my talk notes from commonbound: ‘intersecting worlds: the one we’ve got, the one we’re building, the ones we imagine’

i was so thrilled to get the chance to speak today as part of the closing plenary of commonbound, a gathering for the new economy coalition. there were tons of brilliant and inspiring people in one place from many walks of my life. i brought my parents, who live nearby.

the panel was facilitated by NEC’s rachel plattus, who i just got to meet in kentucky with chorus foundation. the other speakers were my friend and teacher gopal dayaneni, with movement generation, and brilliant economist and writer gar alperovitz, both of whom i have referenced here before.

i normally don’t write my talking points out ahead of time, but i have been a little shaken recently by the news of my friend and comrade charity hicks in the hospital after a hit and run. gopal and i spoke to her amazing work and were able to raise $1,730 there for her medical expenses as well as share with people that they could donate to east michigan environmental action in charity’s name. i encourage you to also donate if you haven’t yet.

the event was live streamed and i believe video will be available. here are my notes of what i shared. (apologize for it being half capitalized and half not, it’s a mash-up)

first question: where does this all lead? (i spoke third)

my vision is changing our how, more than seeing clearly our what. i see a how where we are all much more comfortable with change, and with our personal power to change conditions.

some people are comfortable believing – in heaven, in socialism, in someone else’s thinking. that’s never quite worked for me. I learn experientially, I so far am only convinced that change is divine and constant. Octavia Butler, the black science fiction writer quoted to open this plenary, said ‘Belief Initiates and guides action—Or it does nothing.’

In her twelve novels she created case studies for people like me on how to lead inside of change, shaping change. I’ve been calling what I learn from her work emergent strategy. Based in the science of emergence, it’s relational, adaptive, fractal, interdependent, decentralized, transformative. I’m applying it in facilitation and organizational development work.

It unleashes more of the power of each person.

Because some are comfortable deferring the work of vision to others – or being the visionary talkers (i am guilty of being a visionary talker for years! forgive me). I think, and have been gathering proof in sci fi writing workshops with organizers and activists, that we each have important pieces of the whole, so I concentrate my work on the generation of vision, the strengthening of the muscle of looking forward together.

One major emerging lesson: We have to create futures in which everyone doesn’t have to be the same kind of person. That’s the problem with most utopias for me, it’s mono value, a new greener more local monoculture where everyone gardens and plays the lute and no one travels…and I don’t want to go to there!

Compelling futures have to have more justice, yes; and right relationship to planet, yes; but also allow for our growth and innovation. i want an interdependence of lots of kinds of people with lots of belief systems and continued evolution.

Right now we don’t know what’s right so much as we know what’s wrong, and what we’ve tried. And based on how constantly surprised I still am by life at age 35, I suspect that will likely continue to be the case, and hopefully, perpetually resolving these major issues continues to be interesting. My mentor Grace Lee Boggs is still curious on the eve of her 99th birthday, so I’m hopeful.

Nothing that has existed so far was the right way for everyone, but there are pieces out there we can begin to imagine together, this is why Gars writing speaks to me, what’s between capitalism and socialism? Because whatever we build is on the foundations of those economic experiments. This is why Gopal’s work appeals to me – what are the strategies we need to learn, with appropriate fear and wonder, to move our movements into right relationship with the planet? Let’s learn.

i want a future where we are curious, interested, visionary, adaptive.

what do we tolerate in transition? (i spoke second)

in detroit we have been in transition for decades. we are learning about tolerating even recently – a few years ago foundations were investing in us, now they aren’t as much, and it has impact. you know, generally we have to let go of the success that we feel, as individuals and organizations, when capitalism works for us.

Gopal convinced me years ago that we need to have a level of dystopian consideration. Certain climate realities are no longer wild imaginings, they are happening, and they are coming. (Game of Thrones watchers? Winter is here.) Octavia Butler appeals to me because she wanted to prepare us for inevitable consequences of human behavior.

That is the context in which I enter this conversation. i don’t have answers, but i am sitting with These questions:

Change is coming – what do we need to imagine as we prepare for it?

What is compelling about surviving climate change?

What is a just transition economy? What is an economy for the phase of transition from this way of relating to earth and resources, to the way we might relate on a watered earth, or a frozen earth?

