The Radical Politics of Pleasure
Angela Glover Blackwell in conversation with adrienne maree brown
Social justice activists tend to be so driven to fix tough systemic problems that we often overlook the obvious: We want to create a society filled with joy and satisfaction for all. In this episode of Radical Imagination, we celebrate pleasure and explore its importance in the work of societal transformation. Host Angela Glover Blackwell talks with adrienne maree brown, author Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Join us for a conversation about finding love, delight, and pleasure for ourselves, those closest to us, our communities, and the world we hope to build.
Check the Pleasure Pack for poetry, meditation practices, and music to soothe the soul.
adrienne maree brown is the author of Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Meditation, We Will Not Cancel Us and Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. She is the co-host of the How to Survive the End of the World and Octavia’s Parables podcasts. adrienne is rooted in Detroit.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:05
Welcome to the Radical imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell more than a year into the pandemic and the historic protests that emerged throughout it is expected for activists and seekers of a better world to become discouraged, to burn out . But this can also create an opportunity to focus on ourselves, our own joy and satisfaction and strengthen our conviction that things can be better. In today's episode, we learn about pleasure activism and about finding love and hope in the middle of the despair that surrounds us. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good explores how we can fuel the struggle for social justice from pleasurable human experience. The book was published in 2019. It became a New York Times bestseller and even more relevant when the pandemic began. We're now joined by its author, adrienne maree brown. She is also an activist and the writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute. adrienne, welcome to Radical Imagination.
adrienne maree brown: 1:15
Thank you. Thanks for having me. I appreciate all of you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:18
adrienne, please define pleasure activism for us.
adrienne maree brown: 1:22
I think of pleasure activism as the actions that we take to reclaim our happiness, joy, and the possibility of contentment from the weight of oppression and the myths of supremacy.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:36
Now, could you walk us through your personal journey that led you to the idea of writing pleasure activism?
adrienne maree brown: 1:42
You know, from a very early age, I knew that I was a practitioner of pleasure. Um, I went to work at the Harm Reduction Coalition and I met there a man named Keith Kyler who had founded Housing Works and he used this terminology pleasure activism. And I was really moved by the idea that everything in our lives could be a pleasure and that those things in our lives that we enjoyed, we should check the politics of them and make sure that we're actually aligned with our vision. Um , so it stuck with me for a long time and then being in movement for years, I was blown away by how little pleasure there seemed to be available in movement spaces. How much we were punishing ourselves, punishing each other, working ourselves to the bone. And it didn't feel aligned with the vision we had. It didn't feel like we could feel ourselves. So I started writing initially a sex column for Bitch Magazine that was all about, 'How do we reclaim loving our bodies'? How do we reclaim being able to look at our nakedness? How do we reclaim our 'yes?' And as those pieces came together, I realized there was something there and started asking other people that I thought might have some wisdom for it. And before we knew it, it was a book.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 2:53
From what I've looked at, it seems that Emergent Strategy had a lot to do with laying the foundation. Is that right?
adrienne maree brown: 3:00
Yes, absolutely. You know, Emergent Strategy, which is really the study of emergence, the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. It's learning from nature and nature's operating systems. And one of the things that is most natural about us is that we are wired for pleasure and connectedness and interdependence. Um , we're wired for joy, and that's not saying that suffering doesn't exist or we should try to avoid it, but joy is as equal apart as suffering, for the human experience. So I think once I had written emergent strategy, and once I had started to unveil, you know, what is the body saying to me? What are our bodies saying to us? They were saying that suffering is not all of it. And what we've been told or what we've been socialized to believe about our bodies is not the whole story.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:50
There's a phrase by Grace Lee Boggs, which you brought up in your work, transform yourself to transform the world. Could you unpack this for us? And how has this concept shaped your work more specifically shaped pleasure activism.
adrienne maree brown: 4:03
I really believe in these words. And I think when I first heard them, they transformed something in me. Up until the point of hearing them, I had really approached movement work as something that was happening out there. I was pointing my fingers at those who were supremacist, racist, patriarchal, you know, those who were capitalist and destroying the planet and everything was outside myself. And I was trying to hold accountable these people who were so bad and I was so good. And when I heard those words , um , it made me turn and look at myself and recognize that each of those socialized systems that I was trying to fight against out in the world were rooted inside of me as well. That I had also been touched by, shaped by, and socialized by them. And without intending to I was complicit in those systems, right? So it felt like a call to attention, a call to arms, a call to turn and look at my own behavior and make sure that what I was practicing was aligned with the world that I was calling for. Now, when it comes to pleasure activism, for me, it felt like, oh, am I actually practicing being in my body? Am I actually practicing being alive in my body, enjoying my body? Do I see my body as a place of freedom? Do I see my body as a place that deserves to feel good? And the answer a lot of times was no, right. I was a fat body, black body, queer body, a person wearing glasses. I have all these things that I've been told, don't go along with desirability, don't go along with pleasure. And I was like, how would I treat myself in this vision of the world I have. While I would treat myself as someone beautiful, someone sacred, someone deserving of love, deserving of, of holy respectful, careful attention, right? And so I started to treat myself that way. And when I started to transform how I viewed myself, how I interacted with myself, it transformed necessarily how others then could interact with me.
And this is the link between those words of Grace and Audrey Lorde, who is a major fundamental thinker behind this text. She wrote this essay, 'The Uses of the Erotic as Power,' that she published in 1978. And she said, if we actually feel our erotic alive newness , if we feel that awakening, it becomes impossible to settle for self negation, despair, depression, and those other states, which are not native to us. And that those two pieces resonated to me, right. That when I transformed myself such that I'm actually listening for my 'yes'. Listening for what I long for. And then I'm relating to other people around the fact that they also have a 'yes' and something that they long for. It begins to be impossible for us to settle for anything less. And that's what I want. I want to be part of communities who are so committed to what we're fighting for and have such a clear embodiment of what we're fighting for. Then it becomes impossible for us to negate ourselves, to turn back, you know, this Harriet Tubman said, it's like we would become the shotguns in our own backs. You know, like we will not turn back. We know where we're going. We can feel it from within.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 7:14
Pleasure Activism came out in 2019 before the pandemic, has this book taken on new meaning or become more relevant for you or for your readers.
adrienne maree brown: 7:24
I've been shocked at how much it has. And I shouldn't be because all of a sudden we're all in our homes and we're all inside of increased limitations, and Pleasure Activism offers a lot of tools for how do we, how do we turn whatever we're in into the practice ground, into the place where we begin to say here right now, I will declare my aliveness here. I will declare my right to experience joy, and contentment and satisfaction. And you know, our experience of what enough is, has also shifted this past year. At least it has for me. So I was on sabbatical when the pandemic hit and I had months of pleasure planned for myself. And then all of a sudden it was like, just kidding. You will not be swimming in all these oceans. You will not be going to South Africa. You will not be doing these things you planned. Um, and I was like, but this is still time of my life, that I'm alive. And how do I turn this into something still good, something still restful, something still useful for, for my system and for my healing.
And so pleasure activism for me became one of those ways. And I was like, well, let me figure out how to practice pleasure inside of these conditions. And that's what I did. I found so much was available to me. And I also found the limitations, right? So I was like, Oh, like, I can, I can practice a lot of pleasure here, but I really don't want to be all by myself. I really don't want to live fully on my own. Um , I want my parents, I want my partner. And that was really good news. Um, I just got engaged to my partner this past weekend, and I feel like part of the work of pleasure activism and part of this experience of the pandemic helped me to open to the reality that I'm not meant to be my myself and I don't think any of us are, you know, I think we are a species that is designed to be interdependent and interconnected and love is one of the ways we practice that. Um, I will say I've gotten tons and tons and tons of messages and notices and emails and dm's from people who are saying that, pleasure activism has saved them during this pandemic that they have learned to be with their nakedness and with their longing. And they have learned to focus on that question that's in there of, am I satisfied? And am I satisfiable, which is something I learned in somatics work? How do I know if I feel satisfied? Just because my options for where I can go are limited, does that mean I'm unhappy? Does that mean I'm not satisfiable? I believe it is helping people right now. And I'm really grateful that it came out when it did so that it could be here for this.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:09
Oh, and I'm so thrilled to hear about your engagement. Thanks for sharing. Wow. Wow.
adrienne maree brown: 10:15
It's so romantic. And you know , I've always been the kind of person who was like, I'm not into this kind of romantic behavior. Um, I'm a serious activist. But you know, there's also something that I think pleasure, activism, explorers . And I think my thinking around love has been growing. As I learned that some of the ways we shut ourselves off from pleasure and satisfaction and happiness and joy are trauma responses. They're responses that come from shaping. I was told that as a fat person, I would never be able to experience this kind of love. And I believed it for a long time. And so then when it came, I was like, what you know , who are you? Uh, I had to really, I had to grow and I had to heal to let that love in, you know.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:59
In pleasure activism, you stress the importance of supporting and taking care of ourselves, our body mind spirit so that we can live in community with others. Why is this important?
