Embodying (and not) the principles of emergent strategy

Note: If you are not familiar with the principles and elements of emergent strategy, I’d encourage you to read the blog post What the Heck is Emergent Strategy? before delving into this one.


When the opportunity presented itself to join nearly 65 other people in the midst of DC’s mid-July heat for a 4-day Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, I knew I wanted to participate, I wanted to experience how adrienne maree brown and her colleagues made these ideas come to life.  So, I applied.  And I was grateful to be accepted to participate with a group of amazing people. 

And, I could try to describe the Ideation Institute by telling you about what we did to embody the principles and elements of emergent strategy.  But, the truth is that you’d only be getting my perspective, and that perspective is singular – not a multitude – which misses the point of emergent strategy.  It would also miss:

  • the intentionality of the way that we were able to generate 9 conversations that could only be had by the people in the room in that moment and the nuances of the discussions and interactions;

  • the ease with which people self-organized into small groups because the facilitators trusted the People;

  • the spirit of how moving at the speed of trust, each small group developed a 45 minute offering to share with everyone in just a couple of hours;

  • and the magic of how with less prep and more presence each of these offerings built upon and connected to one another, and how there always seemed to be enough time to do the right work.

So, instead, I’ll share something that was singular and which the emergent strategy principles and elements – in my own practice of embodying them (and not), and in how others around me embodied them in their interactions with me – is helping me to figure out how I want to continue to grow and learn and contribute to my DC community.

From the get go, the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute organizers communicated that they were centering the experience of black DC residents, many of the folks there were organizers in DC and District natives, and the vast majority of who I was learning with and from were women of color. 

And – to state the obvious - I am none of these things.  Which is not in-and-of itself a bad thing.  And, in hindsight I can now see that it was rubbing up against some tender spots that I am still wrestling with personally in how I live my values. As a white woman who moved to DC and has lived here on-and-off for nearly 17 years, I’ve been a leading indicator of gentrification that has enabled displacement and racial and economic disparities to grow enormously. I have benefitted from the city’s gentrification and other policies and priorities that are designed for white, educated, professional people like me while actively or through negligence excluding, oppressing, displacing and killing other residents, particularly black DC natives.

I am deeply frustrated with the direction that the city has gone, how white residents in particular view it as a good. I am saddened by how the history and connectedness and power of many of DC’s neighborhoods is being lost as residents have been displaced, homegrown businesses have been supplanted by national chains, and swaths of the city have been razed and replaced with homogenous buildings that could be anywhere.  And that’s in my area, Ward 1 – the fastest gentrifying part of the city.  Because, unless I’m going to the Frederick Douglass House or the Anacostia Arts Center or the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – I don’t have reason to venture to Wards 7 and 8, where many of the residents face significant barriers to physical safety, efficient transportation access, meaningful education, good paying jobs, quality health care, and accessible fresh foods.

So, the Ideation Institute had me questioning myself and my right to be in the room.  Because while race and racial equity play a central role in all the work that I do through Optimistic Anthropology, this was a fundamentally different space for me to be in than my normal day-to-day work with organizations and collaborations.  At the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, I was being met with the people in DC who are trying to fix the most seemingly intractable problems that I have the privilege to ignore.

I could not have articulated all of this in the moment, but my gut was telling me that something felt really different for me in terms of my sense of belonging.  One of the benefits of traveling all over the country and the world, connecting with complete strangers as I go is that it is rare for me to feel like I do not belong somewhere.  I’ve eaten dinner with a group of Fox-news watching, evangelical Christian, senior citizen women who knew each other from church in Central Louisiana and spent an afternoon at a museum in Berlin with a gay couple and their two children.  In both instances, I listened and asked a lot of questions, I shared freely and tried to find points of connection. I wouldn’t trade these experiences both because the process was enjoyable, and I learned a lot as a result of them.

But, those experiences were in other places where I had no personal connection, not my own community.  And, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that in both those instances, the people I was with were all white.

During the first two days of the Ideation Institute, I was keenly aware that – as I have been told throughout my life “I have a presence.” I tried to listen deeply, but shared much less than I usually do, not wanting to take up too much space.  Whereas I usually will initiate a conversation with anyone, I got it in my head that I wanted for other folks to have space to connect with one another.  What I paid attention to did grow – my anxiety.

But, I didn’t lump it and just try to power through to the end.  I debriefed and shared that I was struggling with a friend one evening.  I had a WOE, a partner who I checked in throughout the Institute in the morning and evening and shared a bit of this with, and she was supportive and expressed some similar concerns.

The amazing Lou (up front) took this selfie with the whole Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute DC crew at the end of our 4th day. By this point, I felt more fully myself! (Photo: Luis Alejandro Tapia)

The amazing Lou (up front) took this selfie with the whole Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute DC crew at the end of our 4th day. By this point, I felt more fully myself! (Photo: Luis Alejandro Tapia)

On the third day, as my small group worked together, an amazing team member called me out in the most kind way I’ve ever experienced.  Her invitation helped uncork my bottleneck. I shared with a hitch in my voice to the rest of my team how I felt I had been holding back, how I was feeling about belonging – in terms of my identity and my work, and walking the line between bringing my full self and taking up space. Having said it out loud, I felt lighter. 

Less prep, more presence. Trust the people because if you trust the people, they become trustworthy. Small is good, small is all (the large is a reflection of the small). There is always a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have.  Find it.

From there, there were other small interactions that made me realize I was not alone in this question of belonging.  Others in my team encouraged me and affirmed what I was contributing to the group, that I did belong. My increased comfort made it easier to strike up conversations with curiosity and humanity as I am usually able to do.  I started to feel more like myself, and by the last day was able to show up as I try to do in all parts of my life, as someone who recognizes that change is constant, I flowed a bit more like water.

I am still processing this experience, embracing that it is never a failure, always a lesson.  And contemplating questions (what’s an anthropologist without questions). What did the Ideation Institute teach me about myself?  What do I want to pay attention to and grow? What am I being called to do for my DC community? With whom and how can I do it?   

I will trust that if I am present with these questions and the experiences that came out of the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, the answers will emerge for me when they are meant to emerge. I have experienced it many times before personally and professionally. Because, there is always enough time for the right work. 


Thanks for reading this post. For those who are familiar with the blog, this one was a bit more personal and vulnerable than what I often share. I’d welcome your feedback on it in the comments below or directly via email.