because there's no such thing. She was just person-
adrienne maree brown 37:03
She was person.
Baratunde Thurston 37:03
... capable of all kinds of things. Yeah. So I've been feeling through and growing through and emerging from kind of that story and trying to shift my pattern so it fractals out and becomes something else
adrienne maree brown 37:17
Baratunde Thurston 37:21
After the break, Adrienne Maree Brown on using fiction to see democracy, not just as crisis, but as possibility. As I was looking through the principles of emergence that y'all have listed on the Emergent Strategy Institute site, several of them resonated with me. There's this changes constant be like water and trust the people. If you trust the people, they become trustworthy. And I'm going to take you on a brief journey through my mother, Arnita Lorraine Thurston.
adrienne maree brown 37:58
Baratunde Thurston 37:59
Because I saw where you got that from, Lao Tzu. The I Ching. The Chinese Book of Changes. I grew up with that text. My mother was a practicing Daoist diviner. She consulted the The I Ching. I literally have six translations-
adrienne maree brown 38:17
I love that.
Baratunde Thurston 38:18
... on my desk right now. And so when I was looking up the origin and that hexagrams, kind of the chapters, the verses that this practice points to in terms of this line, "If you don't trust the people, they become untrustworthy," which you all flipped. "If you do trust the people, they become trustworthy." That's made of two tales, that's made of, the top one is essentially a water or a lake. The bottom is thunder, rumble, and they can symbolize joy on the top and movement on the bottom. And the harmonious intersection of joy with movement, that just represents a lot of my mother as I more fully see her. It certainly represents a lot of you, and so you're like, "You're all up in my fractal right now."
adrienne maree brown 39:05
I'm your mom. I'm glad we figured it out.
Baratunde Thurston 39:08
Just in terms of seeing that connectivity. So I just share that first as a point of connection, as a point of gratitude.
adrienne maree brown 39:15
I love that. I just love the ways our moms were like, and our parents. It took me so long to be like, "Oh, you have culture." You have culture. You have things that you bring into the house. My mom had Khalil Gibran, The Prophet, around and we read it every year. And it's just certain things I'm like, oh, that's infused into my system in ways that I will never be able to even pull apart. And so I love that The I Ching is in there and the Dao is in there for you. I want to add an addendum is the people will become trustworthy or the boundaries will become clear.
I feel like I didn't understand that until I was experimenting more with emergent strategy that not everyone will become trustworthy in my lifetime. I have practiced hard at extending my trust to people in spite of my intuition or in spite of their behavior and being like, oh, you know what? I have to also trust myself. I have to trust myself to know when a boundary is needed. So I always try to make sure that's added on there.
Baratunde Thurston 40:17
Thank you. The other principle that I want to ask you about is there's always enough time for the right work.
adrienne maree brown 40:24
Baratunde Thurston 40:25
In this time, when we think about shifting patterns and practicing democracy and creating a healthier culture of it, what do you see as the right work right now?
adrienne maree brown 40:38
Listening back to the book or listening back to things from the book, I can feel how my Virgo was such at the front. The word is everywhere in it. And what I mean by right there is meaningful work, transformative work. The work that is radical in the sense of what Angela Davis talks about, like going to the root and actually trying to pull something up from the root. And so when I was facilitating as my main way of spending my time, I was always looking for that. I'm like, okay, we're having a conversation up here and it's petty and it feels chaotic, but could we go deeper? Could we go underneath that? What's actually at stake?
And there's something really tender in what you just said about your mother where you're like, if I had a conflict with her, would I stop being cared for? It goes so deep actually, and for most of us happening is if this thing breaks, is my survival on the line? Is my fundamental belonging on the line? We don't want that to be what we're talking about when we're having an organizational struggle, when we're having a familial struggle, when we're having a community struggle, but usually that's what we're saying. Am I going to be left out? And am I not going to live? Or is no one going to love me? Am I unlovable? It's really deep territory. So as a facilitator, I was always like, can we get to the 20,000 leagues as quickly in the meeting as possible because that's where the shift will happen that will allow this thing to move. I was like, I don't want to be the kind of facilitator who's making a very beautiful deck chair arrangement on a Titanic.
I really want to be like, if the ship is sinking, what do we have to do? And I think we're in that moment of human history, human existence and particularly nation. You know, I call myself a post nationalist, which doesn't mean that we won't be citizens of something. I think that we have to learn how to be citizens to each other, citizens of something that we can actually belong to and that cares for us and loves us. I'm not sure that the US experiment will be that. And I feel like we have to be able to say that if this ship is sinking, but we are all still alive and there's still an earth here, there's still a way to live. How quickly will we tune into that? How quickly can we have the right conversation? And that's what I'm now trying to affect on the largest scale. Most of my writing, most of my books are like, the climate condition is no longer pending.
It's just a matter of your level of privilege in terms of how much you're experiencing it. And the climate situation's not the only thing, but it is a big potentially unifying human condition, and we're being distracted from it. Tony Morrison talked about racism as a distraction, but there's so many others as well. There's so many things that we are being distracted from our best selves to stay battling for our right to exist. And it's like, no, we have the right to exist. The earth gives us everything we need. Can we accept the gift? Can we get back into that right relationship? Can we spend our time on the right work? Is that what that arc is?
Baratunde Thurston 43:43
Thank you for putting voice to the possibility that the story that we've created of something like the United States or a nation in particular, isn't the end of the communities we can define for our own survival and our own thriving, and to get deeper than that. As well as-
adrienne maree brown 44:00
Yeah. Empire's fall, humans continue.