adrienne maree brown: 11:10
Well, I think this is pleasure activism that ties back into emergent strategy. So in Emergent Strategy, I introduce this idea that I was so geeked to learn about fractals. Fractals as a way of understanding how the very small scale connects to the largest scale in this world, in the design of our universe. And some of the ways we can see it at the human scale , or like if you look at firms or you look at broccoli, or if you look at the Delta of the Mississippi, as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico, and look at the veins that move through our body and recognize the same patterns exist over and over. And as I started to understand fractals, what I understood was that what is happening at the small scale is also what repeats at the largest scale. And so it made me curious about our practices that if I am miserable at the small scale of my individual life, how am I going to be a part of a community that is experiencing joy, satisfaction, happiness that is able to care for ourselves. If I am experiencing the exhaustion and burnout and the way I treat my body is as a body that is expendable, then how am I any different from those who are treating our planet as a body that is expendable, right? So the way I think of it now is that my body is, is one of the small pieces of earth, of this experiment of earth, of this living larger body that I want to protect; that I think is valuable, that I want to see thrive, that I want to see honored and worshiped and respected. And I treat my body the way I want us to treat the earth, because I know I'm of nature. And I think a lot of us see this, like when we have children in our lives, who we love. You look at a child and you see them changing every day, growing everyday, learning every day. And you just see how overtly miraculous the human body and the human experience are. But then as we get older, we get socialized away from that awareness and we start to mistreat ourselves. So for me, pleasure, activism says you can actually reclaim that relationship to nature by focusing on what brings you joy and satisfaction, and thinking of it as a collective thing. For me, pleasure, activism is not something that happens in solitude. It's something that happens in relationship.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 13:23
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation with our guests, adrienne maree brown. Stay with us, more when we come back. And we're back, how have you exercised pleasure activism in this past year? And how has it benefited you personally and your community? You've talked some about the personal, but is there more you want to add to that, In particularly the community part?
adrienne maree brown: 14:09
Yes. You know, I think one of the biggest things has been thinking about my resources differently. So I have always thought of my resources as like, this is mine. This is my money. This is my home. This is my food, whatever I have is mine. And I think this past year really pushed me to shift how I think about what is mine versus ours. And I want to uplift a friend of mine, Dean Spade, put out this book called Mutual Aid that I think is a really important book for folks to contemplate right now. And I think it speaks to what we've been practicing this past year. I've seen so many of us do this where we're like, Oh, like I don't have it. And person doesn't have it. But if we pull together the resources we have, we do actually have enough to get through this. And I have redistributed resources during this year. I've asked for resources for myself and for others this year, I've been a part of efforts with people who are trying to figure out how do we generate an abundance to get us through this period where our government is not coming through. You know, like $600, $1,200. I don't care what you call it. It's not a living wage. It's not enough for us to get through this period. And so that's been one big thing, has just been the pleasure of being in a community that has enough because we share what we have, um, instead of a community that has enough because we take and hoard . So that's been one practice.
And then at the practice of my body, I've really been in a deep practice of listening to my body in a different way this year. And that has given me both pleasure and a sense of like, what can I heal? You know, in nature, we have these periods of time where we are fallow, where we are resting , where we're not go, go going. And my life, I think like many of us has been , uh , a life of going, going, going. The year before the pandemic, I was on a plane at least twice a week. I was almost never in my home. I struggled to keep plants alive. I struggled to keep myself fed well. Um , I was in pain almost all the time because I was on planes or other conditions. I was in a different bed every night, right? So there's all these things that I was doing to mistreat my body. And in this past year, having to stay still was actually the best medicine that I could have given to my body. It's medicine that I would have never chosen. Um, and I'd been talking about for years, like I need to take a break. I need to be still, but in this period of time, I was forced to be still. And rather than fighting that, I decided to blend with it, partner with it, find a way to be in relationship with it. And now, I'm in an interesting zone where I'm like, I like this. I really like this. I like being , um, more still. I like being in my home. I still want the options to be able to travel. You know, I just went and got the vaccine. And , um , I'm hoping that allows me to see my friends and see my family. But I don't think I'm ever going to return to the lifestyle I had before, where I was going so constantly that my roots couldn't even touch the ground much less blend with it, become part of it. So those feel like some big things on both the collective and the personal level.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 17:34
One of the ideas you challenge in this book is that changing the world is just another form of work. How do you see the act of change in the world?
adrienne maree brown: 17:43
I see it as our purpose here. You know, I think that what our species is up to on this planet is being in a relationship with something that is constantly changing and helping to shape those changes. And I think that because the world is articulating itself as a changing body all the time. So I'm always saying this, I'm like, I'm not making this up. I just was noticing that the ants were constantly changing, and the bees were constantly changing, and everything alive seems to be constantly changing. And if , if we live in a world of constant change that I believe our work is also to figure out what are the changes we are responsible for? What are we intended to be doing here? And I find at a societal level, like if you look back at, you know, Rome , if you look back at Great Britain at its peak, if you look back at these places, the stagnant energy that comes from empire, the stagnant energy that comes from trying to stop change. That's when we're at our worst. That's when we are at the least likely to survive. And those systems never do survive. The systems that do survive, right? When you look at indigenous communities that have somehow sustained themselves through , um , genocide, right? It's because they have been willing to evolve, hold onto what matters while evolving everything that could be evolved, continuously changing. If you look at Black people, the only reason we were alive in the U. S today is because of our commitment to being able to evolve to changing conditions. I think that we are an evolutionary model as a people. And I see us all the time figuring out what is the next change that we're going to be making.
