What is/isn’t transformative justice?

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformative justice lately.

In the past few months I’ve been to a couple of gatherings I was really excited about, and then found myself disappointed, not because drama kicked up, which is inevitable, but because of how we as participants and organizers and people handled those dramas.

Simultaneously I’ve watched several public take downs, call outs and other grievances take place on social and mainstream media.

And I’m wondering if those of us with an intention of transforming the world have a common understanding of the kind of justice we want to practice, now and in the future.

What we do now is find out someone or some group has done (or may have done) something out of alignment with our values. Some of the transgressions are small – saying something fucked up. Some are massive – false identity, sexual assault.

We then tear that person or group to shreds in a way that affirms our values. When we are satisfied that that person or group is destroyed, we move on.

Or sometimes we just move on because the next scandal has arrived.

I’m not above this behavior – I laugh at the memes, like the apoplectic statuses. I feel better about myself because I’m on the right side of history…or at least the news cycle.

But I also wonder: is this what we’re here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherence to reductive common values?

What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there’s no one left beside us?

I’ve had tons of conversations with people who, in these moments of public flaying, avoid stepping up on the side of complexity or curiosity because in the back of our minds is the shared unspoken question: when will y’all come for me?

The places I’m drawn to in movement espouse a desire for transformative justice – justice practices that go all the way to the root of the problem and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed.

And yet…we don’t really know how to do it.

We call it transformative justice when we’re throwing knives and insults, exposing each other’s worst mistakes, reducing each other to moments of failure. We call it holding each other accountable.

I’m tired of it. I recently reposted words from Ryan Li Dahlstrom, speaking about this trend in the queer community. But I see it everywhere I turn.

When the response to mistakes, failures and misunderstandings is emotional, psychological, economic and physical punishment, we breed a culture of fear, secrecy and isolation.

So I’m wondering, in a real way: how can we pivot towards practicing transformative justice? How do we shift from individual, interpersonal and inter-organizational anger towards viable generative sustainable systemic change?

In my facilitation and meditation work, I’ve seen three questions that can help us grow. I offer them here with real longing to hear more responses, to get in deep practice that helps us create conditions conducive to life in our movements and communities.

1. Listen with ‘Why?’ as a framework.

People mess up. We lie, exaggerate, betray, hurt, and abandon each other. When we hear that this has happened, it makes sense to feel anger, pain, confusion and sadness. But to move immediately to punishment means that we stay on the surface of what has happened.

To transform the conditions of the ‘wrongdoing’, we have to ask ourselves and each other ‘Why?’

Even – especially – when we are scared of the answer.

It’s easy to decide a person or group is shady, evil, psychopathic. The hard truth (hard because there’s no quick fix) is that long term injustice creates most evil behavior. The percentage of psychopaths in the world is just not high enough to justify the ease with which we assign that condition to others.

In my mediations, ‘Why?’ is often the game changing, possibility opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetuating against us. ‘Why?’ often leads us to grief, abuse, trauma, mental illness, difference, socialization, childhood, scarcity, loneliness.

Also, ‘Why?’ makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances.

We don’t want to see that.

Demonizing is more efficient than relinquishing our world views, which is why we have slavery, holocausts, lynchings and witch trials in our short human history.

‘Why?’ can be an evolutionary question.

2. Ask yourself/selves: what can I /we learn from this?

I love the pop star Rihanna, not just because she smokes blunts in ballgowns, but because one of her earliest tattoos is ‘never a failure, always a lesson’.

If the only thing I can learn from a situation is that some humans do bad things, it’s a waste of my precious time – I already know that.

What I want to know is, what can this teach me/us about how to improve our humanity?

For instance, Bill Cosby’s mass rape history is not a lesson in him being a horrible isolated mass rapist. It’s a lesson in listening to women who identify perpetrators, making sure those perpetrators are not able to continue their violence but experience interventions that transform them, make that injustice impossible. If the first woman raped by Cosby had been listened to, over 40 other women could have been spared.

What can we learn? In every situation there are lessons that lead to transformation.

3. How can my real time actions contribute to transforming this situation (vs making it worse)?

This question feels particularly important in the age of social media, where we can make our pain viral before we’ve even had a chance to feel it.

Often we are well down a path of public shaming and punishment before we have any facts about what’s happening. That’s true of mainstream take downs, and it’s true of interpersonal grievances.

We air our dirt not to each other, but with each other, with hashtags or in specific but nameless rants, to the public, and to those who feed on our weakness and divisions.

We make it less likely to find room for mediation and transformation.

We make less of ourselves.

Again, there are times when that kind of calling out is the only option – particularly with those of great privilege who are not within our reach.

But if you have each other’s phone numbers, or are within two degrees of social media connection, and particularly if you are in the small small percentage of humans trying to change the world – you actually have access to transformative justice in real time. Get mediation support, think of the community, move towards justice.

Real time is slower than social media time, where everything feels urgent. Real time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.

Real time transformation requires stating your needs and setting functional boundaries.

Transformative justice requires us at minimum to ask ourselves questions like these before we jump, teeth bared, for the jugular.

I think this is some of the hardest work. It’s not about pack hunting an external enemy, it’s about deep shifts in our own ways of being.

But if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren’t the center of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a species.

And so much more.

I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each other’s transformation. Not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones.

I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience and interdependence. All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong.

I want to hear what y’all think, and what you’re practicing in the spirit of transformative justice.

Towards wholeness and evolution, loves.

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.

this is all the miracle (adapting towards pleasure)

it is easy to think everything is a miracle during a moment of external joy – falling in love, welcoming new life into the world, celebrating a major accomplishment, seeing a wonder of the world, being part of a successful march or action…those moments when rightness flows through my body and i feel connected to the great way/force/energy that makes us all one. 

what is harder is to bring my miraculous perspective to grief, to injustice, to delayed travel, to broken technology, to conflict, to changes of plans, to mercury retrograde – things that can be filed under ‘bad day’ or ‘bad life’.

mindful adaptation, however, makes it possible to experience the miraculous more often, if not constantly. 

here’s a little story about this:

i offered an emergent strategy training hosted by the group intelligent mischief in boston. it was full of opportunities to practice adaptation and other emergent strategies, none of which were expected.

first, i was late. 

generally i am becoming a late person as i age. i don’t want to sound shady, but basically i have been adapting because i was tired of being the only person on time. 

kidding! mostly kidding…

i just haven’t fully accepted that i need more time, and slower time, to live my life. i have been trying to adjust around this slower self, so this morning i’d scheduled myself to arrive an hour early. 