Baratunde Thurston 44:02
People continue. Yeah.
adrienne maree brown 44:04
So far, and we can say, "Please let us continue. I'm really into humans."
Baratunde Thurston 44:08
I'm into earth-
adrienne maree brown 44:09
I'm into earth.
Baratunde Thurston 44:09
... and being a human on earth. It is my strong preference for planet.
adrienne maree brown 44:14
It's my strong preference too. I'm like, until we find other earth situations. But I do think throughout human history, it gives me some kind of peace to be like, oh, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, these empires like, things change, but then humans are so wonderful. I mean, we do awful things to each other, but I really have also been really trying to say, how do I bring my attention to what's best in us and how do we grow that? I always say, what we pay attention to grows. And so I'm like, that moment you're talking about with your mother, I'm like, that might be the best part of you. Is that tender, vulnerable part of you that loves your mom and from that place is learning how to love in your life. I feel that way with my parents and my grand. I'm just having a major breakthrough with my grandmother after a long estrangement.
I mean, it's just really, yeah, it's really fresh, but it's like, can I give possibility for this woman who's 90 to love me still, or love me again or fall back, or learn how to love me in spite of all her beliefs? And it's so tender. It's like everything about love and humans is in those moments.
Baratunde Thurston 45:25
Thank you for sharing that and where you're at right now. And this word possibility kind of coincides with the sci-fi world that you're also so deeply embedded with and inspired by and contributing to now. I mean, China Miéville's work and inspiration shows up, I remember from The Scar, The Possible Sword.
adrienne maree brown 45:48
So I want everyone to... I'm like, I can't believe we're not all talking about The Possible Sword all the time.
Baratunde Thurston 45:52
adrienne maree brown 45:54
It's the coolest thing that ever happened that anyone ever wrote. I'm just like, really, yeah, please make all your people read it.
Baratunde Thurston 46:04
Okay, hold up, wait a minute. We interrupt this Black nerd moment to offer an explainer-Tunde about The Possible Sword. Back in the early 2000s, a friend introduced me to China Miéville, this British science fiction and fantasy author who writes incredible, supernatural and speculative world. I read three of his works all set in the same world of Bas-Lag. And in one of those books, The Scar, this thing called The Possible Sword, was introduced. According to the Bas-Lag Wiki, you got to love the internet, a fake place with a real wiki entry, quote, "The blade mines possibilities from the swordsman's motions. By injecting controlled uncertainty into his or her movements, the swordsman is able to land an arbitrary number of solid possible hits in addition to the factual hits. The effect is that the swordsman's arm appears to blur, and the swords target suffers several dozen cuts with each swing of the sword." So basically The Possible Sword is this object that represents both what we do with it and everything we could do with it.
And China Miéville didn't stop there. The Possible Sword is powered by a Possibility Engine. This is a magical quantum technology, obviously not real, or is it? To me, it just means that we all have more possibilities within us than we often acknowledge. And sometimes we need fiction to remind us of our ability to change facts. And knowing that Adrienne Maree Brown has read and incorporated ideas from authors like China Miéville, it's simply dope to me and hopefully to you too. Now, back to my giddy nerd out moment over sci-fi writers.
adrienne maree brown 47:50
Please make all your people read it.
Baratunde Thurston 47:53
Because it is the coolest thing I've read, maybe ever.
adrienne maree brown 47:56
May read the book again because it's so cool.
Baratunde Thurston 47:57
Well it gives and shows up, but no one shows up ever more than the name you've already cited, the woman you've already cited, Octavia Butler. You've got a whole podcast dedicated to sharing her work.
adrienne maree brown 48:06
Baratunde Thurston 48:06
Thank you for that. I dove into the Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents during COVID lockdown as I was traveling the country heavily alone, making the America Outdoors PBS series. Writing my relationship with nature with this sister in my head during the apocalypse choosing community. But what stood out to me is the possibility of growth and community, and democracy even and especially in an apocalyptic setting. This Acorn community that is featured and the way people show up for each other. What do you think Octavia Butler can teach us about citizen as a verb, about practicing democracy?
adrienne maree brown 48:51
Yeah, one of the reasons I go back to her over and over again is because she was writing from a place of despair. She was paying attention enough to be like, yeah, this is very upsetting. And a lot of, we call her prophetic. Many people say she's prophetic, but really she was like, I'm just paying attention and this is the inevitable place that things lead to if we don't change our behavior. And I love that because that seems to me like a fundamental citizen skill is to be like, can you actually take in what's really happening and just follow that thread. And just be like, oh, am I down with that? Am I down to participate in that? I think if more of us thought that way, there'd be interventions we would make in the immediate, because we're like, oh, I don't want us to get there.
But she also said so many things around who we ask to lead us or who we allow to lead us, and what are the qualities of what we think of as leadership. So I think right now we've gotten very comfortable with having people in leadership who lie to us and we give a lot of money to people to campaign in ways that we know are dishonest and saying things that we're like, "Eh, they may or may not ever do that." And then when they get in office, they don't do it. And we're like, it's the normal thing now is to be like, who's the best, most charming, maybe somewhat attractive married liar that we can-
Baratunde Thurston 50:17
I want my liar.
adrienne maree brown 50:18
Yeah, I want my liar, not your liar. Right, exactly. You get me. So I think one of the things Octavia was often pointing to is, what does it mean to be a leader who tells the truth? What does it mean to be a leader who... Especially when the truth is hard, and it's like, this isn't the truth you want to hear. I'm really interested right now in who are people who are willing to lead and say, things are probably going to get worse. We're heading into a period of human history where what we're experiencing now, a lot of the shock of it is because those who could have prepared us for it have not.
