critical connections

last night i was hosted at Exit the Apple for a very sweet community potluck in Baltimore. the potluck brought together people who have been doing beautiful justice work around the city, but not necessarily together.

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i introduced myself by telling of my journey through organizing, electoral organizing in a panicky fear to stop george w bush, direct action and civil disobedience, and landing in visionary fiction, emergent strategy and pleasure activism.

we focused on the aspect of emergent strategy that is about critical connections, and i wanted to share the exercise we did. it took about 20 minutes total and people reported back surprisingly deep connections with each other (a lot of exchanging information and wanting to continue building at the end, signs of healthy community longing).

1. i had people raise their hands if they knew everyone in the room, 80% of the room, 50%, just one other person. often we assume everyone else is friends and we are the only stranger or outlier when it isn’t true. this scan exposes the patterns already in the room and the needed pattern making.

2. i asked folks to partner with someone they didn’t know and get lined up. this meant chairs were facing each other, hearts and eyes were facing each other. too often we work together and never actually consider the person in front of us, or we work off of assumptions and stolen glances. so the invitation is to actually see this person in their humanity, in their desire to transform the world. i invited people to reflect to each other first what they noticed in each other.

3. next people shared what they love about baltimore, and the work they do for/in this place. in an ideal place-based movement or life, those two things are connected. for instance – i love the radical blackness of detroit, so i center black liberation/freedom fighters in all my offerings of somatics, writing and healing space.

4. after pairs talked for about ten minutes, i asked people how they were doing at connecting. i noted that often we talk at each other, and we listen through our preconceptions. it is important to shift away from trying to fit people in our existing internal boxes, to shift towards curiosity in each other.

so the next step was a version of the question game. for a full minute, each pair had to go back and forth only asking each other questions. in this case, it was questions related to what they had heard in the other person’s baltimore love/movement story.

as a facilitator i noticed the shift in the room. there was laughter, people leaned into each other and became more collaborative, a team on a mission of curiosity.

5. as a final step, each person got to choose one of the questions asked and answer it as honestly as possible.

img_0508 photo credit Jason Harris

in reflections on the exercise, people said they were amazed at how deeply they could go in such a short period of time.

i referenced the incredible barbara holmes here, a black scientist who taught me years ago about the vibrational field of the heart, which extends about ten feet around us, strongest in front and back. when we sit face to face with someone, we are in each other’s vibrational field – it’s a practical way to connect.

so often when we speak of movement building, we look first at how to achieve critical mass. but margaret wheatley and grace lee boggs and octavia butler taught me that the quality of connection inside each pair, group, community or movement is what makes transformation possible.

facing each other and getting curious are two very simple tools for generating critical connections. focusing on place and what we long for really helps with alignment – there are a million places to diverge and we have been taught to focus on those, to deconstruct. but what we pay attention to grows, so the invitation for critical connections is to find the places of alignment and common interest and grow towards interdependence from there.

also, food helps. our community potluck was truly baltimore style with fresh oysters! and tons of other small, precious offers of sustenance.

also, children and babies help. there were teenagers in the group and 2 young children running circles around our pairs while a 3-month-old observed us and took naps in the back. watching the young children make connections by chasing, hugging each other, rolling around on the floor and shrieking with joy reminds us that it is in our nature to connect and play, that it brings delight when we give into the friendship available in the moment.

grateful to baltimore, exit the apple, lester spence and especially ailish hopper for pulling this together.

BALLE 2015 Closing Plenary Speech

Here are the notes from my talk today at the BALLE 2015 Conference! Enjoy.

Thank you first and foremost for your work to bend the future towards justice, love, cooperation and liberation.

I would call your work science fictional – being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now today will shape the future, tomorrow.

You are excited by what we can create, you believe it is possible to create the next world, you have been building it here these last few days. You believe.