(i am going to try to tell this story without ‘bad at math’ feelings) 

i know that the commute from my parents’ house to downtown boston is usually 45 minutes, even with traffic. i left home about 15 minutes behind schedule because i was catching up with my mama, and when i plugged in the address it said 1 hr 15 min commute. my gut made the ‘ruh-roh’ scooby doo sound (my nibbling mairead loves scooby doo so this sound is running fresh grooves in my brain), but my mind overrode that with lots of rational options for the added time, including but not limited to traffic and the grandiose nature of boston and how everything in life is a mystery. 

as i flew through the tunnels under downtown and my directions said i had 30 minutes left, my intuition got louder – something is wrong. 

but i couldn’t figure out how to change the situation while moving at that speed without endangering everyone. also, i didn’t have time to be wrong.

so i kept going.

i finally pulled up to what i really wanted to be the downtown seiu building. instead it was a residential white clapboard house with laundry blowing on the line out front in a near-rural enclave south of the city. 

my mind immediately conceded to my gut (as opposed to making an argument to go knock on the door) which i appreciated. i figured out that my error was an understandable one – there are two ’26 west streets’ in boston in different neighborhoods. only one is downtown. now i was 30 minutes from the training which was scheduled to start in 15 minutes. 

this is where i adapted towards pleasure. 

well, first i yelled. one good strong wordless yell that filled up the car and released the tension that had been building between my mind and my gut. this is something i have been working on, to engage my anger. actually releasing it when it’s live in me.

then i emailed and called the organizers, to say where i was and to adjust the start time. they didn’t sound stressed at all, which helped.

then i had the thought that often shifts my mood – this is all the miracle. 

these 30 minutes of being late to a meeting in boston traffic is being lived by my miraculous irreplaceable body in a dynamic and outstanding system of life moving towards life. 

what i mean is, i think it’s my choice…if i spend these 30 minutes berating myself for not triple checking the directions or in some other way not being myself (because most of my stress takes the shape of self attack – ‘why don’t you have a better memory?’ ‘why don’t you prepare your travel better?’ ‘why aren’t you more like [insert superior human of the moment]?’ ‘why don’t you listen to your gut more?’) i will just show up feeling funky, lesser than, and like my life has been wasted.

i don’t want to waste any of this precious stuff, especially not in a context where i am asserting that my life matters.

so i put on alabama shakes.

the last song on their new album sound and color is something perfect called ‘over my head‘ (go watch the video) – it is about that kind of love so good ‘i feel it through all my past lives’. brittany howard sings like she is putting her heart on her lover’s table as a post-patriarchal dowry. 

i have been listening to the whole album on repeat, but that song in particular has all this space for me to add my own vocal flourishes to it. so i put it on repeat and i sang it all the way back to boston. 

i sang it while playing my video for it in my head. in my video, the song is a slave ship love ode where, in excruciating slow motion full of thick glances and the movement of sun in water, we watch an enslaved woman leap off the side of a slave ship after her love, who thrashes in the ocean waiting to die with her. once they hold each other they surrender and sink together away from the murderous light into the beautiful blackness of freedom. 

i also sang it while imagining performing it on the voice someday, which i suppose is a regular activity for everyone who can kind of sing.

suffice it to say, i arrived at the actual seiu building for my training feeling gloriously alive, flushed in the cheeks, laughing, clicking together the mind heels of the body in my head that can achieve enough height to click heels together. i walked in the room and…everyone else was late! 

the rest of the day was a shapeshifting adaptation fest. 

emergent strategy is something i am still discovering, but a lot of it for me feels like tuning into the natural operating systems of this universe and being humbled, as opposed to trying to barrel through and against all the change, trying to best nature. i am learning to see human behavior, even my own mistakes, as part of a larger natural order. leaning towards rihanna’s tattoo wisdom: ‘never a failure, always a lesson’. 

also, i am wondering where i have agency, where i am moving and where i am being moved. i keep making decisions and declarations about my life, and then that larger force deftly, elegantly adjusts me on my path.

i keep coming back to response and reaction as the place where i have the most agency, where, as octavia puts it, i can ‘shape god’. i am moving towards the horizon of the end of my life, i am generating as much liberation as i can on that journey. 

i choose what to embody, what to long for, even as the horizon shifts before me. the adaptation is up to me. the laughter between grieving friends, the justice of advancing a righteous anger, the first moments of surrender into new love, the opportunity inside of apparent failure…how often, how quickly, can i become aware of the miraculous nature of the moment i am in, and adapt towards the pleasure available in that awareness?  

this is also what i mean by pleasure activism: in addition to turning up the sensual and erotic experiences of life, i choose to experience pleasure in the onslaught of reality, finding the people and places with whom pleasure comes easily and giving them all my attention, extracting and/or growing pleasure as a radical act, a radical claim of what the miracle of my existence convinces me i am due. 

interdependence is iterative

interdependence is one of the elements of emergent strategy that i have been studying (and, i thought, embodying) over the past few years.

i love it theoretically – no one is alone! in an ideal scenario of radical interdependence, we would take from the planet what we needed to sustain ourselves, and care for and protect the place and life forms of home. we would take from each other what we needed, what we lacked, and offer to each other from our abundance. its a lovely idea and i am slightly obsessed with cultivating it, particularly in movement spaces.

this past month i have gotten some practice in it, and really noticed the iterative nature of interdependence. what i have been studying by being hyper aware inside my life is how much being interdependent is a series of small repetitive motions.

i am excited to share observations anytime i am able to from inside an experience, and that isn’t always possible. much of this past month was hard in ways i couldn’t move through my mouth or fingers with any coherence.

the feelings were clear, though…

perhaps not all feelings fit inside of words anyway. it is presumptive to ever assume we are understanding each other, but what a balm it is to feel understood, or even just held tightly when your spirit is dancing beyond comprehension.

the things i had do repeatedly towards interdependence:

1. be seen.

initially with defensiveness (i am not like you say i am) even/especially in the face of experts (i have diagnosed myself, i know what is wrong with me).

and then, perhaps, without agency. because being seen is actually non-negotiable, though i can hide or i can determine my level of grace and relationship in it.

on so many levels, interdependence requires being seen, as much as possible, as your true self. meaning that your capacity and need are transparent.

meaning even when i don’t want to look in the mirror, i am (and i choose to be) open to the attention of others.

sometimes i start with my w.o.e.s., or those with whom i am co-evolving through friendship. i show something i’ve been hiding, and hope i’m still lovable. this generally goes better than could be expected, every single time.

i have also tried starting out naked on a hard table under a bright light, shivering from the cold of so many strangers’ eyes.

i can walk towards this ‘being seen’ and experience the beauty of releasing all that guard and protection, that miracle distortion. or i can resist it and only be seen in moments of trauma and loss of control.

but i will be seen, and the more i open to it, the gentler and more necessary that attention feels.

