EMERGENT STRATEGY—Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown AK Press, 2017

Book Review by Alex Hing

The Asian American Movement, of course, is part of the larger movement for the liberation of humankind from capitalism and all that it engenders. In our practice and thought we have looked to the East for inspiration and guidance. We have examined and tried to implement political thought and liberation ideology and also gone deep into our roots to Buddhism, Taoism and other ancient Asian spiritual philosophies. We have supported anti-imperialist movements in Asia and throughout the world, looked to and united with many others in this country: People of Color—particularly Blacks, immigrants, women, LBGTs, prisoners and others seeking liberation from oppression. Yet, here we are standing on the brink of human existence and staring into the deep while the forces of war, greed, environmental degradation, inequality, and immorality are quickly consolidating into fascism.

I was trying to absorb all of the recent bad news, without getting depressed when my son, Troi, passed Emergent Strategy onto me because he felt that Adrienne Maree Brown and I were kindred souls on the path of liberation. Brown is based in Detroit and was a student of Grace Lee Boggs and a follower of sci-fi author Octavia Butler. She was a National Co-Coordinator of the 2010 US Social Forum, and a Co-Director of the Ruckus Society which does non-violent, direct action training and support for frontline communities. She currently facilitates the development of a broad swath of movement organizations in diverse communities, and is a practitioner of Somatic Transformation, a mind-body healing practice, a healer/doula, and is active in the arts and media. My ongoing quest has been to understand how to manifest the power that tai chi brings to an individual into movements for social justice and qualitatively change society’s relationship from capitalism and oppression to freedom. Brown takes on many of my observations and more by offering emergent strategy. She quotes, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” This is what happens in nature and our freedom lies in allowing nature to guide our practice and understanding.

Our current understanding of the natural world is quantum mechanics which Brown uses to inform our liberation struggles and allows us to imagine the future in science fiction. In trying to teach what happens in tai chi by using quantum mechanics, I relied on two beautiful books by Carlo Rovelli, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” and “The Order of Time”. Energy is information that connects with other energy to form a system whenever the information is in alignment. The new system generates a force greater than the sum of its parts which then seeks to connect with another complimentary system that forms an even greater force and on and on to complexity. In tai chi a practitioner rather than reject an opponent’s attack ideally receives its energy making a profound connection without getting hurt and utilizing all the available energy to achieve success. It should be effortless. The key is understanding, both intuitive and intentional.

Emergent Strategy understands that the movements for social justice are many and varied and it is not useful to formulate a grand unified plan, system or strategy to put an end to capitalism. Brown uses an example from nature, the murmuration of a flock of starlings, to illustrate that any part of the flock can react to an environmental change which effects the entire group without a central leader. This happens because each starling is deeply connected to seven others and this is multiplied by the thousands, sometimes. A flock of geese heading south for the winter naturally align with a leader who rotates with others from the flock depending on the situation. The aim of emergent strategy is not to come up with organizational formations but to build fundamental relations among people based on trust, a shared vision and practice. It acknowledges that differences are both natural and helpful for growth and transformation. Listening to others is fundamental to the process. From building relations among activists flows the building of communities. Brown is based in Detroit where some of the most innovative transformational movement work is happening.

“The Legacy of Manifest Destiny,” a painting by Marcos Raya on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL.

There is a chapter on fractals which I have been exploring in tai chi for some time. Humans, try as we might, cannot measure nature precisely. There are no straight lines or other Euclidian shapes in the natural world which is in constant flux. However, there are patterns and in nature what appears in the large is a manifestation of what is in the small through self-simulation. These units are known as fractals. A maple leaf resembles a maple tree whereas a pine needle resembles a pine tree.

The movements in tai chi are a spiral like the motion of the Earth on its axis, in orbit around the sun, and the sun in the galaxy whose swirl patterns can be found on seashells. In tai chi, our natural movements cannot be separate from the double helix fractal which contains our genetic code—information on who we are—in every cell in our body. The helix resides in a chromosome that resembles a human with two arms and two legs outstretched—we are trying to connect with heaven and earth. We practice the tai chi movements until they become natural and is the basis of our health and self-defense. An attack is not met head on with force but by neutralizing, absorbing it into emptiness and deflecting it with the natural motion of the double helix. When attacked, we have no time to think about what we are supposed to do, but we do prepare for it. Self-defense is natural, it is our sacred duty.

In emergent strategy this means that we do not need to have all of the answers to all of the big questions in order to establish a just society worldwide. We begin with the small, namely ourselves. By adjusting ourselves to live democratically, morally and spiritually and strengthening our bodies and minds in harmony with the planet, we are creating and living in the world that we want to have in the future, which is based on love. Making fundamental connections with likeminded people, we grow communities through coordinated activities. Grace Lee Boggs said, “Transform yourself to transform the world.”

Detail from mural by Sockit at Rabinatas Restaurant, Pilsen District, Chicago, IL.

Beside the chapter on fractals, there are chapters on other elements of emergent strategy: intentional adaptation; interdependence and decentralization; nonlinear and iterative; resilience. These elements are found in the natural world. They are interconnected and have meaning for how to grow the power of social justice as well as our personal lives. A lot of emphasis is given to our minds, imagining what lies ahead, and to our emotional health as part of human progress toward universal harmony.

