It’s easy to be cynical about being part of a group that needs to strategize or make decisions together. Meetings are too often tedious, a stage for dueling egos and unspoken agendas. But under adrienne maree brown’s leadership, ice breakers and small group breakouts have the power to transform participants, leaving them feeling more connected and better able to imagine together than when they first met. She has been “holding change,” the phrase she uses to describe what she calls “the sacred way of facilitation and mediation,” for more than two decades. Anyone who has been inspired or mobilized by the Movement 4 Black Lives has been touched by the work of brown and other facilitators the network has leaned on.
brown is writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, the collective that brings the ideas brown explored in “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” her 2017 book, off the page and to groups that want to experiment with the philosophy. Colorlines spoke to brown about her own political education, how she approaches writing, and her latest book, “Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Meditation.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve participated in movement work in a number of ways over the years: as a communications person, an executive director, a coordinator of the U.S. Social Forum, someone involved in direct action. I remember a moment in your career when you started describing what you did as facilitation. What led you to that work?
Mia Herndon [a member of the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute team] was the first person to ever hire me to do this when she was at Third Wave Foundation, and at that point I had no idea that it was a thing. I just thought, ‘I’m an organizer.’ I go to meetings and often I’m the person at the meeting who is like, ‘So it sounds like this is what we want to talk about. It sounds like this is what we’ve chosen to do. How are we going to make this decision?’ It was very much in my nature, trying to figure out what’s the next step and where do we go from here? I would get feedback that that was a useful contribution to the meetings. It was a way that I could contribute as I was receiving my political education, because I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t fully understand all these issues yet.’ I felt so behind the curve politically in my development, because I had grown up in military Department of Defense education systems. You know what Columbia was like at that time [the late 1990s]* [brown and McClain attended college together], it just felt like everyone had such a sophisticated political analysis. They were saying, ‘I’m an anti-capitalist.’ And I thought, ‘Well how do you do that? What’s that mean? So I thought, ‘This is a way for me to learn, too. I’ll take all the notes and get to learn what the heck is going on here.’
When Mia hired me to facilitate a meeting for Third Wave Foundation, I was ecstatic. This thing that comes very naturally to me is something that’s valued? It felt like a path or purpose was being unveiled. Then I started to come across other people who did it, and I learned that there were a lot of people in corporate worlds and other spaces that had technology and names for this kind of stuff. This is something that people get paid a lot to do [in corporate settings] because it’s so valuable to what can happen in the room. It is so valuable, but I’d always felt like it was an afterthought. Then I started to say, this is the role that I play and it’s actually an important, distinct role inside of what’s happening here. Making it more distinct means that you can wield the power of that role better. The power of this role is actually that you’re not trying to influence the decision. The power of this role is that you’re trying to make room for all the different perspectives to be heard. The power of this role is that you’re trying to balance between the introverts and the extroverts and the expertise and the new people who are just showing up for the first time.
“Holding Change” includes contributions from movement writers, thinkers and organizers including Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Malkia Cyril, Makani Themba, Prentis Hemphill and more. You often take a collaborative approach to book writing. Why?
I had a moment when I was working on “Emergent Strategy” where I had written everything that I knew about it, and then I just had this really visceral sense: this isn’t everything. I need other people to help show this… It was that way with “Pleasure Activism.” I’m at the edge of what I know about this. There are other people who just know more, and I would be remiss to not include that. Then with this book, I had this really strong, sweet feeling that this is how I have done my facilitation. For the most part, I have not worked in solitude as a facilitator. I think the facilitation that I’ve been a part of that has been the strongest has been in partnership with people who actually operate very differently than I do, and what people are getting from us is much better because of the differences in what we bring in. We’re actually sitting after the meeting saying, ‘No, I think we need to go this way now. I think it’s the time for this,’ and wrestling it out and then finding a way between those different methods that really honors where the group is. For the most part these teachers are living, and some of them may not be the kind of people who would write their methods down in a book.
There are pieces in the book – essays on the importance of breath and establishing boundaries, for example – that I didn’t read as necessarily being about facilitation. Are they? And how can people who are not in movement groups or organizations use this book?