How do we prepare not just for suffering, but for sharing and innovation?

How do we resource the locals and still honor our nomadic tendency, our natural migration patterns which we deny by trying to stay in only one place, our global interconnectedness?

How do we prepare the children in our lives to be visionary, and to love nature even when the changes are frightening and incomprehensible? To be abundant when what we consider valuable is shifting from gold to collard greens?

How do we articulate a compelling economic vision to sustain us through the unimaginable, to unite us as things fall apart? How do we experience our beauty and humanity in every condition?

These are the questions that sustain my work. I believe all of you hold answers.

Tell us of your road, your origin story (i spoke first)

my parents are here. they are my origin, as an interracial couple who fell in love in the deep south in the 70s. what they did was considered impossible, that is my roots system, that love makes the impossible possible. and they are still here, still in love.

worked through harm reduction, reducing the harm of drugs and sex. then electoral organizing, reducing the harm in a different way. then ruckus, where i finally felt i could be my full radical self without compromise. all along i was facilitating vision, mediation, strategic development.

I’ve been a facilitator as long as I can remember. Facilitating tons of visioning sessions and seeing a crisis of imagination In our movements. We hone our skills of naming and analyzing the crises, of deconstruction. i learned in school how to DEconstruct – but how do we move beyond our beautiful deconstruction, who teaches us to reconstruct?

How do we cultivate the muscle of radical imagination needed to dream beyond fear together?

what are the possible worlds you are cultivating? (i spoke first)

Octavia’s Brood is an anthology of original science fiction from social justice thinkers. All social justice work is speculative fiction, we are imagining and creating a world we have never experienced. showing black and white people sitting at a lunch counter together was science fiction. slaves having children was speculative fiction. walidah taught me that.

Walidah Imarisha and I have gathered and edited these stories, while also generating workshops and tools to practice our ideas. We run collective sci fi writing sessions, because different stories emerge when we build our worlds together. we need to move from competitive ideation, trying to push our individual ideas, to collective ideation, collaborative ideation. it isn’t about having the number one best idea, but having ideas that come from, and work for, more people.

also when we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. fractals, a way to speak of the patterns we see move from the micro to macro level. the same spirals on sea shells can be found in the shape of galaxies. we must create patterns that cycle upwards. we are microsystems (we each hold contradictions – my shellac nails vs desire that no one do the toxic work of nail painting, my family travel vs my desire not to use fossil fuels, etc). our friendships and relationships are systems. our communities are systems. let us practice upwards.

and then – what happens when we succeed, new problems? i was in south africa in january, where politically there was a success, a change, and yet there is a racialized economy going strong there. so, what is next? we need those next stories.

finally, last night i had a dream i want to share – i was in a future where we figured out how to harness the power of rising sea levels into wave pools. at first it was a secret, i was taken down to this basement with a pool where these massive waves were crashing back and forth. it was gorgeous. and i watched as time passed and it became a grocery store around me, which was all powered by the wave pool. and my niece siobhan was like, ‘i’m going surfing while y’all shop!’

i want some designer or scientist to make that happen.

i was asked to bring a closing poem. i called forth the words of two new ancestors:

first, from general baker, the detroit labor organizer and leader who just passed, who said – “you keep asking how do we get the people here? i say, what will we do when they get here?”

the second is a poem from maya angelou. when i first heard it i didn’t really get it, but it feels incredibly relevant here today.

“On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours- your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.”

notes from BALLE talk

i spoke today at the annual gathering of the business alliance for local living economies.

the theme for this session was changing the story. fran korten facilitated, with gar alperovitz, d’artagnan scorza and myself as panelists.

i was selected as a BALLE fellow last fall, and am super excited about their work, although i ended up stepping back from the fellowship because it wasn’t lining up with where my life is going (babies, writing sci-fi, etc) and i wanted the resource to go to someone in detroit who loves entrepreneurship and could really bring the skills home (enter the remarkable jess daniels). they were deeply understanding about it and invited me to still come through to the conference.

i spoke after gar, whose brilliant book i have been reading (and I had prepared some questions for him but he had to dip early), and d’artagnan, who is a serious mlk meets will allen meets berry gordy type brother from l.a. who i have come to deeply respect since connecting in the fellowship.