(as i was writing this i was reminded that interdependence is basically the song lean on me in practice: ‘for no one can fill those of your needs that you don’t let show.’)

2. be wrong.

there is nothing like the wrong feeling of being an intuitive witchy healer and having to be told something indisputable about your body.

particularly if you’ve already done the thorough work of disputing said something. out loud. at a volume that might, by some, be described as unmedicated anguish level. it’s pitiful wrong.

the easier ‘being wrong’ is for you (the faster you can release your viewpoint), the quicker you can adapt to changing circumstances. adapting allows you to know and name current needs and capacity, to be in relationship in real time, as opposed to any cycle of wishing and/or resenting what others do or don’t give you.

sometimes there isn’t one definitive truth (my favorite situations).

and sometimes there is one and you can’t see it. (least favorite. least.)

just at least consider it, that place where you are wrong might be the most fertile ground for connecting with and receiving others.

and in a beautiful twist, being soft in your rightness, as opposed to smashing people with your brilliance, can open others up to whatever wisdom you’ve accumulated. i am grateful to all the people who were softly right about me this past month when i couldn’t see my own needs.

3. accept my inner multitudes.

an honest self would agree to some self-care practice or limitation that would protect my recovering wounded body. and then another – honest, even earnest – self would almost immediately act against that agreement.

i’d be half bent over to lift something when the voice of one of my precious beloveds would slip through – ‘seriously what the fuck are you doing?’

(my loved ones are pure molasses sweetness.)

there is a me that wants to get that sugar devil away from me for good. there is a me that can’t go through physical trauma without ice cream, can’t even imagine that.

the more i accept this, the more i can share my contradictory truths with those who can support me, help me move towards my best self.

i am not turning against myself, i am multitudes. the tide to be turned is a process of inner alignment, those who wish to support me need me to be vulnerable with that inner contradiction.

4. ask for, and receive, what i need.

can you drive me to the hospital?
can you explain what is happening to me?
can you stop my pain?
can you open this water bottle?
can you help me stand up and sit down?
can you open the door?
can you put my bag in the overhead bin?
can you bring me groceries?
can you drive me to the airport and actually park and help me bring my suitcase inside?
can you hold me while i cry?
can you heal me?
and so on for what feels like forever…

and most of all, the childlike request inside of story telling: can you listen while i feel this?
again?
again?

i’m learning that interdependence is not about the equality of offers in real time. i had to ask most of these things of people i didn’t necessarily know, or knew but wouldn’t be able to offer anything to in the foreseeable future. i had to trust in that karma-ish idea that the support i’ve offered in the past or will offer in the future would balance this scale which felt so me-tilted.

over and over and over i offered up my small self and was held in big ways. thread through me, again, again.

the result of this experience is that i feel so much more woven into the world. i still anticipate my independence, my default can-do self space. but i don’t want to sever any of this connecting fabric between myself and all of the incredible people who held me through this past month, saw me, corrected me, held me in my contradictions, met my needs. i want more of my life to feel this interdependent, this of community and humanity. i love knowing how incredible it feels to have a need met, to be loved and cared for, and also know how incredible it feels to meet an authentic need.

it’s data, all this learning. tender data.

y’all who fed, held, carried, cleaned, transported, protected, scolded, listened and loved up on me through this…i’m in really love with y’all.

afrofuturism and #blackspring (new school, #afroturismtns)

welcome to #blackspring!

today as we speak there are actions happening across the country, and here in new york, a massive round of future claiming.

we tend to think and speak of afrofuturism as the far off future, something beyond our current comprehension and planet. but now is the only moment. AND we hope things will be different in the next now. AND I must admit, i am excited about the near future.

what are we about to do after this winter of discontent?

we have been escalating tactics in the face of flagrant injustice.
escalating tactics because we charge genocide,
we charge homicide,
we say no more killing us,
we say no more reckless obstinate impunity,
We say no more white supremacy in governance,

because, we say, black lives matter!

an afrofuturist assertion.

because we see something other than the normative truths of this place…we see something that is NOT here…

we see the future, cast over this devastating present moment.

we see,
and we believe.
we know,
and we bend the world to assert and embody that black lives matter.

that, to me, is the heart of afrofuturism, as i choose to understand it. labels don’t excite me so much, but concepts turn me on. the concept of seeing and creating the future from a perspective that has the lineage of an african seed, of something older and other than western, feels healing to me.

we, of that displaced diasporic seed, who involuntarily reach back to the motherland in our dreams, have been scattered so far from each other.

and in spite of all the odds, we have been resilient.

i cannot speak emotionally about the journeys of the other seed clusters, though i am seeking stories all the time, reading nnedi okorafor and ben okri and credo mutwa and wanting to know more.

but i can speak of the grief stricken journey of the kidnapped african…

and the abused, raped, enslaved, lynched, uprising negro, or in the language of white supremacy, the ‘nigra, or nigger’;

the beaten, vilified, billyclubbed, legally unlovable, disobedient and organizing afro-american, or again ‘nigger’;

the tokenized, mistrusted, mistaken, misguided, self-loathing, entrepreneurial, hoodwinked and bamboozled, boot strapped, assimilating african american, or ‘nigger’;

and the divergent, underpaid, unemployed, sugar soothed, imprisoned, resistant, resilient, awakened, politicized black. Or ‘thug. or nigger’.

so this is a shout out to the uppity nigger beyond all space and time. all along this journey, those who some saw and see as particularly ‘uppity niggers’, i call afrofuturists.

they, we, have cast our lot forward.

lately I’ve been obsessing over the afrofuturism and justice orientation of slave era blacks, because our situation today feels so terrifying, and exhausting and sometimes hopeless, and there’s so much trauma and grief to bear, and yet we survived THAT.

not individually, but collectively.

not all of those black people were afrofuturists, but to focus on afrofuturists in the black social justice tradition, i would note that:

africans leaping off of slaver ships were afrofuturists.
slave era parents teaching their babies a foreign alphabet in the candlelit dirt were afrofuturists.
black women dissociating themselves through to tomorrow while being raped into motherhood were afrofuturists.
those who raised the children of violence and those who chose not to, all were predicting the future and articulating their choices.
slaves who ran to freedom, and slaves who ran to their deaths, were afrofuturists.

it is the emphasis on a tomorrow that centers the dignity of that seed, particularly in the face of extinction, that marks, for me, the afrofuturist.

and of course there are the big ones, whose names have made it through the erasers of history books, into our mouths – harriet, sojourner, frederick, john, malcolm, james, ella, martin, nina, june, toni.

octavia.

now it is our work, and the exciting thing about this time is that we are learning to name ourselves, our distinctions and solidarities. our afrofuturisms and black springs. developing enough of a common dream language that we can be that much more explicit about the real futures we are shaping into existence.

we are touching the future, reaching out across boundaries and post apocalyptic conditions to touch each other, to call each other out as family, as beloveds.

‘all that you touch, you change. all that you change, changes you.’

we are making ourselves vulnerable enough to be changed, which will of course change what black existence means.

octavia butler, who gave us that philosophical spirit poem of earthseed that I just quoted, is a bridge for many of us, between this world, and the narratives that pull us through to the next realm, or the parallel universe, or the future in which we are the protagonists.

this is the essence of octavia’s brood, the anthology of original science fiction from social justice movements which walidah imarisha and i had the honor of co-editing. walidah couldn’t be with us today because she is visiting the political prisoner sundiata acoli, but she sends her love.

what we are all up to, this changing the world willfully, is science fictional behavior.

because all organizing is science fiction.

we are creating a world we have never seen. we are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves in war regalia to turn and face us.

because of our ancestors, because of us and because of the children we are raising, there will be a future without police and prisons.

yes.

there will be a future without rape.

without harrassment, and constant fear, and childhood sexual assault.

a future without war, hunger, violence.

with abundance.

where gender is a joyful spectrum.
where my nephew would not be bullied for his brilliant differentness.

where each of our bodies is treated like sacred ground, whether we have insurance or not…that one is very real for me right now as i am coming off of a surprise major surgery a couple weeks ago, and that, in addition to the urgency of our movements right now for black lives, and for the planet, all has me in a much closer consideration of the future.

octavia’s brood is 2 essays and 20 pieces of original and beautiful visionary fiction from largely hesitant and skeptical organizers, with breathtaking appearances from some folks who have been creating this kind of work long term – tananarive due, levar burton, mumia abu-jamal, and others.

visionary fiction, (a term which walidah coined, this was what made me start following her all over the internet til she said yes to this anthology) visionary fiction includes sci fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, magical realism, myth, all of it. in addition to this intentional genrecide, visionary fiction intentionally explores:

how change happens from the bottom up,
how change works in collective ways, disrupting the single white male hero narrative,
centering marginalized communities…meaning we are the center of the story, as opposed to the sexy and unbelievably stylish sidekick.
and visionary fiction is hard, and realistic, and hopeful.

it’s neither utopian nor dystopian, its more like life.

in real life, we may make it to a future full of gardens and bicycles, but we may not get to choose who is there with us, and we may never get to leave it.
we may get rid of gentrification but not without violence.
we may get to travel to parallel universes, but only by feeling completely insane in this one.
we may learn to use dissociation and other responses to trauma as a way to teleport and heal, but not without losing our families.
we may create the key to a liberated technofuture, but have to live a life on the run to keep it from being weaponized.
our black skin may become special and valued, but then we have to fight to keep it from those who realize melanin is better for surviving increased sunlight.
there might be angels, but what if the good ones get kicked out of heaven for trying to help us.

all of this and much more is explored in the book. these are writers who mostly didn’t identify as artists, as writers…and yet, we argued, their lives are acts of futurism and creation. when they returned to us on our deadline, and instead of the ten pages we begged for, there were 40-50 pages of new novels and character visitations.

the stories are beautiful. we went through 6-7 edits for each one, loving them up. sheree renee thomas, the editor of the dark matter collections, advised us and let us know they were great. john jennings crafted the cover for us – and created a glyph system, a glyph for each story which is incorporated into the cosmic space of octavia on the cover. i don’t have copies here but if you order online at ak press, use the code octaviafs and you will get free shipping through the end of may. octaviafs.

so…imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity.

when we were in the editing process, these narratives felt important and interconnected – now as i reread the book obsessively, the whole thing feels so audacious. it is massive, the visions of these organizers are in no way small.

and in that way we hope we honor octavia butler’s legacy. she never wrote us a small problem, or a small vision. she offered us nothing stagnant. to speak of her protagonists, i use the term emergent strategy – strategies that create and move complex systems and patterns through relatively simple interactions. if you have noticed a flock of starlings move through the air in a pluralistic dance, or seen geese share leadership moving south, you have seen my movement vision, and what i believe octavia offers one case study after another for:

leading that centers relationship,

decentralization and interdependence,

adaptation…or being in right relationship to change,

resilience, the capacity to accommodate and integrate change,

transformative justice – going to the root of the problem and transforming the conditions instead of just getting punitive and righteous about symptoms,

fractal (or the idea that patterns repeat across scale – the spiral on your finger echoes the spiral of the galaxy, how do we become the small,scale version of the large scale changes we seek?)

and finally creating more possibilities, as opposed to current strategies which seek to narrow options down to one path forward…

some of the key practices that show up in octavia butler’s work, and in octavia’s brood, are collaboration, compassion, curiosity, romantic and sensual and non-possessive love, play, mediation, and the patience that comes from seeing ourselves in a much longer arc of time than we are encouraged to see in the instantaneous culture of the modern world.

so along with touring the book and reading stories to people, we are offering workshops that blend visionary fiction and social justice, in ways we hope are elegant.

one is a training in science fiction and direction action, which we’ll be offering a taste of here. in this we plan actions in some of our favorite sci fi worlds and apply the lessons to our current work.

two is a collective sci fi writing workshop, where we use collaborative ideation to build a world that is a living solution or testing ground to work through a current local issue.

third, i have been offering trainings in emergent strategy, and emergent strategy facilitation. and on one level i am talking about adaptation and resilience and mushrooms and schools of fish and spirals and stardust and stuff.

but what i am really asking, what we are all really asking, what octavia was asking, is how do we who know the world needs to change begin to practice BEING different?

how do WE have to BE for justice to truly be transformative? not them, that massive amorphous them
that is also us,
in our heads and hearts,
or loves us,
or is tired of this shit but is family to us…not them, because maybe they don’t recognize yet that these changes are the key to human survival.

but us, us who are awake and awakening? how do we need to BE for black lives to matter? what do we need to HEAL in ourselves in order to offer a future of any real peace?

or to become the protagonists of this human story – and earn the flip of the page of all the sentient life in the universe?

to claim the future as a compelling place for our miracles?

this is everything.

science fiction is not fluffy stuff. afrofuturism is not just the coolest look that ever existed. the future is not an escapist place to occupy. all of it is the inevitable result of what we do today, and the more we take it in our hands, imagine it as a place of justice and pleasure, the more the future knows we want it, and that we aren’t letting go.

so. start this black spring, start with black lives matter. its the afrofuturist activity of this moment. embody the concept that black lives matter. no matter what your background is, no matter what your struggles are, let black lives matter fill you up, believe it, practice it being true.