Baratunde Thurston 50:48
Right, nowhere more clear than climate.
adrienne maree brown 50:50
Exactly. I'm like, there's no positive pitch to the amount of pandemic we're heading into. There's no positive pitch to the amount of climate crisis we're heading into, but there's possibility in it. If we actually say, we're heading into it, the storm is directly ahead. For some of us, we're already in it. And we can make adaptations right now that increase maximum survival and that actually make it so that survival could be generative and pleasurable and fun, but it requires letting go of some of the ways we were imagining this time. So Octavia was like, what if we let go of even the idea of having to stay here at earth? What if the possibility for human life is to take root amongst the stars? And that felt like a viable possibility for her. Something I know from studying some of the papers in the drafts that she's done of the Parable of the Trickster, which would've been the third book in that trilogy, was that all the other planets that she could imagine depressed her. She couldn't actually finish the next book because she was like... I think trying to write other planets made her love earth so much. And from reading that, my conclusion is, taking root amongst the stars would also mean taking root here. This is our place amongst the stars. And if we don't take root here, then the earth will have to cast us off. Everything else goes extinct, and the earth continues. That's been the pattern. And I'm interested in leaders who are like, "Hey, let's not go extinct. Let's make the adaptations we need to make to not go extinct. What does that look like?"
And I also think that she believed in the small community. So you mentioned the Acorn community where they were practicing, but Acorn spoiler, I feel okay spoiling it because it's been out for so long. But spoiler, that community gets destroyed by the Christian right in her book, and her people don't give up. Their children are kidnapped from them. They still don't give up. They changed their strategy to a Zapatista model where they're going door to door and saying, "Let's build a shared vision. Here's what earth seat is, here's what the practices are. And all we need is a small and mighty crew that believes in this, and we can actually hold on to some possibility for humanity." And that has been really meaningful to me as an organizer because I'm like, oh, some of my comrades go for the biggest bucket, and I love that, and I get really moved by the work that they do. But what I have been drawn to is how do I approach every single person I interact with as a potential freedom fighter, as a potential comrade, and whatever location they're in is their frontline, including the frontline within themselves and wherever they are. And I find really interesting people ready to roll and play and experiment with me in that way. Unexpected, right? And I'm always like, yeah, I think we really underestimate folks who are at the barbershop. We underestimate the person on the bus. We underestimate the stranger we meet on the plane. We underestimate our coworkers. I'm like, you're not just the job title you have. How are you going to survive? Let's talk about it. And I'm trying to encourage more people to have those conversations.
There's been these moments. For me, I was in Italy when COVID-19, when it hit, where I was like, oh, this is a crisis and everything's about to shut down. There's these moments in history where you're like, oh, where am I? Am I with people that I can trust right now? Will these people keep me safe? I was in Italy, I was like, I don't speak the language. I'm in this little rural town. I have to go back home. I was like, I need to find people that are my people enough to survive.
Baratunde Thurston 54:24
You have to be root in your own earth.
adrienne maree brown 54:24
Baratunde Thurston 54:24
adrienne maree brown 54:27
I had to go find my earth, which was with some whales in Hawaii, but it was like, this is what it... Also, the whales have a lot to tell us right now there’s also-
Baratunde Thurston 54:35
It seems like that's the consistent message. Everyone has a lot to tell us if we're able able to listen.
adrienne maree brown 54:41
Baratunde Thurston 54:42
And there's this fractal link I'm feeling between you and someone like Nsé Ufot, who reminds us the way you talked about the barbershop person or your coworker, we underestimate them. We don't ask much of them. We don't see much potential in them. But if we shifted that and saw the opposite, we'd have so much more access to power collectively.
adrienne maree brown 55:04
That's right. That's right.
Baratunde Thurston 55:06
And so the whale, the barber, the coworker, the non-voter, these are all possible allies and community members to help us practice democracy with.
adrienne maree brown 55:16
Exactly. And in our nation, I would also have to say the non-citizen, right? The person who can't vote, the person who... I think of that Warsan Shire poem all the time, and it's like the person who had to leave where they were to come here because this felt like the safest possible option.
Baratunde Thurston 55:34
Real quick for anyone wondering, that Warsan Shire poem referenced is called Home. Now Warsan Shire is a Somali British writer and poet, and she wrote that poem inspired by a visit she made to the abandoned Somali embassy in Rome, which some young refugees had turned into their home. We've got it linked in the show notes if you want to check it out. Hint, you want check it out. Now, back to Adrienne.
adrienne maree brown 56:01
Talking about the safest possible option.
Baratunde Thurston 56:03
Powerful poem. Yeah.
adrienne maree brown 56:04
I get reminded often. I'm like, you don't understand the privilege of this place. And I think about that. I'm like, how would I operate if I did? How would it change if I wasn't complaining all the time, but figuring out what do I have the freedom to practice? I've been saying this lately that I feel like one of the freest people to ever live. And that's daunting to me because I'm like, do I deserve this freedom? Am I doing the right thing with it? But I think the right thing is to be in it, right? To actually be in it and feel what becomes possible inside of that. And I want to invite everyone who's listening. I'm like, it's not just me, it's also you. We are amongst the freest people to ever live, and I don't think we're taking it seriously enough.
