53 pages 1 hour read

Adrienne Maree Brown

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds is a nonfiction book by writer and activist adrienne maree brown. Published in 2017, the book is often classified as part of the self-help and personal development genre. However, while also offering practical guidance and tools for personal growth, the book blends elements of activism, spirituality, and social justice to present a framework for collective transformation. Drawing inspiration from elements of the natural world, the author explores an adaptive, collaborative, interdependent, nonlinear, iterative, resilient, and imaginative approach to social justice work and encourages all members of society to cocreate a world that is just and sustainable through small, everyday interactions.

Emergent Strategy blends reflections around personal growth, commonly seen in titles of the self-help genre, with other texts, creating a unique and interconnected narrative; in her Introduction, she writes, “This book is a collection of essays, speeches, spells, interviews, conversations, tools, profiles, and poems sharing my learning processes” (4). The author merges family stories with descriptions of her work in well-established social movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, offering a memoir-style account that exposes her intimate relationship with the concepts she engages with. In between her considerations, brown engages with texts, poems, speeches, and quotes by other authors, poets, scientists, and activists, acknowledging the lineage that informs her reflections and building upon ideas already explored. Her writing is always in conversation with others, reminiscent of the interconnectedness of the natural world she draws inspiration from.

This guide refers to the first edition of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds published by AK Press in 2017.


Emergent Strategy consists of 12 chapters. The book’s structure is designed to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of emergent strategy, its principles, and practical applications.

The Introduction establishes adrienne maree brown’s intentions and provides the first definition of emergent strategy: “a strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions” (2). Chapter 1 sets the foundation by introducing the guiding principles of emergent strategy, while Chapter 2 expands on these principles by introducing the qualities, or “elements,” that embody emergent strategy: fractal, adaptive, interdependence and decentralization, nonlinear and iterative, resilience and transformative justice, and creating more possibilities. These elements are defined and discussed in greater detail in Chapters 3 through 8, exploring their significance and practical implications.

Chapter 3 discusses the concept of fractal work, emphasizing how small actions on both personal and organizational levels have ripple effects that contribute to systemic change. Chapter 4 highlights the importance of adaptation and flexibility, expanding on ways humankind can learn from natural systems’ ability to respond to change.

Chapter 5 focuses on interdependence and decentralized leadership, illustrating the power of collective organizing and distributed decision-making processes. In Chapter 6, brown discusses the nonlinear and iterative nature of emergent strategy, underscoring the importance of experimentation, repetition, feedback loops, and being willing to adapt. The last element, resilience, is explored in Chapter 7, in which brown draws inspiration from nature’s ability to recover from disruptions and discusses, which can be a reference for addressing personal and collective human challenges.

Chapter 8 examines the potential possibilities and new futures that can be created by utilizing the aforementioned elements. brown cites examples from nature and the past as models for radical imagination, including the many ways Black people resisted enslavement.

Chapters 9 to 12 take a more practical approach, offering interviews, self-assessment tools, personal growth practices, and a wealth of facilitation strategies to translate emergent strategy principles into action. Chapter 9 features conversations with individuals who contribute to the exploration of emergent strategy in their respective fields. Three of brown’s colleagues discuss the lessons they have collected throughout their organizing careers. Chapter 10 provides a practical assessment for self-reflection. Chapter 11 cites examples in which brown encourages emergent strategy. Finally, Chapter 12 focuses on the practice of facilitation and equips readers with a comprehensive toolkit for effective engagement.

Throughout Emergent Strategy, brown grounds her discussions of the elements of emergent strategy in the natural world in callout sections titled “Grounding in Nature.” The author drew inspiration from the natural world and the field of biomimicry to highlight specific qualities she believes can inform personal growth and transformative change in social organizing. To brown, nature’s patterns and processes inspire harmony, and its wisdom should be applied to mend human relationships; foster decentralized, collaborative approaches to leadership; and create inclusive and just societies.

From biomimicry, brown learns to observe and emulate nature’s intricate systems and processes, recognizing its effectiveness in inspiring personal and collective change. This ecological perspective provides a solid foundation for understanding the dynamics of emergent strategy. Additionally, engaging in speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler’s work illuminates the transformative potential of nature’s elements within human experiences. Butler’s works, centered on the African American experience, invite readers to envision alternative realities and explore themes such as spirituality, environmental awareness, and social action.

In Butler’s narratives, brown immerses herself in fictional worlds where marginalized voices are empowered and the natural world’s wisdom is appreciated. Thus, brown’s emergent strategy framework is a blend of grounded observation and innovative imagination: to assess the world as it is and imagine new, better futures.