So do I. as michelle mentioned, I’m the Co-editor of an anthology of original science fiction from social justice movements called Octavia’s Brood, which has just sold out its first print of 10k books, so i suppose now it’s public…but I’ve held this belief that we can create new worlds for a long time.

This might be because I was born to a trekkie – meaning one who watches star trek obsessively. My dad watched Star Trek in a way that seems logical to me now. He watched the way a black man from the deep south bringing mixed race children into a racist world would always watch a post racist narrative – eyes wide, faith bubbling up.

We all watched it together, as his military career took our family from place to place. My parents intentionally took us away from the US for our early years and I think they believed that by the time we came back here things would have changed.

When that didn’t happen, they brought us back anyway and took us to Georgia. I think what I experienced there, the casual and constant presence of white supremacy, the knee jerk assessments of my intelligence and humanity, is one of the foundational catalysts for my study of sci fi, apocalypse and post-apocalypse, emergence and complexity.

i thought then in middle school, and i think now…This can’t be all. no one survives this approach, not long term. This can’t be the purpose of our species, to constantly identify each other as ‘other’, build walls between ourselves, and engage in both formal and informal wars against each other’s bodies, build an economy that could never serve the whole.

I feel miraculous. its confusing to feel so miraculous when so many people hate my skin and my history.

i see the miraculous in others – even those who hate me have heartbeats, and, I generally assume, have people they love. why can’t they love me? should i love them anyway? how can i hold these massive contradictions?

I started reading sci fi, obsessively, looking for options. Other worlds where I wasn’t dismissed as an idealist or an inferior.

On that path I discovered octavia butler. Decades before my birth, she was working these same edges in her heart, pendulum swinging between curiosity, possibility and hopelessness. Because if we can’t articulate more viable futures, and adapt, our human future is pretty hopeless.

Octavia Butler wrote novels with young black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to save slave owner ancestors. But woven throughout her work were two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

I’ll say more about emergent strategy in a second.

First I want to say that what my Octavia’s Brood Co-editor walidah Imarisha and I call or work is not actually science fiction. We call it visionary fiction.

Fiction that disrupts the hero narrative concept that one person, often one white man, often matt Damon, alone has the skills to save the world. we write Fiction that explores change as a Collective process. Fiction that centers those who are currently marginalized – not to be nice, but because those who survive on the margins tend to be the most experientially innovative – practicing survival based efficiency, doing the most with the least, an important skill area on a planet whose resources are under assault by less marginalized people. In these ways visionary fiction is constantly applying lessons from our past to our future(s).

Visionary fiction is neither utopian nor dystopian, instead it is like real life: Hard, realistic…Hopeful as a strategy.

We’re here in Arizona, a land where the voting majority believes in aliens, and where my safety is determined by the proximity of my passport. also, the future is unfurling here. Utopia? Dystopia? Perspective is everything.

As long as the future comes from imagination, there will be divergent paths that are moving in and out of alignment, in and out of conflict. Our ideas of right and wrong shift with time – right now it’s clear to me that something is wrong if it hurts this planet. But if we don’t claim the future, that sense of loyalty to earth, of environmentalism, could become an outdated concept. Kenny Bailey from Design Studio for Innovation shared that recently on a panel called black to the future – that justice, rights, things we take for granted are not permanent.

That affirmed to me how important it is that we get into the game, get dirty, get experimental. How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of a new economy that centers humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?

We embody. We learn. We release the idea of failure, because its all data.

But first we imagine.

We are in an imagination battle – Claudine Rankin and Terry Marshall speak of this. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and all of them are dead because in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill based on an imagined racialized fear of black people are rarely held accountable. imagination has people think they can go from poverty to millionaire as part of a shared american dream. imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race.

We have to imagine beyond those fears. We have to ideate together. The poverty that results from our current system allows all of this Imagining to be fed by the results of scarcity economics. We must imagine new worlds that transition us from seeing black people as murderers, or brown people as terrorists and aliens, to ones that can see black and brown people as cultural and economic innovators.

