U.S. social-justice writer and facilitator adrienne maree brown doesn’t devote a great deal of attention to planning how her life will unfold. Instead, she prefers following her passions when they arise.
“I never know what the next positive obsession will be,” brown tells the Straight over Zoom. “But I really pay attention to when an idea won’t go away.”
That term, positive obsession, came from one of her major influences, prescient science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, who died in Washington state in 2006.
In the early 1980s, Butler wrote a short story called “Speech Sounds”, in which a pandemic caused most humans to lose their ability to read, speak, or write. Many of the afflicted felt tremendous jealousy and rage.
In addition, brown points out that Butler created a character decades ago who ran for president of the U.S. as a demogugue on the slogan of “Make America Great Again”.
“She was able to make what feel like these predictions—these prophetic predictions about what was going to happen—mostly because she paid attention,” brown points out. “And when you pay attention to what’s happening around you, you can start to draw conclusions.”
On March 2, brown was awarded SFU’s Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue, which is given every second year to a person who demonstrates “excellence in the use of dialogue to increase mutual understanding and advance complex public issues”. SFU noted that as the writer-in-residence at the Detroit-based Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute and the author of several books, brown was selected because her work “speaks to the ‘how’ of designing social justice movements”.
One of those books is Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.
“So everything in that book is [about] how do we get into the interdependent relationships we need to sustain through changes? And how do we bring our attention to the very small ways that change can happen in our lives and understand that everything big—and especially every big change—is made up of a lot of small parts and small decisions?” brown says.
Conversations matter, she says, but she also likes communicating ideas through her poetry and frequent blog posts.
She elaborates on the idea of emergent strategy by quoting organizational expert Nick Obolinsky, who described emergence as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions”.
“Huge cities, whole nations, came from small decisions to travel, to escape, to run away to try to create something new,” brown explains.
She offers a reminder that the pandemic also arose out of relatively simple interactions.
“It’s inevitable that an interconnected species, which tries to act as if it is not interconnected, will eventually have to face circumstances together,” brown says.
Quoting Butler said, brown says that “the fundamental flaw of human beings is that our intelligence is paired with a commitment to hierarchy”. It’s another example of Butler’s ability to notice things—something that brown also likes to bring to her practice as a writer and facilitator.
Nowadays, one of brown’s positive obsessions is considering how humanity faces and processes grief. She delves into this subject in her 2021 book, Grievers, which is set in Detroit when residents are so overwhelmed with grief they have trouble functioning in the midst of an epidemic.
“When it’s time to grieve, people are expected to kind of disappear and handle it, and then come back two days later, fine and functional,” brown says. “And that’s not what’s truly happening within us.
“What we grieve is what we love,” she continues. “And what we love deserves our care and attention.”
Grief can arise over many things, whether it's over the massacres taking place in Ukraine or the degraded state of the planet, which is another of brown's obsessions.
So what would society look like if grief was properly honoured?
“Then, we would be much more cautious about anything that created death,” she replies.