Emergence #3: nine practices into a new future

After hosting 2 conversations this summer with our GLC community, this post explores 9 principles of Adrienne Maree Brown’s book “Emergent Strategies” as it applies to protecting the Great Lakes. Martin Urbach recently did the same, but from his position as a music teacher. So this post was inspired by Martin’s approach and uses the same 9 ES principles gathered from the book. Let’s inquire what these could mean for a Great Lakes Commons.

Read our first and second post on this topic too.

ONE: Small is good, small is all. (the large is a reflection of the small)

Does the greatness of the Great Lakes enable our own apathy and disrespect? Their size is so large that it’s hard for many to see how our actions can make a difference — for healing or for harm. Perhaps we need better ways to connect their greatness to our smallness. Building a Great Lakes Commons across such a large basin that is also divided by many boundaries and rules seems too daunting for traditional water campaigning.

When recovering and reimagining Great Lakes water governance, how can we seed our work between 3 people, 2 people, and even just within ourselves? A large conference or savvy online platform is great when we have funding and a common agenda, but we can practice water gratitude, respect, reciprocity, and protection right now with ourselves and our daily kin. What does (or could) this look like for you?

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TWO: Change Is Constant — “Be Like Water.”

So much of Emergent Strategy is rooted in paying attention to how life works — our lives and the living earth. It’s not surprising that ‘be like water’ is a core principle about the nature of change itself. What is your relationship to change? What types of changes inspire us or make us afraid?

A provocative axiom heard within climate change activism is “we didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones”. Human consciousness has travelled through many generations and made wildly different conclusions about the big questions: why are we here, how did we get here, and what is our destiny? In the documentary Surviving Progress, many experts make the case that western/consumer society is built on a set of ideas and desires that are only a few hundred years old and are in desperate need of a re-write. Mainstream language, institutions, and social practices currently revolve around a core set of beliefs that allege: humans are separate from nature, reason is superior to emotion, the material world is more real than the divine, and the individual is the centre agency and meaning (not the collective). These are just a few of dominant society’s allegations.

“Be like water” can offer us is a chance to revisit and revise dysfunctional scripts that came of age during the births of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and the separation of the individual from their social fabric. In 2017 we designed a Commons Currency project to reimagine the value of water protection. What projects and processes can we recover and imagine that respects the changing nature of change itself?


Three: There is always enough time for the right work.

Being busy is hard work. Ever feel like you’ve been working all day and yet also feel like the most important work isn’t getting done? This third principle allows us to make space for what matters.

Let’s look at time. How much time do we have to stop the oil pipelines, remove and reduce the plastics, restore the wetlands and rice lakes, shut down the nuclear reactors, safely guard our toxic waste, get the taps turned on with clean and affordable water, eliminate bottled water extraction, reinvest money and democracy into public water systems, and heal ourselves and our all life with the first medicine — water. How long? Do you see this timeline as a graduated process of incremental change or an alchemy of forces that we are learning to work with? What are the markers of the changes we seek?

Racing towards unexamined goals uses up our limited energy and leaves us distracted from collectively finding and addressing our real desires. Maybe we should print some GLC t-shirts saying “Keep Calm and Commit to Beautiful Solutions”. Would you buy one of these?

But what is the ‘right work’? The above list stresses the availability and quality of water, but what about the quality of our relationships to water and to our water neighbors? If we are truly a part of the living earth, then how we commune with others becomes how we commune with water. Read about our related project called Water Friendship, since we are looking for ways to extend and renew with work. For these past few months, the ‘right work’ for GLC has been working with these emergent strategies because they stress the connections between people and how we develop from change, failure, trust, and presence. How can we include you - you reading this blog post - more into this ‘right work’?


Four: There is a conversation in the room that only this people at this moment can have. Find it. — Taj James

One thread running through these principles is simply the value of paying attention. When we override scale (small is all), forget that change is the only constant, and don’t do the ‘right work’, it’s easy to build a workplan, meeting agenda, or funding proposal that often asks the right questions with the wrong people. Brown’s book has many principles and practices for matching the conversation with the participants. For instance, she offers these four:

  1. Be seen (your capacity and need are transparent)

  2. Be wrong (this wrong space is fertile ground, not a challenge to beat)

  3. Accept my inner multitudes.

  4. Ask for, and receive, what I need.

If people are not responding to our invites, the work is being dominated by the few (rather than the collective), or if a decision keeps getting delayed because of resistance or reluctance — then maybe we have a mismatch of who is in the room and what is on the agenda.

Another element within this principle then is paying attention to who’s invited into the conversation. The slogan “nothing about us without us” reminds conversation hosts (such as GLC) about the value of the invite list. The participant list (and most importantly the main speakers) of any gathering illustrates who’s needs, values, and futures are implicitly or explicitly valued. This includes inviting in the presence and authority of the waters themselves as was recently done by Waasekom Niin and Biidaabinokew when they used a third chair to represent Lake Huron’s personhood at a nuclear safety forum in Kincardine Ontario (Anishinaabek territory). Who do you think should be better represented at Great Lakes governance conversations?