Black lives matter, which has issued a clarion call to us in this time, is brilliant on so many levels. they created products to support their work almost immediately, making the look of the movement irresistable and undeniable. Now they are gathering stories from black people about what the world will look like when black lives matter. This is a time travel exercise for the heart. This is ideation – what are the ideas that will liberate all of us?

The more people who collaborate on that ideation, the more people who will be served by the resulting world (s).

Sci fi is simply a way to practice the future together. I suspect that that is what many of you in this room are up to, practicing a future economy together, practicing economic justice together, living into new stories. it is our right and responsibility to create a new world.

And what we pay attention to grows, so I’m thinking about how we grow what you are all imagining and creating into something large enough and solid enough for a tipping point of humans to cross over?

Ursula Le Guin recently said “We live in capitalism – Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

she went on to say It’s up to authors to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.

I agree with her. We must make an alternative economic future, as Toni Cade Bambara taught us, irresistible. That was our goal with our anthology, to have a collection of compelling, irresistible stories.

I think you are amongst the protagonists of what might be called the great turning, the change, the new economy.

And I think it is healing behavior, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it. That’s how I work, when a body is between my hands, I let wholeness pour through.

And I think you are healers too – because you are creating possibilities, because you are seeing a future full of wholeness and equity and hope.

I suspect this is in part because you are practicing what i call emergent strategies.

Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. My mentor Grace Lee Boggs first raised this concept with us in detroit after reading Margaret Wheatley’s work , about biomimicry and mycelium magic. Grace started asking us what our movements would look like if we focused on critical connections instead of critical mass.

We need each other. I love the idea of shifting from ‘mile wide inch deep’ movements to ‘inch wide mile deep’ movements that schism the existing paradigm.

Strategy is a military term meaning simply a plan of action towards a goal. We use it to mean good or bad, but it’s not that discerning. Horrible plans can be pitched as strategic. We must be more precise.

Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and grow the future through relatively simple interactions. It was what made sense to me when I was trying to explain the kind of leadership in octavia butler’s books.

It wasn’t just that it was black, female, or young leaders. Or perhaps it was because of all of those things, who leads matters.

But what I noticed is that her leaders were adaptive – riding change like dolphins or surfers ride the ocean.

Adaptive but also intentional, like birds migrating south who know how to get where they’re going even when a storm pushes them 100 miles west. I just came from supporting a meeting naomi klein called in canada, to set an intention to build a clean energy economy. I was so moved by their work to build a shared intention. that is radical imagination.

Octavia’s protagonists were also interdependent, often polyamourous, because the personal is political, because pleasure evokes change perhaps more than shame. right now there is an effort called BOLD, black organizing for leadership and dignity, is cultivating a safe space for black vulnerability and mutual support of leaders, countering the usual model of leader isolation. we all need a place where we can weep and be held and feel our feelings and figure out how those feelings can direct our next evolution. what amazes me is that in the space of such constant black trauma, we get together and we celebrate and love on each other, we laugh, we find the pleasure of community, of interdependence. it feels good together.

Octavias leaders were also decentralized, and they were generative – resilience came from that decentralization, no one person held the power. Ferguson showed us the power of individuals willing to act without a single leader, their leaderfull example is inspiring others to stand up in real time, offline and online, to change legislation and perception.

Ferguson and other movements right now are fractal, practicing at a small scale what we most want to see at the universal level. no more growth before experience. There’s a group in new Orleans called the wild seeds that’s doing this fractal work – women of color practicing pop up galleries and stores to sustain themselves on their radical creativity.

Rather than narrowing into one path forward, her leaders were creating more and more possibilities. that is what i see here – not one perfect path forward, but an abundance of futures, of ways to manage resources together, brilliant together.

So I have become obsessed with how we can be movements like flocks of birds, underground power like that mushroom under Oregon, the sea shell representation of a galactic vision for justice.