all along the journey, all of the afrofuturists i named from movements before this time, all they have been is unapologetically black, uncompromising in their right to take up space. will you promise to do that?

i love you.
black love.

trust the people

‘if you do not trust the people, they will become untrustworthy.’ – lao tzu, tao te ching

i am writing from biloxi mississippi where i am co-facilitating a gathering of activists coming together around extreme energy extraction – organizing around the processes and impacts of a society run on coal, oil, natural gas, uranium. we had an amazing gathering, and it inspires me so much to put the emergent strategy approach in action.

one of the primary principles of emergent strategy is trusting the people.

often, facilitation seems to do the opposite of this. we sit with the organizers of a gathering and try to figure out ahead of time every single necessary conversation we want to see happen, and then create an agenda that imposes our priorities on the people who we have invited to gather, ostensibly because they are the experts and front line thinkers on the issue. then, a few hours or days into the gathering, we are harried and desperate because the people have realized what we are up to, or simply aren’t feeling heard, and/or we have missed something crucial that is at the center of the gathering. there emerges a sense of facilitators and participants working against each other, instead of everyone working in collaboration to meet the goals.

i have been experimenting with what it means to ‘trust the people’ in practice.

i’ve been facilitating for a while, and although i know that the common wisdom is that every meeting has a flow of ‘form, storm, norm’ – the group comes together, then explodes in opposition to what is happening and creates what they need, and then a norm emerges where there is a sense of accomplishment and deepening into their united identity – i have often wondered if there was another option, one that would save us time, resources, stress, division and energy.

it’s happening. none of the meetings i have facilitated this past year have had a significant storm component. facilitate means to make it easy, and i feel like finally it is happening, it is getting easier for the participants and for me and my cofacilitators.

here are some of the practices for trusting the people in practice.

1. goal setting.

why are we meeting? what can this group uniquely accomplish?…i have to thank taj james for this clarifying question. there are always a ton of relevant conversations that could happen, but there is usually a very small set of conversations that this particular group, at this particular moment in history, can have and move forward, given their capacity, resources, time, focus and beliefs.

the organizers should have this question at the center of their planning for the event. i also find that it helps to survey the group of invitees to sharpen the goals.

2. invite the right people.

we invite people to meetings for a lot of the wrong reasons – obligation, guilt, representation…even love. the questions to ask when shaping the invite list are ‘who is directly impacted by this issue?’ and ‘who can move this work forward?’

inviting the right people means we aren’t wasting time by renegotiating the goals nonstop throughout the meeting, and/or managing the dissonance that occurs (righteously in my opinion) when a participant who shouldn’t be at the meeting tries to make it worth their time by derailing the process of advancing the stated goals.

now, right people doesn’t mean easy people – conflict and difference are often an important part of advancing the work, bringing the real issues into the room. trust is built when the right people are in the right room, and can bring their opinions and work into a container that advances their individual and collective goals.

the right facilitators are also key. i love co-facilitating with people more creative and meticulous than me. inca mohamed, hannah strange, autumn brown, raquel lavina, kavitha rao, jodie tonita, anasa troutman, alicia garza, the generative somatics teaching body, many more – this is a time of brilliant facilitation!

3. individual participant articulation.

there are real language barriers, both literal and cultural, that mean we often think we are hearing each other, but really we have no clue about what others are saying. we all have filters, only some of which we are aware of.

in a gathering, this can create the utmost confusion. folks are using different cultural references, different touch points and acronyms, coming from widely different experiences and passions – even if what they are saying is similar, they can’t hear and understand each other.

giving everyone room to say what they want to prioritize and discuss, and then synthesizing that set of topics as a group, grows the common tongue of the participants, and allows for genuine clarity to happen in the dance of organizing all of the desires into a manageable number of conversations. my friend allen gunn taught me a way to do this with post its and a blank wall, and i just keep iterating off of that exercise to create self-generated agendas.

when trying to determine which articulation to prioritize, go with that of the most impacted people in the room – it is usually the most relevant, and often the clearest and most accessible.

4. a living agenda.

develop a spacious adaptible agenda where the participants can shape the meeting. again, our tendency is to fill up every minute from the beginning to the end of the day with formal session time, creating schedules that are hard to change when new information comes along. not to mention, these agendas sometimes underestimate how long conversations may actually take.

most conversations need at least 1.5 hours to adequately cover orienting around the content, identifying what is needed and identifying clear next steps. and that’s conservative. a meaningful full group conversation for thirty people or more needs roughly a minute person participant. underscheduling means that energy will start to build up looking for release.

folks are so used to not being heard. so used to not getting their needs met. when folks feel heard, the time starts to expand as people move past expressing and start to be able to listen.

it is a beautiful thing to give people space and time, but within the agenda also point continuously towards collaboration. in the u.s., which is where i do most of my facilitation, there is a socialized tendency towards competition – ‘my idea is the best and i am just here to sell it!’. well…no thank you. what can we do together from our passions?

collaboration can only be built on relationships and shared vision. relationships have to be respectful (‘oh i totally see why you are here and why i would want to work with you’) and real (‘what you just said offended/disrespected me, and i can tell you about it because i want us to grow!’). and shared vision doesn’t mean a ten point shared utopia – it means you can generally state that you are moving in the same direction.

the spacious agenda often leads to ending the meeting early, or right on time. try it! it’s magical.

5. listen with love!

the participants absolutely mean to be listening to each other, but their own agendas might fill up their ears with misunderstandings or frustrations. your work as a facilitator is to listen to the needs of the group, help the participants to be clear to and with each other, and make sure you actually understand what folks in the room need.

listen to the feedback you request, and to the other feedback that flows in from the edges, the participants who need something more. my confession here is that i have, at times, grown annoyed with those participants who tend more towards deconstruction, anxiety or frustration…they are the ones often less able to state clearly what they want. however if i can drop in and set my annoyance aside, those folks are sometimes trying to get at the heart of the matter, or name the root schism in the room – the thing that is unnamed because it hard to name. taking time to hear the participants in the margins of the agenda can actually help get the event on point. and i can’t count the number of times a disgruntled participant was actually just misunderstanding something that, when clarified, made them a star participant.

6. know when to say yes and when to say no.

yes to those things that deepen the gathering – cultural grounding, local welcome, clarifying questions, learning in real time, suggestions to slow down. no to manipulative efforts to quiet others, pontification, ignorance. yes to singing, bio breaks (bathroom, fresh air, snacks, self care), ending early (when the group has run out of energy for the day), talent shows, parties and efforts to synthesize. no to judgment, delays, circular conversations and people who are rejecting the process.