To me, the best facilitators are those who are constantly developing their humanity, their capacity to hold themselves in [the] right relationship with others, and hold big emotions. I’m a much better facilitator because of the grief I have experienced in my life and because of the wisdom of those who have grieved alongside me and out ahead of me. I think of Malkia [Cyril] as one of those people who has grieved out ahead of me. She has experienced losses that I have not. This journey with boundaries that Prentis [Hemphill] describes in this book, this is fundamental to what it means to be a good human. And when we’re coming into movement spaces, we’re coming into spaces where no one’s learned how to create good boundaries and it’s a major thing that we’re actually holding in the space: ‘So what you’re saying without saying it, is that your boundaries have been crossed here.’ Or ‘What you’re saying without saying it, is that there was an unnamed boundary that needed to be articulated.’ Or ‘What you’re saying without saying it is there’s some financial, economic boundary, or something else. Something got hurt and broken and wounded here, and we need to actually rebuild something,’ I think ‘boundary’ has been a language for that thing that we often need to rebuild…
… We are all in spaces where we have to facilitate things all the time, right? If you’re in your family and some shit’s going down, it would be really helpful to have a facilitator hat to pull out at a certain moment to be like ‘What’s happening here? What is the need? What are the boundaries? What’s not being said?’ We’re all in relationships with each other all the time, and if no one has that facilitative capacity then hijinks ensue…We’re all in spaces where we would benefit from being able to pull this out and be like, ‘Hold on, what are we actually trying to do here? Let’s take a breath. What did I hear you say? Let’s mediate this moment.’
As a facilitator of Black movement building spaces, you’ve played a significant role in racial justice organizing that has shifted culture and policy in recent years. Black organizers have led the responses to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, many deaths at the hands of the state, the Trump administration’s coddling of white supremacist groups. What’s the movement’s focus now? Who and what should we be paying attention to?
If you pay attention to the collective efforts that are unfolding right now, those collective efforts are pulling together all of the smaller organizations and smaller efforts that people might not have heard of. This is a really trying time to do local organizing. Resources are moving all the time. Analysis is shifting all the time, and then the pandemic. So it’s been a really challenging time for a lot of on-the-ground organizations and a lot of networks. There’s been a lot of tension and a lot of growth and there are some big questions being asked around: How do we hold each other accountable? How do we build a shared vision across a lot of places with a lot of distinctions and needs? Movement 4 Black Lives is a central place that I turn to and support, and then they point me toward other things to focus on. Rising Majority is a more multiracial space that I also turn to, speaking more globally and about more multi-issue causes…People are always looking for ‘Who is the new person to pay attention to?’ The reason things are unfolding is because of the last seven years of work from Movement 4 Black Lives and Black Lives Matter and BYP100. It’s not mysterious. It’s not like all these new groups are popping up outside of that context. People are wondering, ‘How do I support?’ Keep giving. Give in a sustained way to support the work that’s ongoing, with your money and your time and your attention.
Is being prolific important to you? There was a point recently when you started publishing a book a year. What motivates that drive?
No, I don’t think I had a goal to write a book a year. I think what I had was a recognition that I could write a book a year. There is enough here in terms of what I’m thinking and trying to process through, that I could put forth a book a year. I would prefer that more of those books were fiction, and that’s the discipline that I’m trying to develop now in myself, because for every non-fiction book, I’ve got 15 novel ideas in my head. But that takes a different kind of time and discipline and stepping away. And so far, I’ve written almost all my books from the edge of my life. I’ve been running things and starting organizations and facilitating movements and waking up really early in the morning or writing late at night or getting a week to step away from things and go write…
… This book [Holding Change] feels like my last explicit movement offer from my experience for a while. I’m going to focus on writing fiction and writing musicals and engaging more theoretically and more artistically and creatively. This feels like what I have learned from these two-plus decades of movement work, facilitation and organizing. Every time I’ve left a position of leadership, I tried to leave a folder of everything I figured out there…all the passwords and the codes and how it all works. So between “Emergent Strategy” and this book, “Holding Change,” it feels like that offer. Here’s everything I’ve figured out. Use what feels useful, let the rest go.
Dani McClain is a journalist and author of We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood.