In the 50th episode of the From What Is To What If podcast Rob Hopkins discusses the role of imagination in our movements with adrienne maree brown.

adrienne maree brown is the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute and the author of Grievers, the first novella in a trilogy on the Black Dawn imprint, as well as Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy, Facilitation, and MediationWe Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative JusticePleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good; and Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. She is the co-editor of Octavias Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, and the cohost of the How to Survive the End of the World, Octavia’s Parables, and Emergent Strategy podcasts.

Monthly subscribers to Rob’s Patreon can get early access to new episodes of the From What Is To What If podcast, as well as exclusive extras. We’re delighted to share with you an abridged transcript of the 50th episode.

How would you evaluate the state of health of our collective imagination in 2022?  I read one time you said, “We are in an imagination battle” and I wonder where are we at, do you think?

… So I still think we’re in that same zone, right? But it’s like we’re recognising that if the world we live in has a root system in imagination, right, that someone imagines white supremacy. It’s not a fact, it’s not something that’s played out over time. Someone imagined white was superior, male was superior. Someone imagined that able bodied people made sense and that the world should be orientated around that, as opposed to orientated around the biodiversity of bodies we actually have, right? So it’s all imagined and so then when you realise that I think that awakening makes you like, “Oh wait, so it doesn’t have to be this way? It can be some other way?” And I think we’re in that place.

But I also think right now, 2022, I think we’re fatigued… I think right now there’s a collective exhaustion in effect… we’re tired of being in the constant adaptations of the pandemic, and also, depending on where you live, having to be so self-protective. It’s like we have to figure everything out ourselves and try to find the best practice to stay alive ourselves. That work of survival is exhausting. But before that, you know, we’ve been in an exhausting period of history. There’s growing uprisings against white supremacy but each of those uprisings happens because someone else dies and that grief is exhausting. And trying to figure out what is the right move.

I keep thinking that we are also on a big learning curve. My mentor Grace Lee Boggs was a Detroit based Chinese American activist who rocked with the Black Power movement, and she would always ask us, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” And lately I’ve been really thinking about, it’s been an exhausting time. It’s a time where we need to be visionary. We really are on the threshold of changing from an extractive way of being with the world to a collaborative way of being with the world… I think a lot about how do we sustain ourselves through despair in times of despair? And so far the best I have is staggering. You have to be, like, “I’m feeling the despair this week, okay?” You go feel your feelings and then come back and then someone else can kind of dip into their despair. And you can hold their boat up, you know.

Like birds when they fly in a formation.

Exactly. You take the lead for a little while because it’s so much we’re moving against, you know.

You wrote, “Because of our ancestors, because of us, because of children we’re raising, there will be a future without prisons and police.” Police and prison abolition seem like two of the great ‘What if’ questions, ‘what if’ movements of our time, and keeping “What if there were no prisons?” alive during such a period of time, when actually there’s prisons being built and so much resource going into more and more prisons, what can wider movements of climate justice, of social justice, environmental movements, learn from those movements, in terms of how to keep big ‘What if’ questions alive over time?  Because the climate movement needs those, “What if we didn’t have any fossil fuels?”…

… Yeah, I love this question. You know, I think that one of the biggest things is the way that what it is right now is not to be taken as an assumption, right?… The group here called Movement Generation really taught me this idea of – we’re often given what is politically possible. This is what’s politically possible in this moment, and we shape our vision inside of that small box. But it’s not necessarily what we actually need, right? So we talk a lot about that. Like, how do we not fall for false solutions and spend all of our time fighting for false solutions that are not actually to get us free. And I think abolition is a great practice of that because the purpose of these punitive systems is supposed to be ending these cycles of harm. And we have poured so much money and time and energy into the prison-industrial complex, the prison system, if it was going to end harm it would have ended harm. We would be in good shape. And so what it teaches us is there’s a different kind of work and it’s a more humble work and it’s more decentralised work that everyone has to do in order to make justice a reality. Like a lived experience.

Community has to play a much larger role. We all have to be willing to hold each other through these things. I think a lesson there for other movements, in any movement space, we can get pulled by reformists into settling for something that’s not actually going to get us where we need to go. Climate is a great example of this, right? We are always negotiating, negotiating, and we end up with something that’s like,“Well this isn’t going to make a difference and literally we’re all going to die” if we move at the pace of corporations, that corporations are willing to change at. Because they don’t think it’s in their best interests to give up the profit available in this moment for the longevity of the species, right?

So I think the learning there is don’t settle for something small and ineffective over time. In the abolitionist movement I think we’re always looking, “What is the furthest horizon we can see, and how do we articulate that as our vision?” Understand that that will also change. It’s not like we’re a monolithic belief system even inside of our movement spaces.  There are people who are like, “What do we do with the most violent? What do we do with the people who hurt kids?  What do we do with those folks?” And rather than be like, “Well, we just have to… It’s either this system as it is now, or a totally different one”, it’s like, well we have to answer all those questions and we answer them by recognising the norm could be something else. The norm could be a space in which the cycles of harm were actually stopped, so we wouldn’t have to keep asking ourselves ‘what about the monsters? What would it look like to construct a society that didn’t produce monsters? Right? What would it look like to produce a society that did not produce scarcity? And that did not produce climate precarity, right? So much in this moment, “Oh we don’t want the refugees here. We don’t want them to cross the border.” It’s like, what would it look like to create a stable climate relationship with the planet, where people weren’t having to leave their homes in massive numbers because of the climate instability there?