Baratunde Thurston 56:48
Yeah. Imagination battle.
adrienne maree brown 56:52
Baratunde Thurston 56:52
You have used this phrase and said that we are inside of, essentially, we are engaged in an imagination battle. Can you explain what you mean by that.
adrienne maree brown 57:01
I learned this from my friend Terry Marshall, who does a project called Intelligent Mischief in Boston. And it was this idea that everything that we live inside of right now was imagined by someone,, especially the stuff where we're like, I'm not inferior to a man. I can tell. I can feel it in my body, but a man imagined-
Baratunde Thurston 57:18
I've met men.
adrienne maree brown 57:20
Yeah, I've met men. And I'm not saying I'm superior to all of them, but I do recognize that... Or white supremacy. It's like the idea that whiteness is superior to everything else. Someone imagined that. That's not how the world is actually set up. It's a fictional concept. But when that person imagined it, they were so compelling, and their fear was so compelling to them. The story addressed some of their fear of coming across people that look different from them and not knowing how to process that. That story is so compelling. When I wrote Emergent Strategy, one of the vignettes that I included in there was the fact that if you look at what happened with a Mike Brown, is that he was killed because of the white imagination that sees him as a threat, that sees him as a danger, as an unarmed Black young person. And that now, it's not unusual that those who have the authority to be armed and policing our communities can go into a court system or can take this to their boss and say, "I imagine they were dangerous." And that's considered a qualifiable defense to why they murdered someone. So the power of the imagination and that context has to be taken seriously, and it means that then we have to take our imagination seriously for moving our way out of this.
And my friend, Janine de Novais is working on a book right now called Brave Community that's going to come out. She talks about the post racist imagination, and I think about this all the time. How do we harness our imagination to actually advance the world we want and to invite people into a compelling space to practice that world, rather than staying stuck in someone else's imagination?
Baratunde Thurston 58:59
Janine is a regular member of the How To Citizen citizen community, is here literally right now. You'll probably get a chance to say hey.
adrienne maree brown 59:09
Janine, beloved. I love you.
Baratunde Thurston 59:09
We'll probably see if we can bring her up in a moment.
adrienne maree brown 59:12
Baratunde Thurston 59:13
Yes. Excited about Janine's book.
adrienne maree brown 59:15
But that imagination work is the thing, right?
Baratunde Thurston 59:17
adrienne maree brown 59:18
That it's like right now, are we able to imagine... I also think about this with what stories get told. All the post-apocalyptic movies and everything, and I'm like, who's putting out those stories that can imagine us surviving? I really loved the story of Station 11.
Baratunde Thurston 59:34
I was so hoping you were going to say that. I had my fingers and toes crossed, but I didn't want to push it.
adrienne maree brown 59:39
I loved it. I thought it was such a beautiful imagination of what it could look like.
Baratunde Thurston 59:42
Yeah, totally agree. I'm 100% on board.
adrienne maree brown 59:45
Baratunde Thurston 59:46
Imagination is powerful and we need to imagine better, essentially, for ourselves with each other.
adrienne maree brown 59:52
Baratunde Thurston 59:53
What are some ways that we can practice that? I feel like we've stifled our imagination. We are very good at adopting other people's stories and other people's fictions, and finding freedom within that. But that feels really small when you expand the canvas and say, "But what about a whole nother premise?"
adrienne maree brown 1:00:11
Baratunde Thurston 1:00:12
So what are ways we could practice flexing our imagination, Stretching our imagination, in the domain of what it even means to practice democracy?
adrienne maree brown 1:00:22
Yeah. I mean, I have this practice I call Collaborative Ideation, and it's really having people sit in a community, sit in a circle, and say, "What our community needs are the medicine of our imagination, the medicine of our imagination. Where do we feel so stuck that we can't figure out the policy way forward? We can't figure out this five year plan. We can't figure it out." And have people ideate together, place yourself in the future, 2073, 2084, 2055. So however far you can... Most of us, about 10 years is how far we can actually go out. Anything beyond that is a stretch. And actually say, if we had landed this, if we had applied the medicine and this thing was actually healed and it was functional, what would that look like? And the ideation is like, what would housing look like? What would transportation look like? How would we talk to our kids? What would be the normal values and principles? And so we kind of build a world together and then ask everyone to write short stories in that world. And a lot of people are like, "I'm not a writer. I don't write fiction." I'm like, "You lie to yourself all the time. You write fiction all the time. You come up with stories about what someone else is thinking about."
Baratunde Thurston 1:01:28
We're all fiction.
adrienne maree brown 1:01:28
Everyone is writing fiction.
Baratunde Thurston 1:01:29
adrienne maree brown 1:01:30
All the time. But it's taking that, harnessing it, you could tell about the story. Sometimes that's the way. Just tell me in a movie of this, what would happen? And then have people share that with each other. And you're amazing how much is living inside us already. But it requires setting down the scroll, putting down the social media, putting down all that external incoming doom news, and actually sitting down with people that you love and care about. And just being like, can we just imagine what it could look like if this was no longer a problem? Which is also what Octavia did was she was like, let's have new problems. I resolved this one, but now there's new ones that are emerging because we're humans. There's going to be more. But I love that practice. And in a small scale, the fractal practice is in a conversation when you hear someone stuck, ask them, could you imagine what it would be like if this was resolved? What would it feel like in your system? Let yourself feel it first, and then tell me what's different.