Five: “Never a failure, always a lesson” — Rihanna

Engineers Without Borders (as well as many other NGOs and businesses) have been publishing their Failure Reports because they see the value and inevitability of getting it wrong. While it might not be the conversation people want to have, it might be the one people need to have. When fundraising for your budget or asking for money from your supporters, it’s rational to focus on the positive, the possible, and those ideas and projects with the most potential. Success seems to attract more money and more supporters, so looking at failures could only garner more failure, no?

How do we create the brave space (like the Dogwood Initiative) to spend our mental, financial, and egotistical resources examining our failures as water protectors? GLC wants to use these ES principles and build-in more reflective practices for both our internal and external work. We can’t honestly plan new projects and new relationships without learning from the old ones.


Six: Trust the people. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.) — Inversion of a quote by Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, by Stephen Mitchell.

Let’s look at this principle along with the next one.

Seven: Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass. Build the resilience by building the relationships. — Mervyn Marcano’s remix of Stephen Covey’s “speed of trust” concept.

Ever watch a flock of birds in the sky? Ever wonder about the kind of training and awareness it takes to move with such unity and beauty? Adrienne Maree Brown includes this passage from Sierra Pickett in her book:

‘Starlings murmuration consists of a flock moving in sync with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every individual bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage a larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity (and times upwards of over a million birds). Sierra Pickett, p 67

This principle embodies many of the ones above (ie, small is all and change is constant). What makes ‘the commons’ such an appealing framework for us is it’s emphasis on ‘commoning’ — the practice of working together to protect all what we inherit, share, and pass on. This is no commons without commoning.

With only a few face-to-face gatherings in our GLC history, it’s difficult to build these kinships of trust. When we join a gathering, a water walk, a touring performance, a rally, a benefit concert, toxic tour walk, a banner making workshop, or hack-a-thon, we get to meet, share food with, and have real conversations with our water neighbors. These are some of the shared experiences that build our cohesiveness and synchronicity across issues, nations, and landscapes.

In 2016, we designed a Water Journey project across the Great Lakes to build trust and alignment between projects and we feel this is one of our most valuable roles. Our Commons Map trusts that we can tell our own stories and build our own belonging to the Great Lakes. How can we renew and extend these projects (practicing these 9 principles) to nurture more critical connections? How well does our unifying agreement, our Great Lakes Commons Charter, invite and animate our collective needs and desires?

 Thousands of starlings flying together at dusk in what is called  murmuration.

Thousands of starlings flying together at dusk in what is called murmuration.

EIGHT: Less prep, more presence.

Brown writes “we don’t practice to feel good, we practice to feel more.” Her interest in somatics values how our bodies are active in ‘knowing’ what needs to be done. In the documentary Albatross, Chris Jordan and a team of filmmakers document the beauty and pain of an albatross colony living on a remote pacific island and dying from a global killer — ocean plastic pollution. We see Chris mourn and commemorate the bird’s bodies riddled with bottle caps, straws, dental floss, and candy wrappers. Ecological grief is not a popular topic and rarely gets onto the water agenda, but it is a conversation that is growing and needing our attention. This presence can be found by being true observers. Rather than a distant researcher or recorder, we can be observers tapping into a deeper form of perception and presence.

In 2016, we sponsored and travelled with The Children of the Wild and their folk opera The Wastelands. Grief was accepted and shared as form of observation and salvation in this opera and we enjoy partnering with artists who can create this kind of presence. How else can we be more present in our individual and collective water protection? For our meetings and workplans, how do we allow our bodies to inform the work? How are we being?

4 minute trailer for ALBATROSS by Chris Jordan.

nine: What you pay attention to grows.

Ever been looking to buy a new car? Suddenly the model you’ve been looking into POPS out everywhere. You notice this model in parking lots, on roads, and even in promotional materials splashed across our culture. Before your car search you never even noticed this car model and now it seems to be popping up everywhere. Attention is a powerful thing.

There’s lots to be critical of these days when it comes to water protection. But what thoughts, feelings, and intentions are we feeding? We can be more intentional about the positive, but also about our potential. Adrienne suggests:

  • listening with a ‘why’ framework

  • asking “what can we learn from this?”

  • seeking real-time actions that contribute to transforming the situation

In his testimony at the Straights of Mackinaw and after The Wastelands production, Frank Ettawageshik reminds us how we hold both the seeds of our redemption and of our destruction. He is paying attention to his ancestor’s teachings and what the Straights can offer us at this critical time of oil pipelines, consumer culture, and political cynicism.

What are you paying attention to?

“What is the next most elegant step?” asks Adrienne Maree Brown. The wisdom of this question is rooted in its simplicity and beauty. If we have been following and adapting the 8 principles above, then the 9th follows the emergent dance already underway. There is an eloquence we seek that is grounded in these truths.

The search is on.

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What do you think of this series on Emergent Strategy? What’s your response to these 9 principles — anything to add or adapt to this water work? Leave us a comment.