Shannon T.L. Kearns
Shannon T.L. Kearns
Emergent Strategy and Better Stories
Shannon T.L. Kearns > Emergent Strategy and Better Stories
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I just finished reading the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. It’s a fascinating book. Told less as a how to guide and more of a diary from the journey. She includes snippets of thought, of blog posts, of interviews, quotes, strategies, thoughts in progress, and more. The book is about dreaming of a new framework in which to make change happen. Drawing lessons from nature to inform how we create movements.

One of the things that really stood out to me throughout the book is brown’s love of Octavia Butler and her science fiction writing and thought. I normally don’t see people who are heavily involved in justice work take seriously fictional worlds and the power of stories. Sure they’ll sometimes talk about how important art is, or they’ll bring large puppets to their rally. They’ll try improv as community building or strategy creation; but to dive deep into fiction? I haven’t seen that very often.

But I believe that brown is right: that the only way to create a new future is to be able to dream it. We have to have a model (even a fictional model) to aspire to. We have to have a vision that we can make a reality. And sometimes we need an artist, a dreamer, to dream up the vision. It’s not a solo vision but something to provoke and inspire ideas. Something to spark new idea generation.

I believe so strongly in the power of stories because I think they are a safe way for people to explore different realities. When you pick up a fiction book or watch a play or a movie you can let your guard down and engage more deeply. You can take it all in. And in the taking in you can begin to allow your own imagination to ignite. What would it look like if time and memory worked like they do in the movie Arrival? What could a future look like where people work together? Or share what they have? Or where women rule the world? What kind of possibilities are there? How can we dream them up?

Fiction: stories! help us to do this work. They help us to dream and engage. They help us to imagine. They help us to encounter what a different future could look like.

It’s why it matters so deeply that our art be created by all sorts of people. That we have access to the art created by marginalized people and communities. Because if they only art we consume is from people who already have power and control, what kind of new possibilities will be generated? But if our art comes from people who are used to having to hustle, to be scrappy, to live communally in order to be safe, then all of the sudden there is potential to dream up new realities. There is a potential for us to learn and absorb new ways of being and relating. There is a potential for us to find new strategies to get us to this new reality that we are now dreaming about.

But we can’t do that without stories. Facts and figures and strategies dreamed up in board rooms won’t get us there. Politics and bills passed and lawsuits won’t get us there. Documentaries won’t get us there. We need stories. We need imagination.

Because the systems that got us into this mess won’t be they systems that get us out of it. We need completely new ways of relating to one another. We need completely new ways of organizing together. We need completely new ways of making society and community happen. And we need new ways of relating to each other and nature and the planet. Because what we’ve got now? It’s irrevocably broken. And the shifts we need to see (and the pace at which we need to see them) aren’t small. They aren’t incremental. They are monumental shifts that are needed to help us all stay alive and thrive.


Our ideas need to come from the bottom up, from the marginalized, from “the least of these”. Our ideas need to be intersectional and creative. They need to be filled with beauty and elegance. They need to reignite our passion for living and for creating. They need to reignite our empathy and our realization of our need for one another.

We need stories to do this. Nothing else will do. So what stories can we dream up together?

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Photo Credit: marksmorton Flickr via Compfight cc