Baratunde Thurston 1:02:26
That's a powerful practice. I'm going to practice at dinner. I'm going to practice at drinks with friends.
adrienne maree brown 1:02:31
Especially people who have kids know this. I'm like, we are the creators of anything that comes beyond us. It's all in our bodies. We are born with everything about the future, all in our bodies. So we have to believe that's also true for our ideas.
Baratunde Thurston 1:02:46
Yeah, it's all the same stuff. It's all energy. That's a whole nother chapter. Look, you've been flexing your imagination. You've been not just facilitating people, bringing out their short stories and fictional stories, but writing your own. Your latest book from the Emergent Series, Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry. What are you hoping to emphasize with this collection of loved as well as new works?
adrienne maree brown 1:03:12
Well, I mean, first it was the most fun book that I've pulled together. I really let myself... I just gave myself permission to lean into my witchy magical spell casting self. And I talked about when I've learned what I could do in a room, and now I look back and I'm like, oh, I can cast spells. I have a energy that moves through me, and I know that I have to be responsible with it. And it's the same thing that happens when I write a story. So I'm just like, this is a spell. We're casting spells all the time. So Fables of Spells, I let myself write about extraterrestrials. I let myself write about water women and witch magic. And I wrote Spells to the Moon, and I just was like, what are all the things that I'm doing to try to transform how I think about the world?
And most of the stories are about people coming into their power, because that's what I'm very interested right now is, how do we come into ourselves? Because I think when we come into ourselves, we necessarily come into our power. And it's like, oh, I know who I am, and now no one can take that from me. That's the beauty of, I think, aging. But I also think it's the beauty that babies have. When you meet a kid, they're not like, "Oh, what are you going to think about me?" They're like, "You think I'm awesome and I just pooped all over the place, and I'm the cutest person."
Baratunde Thurston 1:04:24
Being true to themselves, to the fullest.
adrienne maree brown 1:04:26
So true to themselves. I'm like, how do we return to that? Even coming to this podcast with you, I'm like, let me not assume that Baratunde is trying to catch me in something. Or I was like, let me assume that I can just be myself and you're going to meet me by being yourself. And magic will happen because that's what happens when humans are actually being themselves. So the book is basically one story after another of that, moments of people claiming a little bit more of themselves and their power. And I created an entire extraterrestrial species as Virgos. So I hope that you-
Baratunde Thurston 1:04:59
Oh, I'm starting with that story. I'm jumping right to that one. Non-linear story consumption.
adrienne maree brown 1:05:06
Yeah. I really like non-linear books too. I'm like, please put this in your bathroom and just open up to whatever page is right for you at that moment.
Baratunde Thurston 1:05:13
And jump around.
adrienne maree brown 1:05:14
Baratunde Thurston 1:05:17
So we ask all of our guests, if you were to define citizen, not as a legalistic noun, but as a verb, what does it mean to citizen? How would you interpret that?
adrienne maree brown 1:05:30
To me, to citizen means to take responsibility for the fact that I'm part of something larger than myself and to be a contribution of life, moving towards life, in whatever structures I'm a part of.
Baratunde Thurston 1:05:44
Thank you. Thank you. We have reached that moment in our show where we bring the people into the fray. So great. First up, Allison Mosqueda.
adrienne maree brown 1:05:57
Allison Mosqueda 1:06:00
I'm Allison Mosqueda. I'm here in Denver, Colorado. And curious about how do we citizen in fun ways? So listening to How to Citizen has really stretched my thinking about our collective responsibility as a member of society in ways that I was never taught, especially around policy, government, democracy. Never learned any of those things growing up in school. Never learned exactly what it means to be involved and engaged and be a democracy. So how do we do that in fun ways that are exciting and energizing, especially maybe in private sectors like nonprofits in my own community? It's really exciting to think about if we do this now and we start instilling this in younger and younger generations, what is the next thing going to look like?
adrienne maree brown 1:06:49
Yeah. So the thing that comes to me is, you have to stay in touch with the part of you that knows how to have fun, which I think is one of the things that often we accidentally set down when we become an organizer, because we're like, "I must save the world and I must be so serious."
So part of it is just tapping back authentically into the part of you that knows how to have fun. But I have to tell you, when you first said the question, I heard fundraise and I was like, "Girl, that's a whole 'nother podcast." But fun ways. I'm like, yeah, I think most of it is what actually brings you joy. So recently I've been building out this project that's a musical ritual, and it's because I like singing in groups with people. And I remember, I've been like, "Oh yeah, I used to love being in a choir when I was a kid." Coming together and singing, just everyone sing down the house and have a good time. Not because you're trying to sound the most beautiful or perfect, but the singing with is the thing.
Baratunde Thurston 1:07:44
adrienne maree brown 1:07:45
And we always talk about preaching to the choir, but I'm like, the choir needs reminders on how to be a choir? How do we harmonize? How do we find the right volume so that we can all be heard and make something larger than ourselves? So for me, that's a super fun way to have people come together and do what could be important, serious work also, but it's doing it in a way that's really enjoyable.