I invite you to join me in writing ourselves into the future, naming the principles of total transformation, building an economy in which black lives matter because every single life, and all that supports life, matters – let us practice in every possible way the world we want to see.

a complex movement

over and over again
it becomes known
the peace we seek
is seeking us
the joy a full bud
awaiting our attention
justice in our hands
longing to be practiced
the whole world
learning
from within

this thrilling mote in the universe
laboratory
labyrinth

internalize demands
you are the one
you are waiting for
externalize love
bind together us into
a greater self
a complex movement
a generative abundance
an embodied evolution

learn to be here
critique is a seductress
her door is always open
so what if you get some
we are going further
past reform, to wonder
this requires comprehension
that cannot fit in words

out beyond our children
beyond the end of time
there is a ceaseless cycle
a fractal of sublime
and we come to create it
to soil our hands and faces
loving loving and loving
ourselves, and all our places

– 10/25/12, detroit

reflections on margaret wheatley’s detroit learning journey

tonight i got the honor of working with margaret wheatley to open a detroit learning journey. folks have come from turkey, brazil, england, canada, and all across the u.s. for this journey.

wheatley is a deep thinker who has worked a lot with organizations and leaders on what is effective. 20 years ago she published a book called leadership and the new science. grace lee boggs read the book a few years ago and began to incorporate some of the ideas into speeches and her own writing, particularly the idea that critical connections are more important in a long-term transformation process than critical mass.

invincible heard those speeches from grace, pursued the book herself and has generated an award winning multi-media interactive album-project called complex movements around these and other concepts at the intersection of complex science and social justice.

wheatley continued developing her thinking on how transformation happens, how communities learn and evolve. she has published a series of books where she is exploring and sharing her learning – dropping into how we listen to each other, and what communities around the world are doing to generate life, to generate cooperation and future together.

a year ago wheatley was speaking at kalamazoo, and a local activist let detroit organizers know. she came to visit, and since then wheatley has been intentionally building relationship with detroit. this weekend is the latest piece of that building.

folks were invited by wheatley to detroit – not to tour the city, but to engage, to understand what is unique about this place and begin to understand place-based education.

we started off hearing the powerful history of the detroit association of women’s clubs, one of the oldest organizations of black women in the u.s., from their current president.

when DAWC purchased their building, the furious white neighbors around them secured legislation that black folks could not walk on the street the building was located on. they had to brick up the door and use the carriage entrance, but they used it, refusing to be blocked or deterred in having the space for social and political gathering.

in such a space we gathered.

we grounded and centered as folks on a journey, lighting candles together to land ourselves in the spirit of openness, learning, shedding light.

then everyone introduced themselves with a question they are holding. the questions were nuanced, thoughtful, and very powerful.

folks from detroit were asking things like how it can be beneficial to detroiters to have folks visit and learn about the amazing work here, how to deepen to commitment and accountability of those who come to see us, and amongst ourselves.

folks visiting were asking things like how to truly engage community, how to show up authentically, how to generate the energy to keep moving forward when it seems impossible.

a question that really stood out to me came from a woman who referenced wheatley’s latest book so far from home: “how can i be more of a warrior, and less of a savior?”

this to me is the crux of the authentic learning experience – which brings the critical connections piece into the present, and the future.

a critical connection is possible when neither person is trying to control or hustle the other. when folks come to detroit not to gawk at what is falling apart, or place organizers here up on a magic pedestal, then something real can transpire. when no one is trying to come save detroit, or save each other – but we see ourselves all as warriors for justice, for the places we love, for the people we are.

then the folks here can share their real human condition, and the struggles of doing work with integrity in a city rife with trauma and corruption. and how fear and hope are both false prophets in that work – that what we need is love and accountability.

in that spirit, everyone can open, open to learning something new, to remembering something deeper than our current analysis…and open to being a conduit of wisdom.

in that spirit of opening, it was such an honor to welcome these journeyers, as someone still landing in detroit a little more every day, and loving it all the time with more breadth and comprehension.

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.