There’s a politics of responsibility that starts to emerge across all these different issues. It’s not saying, “We’ll just leave it as is, or we will control it, but only to point of our politics and not our responsibility.” That’s a big one for me that comes up with abortion. Where folks are like, “No abortions”. Well it’s like, okay, but you’re showing over and over again you don’t actually want to be responsible for the growing population. You’re not providing healthcare. You’re not providing education. You’re not providing housing. You’re not providing heat and water and all the things that a growing population needs, but you don’t want people to help contribute to controlling that population by making the choices of having abortions when they know they can’t raise the children. It’s just basic stuff like that.  It’s like, let’s take a deep breath in, let’s let it out, and let’s find solutions where we all have to be responsible for the consequences.

We did an episode of this podcast about the well-being economy and they were talking about metrics by which you might measure that the well-being was improving, and one of them was the number of girls able to cycle home alone after dark. So beautiful. Because it’s like, well in order for that to be in place, all these other things need to be in place and that’s just a manifestation of something.  

Exactly.

And the prison question is very similar.

Exactly.

So you’ve done amazing work with Walidah Imarisha on the importance of prefigurative storytelling and I love the quote in Octavia [Butler]’s book where she says all organising is science fiction. That gave me goosebumps, that, it’s just brilliant. So why does bringing alive – in stories, in art, in music – a future that we can long for, why is that so important? And how does it work?

A lot of what we’re talking about all the time here is culture. What is the culture that we find normal? What is the culture we find compelling? And in order to make a great change in your life, even if it’s only in your personal life, you have to feel very compelled by the results. You have to feel very compelled by the new self, the new ways of being, and one of the ways that we create that compelling forward motion is by generating and creating more culture ourselves.

So for me, I’m like, I want to write fiction in which people get to do that imagination work. Strengthening that muscle of being able to see things other than they are now. Just slight differences. I get very geeked out about like, “Well, what if we just made this slight adjustment, look at how everything would have to change if this slight adjustment was the case.” I’m playing with a lot of those ideas right now. I’m doing a series, a novella trilogy, and really the adjustment is, “What if grief was given its due?  What if grief was given its full space? And how would we have to reshape the society in which grief was actually given enough time and space to exist?” And it’s profound to see what would have to change in order for that to be true. Everything we think about commerce and pace and urgency and everything else has to shift if we are giving people the room they need to grieve, to go through the cycle of intense grief, and pivot into other phases of grief. It’s also interesting how much time and energy grief has to take from us, when it’s repressed, versus when it’s fully realised and expressed.

So I’m just exploring that and I think as many people as can need to be exploring that, whether it’s through albums, through fiction writing, through writing plays, through creating scenarios in which people immerse themselves in a new value or a new way of being. I get really excited about that. There’s a band called Hurray for the Riff Raff and they read Emergent Strategy and then created an album inspired, in part, by Emergent Strategy.  And it’s such an incredible album. Sitting and listening to it I’m really moved and open. I’m like, there are people who will never read the book but who will listen to this music and something on a somatic level will open and shift and change in them. And they might notice wolves and rhododendron, and different things in a different way because they were listening to this album. And I love stuff like that.  Culture is one of the ways we translate these ideas so they can reach more and more minds, and more and more hearts… There’s something about a story. We start to place ourselves, where do I go, where do I fit in that vision? We all want to fit somewhere in that vision.

So I’m exploring at the moment the question of imagination infrastructure. So arguing that we urgently need to build the optimal conditions for the collective imagination to flourish. What would for you be the vital ingredients, the key components, of an imagination infrastructure? If you were made Minister of the Imagination in the US and your role was to expand the imagination, what are the key elements of an imagination infrastructure for you?

Oh I love that.  Well I think one of the biggest things is thinking about how schools are structured and the kind of space that kids are given to imagine and play versus have information told to them. Right? So I’m very much a fan of that Montessori, Waldorf, those style of schools, farm schools, free schools, unschools, things that are very much about, “We come into the world with a voracious curiosity” and that curiosity naturally flows towards our imagination. It’s why so many kids have imaginary friends. They play with dolls and they make up extravagant worlds. They play with toys. They make up these extravagant worlds. And kids are always making up stories to make sense of the world around them… So I think the first part of the infrastructure is opening up and re-shifting how we think about what schools should be. What the purpose of a school is.

And then I think for adults there’s a lot around just having time built into each day for imagination, and the way that we work, instead of doing these big pushes of 9 to 5, just pushing with a short lunch break. It’s like, work for 45 minutes, take 15 minutes of each hour as time to write, create, have questions that you’re asking yourself and others throughout the day. Have structures where people get to do collaborative imagination.  Walidah Imarisha and I, when we toured Octavia’s Brood, one of the things we were doing with people was collective writing workshops. And they were fantastic. We would have people ideate a world together. You know, what time and space is it? Do we know anything about this world? What are some of the cultural norms and beliefs? How is transportation and housing and water, and all that, handled? You know. And once we had built the world then everyone could write their stories inside of it. And it was so powerful how quickly people could be like, “Oh yeah, we built this world. Now we’re in there and we’re navigating inside of it.” And what it implies is that any group of people actually could envision the world other than it is now if they are given a little bit of space for it.

I think imagination should be built into how organisations do their work each year. That there’s… In my dream world just one gathering that’s only about imagination. What are we dreaming into the world? How do we imagine our work will be of service to the future? What’s the wildest success we can imagine for it? Octavia was also someone who was a big manifester. And I think now part of my infrastructure for imagination is my journaling work.  I’m always, what is it I’m trying to manifest? How can I harness the power of the moon and all the astrological signs and all the good wishes people have for me? How can I write into existence what I want to see? I think everyone thinking they can do that, the more people who believe they can do that, the more wide-ranging our infrastructure becomes.

Beautiful, thank you. 

Links mentioned in this podcast:

Photo Credit: By The Laura Flanders Show – Walidah Imarisha & adrienne maree brown & Mumia Abu-Jamal: Decolonizing the Mind, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78297408