I also find adding celebration, like doses of celebration into any community is really helpful. So it's your birthday. Let's take a moment and actually celebrate that. You just got a divorce, yay. I'm sure it was the right decision. Something happened with your kid, you got a new degree. Taking the time to celebrate each other in community, and then also celebrate the small wins. Back when I was a facilitator, I always lift this up because I'm like, this is so funny to me. But I had a group that was like, they could not make a decision. They just could not make a decision together. It was like, how we're going to save the world. We can't even... And we figured out how to order lunch together. And I was like, what we going to do is going to pause and we're going to put on Mary J. Blige, and we're going to just sing. Adding music into anything, I think improves the fun capacity of it. And then I think having fun that's not tied to transaction. So really being like, oh, we have bowling nights that are not about trying to raise money. We have...
adrienne maree brown 1:09:03
Really being like, "Oh, we have bowling nights that are not about trying to raise money." We have movie nights. There's a group here in North Carolina in Durham where I live, called Spirit House, and every time a big black movie comes out, they're just like, "We rented out the theater," and we just go, and we're like, "Wakanda forever." It's all of us, we have shared values, everyone's wearing a mask, we don't have to worry about all the stuff, and we can just enjoy each other. And there's no organized component to it, it's really being together. So to me, that part of being with your community is super important because that's what actually forms the connective tissue that makes you then want to act as a community.
Baratunde Thurston 1:09:38
Team building in a fun way. Thank you. All right, next up, we've heard this name once already. Please welcome to the stage, Janine de Novais.
adrienne maree brown 1:09:48
Baratunde Thurston 1:09:51
I had to do my live event emcee voice for this one.
adrienne maree brown 1:09:54
I love the way you did that. That was so exciting.
Janine de Novais 1:09:56
My name is Janine de Novais. I'm in Philly. What's up, everybody? Hi, Adrienne Maree Brown.
adrienne maree brown 1:10:03
Janine de Novais 1:10:04
My question is everyone from DuBois to Mariame Kaba that has attended to black liberation and had a home and the politics of it found the need to go to the culture and the arts of it. Everyone. So I want you to talk to us about what that's looking like for you. 'Cause I heard that you're making music now, I heard.
adrienne maree brown 1:10:31
Oh, I love this question. One thing is I think that there's a huge overlap between the poetic force within us and the part of us that wants to save the world. A lot of people who I meet who are like, "I love the earth, I love the world, I love humans," it's because we're paying attention to what's beautiful, and we're paying attention to what hurts. We're empathetic, we're letting it in. I meet so many people who are organizers or activists and then one step under that, they're like, "I'm a poet, I'm a singer, I'm a writer, I'm a rapper, I'm writing plays." And I imagine a future often where one of the ways we know that we've healed from a lot of these oppressive tendencies is that we're actually spending most of our time making and sharing art.
But I also love what happens when people are able to just drop into the cultural space, and I've been allowing that for myself. So I have an album coming out that's related to the Fables and Spells work. It's all spell songs and songs that feel like magic to me. And then I just did this huge music ritual that I'm workshopping and taking around the country to be like, "Can we create a portal into the future through songs that we sing in choir in chorus together? And can we create a space, an opening, for ourselves through music?" And I think the reason that there's this direct pathway from trying to change the world into that cultural space is that eventually you recognize that what we're trying to shift is culture, is we're trying to change the culture through which people see themselves as a part of this whole. Audre Lorde said that, we don't live compartmentalized lives, we don't live in these little silos apart from ourselves. We are wholeness, we are whole people. And I think what we want to invite into the public sphere more and more often is spaces where people can come together and be whole. And when I'm singing a song, my political self is there and my insecure self is there and my little girl who knows I'm the shit is there and my grownup who has pain and heartbreak, it's all there. And I'm only interested in being with people when all of us can all be there, right? And the cultural space for me is where that opens up. And it has been amazing to look around and see so many of my comrades also doing this. So I look over and I'm like, Charlene Carruthers, who is part of BYP100 for a long time, has made a film, and Patrisse Cullors is doing all these arts installations.
And I know so many people who are writing books, writing fiction. Tarana Burke is like, "I've got fiction out ahead of me." Right. Because we are imagining the new world. These are all people who have spent a ton of time imagining the world, and now we're trying to find ways to share it with everyone. And yeah, I will say it's thrilling. I'm still vibrating off of the musical portal that got opened on Saturday in New York. And for me as someone who people, they look at and be like, "Oh, you know things. You're so wise." It was so incredible to get to come into something and be like, "I'm also a part of the choir." So I can sing with my own solitary voice, but what makes me feel the most alive is when I'm singing with 400 people in a circle and we're catching each other and we're vibing off of each other and we remember that we're bigger than just our solitary selves. It's very healing.
Baratunde Thurston 1:13:48
It is. You've reminded me of a middle school experience singing in a school production with a bunch of other black kids at a mostly white school, but white kids were singing with us too. We're doing some kind of gospel song. I'm not even Christian like that, but the song was so moving, and thugs were happy. You know what I mean?
adrienne maree brown 1:14:08
Listen, okay, because there's something universal that taps you into yourself. And I will say the musical ritual is basically taking the technology of gospel music and interacting it with the ideas of emergent strategy and pleasure activism and transformative justice. So it's absolutely unlocking that place. People come in, they're like, "Ho, hold up. I didn't know we could do this." And it was like, "Yeah, we can feel really, really, really excellent together," and that's medicine we need.
Baratunde Thurston 1:14:35
It's getting to that under-level that you talked about earlier. It bypasses some of the defenses.
adrienne maree brown 1:14:41
Yeah, I had people crying.
Baratunde Thurston 1:14:42
I can't imagine you making people cry.
adrienne maree brown 1:14:44
Which I love, is having people being able to grieve together because I do think in this period of history, we have so much to grieve and so few places to actually let that grieve come through, and we need these collective spaces where we can actually let the grief come through because it also helps us figure out what we can do. The world we're going to build is one that is built from our grief as much as it is built from our visions. It's like, "What am I done losing and what am I accepting and what am I dreaming?" so.
