Notes from Midwest Conversations 2017

“This summer we are beginning anew, not with what we are against but what we are for; not rejections but projections. We are searching for the fundamentals, the elementals of the new…The solution is not in science, it is how we look at “we”.


–(Excerpt from Conversations in Maine, 1978, James & Grace Lee Boggs; Freddy & Lyman Paine)

On November 16th-19th, 2017 I spent time at a retreat called Midwest Conversations: Nourishing our souls for {r}evolutionary living & work. The retreat was sponsored by the James and Grace Lee Bogs Center in Detroit, and hosted by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.

With other social justice workers engaged in education, community organizing, health, and other areas, the retreat was designed for us to take a time-out “to nourish relationships; engage with pressing questions, ideas, and practices of radical love, and develop “next steps” in our respective social justice living and work.”

The retreat had three guiding questions:

  • What kind of leaders are we being right now?
  • What values define visions for living in cities today?
  • What visionary work is called for in the times we’re living in?

These are just a few scribbles I managed to jot down from the time I spent there.

The “Natural Order” of Things

During a point in one of the conversations I had there, someone in the group talked about the need to recognize our role in the structure of the environment saying:

“The trees and plants are most important, followed by the animals, followed by us. They don’t need us to survive, but we need them to survive.”

I thought that was a truly profound statement. The person went on to highlight examples of the environmental challenges that we currently face because humans have arrogantly placed ourselves at the top of the list of importance at the expense of the larger environment.

The retreat was full of examples like that, and we were encouraged to look to the designs and patterns within nature for clues as to how to create sustainable social change.

Emergent Strategy

We spoke about adrienne marie brown‘s book on Emergent Strategy and considered its core principles and elements for clues to how we might proceed in our own areas of social justice work.

Principles of Emergent Strategy

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


Change is constant. Be like water (as said by Bruce Lee).


There is always enough time to do the right work.


There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. (as said by Taj James) Find it.


Never a failure, always a lesson.


Trust the people. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy)


Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass–build resilience by building relationships.


Less prep, more patience.


What you pay attention to grows.”

Elements of Emergent Strategy

  • Fractal: The relationship between small and large
  • Adaptive: How we change
  • Interdependence and Decentralization: Who we are and how we share
  • Non-linear and iterative: the pace and pathways of change
  • Resilience and Transformative Justice: How we recover and transform
  • Creating More Possibilities: How we move towards life

The group was asked to consider the elements of emergent strategy, and we each had opportunities to contribute to a collectively created visual representation.

Out of each of the elements, the one that resonated most with me was interdependence and decentralization. A day prior to completing this exercise together, we traveled to Chicago to learn about the Sweet Water Foundation, its programs and projects, and the ways in which the foundation incorporates the elements of emergent strategy to enact social change within the community. In my interpretation, there were a lot of moving parts, and the theme of interdependence showed through. Yet, in some ways, much of the knowledge about the visioning and how the operation runs seemed to be heavily dependent on the presence and involvement of the program director. It’s not a judgement, just an observation. It seemed as if the continuation of the project was heavily dependent on the involvement of a single, charismatic leader.

I thought to myself about the pitfalls of movements being dependent on singular, charismatic leaders. I thought about the civil rights movement, and the many attempted and “successful” assassinations of leaders in an attempt to squash rebellion. With us being in Chicago at the time, I thought of history and how Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. I wondered about how the foundation might continue should something happen to the director or should they decide to change directions. I wondered about my own social justice education work and my own visioning of what that looks like in practice with others, including the program I’m currently engaged in trying to establish at my current institution. I resolved to focus more on decentralization and interdependence in my work.

When I shared my concerns over the pitfalls of centralized leadership to the group, the responses from my fellow participants reminded me that I shouldn’t take myself too seriously, and that social justice work is more similar to a marathon than a sprint. Here are 3 pieces of feedback I received that was helpful to me, and I hope they help you too:

“There’s something seductive, and destructive about the idea that what we build and “establish” should persist in perpetuity.”


“To think of anything as being permanent is our failure.  It’s our old way of thinking.”


“The movement should shift directions when we aren’t involved anymore.”

Those pieces of advice went a long way towards helping me recenter myself and my role in the larger scheme of things. If you sometimes feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders in your own social justice work, I hope those quotes give you important perspective in ways that are restorative and not invalidating to you.

By the end of our gathering, I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet a dedicated group of people whom I would not have met otherwise, and I also left with a renewed sense of resolve to be more intentional in my work.

Questions or things that I’m still processing:

What work inspires greatness within you?

In what ways can we be loud, direct, clear, unrelenting in our work to disrupt the status quo?

Working within systems, subverting them.

Self-care in social justice work.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones


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Relando Thompkins-Jones

I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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