7. what you gonna do?

my friend gibran rivera once articulated a question to me: ‘what is the next most elegant step?’ oh i love this question. too often we come up with plans that don’t take into account the fog on the horizon. then we go off and the work doesn’t happen, perhaps can’t happen, and then we feel demoralized because our energy doesn’t flow into action. an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. an elegant step allows humility, allows people to say ‘actually we need to do some research’ or ‘actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room’ or ‘actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable’.

in any conversation – and i would say in any moment in life – there is a next elegant step – one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go. find it and you cannot fail.

as with all things, these practices are emerging as i learn them. feel free to add on. love y’all, and let’s keep learning to do our movement work better and better.

allied media conference 2014 share out (octavia’s brood, storytelling black women, emergent strategy handbook!)

this year’s allied media conference felt like one miracle after another and i wanted to share out with you all (especially those not there or unable to get into certain workshops) a few stories, agendas, occurrences and the link to the emergent strategy handbook which is now available for viewing online or downloading.

storytelling black women’s lives

this friday morning workshop was proposed as a five person panel of storytellers, featuring some of my favorite scholars of black women ancestors. the panel shifted a few times, and by the time the session rolled around we had two panelists in person and one on a google hangout. but it appears that certain ancestors were so pleased to be told on that they made it not just work, but become a time for praise, healing and magic.

we realized the night before that what we were really engaging was the fine art of being oracles, imparting wisdom as presented through the lives of these ancestors. the oracles were sister doctors alexis pauline gumbs, moya bailey and ayana jamieson.

alexis made an alphabetical list of ancestors and we filled it up as far as we could, trusting that the workshop would be able to keep growing it.

the first part of our workshop was the oracles channeling. a participant would ask a question, and the oracles would let the right story come to them, about octavia butler, or toni cade bambara, or harriet tubman, or another black woman ancestor.

the questions included how to we honor our ancestors as we transition into our own power, how do raise multi level genius babies if we don’t see ourselves as geniuses, how do we tell our mother’s stories in a culture of shaming?

the second part of the workshop gave everyone present a chance to give and receive guidance. i have heard lots of feedback of how accurate the guidance was.

we closed by sending love to sister warrior charity hicks as she sat between here and there in an ICU unit. we conjured up a shared sense of her aliveness and power, and let the universe know we want to learn the next chapters of her life, whether it was to stay or to go.

octavia’s brood

the brood had two fantastic experiences at the AMC.

first, we got to present four brooders as part of the opening ceremony. alexis, gabriel teodros, dani mcclain and leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha (whose name is a joy to my tongue). they hadn’t heard each other’s stories, and it was exciting for us as editors to hear these stories in their voices.

my co-editor, walidah imarisha, was delayed in portland and arrived literally five minutes before we took the stage. we threw on our heels, had a mindmeld and walked out there.

the next morning we got to offer our first behind-the-scenes session. the brooders, including the editors, shared where our stories came from, engaged with the participants about the art of writing visionary science fiction, and offered lessons from the overall process.

walidah and i have learned so much about ourselves and each other in the effort to do this project in line with our principles. we have learned to laugh at each other, keep it real, and offer each other support as our personal lives have unfolded in parallel to this life’s work.

it was beautiful to share that with folks who cannot wait for the book to be out, the transformation is not the end product, it’s the entire journey.

emergent strategy train the trainers

this workshop felt like it’s been building for a while. i created a handbook for it, which you can download now.

i want to decentralize emergent strategy, share it in a way that others can deeply engage and take ownership over and keep learning and shaping.

our room was much much too small. we had 80 people inside and somewhere between 40-50 outside and upset. next time i will request the auditorium, i want so many people to be in practice around this approach and these tools.

i started by reviewing the handbook (shout out to eli feghali for getting it printed the morning of!), which includes three different pieces i have written about emergent strategy, in chronological order, as well as a clear illustrated articulation of the elements of emergent strategy thus far.

the elements were up around the room, and we used emergent strategy methods of flocking and adaptation for the group to engage these elements. while they were flocking about we found a larger room and reconvened the group there.

people were then partnered up with one other person to make emergent strategy commitments. the idea behind this is that you ‘transform yourself to transform the world’. the best way to implement emergent strategies is to become emergent in how you process information and show up in the world. it was beautiful to watch the energy with which people claimed their commitments.

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we then came together to reflect back learning and lessons. here are the lessons i offered as a way of deconstructing what we had done:

– collaborative ideation. at the root of generating our ideas, we want to learn to be collaborative, to see the best ideas as growing through conversation and sharing (rather than competing, isolated moves forward).

– begin by listening. this AMC principle is the key practice of emergent strategy. we are tuning into each other, listening not just with our ears but our awareness, understanding, bodies.

– deepening one-on-one connections builds the strength of the whole. to change what is possible in a room, let people connect with each other directly.

– people are more passionate about the things they articulate themselves. don’t over-structure an agenda, let people articulate what they most want to work on together.

– passion over obligation. understand the motivation for people being in the room.

– lao tzu on trust: if you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

– make room for the conversation that wants to be had in the room.

– reach for the horizon but realize that it is only a limit of your sight, keep checking for new horizon info as it changes.

reflections on the octavia e. butler celebration at spelman

i am still glowing and full from last week’s octavia e. butler celebration at spelman. the event was the second one hosted by the humble and brilliant patternmaster tananarive due, the horror/sci-fi writer who held the cosby chair at the college these past two years (and who i am thrilled to call my writing coach this year).

last march, tananarive invited friends and colleagues of octavia’s together to reflect, share work, converse and celebrate octavia’s life and impact. writers and thinkers like samuel r. delany, nalo hopkinson, nisi shawl, steven barnes, lynnee denise, jewelle gomez and sheree thomas sat together and honored their friend and ancestor. i wasn’t able to make it, but watched hungrily from afar.

tananarive focused this year’s event on arts and activism, rooted in her own background as the daughter of civil rights activists. when she invited me i couldn’t fully believe it. i said yes much the way i once said yes to going on the space mountain ride at disney world – OF COURSE I WANT TO DO THAT!!, not thinking until later what that might actually be like as an experience.

over the months between the invitation and the event, tananarive told me she was also inviting nnedi okorafor. then dream hampton and bree newsome. then junot diaz. then john jennings. other than bree, i had buried myself in each person’s work. dream is a close detroit comrade. they are all masters in their respective crafts.

i got very very nervous.

knowing i would be near nnedi and junot particularly made me feel like i was about to be upside down in the dark of an unknown depth. i entered a comfortable denial mode wherein i just didn’t think about it.

then a little over a month ago i was at astroblackness in l.a. and nnedi was there, as well as nalo, john, tananarive and steven. they were all quite normal nerdy cool fresh people. i observed nnedi’s presence, knowing we’d share panel space soon, and with the luxury of being unknown to her. she is a striking and direct speaker – perhaps a little uncomfortable with the attention her brilliance brings, but also wanting to be as precise in her talks as she is on her pages. my nervousness around her became excitement. i wanted more time around her present-moment mind.

now i was only in denial about junot. and the live streaming – did i mention that? the whole thing was sent out to the world and the galaxy in real time. no wardrobe glitches or tripped over words allowed.

my honey lynnee denise was in town, in an alignment of magic she spoke at spelman a few days earlier at the toni cade bambara scholars/writers/activists program at the women’s research center. she kept me in my body and feeling cared for throughout the week, for which i am deeply grateful.