Baratunde Thurston 1:15:13
We have Carole Womeldorf.
adrienne maree brown 1:15:15
Baratunde Thurston 1:15:16
You'll correct me, Carole. You will say your name and where you're at and get to your question.
Carole Womeldorf 1:15:21
Hi, Carole Womeldorf.
adrienne maree brown 1:15:23
Is that German?
Carole Womeldorf 1:15:25
adrienne maree brown 1:15:25
Yeah. I was raised, I grew up in Germany. Like half of my childhood was in Germany.
Carole Womeldorf 1:15:30
Yeah, there's an S between the L and the D if you're in Germany. So how do you respond to folks who say voting is irrelevant and rigged? And I mean, it's such a mundane, but it's a real day-to-day, kind of question when you want to help people understand that it is rigged and it still matters.
adrienne maree brown 1:15:49
That's right. That's beautiful.
Baratunde Thurston 1:15:51
Carole, where are you geographically before we-
Carole Womeldorf 1:15:53
I'm in Cincinnati, Ohio.
adrienne maree brown 1:15:55
Ooh, where it really matters. Yeah. Okay. Well, I hear that all the time. I think it's a little bit of a both/and. I never try to take that away from people. I'm like, "You're very smart. You're not wrong. It is rigged and it is unfair and it still matters." I think of it as the harm-reduction strategy for this period of history as we're in this shift. So harm reduction, for those who may or may not be aware of it, is the idea with drug users that you're like, "You might not be able to make it all the way to abstinence, you may not be able to live a sober life, but you can reduce the harms that come from your drug use and you can reduce the harms in ways that make sure you still have a home or you still have access to your kids, that you still have the maximum health in your body, and you can learn to trust yourself without judgment and be in that." So I approach voting that way where I'm like, "If we're going to get to a different way of doing nation-state, if we're going to get to a practice where we do have multiple viable parties, for instance, that give us actual options to express ourselves politically, we won't get there by fully giving up on participating in the current system." And I actually encourage people when they say that. I'm like, "You probably actually need to be voting more rather than not voting at all," because a lot of times people say that around the national elections, and they're upset because we only have a two-party system, and it's a party that is central and right, we don't really have a strong left at the national level.
And I mean, from a movement perspective, right, I'm like, "My dad would argue differently," but I feel like when I hear that I'm like, "Yes, and the reason that exists is because we're not necessarily engaging in the electoral process at our local level that feeds up into what's possible at the national level or what's possible at the state level," right?
Baratunde Thurston 1:17:46
adrienne maree brown 1:17:46
It's all fractals. Elections are a very fractal process. What happens at any federal or national level is only possible because of what's happening at all the local levels. And part of why I moved to Durham was 'cause I was very excited about what's happening at the local political level here. I had a friend who's a black trans person who was elected to the school board, I have someone else who I met who was elected as the DA, I met all these folks who I'm like getting themselves into the city council, getting themselves, being like, "Actually, we're going to grow our political power up," right? And it's only by that growing up that you see things like, "Oh, Georgia having a blue election," things where you're like, "That's not ever going to happen." It happens because someone like Stacey Abrams is like, "I'm going to take the local electoral process seriously, as seriously as anything that's happening on the national federal level." So that's often the response I give and I say if you can't figure it out for yourself, do it for someone else. And I love to keep some of those in my back pocket. I'm like, "There are a lot of people who don't have the right to vote who are going to be negatively impacted by what feel like small-scale differences." They're like, "There's no difference between the parties," and I'm like, "That's because you're not a citizen. If there's no difference between the parties, that's because you're not reliant on medication for your well-being. If you don't see a difference between the parties, there are places where there are distinct differences." This is one of my favorite things I've been saying lately.
There's also a lot of fake orgasmic policies. So there's a lot of policies that are not actually the thing we want, they won't actually satisfy us, but we are being given the fake orgasm version of it, right, where it's like this kind of sounds like it's moving us towards climate something good, right? We have to actually be engaged to be able to make the distinction and be like, "No, I'm not satisfied by that," and we're going to build policy that actually is effective and satisfying for our future and we're going to build that up, right? That's the other thing people often don't realize is that policy builds up, right? Being able to enact a good policy at the federal level is because good policy has been built at the local level.
Baratunde Thurston 1:19:48
Adrienne Maree Brown, advocate for real orgasmic policies.
adrienne maree brown 1:19:53
Real orgasmic policy.
Baratunde Thurston 1:19:54
True satisfaction in our small-D Democratic lives.
adrienne maree brown 1:19:58
That's right. That's the only small D that needs to be there.
Baratunde Thurston 1:20:04
That's a wrap. I was going to ask if you had anything else to add. I think you just did. Is there anything else you want to say?
adrienne maree brown 1:20:12
I mean, I have this book out, Fables and Spells. Please get it from AK Press directly. I put a single out called Ancestors Use Me so you can hear me sing to you about the ancestors. And if you're interested in bringing the musical ritual to you, you can reach out through the website and we'll find a way to come to you 'cause it's an in-person healing experience. And Baratunde, thank you for finding me. Thank you for hunting me down and opening this portal. I'm excited for our Virgo friendship to begin and continue. So thank you.