though my formal work (facilitation, curriculum development) with the detroit food justice task force is done, i still wanted to share a little about what i learned there and what changing the story looks like in my beloved detroit. these are the notes i prepped for the talk, which came out a bit differently, but you’ll get the gist here:

detroit is the ultimate city of changing the story – narrative is the key to our future.

detroit is dying? ‘we see opportunity in crisis’, ‘detroit is what the country has to look forward to.’

time to right size the city? ‘we aren’t leaving the land we have tilled’, ‘now is the time to grow our souls.’ [grace lee boggs]

detroit’s a blank canvas? detroit is a city full of survival stories and brilliance.

noticing stories? we notice stories, we create stories.

my friend mia herndon often says, capitalism is not failing, it is working for the elite. beautifully. but in detroit, lots of people are beginning to practice alternatives, even if we don’t yet have language for it.

the businesses and organizations that we support are ones that honor the survivors, the resilience, not saying they are filling empty space or saving poor detroiters. detroit doesn’t need saving, we need folks to recognize the creative and brilliant ways detroit is still here.

even just what you see – you might see abandoned lots – we see fertile ground. we are detoxifying years of abandonment, corruption, and being forgotten, composting the —- people have spoken about/dropped on the city.

literally and figuratively. we have the fastest growing and largest urban agricultural movement in the country! land mass to compare to l.a. but just over 700k living there. do you understand that scale of potential food growth? but it hasn’t necessarily created sustainable business models – because the majority of the 713k people left in the D don’t want to eat it, or can’t get to it, or can’t afford it.

so the food justice task force charged itself with connecting the abundant food potential to the hungry people of the city – that’s why the twitter handle is @justfeeddetroit – looking at all possible options to feed detroit.

first, wow, it’s overwhelming how many challenges there are, how many systems need to shift. it’s a long arc, a long piece of work. but one of the things we realized was that we needed to change the story at the neighborhood level.

so cook eat talk was a series of events we created where instead of asking people what was wrong with their community, or training them on the crisis, we asked what works? what is your favorite food? who are your food heroes? who is feeding the neighborhood now? where are the gardens? how are your cornerstores and liquor stores, where you get groceries?

and then we could ask, what do you need, what do you long for, what is the new story of the neighborhood?

we heard about grandmothers cooking for the neighborhood, folks gardening found plots. to be real, a narrative and land battle is afoot in detroit, between those who claimed the land when no one else wanted it, and those who just realized it is the most fertile gorgeous place…

we also heard about chili cheese fries. how delicious they are, and the real question from a young person of ‘could they be nutritious’? (audience members told me to try parsnips and string beans btw)

the real question emerged: how do we create a desire for the healthiest food possible, the healthiest life possible?

it’s possible to get it, it’s possible to get the rights to grow it, we have a food policy, we have restaurants and farmer’s markets and grocers and cooks and pantries and foodlab and all the potential for a justice based food system. we must tune into and keep growing that longing, consistently.

the cook eat talk model worked for folks, and people have run with it, even using cook eat talk to have other community conversations. the task force is finalizing a food justice curriculum to use for the next round of programming.

i want to throw in that my other work is in science and speculative fiction, growing our capacity to imagine, practicing the right and responsibility of writing ourselves into the future. which to me falls in line here with moving past idealism and into new practices.

competition is not going to be eradicated with pointing fingers. we must ‘be the change’, we must ‘transform ourselves to transform the world’ – the older i get the more i understand we can’t change others. we can inspire though, we can show that something is possible. we have to do inner work, generate new imaginings, to heal the trauma and change the patterns within ourselves.

we have to practice. understand that every single thing we are doing is a practice. are we practicing old? new? very old? intention, with?

envision the new story, practice it into existence.

after this fran asked everyone to reflect on the story they are trying to change, and we created a map of the stories we are changing from (profit is our purpose, any job is a good job, american dream, change is impossible, dystopia), and the story we are changing to (we have many purposes and that biodiversity is good for life, abundance is the default state of earth, meaningful work, dreams for all, change is inevitable, utopia). we talked about how we make that change – naming the vision, practicing, creating art and culture, redefining wellness, practicing, practicing, practicing.

it was inspiring to hear how much this room full of small local business owners grasp these radical love-based thoughts. the great turning feels active.