We do not want a future where we are burnt out, jumping from crisis to crisis and trying to micromanage everything. We need to disentangle ourselves from this old way of movement organizing and live our future now. Emergent Strategy contains a good deal of self-help practices and techniques for both individuals and organizations and Brown incorporates the voices of many movement activists in her book. She asks of executive directors; do you take weekends off? Vacations? This sounds like heresy particularly when capitalism and neoliberalism are waging unrelenting war and genocide on the people and everything else on earth and we are rushing toward the end of the Anthropocene. Emergent strategy allows for the creative energy of each individual in the collective to be utilized efficiently and voluntarily so that things get taken care of by a collective, a community where each soul is allowed to contribute in a way that is natural for them. These communities address their issues based on their own conditions and in aggregate evolve into a mighty force.

In the span of my adult life, I was ideologically opposed to this approach, labeling it as New Age anarchism. I took my inspiration from liberation struggles particularly in Asia and the Third World which were led by revolutionary vanguard parties. While they were able to achieve liberation from foreign domination and oppressive regimes at great sacrifice, once in power they failed in establishing the kind of society I knew was possible … From each according to their ability to each according to their need … although there were a great many positive accomplishments. In the absence of anything else, I took a side, ignored authoritarianism and made excuses. Oppression by a new ruling elite that clings to power and enriches itself at the expense of the people and the planet calls for a new way of organizing.

The revolutionary organizations I belonged to required sacrifices and discipline that could not be sustained, a price we thought paid for all of the truly significant work that was accomplished. I now dwell in an alternate reality in which I try, as much as possible to detach from capitalist and patriarchal ways of thinking and being. I am constantly conditioning and preparing for what is to come, becoming more spiritual and trying to transmit transformational ideas and practices in my classes, at work, in my union, in my building–wherever I am. Amazingly, this has brought about a profound feeling of peace and well-being and by really listening, I am realizing that a great many people know that change must come yet many also feel hopeless, defeated.

Mural by Yoliocali X Sent Rock in the Pilsen district, Chicago.

People understand the economy is a bubble that is bound to collapse; that endless war is not a solution for anything; that the climate has crossed insurmountable thresholds; that racism, fascism and patriarchy need to be eradicated from human society; and that capitalist greed has become an existential question. Emergent strategy allows us to build a movement with faith that we can prevail, and that chaos provides opportunities. The universe is vast and mysterious, and we contain an entire universe within ourselves. Change is constant in nature and understanding change empowers us to make the most of it. Of course, this involves struggle. In tai chi we know that attacks in many forms will come no matter what but they offer opportunities so we should welcome them and try to address them calmly one at a time. Sometimes we prevail, sometimes we don’t but there is knowledge in every encounter that we can build on. This is also emergent strategy.

The voices in this book come from the most radical sectors of our movement. #Occupy Wall St. and #Movement for Black Lives, play prominent roles and the environmental justice, women, LBGTQ, arts and other direct action formations make contributions to this work. Indigenous understanding of our sacred planet is also woven throughout. I understand why unions are not in the discussion at this point, but that is bound to change. In fact, change is what the whole thing is about. Bruce Lee is quoted to remind us that we should be as formless and powerful as water. There are quotes from Lao Tsu and Tich Nhat Hanh as well as from Ella Baker and Beyonce. While not referenced, I will still look to Mao Zedong for inspiration, especially, “The masses are the makers of history.”

Emergent Strategy is a relatively small book (274 pages) that contains a lot of information and practical advice. It is joyful and reminds us that our future and present movement is based on love and we shall prevail.

Reviewer Bio:

Alex Hing is a sous chef in a New York City hotel, a trustee of UNITE HERE Local 6 and is on the Executive Board of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. He is a senior student of Grandmaster William CC Chen and has been teaching yang style tai chi in New York as well as internationally for over twenty years.

Hing is a longtime activist and organizer beginning as a student and in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements as well as in the community and labor. He was the Minister of Education for the Red Guard Party which drew its inspiration from the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.


  1. ALEX HING on September 17, 2018 at 3:27 am

    Just to clarify. When I said “a force greater than the sum of its parts”, I did not mean to violate the law of energy conservation but to convey what is known as synergy and I also think a discussion of entropy would not be suitable for this article.

  2. Susan Hayase on September 25, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    I picked this book up when I was on vacation. I think it’s pretty good, but I also think that the assumption is that it is for people who already know something about organizing. This is not a beginner’s book. It’s for someone who has been organizing for awhile and needs a fresh way to look at persistent problems that seem to come up in many forums. You might be interested in the other book I picked up on vacation. It’s called “Joyful Militancy” by carla bergman and Nick Montgomery. It talks about a way of being in the movement that’s the opposite of “rigid radicalism” which seems to be going viral on the internet. 🙂
    Thank you for the review. I really enjoyed it. I also did not think that I would like this book at first because it’s more “touchy feely” than what I’m usually interested in. But for a lot of the reasons you raised, I think it’s worth reading and thinking about.

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