Baratunde Thurston 1:20:42
I echo all of that. I fractal that back to you. Thank you for giving us ways to grow up and to be inside the way we want to be outside, recognizing they're all the same thing. So appreciate what you've done and how transparent you've been in your own growth. Thank you. Thank you, thank you.
adrienne maree brown 1:21:02
Thank you. Bye, y'all.
Baratunde Thurston 1:21:02
adrienne maree brown 1:21:05
I'm going to go get a massage.
Baratunde Thurston 1:21:05
Adrienne Maree Brown, y'all.
adrienne maree brown 1:21:07
Baratunde Thurston 1:21:11
There is so much that we think we have to do to preserve and extend our democracy. We have to register people to vote and end gerrymandering and get money out of politics and expand the Supreme Court and end white supremacy and end the patriarchy and it is just a giant task list. What Adrienne Maree Brown reminds us of, through emergent strategy in particular, is that what we need to do is be together. We need to practice being together, humanizing each other, being in a right relationship, working toward having generative conflict with each other. And through that, let the resurgence, the expansion, the preservation of democracy emerge. In order for us to have any chance at achieving that task list, and it's a worthy list. we've got to go deeper. We've got to till and regenerate that soil, that culture, with a focus on our relationships. And there's something else. The Octavia Butler line that Adrienne shared woke something up in me. "There's nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns." I admit that there are times when I have felt stuck, uninspired, and depressed about where we go from here, and that feeling needs to be shaken and jolted and released so that I can see new possibility again. And I think that's true for many. We are stuck so often when we think, "How do we save democracy?" Because a lot of the time we limit our efforts to restoring the past, and the past is not necessarily the model. America is a longstanding democracy in very thick quotation marks. For most of its history, most of its people were legally not allowed to participate in most of the mechanics of democracy. So were we really? If we limit our imaginations to our existing past, then we're limiting our future to what has already passed. And so invoking the words and vision of people like Octavia Butler can help push us beyond the bounds of what we already know.
Over the rest of this season, we will push those bounds with you in this podcast. All the episodes that follow grow from seeds planted in this conversation. We'll explore the strengths and limitations of voting with Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project, we'll push democracy beyond elections in an episode focused on citizen assemblies, we'll imagine bigger and better versions of our economy with Kate Raworth, we'll explore how we build tech with Ruha Benjamin, we'll rethink how we participate in and shape our communities with Christian Vanizette and Alex Zhang, and so much more. We can create a healthier culture of democracy, and all these people we're bringing you this season, they're helping us build it And now it's time for some action. Let's practice imagining.
Imagination is a muscle that we need to exercise in order to envision the reality we want to create. Adrienne reminded us of that today. We've broken these out into three areas: personal reflection, getting more informed, and publicly participating. Now, for internal personal reflection, ask yourself, "What communities are you a part of right now?" From the smallest to the largest, the most local to the most global, build that list in your mind. In which of these communities do you play some role in decision-making and resource allocation? Now, can you think of ways to bring others into those decisions more? In other words, can you think of ways, even and especially small ways, to bring more democracy to your existing communities? In terms of actions you can take to be more informed, we want to prepare you to deflect that imagination of yours.
Adrienne was mentored by Chinese American philosopher, writer, and activist, Grace Lee Boggs. Learn more about Boggs in the documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. It's available on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other sites for just a few dollars. Explore the power of fiction to affect the factual by reading Adrienne's book, Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, and her newest book, Fables and Spells. And you should check out the Parable series by Octavia Butler to see why Adrienne and so many others are so obsessed with this writer. Don't have money? That's okay. Grab a copy from your local library. Finally, in the realm of public participation, we want you to practice collaborative ideation. Return to those communities you identified in the personal reflection. It could be your household, classroom, office department, or group chat. Within one of these groups, have members identify some challenge you feel is hurting or impeding the group, then ask folks to imagine what things would be like years out if this challenge were fully resolved. How would they feel? What would they be able to accomplish? Write this down in short form, perhaps a corny movie trailer to make it fun. "In a world where none of us carry student debt..." or, "In a world where everyone in this house is able to access the bathroom for as long as they need without preventing others from doing the same..." You get the idea. It doesn't have to be super serious. The point is to try, with others, to imagine a better future. If you don't have someone to play with, try this by yourself, but look for ways to share your ideation with others, maybe in an email to a friend or a post on social media. If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the hashtag How to Citizen. Also, tag our Instagram, How to Citizen. I am always online, and I really do see your messages, so send them. You can also visit our website, howtocitizen.com, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more.
Finally, see this episode's show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer. And John Myers is our executive editor. Our mix engineer is Justin Berger. Original music by Andrew Eapen with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina.
Next on How to Citizen: Adrienne went deep on the power of fiction and stories, and for years we've all been living in a story that isolates us from each other and sees our only power as that of a consumer, but in our next episode, we'll talk with someone inviting us to live inside a citizen's story, one that reorients us toward connection and collaboration in ways I am sure would make Adrienne proud.
Jon Alexander 1:28:46
The important thing to recognize when you start to see these as stories, when you start to see it in this way, is that you're not just talking about the problem is consumption, the problem is advertising. It's much more about the storytelling of our society. It's the fact that what I would describe what we live in today as a consumer democracy, where our only agency is to choose between a fixed set of options that are offered to us, where we're actually encouraged to make that choice on the basis of our own individual self-interest.
Baratunde Thurston 1:29:12
Jon Alexander tells us how learning to see the story of consumption we've been written into can change our world and how stepping outside that story could help save our democracy. Rowhome Productions.
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