In terms of the event, everything was awesome.

it started off with a black sci fi film festival with piece after piece that inspired and moved me. dream’s video for theesatifaction’s ‘queen’ showed, a gorgeous expression of radical black queer beauty and fashion. there was a short film critiquing spelman’s founders’ day through a magical realism lens. there was a sci fi interactive movie/game about the work of depersonalizing and battling ‘dark forces’ that get inside us, which was funky and spoke to so much of what i have been working through in my own life. bree’s short film ‘wake’ showed, totally creepy and beautiful – it was exciting to experience her work before we met and shared the panel space. then tananarive and steven’s ‘danger word’, a short take on a zombie film, had me in tears – excellent efficient storytelling. the festival closed with pumzi, a short film out of kenya which i have seen a few times and find stunning and challenging. the way the lead character loves her planet always opens me up.

after a short break, tananarive and nnedi gave a reading in the museum, which was full of renee stout’s stunning ‘house of the conjure woman’ exhibit. it was the perfect backdrop for their words. tananarive read from the good house, which i just finished this morning. she read in the voice of the book’s magic ancestor, a part of the book i hadn’t gotten to yet. i am learning so much from her about research, place, description, story arc, and how important the characters are, outside of the horror, science and technology.

nnedi read from her new adult novel lagoon, and as she read she took us into this vibrant world she has created. i downloaded the book immediately and am excited to get into it.

at the end of the event, tananarive said that junot had slipped in the back. i didn’t turn around, but my denial ended abruptly. he was here! so was bree, and the gifted artist john jennings, who is doing the cover of octavia’s brood. so were dream, nnedi and her daughter, tananarive and her father, lynnee, soraya and sage from the NOLA wildseeds coven, a group connected to the octavia butler and emergent strategy work. so was my old friend samirah from college, who is now a textile/fabric artist living in atlanta, who reminded me i had basically been like this since school. and bill campbell, an internet friend for years who i had never met in person. and so was shamika, a new facebook friend who had flown down from NY to connect with all of us. people were texting and tweeting as they prepared to watch from afar.

the pattern was gathering.

shortly before we went up, as i finally frantically gathered my thoughts, tananarive reminded me that she wanted me to do one of the grounding exercises i’d told her about, instead of just a talking intro. all of the sudden emergent strategy flooded my system and i lost my nervousness. i only had to do what i loved and be myself.

junot diaz came over and became just junot, a human with a wicked smile, bad back, and brilliant mouth that talks in essays and curses. dream was there, covered in sparkles. we were all there because of our shared love of octavia.

exhale, be here. i landed in the moment of it, in my body.

a group of spelman and morehouse students opened us with a reading of earthseed verses. then the speakers took the stage. i went first, and had folks stand and do a meditation and sharing around the Octavia’s earthseed concept ‘all that you touch, you change.’ i asked them to share what they are in this world to change, and to manifest it with one other person in the room. i referenced octavia’s brood and emergent strategy to ground the work.

the other panelists introduced themselves with a variety of love stories about octavia and her impact on them. junot and dream both shared what it was like to read her work as it was coming out. john spoke about coming to her work as a visual artist, and how he is in the process of doing a comic book adaptation of kindred. nnedi spoke about her friendship with octavia, and how they corresponded about world events, including 9/11, and octavia’s disdain for bush. bree spoke about the impact of octavia on her creative and activist work.

the q&a that followed had us speaking on the new intelligence of social media and how to use it as a way to connect people for social justice, the blackness of outer space, sci-fi and theology, how to make sci-fi work and ideas more accessible – including changing who is seen as a creator, and using image and film to tell stories. we were asked whether we wanted to write about a world beyond race (most of us said a resounding no…for me identity is one of the most interesting ways we evolve and layer), what themes emerge in our work (i said pleasure!), and how to deal with the fear of changing the world with our writing. the audience was lovely, alert, leaning forward.

i notice that spaces created around octavia feel sacred to me, always.

the next day i got to hold a circle around octavia and emergent strategy. it was an intimate group of about twelve people – students, professors, cultural strategists, artists. tananarive’s father john stephens due was there, which was awesome. elders bring such value, and he has been doing social justice work for over fifty years. he jumped in and played with the ideas of emergence and sci fi.

i introduced emergent strategy and had people personalize it for their lives. it was beautiful to hear what came out as folks talked about being more intentional, interdependent, transformative, adaptive, decentralized, fractal and creating more possibilities in their lives and work.

i deeply believe in the work i am getting to do these days. i think it is a path that will liberate many paths, and i think i am merely a conduit, a gathering place for the ideas to marinate and continue.

i am being shaped, i am shaping.

principles of emergent processes in facilitation

just spent several days facilitating the BOLD gathering with a team of brilliant people. i used emergent process to move us through the time together, and got great feedback. i have been identifying tools and principles for practicing emergent strategy in groups for some time. i am writing this to share the thinking, learning i am doing in my facilitation practice.

to reiterate from earlier posts, emergent strategy is strategy (a plan towards a goal) based in the science of emergence – the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. last year in a workshop at the allied media conference, we generated ideas with a working definition of emergent strategy as: intentional, fractal (the same at the largest scale as it is at the smallest scale, toxic, healthy, joyful, stressed, etc), strong because it is decentralized, adaptive, interdependent, and creating more possibilities.

rather than laying out big strategic plans for work, 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. it feels like more and more of my communities are growing comfortable experimenting with, testing, and learning emergent strategies.

i don’t see this as creating something from scratch, but rather innovating from need – lots of people have been doing this for a long time, calling it a variety of things. and of course nature has always been on it.

here are some of the principles i have identified in as clear a way as i can articulate them:

– lao tzu says ‘if you don’t trust the people, they become untrustworthy.’ the first principle is a positive flip of this statement – if you trust the people, they become trustworthy. trust is a seed that grows with attention and space. the facilitator can be a gardener, or the sun, the water.

– there is a conversation in the room that wants and needs to be had. don’t force it, don’t deny it. let it come forth.

