packing my octavia butler bag (reflections on the field innovation team boot camp)

i am returning from a gathering that felt like a redirection, or next thrilling iteration, of my life resources.

a few months ago, my friend renna reached out to me because she knew some people who were getting together to design innovative responses in real time to the challenges of disasters.

i have very little background in disaster response, but i do live in detroit, and am as obsessed with apocalypse as the next sci-fi head, and i regularly work with communities who have been devastated by a combination of slow economic disasters and faster natural or manmade ones. so i agreed to go.

and i am so glad i did.

the room was one of the most experientially diverse i have been in in a long time. there were first responders and people who had worked in the disaster response field for years and have published books on it. and then there were veterans, an astronaut, robotics experts, artists, nonprofit leaders, government employees, theater arts facilitators, scientists, writers, designers, makers, hackers, teachers, futurists, technologists with communications tools that made me salivate, gamers.

and me.

we are all volunteers, and most of us have never been part of a disaster response effort. and that is the exactly the point. a few years ago, some people who had been involved in disasters we’ve all watched at a distance or survived – 9/11, katrina, fukushima to name a few – reached out to a team of designers, convinced that there must be more innovative ways to approach the conventional response to disasters. with the design team, they (at the time housed within fema) cultivated a survivor oriented response framework during hurricane sandy. they asked how do we fundamentally transform the experience of survivors? not seeing people as numbers, but as stories, people with futures, sensitive traumatized individuals and communities at a major precipice.

what grew out of this was a project called the field innovation team (FIT). it has spun off from fema to be it’s own project.

it includes a lot of characters and really brilliant people. i met an elder astronaut/pilot with a dry wit that kept me cracking up the whole meeting. i met a man using sci-fi to prototype plans with communities. i met a woman who makes robots that can swim underwater during a tsunami and tell rescue teams where people are, where danger is. i met other people creating robots that can carry supplies and resources to people where there are no/dysfunctional roads, and eventually might be able to lift people out of places where vehicles and helicopters can’t safely reach them. i met technologists envisioning a world where the detritus of natural disasters can be processed through 3D printers to rebuild. i met two facilitators using theater, masterfully, to deepen the relationships of the room, and it felt good to be in their hands. i met techies who are creating communication tools that keep people connected where there is no wi-fi.

i met a safety trainer who told us all to pack our ‘go’ bags – not just for doing this work, but generally to make sure we were ready for the world that exists now, with rapidly changing climate and manmade conditions. what he described putting in that bag made me think of lauren olamina, octavia butler’s perhaps most famous protagonist, packing her bag to survive an unknown future. the whole training placed me firmly in my ongoing question about how we grow in the escalating tension of our times – living on a planet we have abused so thoroughly that she must respond.

i won’t lie – it was a politically complex setting for me. i am used to being in spaces where people generally agree on a set of core values, or at least assume that agreement. in this circle, i could feel the best part of each person there, but knew that many had journeyed corporate, military or government paths on their way to landing in the place of doing survivor-centered disaster innovations. the language was largely foreign to me, i had to ask a lot of basic questions to make sure i understood what was going on, and i was left with so many more questions yet to get answered.

but i felt good that they were excited about my world view. and as i shared what mattered to me, i found that the common thread in the room was not just saving lives, but a passion for community voices being at the center of any response, communities being at the heart of envisioning futures that move us beyond the long-term crisis of inequality as well as the urgency of disaster. i learned a lot more about the resource and legal challenges to handling crises with community direction.

most of the people i talked to agreed that disaster strikes in ways that unveil the social inequalities in a place, in ways that open people up to different pathways than they may have thought possible – it is an opportunity to do what octavia spoke of in the parables: shape change.

i feel like my belief that ‘there are a thousand paths towards justice and liberation’ is alive in this work. from our unchosen starting places, we reached this room, and we were able to hold each other as living intersectional entities between lots of different worlds that need to be not just in coherent conversation, but in flow, if we choose to survive and evolve together on this planet.

over the course of the training, it became clear to me why i, particularly, was there. all the diverse, seemingly random skills i have been developing can be of use for FIT. from my doula training to my somatics training to my sci-fi scholarship to my facilitation and process design work to my auntie skills to my coaching work to my ruckus/allied media conference/detroit learnings. perhaps more than anything else, i can imagine calling on my network of incredible people around the country, dedicated to the local brilliance of their communities.

my vision for my impact as a part of the team is to connect communities i love to resources that enhance local reach in the midst of a crisis. i feel like in most cities in the u.s., i either know (or am one step removed from) a body of local experts – people who love their city, understand it’s dynamics and reactions, understand why people stay there and what could catalyze them to save their own lives, and most importantly, have a long-term vision of justice and growth that can shape the innovations that will work immediately and sustain the right kinds of change over time.

one of the things i have learned in detroit is to seek out opportunity in crisis, and i have come to see this as a foundational emergent strategy. the idea of FIT in and of itself feels deeply aligned with emergent strategy – responding to disaster – unexpected change – in ways that contribute to community resilience long-term.

it is just a beginning, and i have a lot to learn. but i am thinking very, very big again, and it feels magnificent. i am excited to find out who in my network will be amongst the local leaders, healers, doulas, sci fi writers and strategists who will transform the way we as humans respond to crisis.

it feels like sci-fi in practice. and it feels like an invitation you say yes to. i’ll keep reporting back on the experience and lessons. and i hope to hear from those of you either interested in getting involved, or with ideas and feedback on all of it.

now – off to pack my go bag.

random: i’m a futurist, and an INFP

“i am a futurist.”

i am trying this out, i have been saying it to people more. like, i think to myself that i am a philosopher and theologian and writer and facilitator and science fiction fan and an organizer and a visionary and a geek…but all of that comes together at moments into a larger thing, which is that i am a creater, predictor, pattern-watcher, midwife of the next. a futurist.

and what are the skills for tomorrow? there’s no way i could know. but i suspect there is a future i would like more than any others…and i can see which skills would be most useful to me in the future i am manifesting, and these are the ones i am developing: facilitation. truth and reconciliation. laughter. cooking. being a really good guide and companion to children.

i am actually considering how to carve some time out in my life just to think about reorienting my life and the lives of as many people as possible towards viable futures, informed by patterns of the past, by the science of the present, by collective community processes…

so that’s that. try it. adrienne maree the futurist.

this is definitely influenced by having a meeting with salina gray from stanford university today, and talking about afro-futurism, my district 9 review, her district 9 campus conversations, why youth of color need to learn science to be a part of a future that includes their success…not just existence or survival but success! i see that future. we can get there.

in OTHER news…

i took a facebook quiz, which i occasionally do as a relaxation technique which requires less commitment than meditation. here’s what it came out with:

INFP (Introversion, iNtuition, Feeling, Perception)

which means:

“You are idealistic, loyal to your values and to people who are important to you. You want an external life that is congruent with your values. You are curious, quick to see possibilities, and can be a catalyst for implementing ideas. You seek to understand people and to help them fulfill their potential. You are adaptable, flexible, and accepting unless a value is threatened. Famous people with your same INFP personality include: Mary the Blessed Virgin, Hellen Keller, William Shakespeare, John F. Kennedy Jr., Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Julia Roberts.”

there are no INFPs of color i guess. whenever i have taken this test in the past i have been on the line between extrovert and introvert, and between feeling and judging. facebook makes it simpler, and as i age it is more true, i am a hermit-geek-introvert and this facebook quiz result is alarmingly accurate.

in OTHER news…

a list of readings based on our afro-futurism-science conversation today:

neuromancer, by william gibson
babel 17, samuel r. delaney
anything by octavia butler
the universe in a single atom, dalai lama

geek out! 🙂

time capsule: may 26, 2009

a lot of things happened in the world today.

the california supreme court upheld prop 8, meaning gay marriage is still banned in california. the 18,000 marriages that happened in the window of enlightened thinking when gay marriage was legal will be upheld. as i’ve said before, i believe in civil unions for all, and marriage – gay or straight – as something that should be decided, however slowly, by churches. but this isn’t about that finer point, and we all know it. it’s about how much folks hate/fear what they don’t understand.

the supreme court overturned a ruling that stops police from questioning a defendant without a lawyer present.

tensions are spiking between north and south korea.

there were swine flu deaths in new york and a massive cyclone hit india and bangladesh.

a couple of weeks ago i got to sit with grace lee boggs again, which is always elucidating. sitting with anyone who is 94 is humbling. everything that feels so pressing and urgent and important at this moment gets shifted into a meta-perspective. more than any other 90+ year old i have ever met, grace pushes my mind, and after i have left her presence, questions that she voiced return. this last time she asked a question that she and her late husband/philosophical-partner Jimmy have been asking for years: what time is it on the clock of the universe?

on a day like today, when the bulk of major decisions and conversations seem so regressive, our species seems so infantile – do we fight or exclude? is there a way to make our failing justice system more unfair for those without resources?

the hope for our species is not at the statewide or federal levels of decision making, though we must keep strategically advancing our causes in those spaces. its at the local level, its in small victories.

a week ago yesterday a woman was attacked in the driveway behind my house, and my neighbors and i responded. yesterday, the woman who was attacked stopped by the bbq happening on our patio. i missed her, i was up this mountain i go to when i want to get away from technology. but she came, and she’s healing. as much as my neighbors and i have loved each other, this event brought us closer, and opened up more relationships between us and the larger community. on a small scale we participated in humanity stepping up to the gift of reason. reason can be used to resolve conflict, to help others, to strengthen community. this is happening in organized and unorganized ways all over the world – people are crafting the world they want instead of waiting for failed systems to miraculously work.

at this moment people are writing and living the solutions. here’s what i’m reading today, and what i recommend everyone else read:

Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership in the New Sciences and Turning to One Another

William Gibson‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Start with Neuromancer, then Idoru, Burning Chrome, Pattern Recognition. He writes about the future in ways that make you want to go there, in ways that expose cultural shifts and why they happen.

and, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Honestly, I just finished this book, and it made me excited about the ways of women. How we heal, care, birth, hold the space for miracles. While reading this I crystallized some thinking about processes for change: if the greatest miracle we know of – making life – can happen as a complete process in roughly 9 months, then why are we so slow at everything else? And in this world of today, where I can hardly find a space for a non-reactionary conversation because there is so much crap to react to, that knowledge of time gives me hope.

Because, to respond a little to grace’s question, the moment in the universe is one in which we (possibly the only sentient beings like ourselves, hopefully not) are becoming aware, through the sciences or through our own experiences of the changes in our environment, that our time here as a species is not infinite. And so we are turning away from the irresponsible and childish behaviors that we have called our nature, and our curiosity for how to live and be with each other is bursting up through the seams of old society.

It won’t be long before the idea of banning gay marriage will be seen as shameful and ignorant by the mainstream. Shortly after that it will be taken for granted, and who knows how it will show up in the history books.

We will learn from our collective experience, though those lessons may not show up in the mainstream of our culture in ways that we feel represent us. But here in the margins – margins of identity, of class, of philosophical leanings, of futurists – there’s clarity, there’s pride, there’s indignation, and there’s experiential learning of how to be with each other, how to make decisions for the collective good.