– the connection between the individuals is what makes the whole group/community strong.

– passion is a more valuable force for action and accountability than obligation.

– develop a strategic direction based on the horizon you can see. move in it with awareness. develop strategic bodies and minds to adapt intelligently as the horizon changes.

i am also playing with fleshing these principles out into practice. for example:

in agenda development, look for places where you can open people to each other, and get their whole selves in the room. i am learning an immense amount about this opening, getting present, and connecting in my somatics studies. it changes what is possible when people take the time to acknowledge they are whole selves in the room. and changes what is possible when there is space for deepening one-on-one relationships as a way to build the strength of the whole room, early and often. even a one minute pairing exercise can increase the possibility of the room.

another tool i am working with, which i picked up from the very brilliant allen gunn at aspiration tech, is generating topics for necessary conversation individually, and then finding the priorities amongst those conversations together. this allows the work people are truly most passionate about to be articulated in their own words. it moves the group beyond obligatory conversations to what they really want to talk about and ultimately do.

good ideas become great movement growth strategies with the touch of passionate hands and work. ideas that emerge from obligation tend to go stagnate waiting for water.

so…work in progress. what do you think? what would you add?

Doing my best

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is my best.

When I was young it was clearly laid out for me what the best was, there were prizes and gold stars and north stars and ways to measure: grades, parental smiles, degrees, solos. I can count my not-best moments (when I saw the failure coming and did not change course) from birth through college on one hand. Generally, I was ambitious because I thought that was good.

Then began a dance, a crumbling of drive, a dusting off of something essential which appeared like an inner resistance. I would achieve some honor, title, position, or acknowledgement and feel erased by it, instead of seen. That I was conforming to other people’s idea of the best, in a society which measured things in ways that didn’t resonate with me.

This has been slow, and its ongoing. It has meant rejecting or sidestepping degrees, money, and certain spotlights. I am beginning to tease out what feels right after years of just being able to sense what didn’t resonate. There are two aspects which are emerging, which work in tandem as a compass towards doing my best: love and dignity.

These two aspects work in a couple of ways – as I follow them, when I feel them in myself or sense them in others, they are leading me to the best life I’ve known. And tasting these feelings, I want more of them – I want to let love grow through me, and guide me. I want to stand in my dignity against all the odds.

If I ask, ‘Is love here?’ and/or ‘Am I in my dignity here?’, I can feel answers that help me move towards my truth and back away from future regrets. I still do things that might be morally questionable, all the time. But with intention, with the consideration of love and dignity being present, I am learning to trust myself to do my best.

Last week my friend dream posted a mini rant about the ways people judge each other’s work and passions. She was responding to general local critiques of folks who aren’t in the streets over the emergency manager in Detroit, among other things.

I was really moved by her words, probably in part because I haven’t been in the streets. To a large extent I see the EM as a distraction, pulling people away from their work to create a future for this city rooted in abundance and community, to fight for a symbol of power instead of continuing to learn how we generate and hold power in community.

But I care about a lot of the people impacted by, displaced by, and focused on resistance to the EM. I’ve been reflecting and writing and meditating and praying on the well-being of all the people I love here who are internalizing this period of Detroit’s history, taking it into their breaking hearts.

I also care about gender justice, which dream named as one of her core passions. And Assata. And the men in Guantanamo Bay. And the sexual health of black women and girls. And people impacted by terrorism and violence the world over. And Palestine. And the tar sands pipeline, environment, trans liberation, combating obesity and fat phobia, education and so many more things.

I want to do my best by these things.

I actually think most people want to do their best, to be good people and create a good society. But there are so many paths to do that good. Is it by being a body in the streets, or infiltrating the school system with radical content, or making new media, or creating more art, or opening cooperative businesses, or raising awareness on social media, or disrupting every city council meeting, or writing science fiction about new worlds, or, or, or?

How to choose? What is the best way?

What I have been exploring over the past few years is that the work I do best is that which I am most passionate about, work which encourages my health and well-being, affirms my power and the power of everyone else, and keeps me in a space of creativity and solutions.

I don’t think this is unique to me. In my heart I feel there are a thousand paths towards justice and liberation. Yes to all of those things, all of that work, all of those strategies. All of these issues need to evolve – which means they each need people who are most passionate about them, people who feel powerful in moving the work forward, who are healthy enough to do the work well, who are creating solutions.

This happens, for me, at the smallest scale. It has felt hard to explain, unimportant after some of the national and/or urgent work I have done in my life – where I felt special and smart and strategic and at the table. But I am beginning to really understand how political it is to do personal emergency management.

Detroit is one epicenter amongst many – we are in the midst of systems which are imploding. Systems which we – well I, and I suspect/hope many of you dear readers – know better than to want to save, because these are systems which rely on our oppression and inequality, on seeing each other as competition rather than family.

So we are working to remember and create new ways to manage our shared home together. And yet many of us are still in the elementary stage of learning how to manage our personal homes – our bodies and health, our relationships, our movement work, our hearts. Not to mention our actual homes and our finances.

I might be in pre-K.

In this chaotic state we try to create change in the world and find ourselves stretched, tired, demoralized, and unable to create the transformations we yearn for, though we feel the possibility within ourselves. But in the lack of knowing how to do things differently, too many of us still do our work from places of fear, obligation or anger. From no, instead of from yes.

I am sitting now with the question of what it means to do my best, as an adult in a world full of crisis and tragedy. I’ve written about cultivating joy as a weapon, as a frontline. And here I don’t mean a general upbeatness. I mean joy powerful enough to generate authentic resistance in the face of hopelessness. Joy that makes people want to create new worlds and new life together.

I think a first step in cultivating that joy is measuring my best based on how well I can manage my personal state. I was in an emergency state for a decade – my mental, emotional and physical health were deteriorating and I wasn’t even really aware of it except occasionally as a badge of honor to mark how dedicated I was to the work. I was, like many activists I love and respect, doing my best impression of eeyore-on-speed.

eeyore

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I am on the journey now of getting my health, spirit, heart and finances together, with the belief that the more grounded, joyful and dignified I am, the better I can live and lead. The more clearly I can apply my gifts and energy towards work I am passionate about, making the most of my miraculous and limited human capacity. Then, the more inviting my futures become. And the stronger my emergent strategies can be.

Because when it is time for us to manage it all – whatever we call it, our neighborhoods, our cities, our sovereign collaborative tribes – I want to be capable of the task, I want to be experienced, I want to be trustworthy. I want it to feel like love and dignity are there.

I suspect we won’t even get a real chance to manage it all until we have generated so much love and dignity and joy that our future is the irresistible one.

I see everything I am doing now as learning, as preparation. Now, and then, I want to do my best.