Changing the world is not something that should be the work of just a few organizers over on the side. But it's, it's something that I think we're all doing all the time, anyway. We're either upholding the status quo or we are changing the conditions. You know, I think what Octavia Butler was teaching us in her work all the time was you don't have to be a victim of those changes. You can actually shape those changes. And actually that's when life gets interesting.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 19:54
If you adopt that view, that the world is changing and we are a part of that change, does that create a different, more nuanced or specific role for activists who want to help move that change in a particular direction?
adrienne maree brown: 20:13
So, you know, and this will bring us right back around to what Grace taught us, which is, I think it shifts the direction that we are looking at. So if our goal, if our job, if our work is to partner with change and to get in right relationship with the fact that change is a constant thing, then instead of constantly pointing our S our attention outward at how someone else needs to change, then we can begin to point it inward and figure out how do we change and how do we change the relationships we're in. And I think once you start to have that as a framework, so many more interesting experiments become possible, because you're not demanding change from someone who doesn't love you and doesn't care about you, and it's never going to change. Right? And this has always been, you know, my, my, my point of interest as an organizer is how much time we spend exerting all of our energy and pressure towards people who have shown us and designed systems to say that they don't love and care about us. They have built systems around their imaginations of our inferiority. They have built systems that are so intact that they can, you know, I talk about the imagination battle, right? That a police officer can say, in my imagination, I was scared of this Black child. And so I shot and killed this Black child, and that will hold up in court, right? That that person will walk out of court, scott-free because their imagination dictated a fear and led them to action. So I think when we start to say, wait a second, it's our job to harness these changes, that terrified police officer is not going to change at the level of imagination unless we change what is imaginable. Part of what I'm working on now. And I'm , I'm literally in the throws of finishing a novella is how do I start to write fiction? How do I start to write new stories that help people change their imaginations? And how do we start to change our mass imagination? So that something becomes possible that doesn't come from a white supremacist imagination, that doesn't come from a patriarchal imagination, that comes from a multitudeness, diverse population that has a history that goes before our trauma. And that will have a future that goes beyond our trauma.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 22:33
When we dream of a world where pleasure activism is an actual part of people's regular lives, what does that look like?
adrienne maree brown: 22:41
I think a lot of it is that we're asking each other more questions about what we need in real time. I think that when we show up to meetings and when we show up to work, that our whole bodies are considered: the food, the water, the setting, the way that the room is structured. I think we will care a lot about how well rested we are and that we are well rested and playful bodies who are showing up to do this work together. I think that there's a huge practice around consent and having a sense that when people are showing up to do the work, we're not in a process of coercion or selling or pitching or manipulating or gaslighting each other into doing something, but that we are inviting, practicing and inviting people into the practice with us of the future. And I think at the end of it, when we ask people, are you satisfied with what you were able to do in this life? Are you satisfied with the work that you have done? Are you satisfied with the changes that have been wrought ? The answer will be yes.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 23:45
Thank you so much for talking with us, adrienne.
adrienne maree brown: 23:47
Thank you so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 23:51
adrienne maree brown is a writer, activist and the author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Social justice activism is born from the conviction that things can be better. It is sustained by a vision of that better society. How does it operate? How does it make space for all people to grow, contribute, and thrive? How do we treat one? Another activists tend to be so driven by the work. So committed to fixing society's toughest problems that we often overlook the obvious. We want the society we create to be filled with pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. adrienne maree brown brings that to our attention, and she reminds us that to create that kind of place. We can begin with ourselves. Every one of us can imagine what brings us pleasure and we can strive for it -- for ourselves, for the people closest to us, for our communities, until it becomes a pattern -- repeating, rippling, and magnifying onward.
We and our partners at unfinished invite you to reflect and respond to this question, borrowing from the words of the great activist, Grace Lee Boggs, 'How do you transform yourself to transform the world?' Submit your firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media using #RadicalImagination and #ThisIsUnfinished.
Radical Imagination was produced by Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andres Caballero, Antonio Cereijido, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jess Alvarenga. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Rachel Gichinga, Ferchil Ramos, Eugene Chan, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian and Vanice Dunn. Radical Imagination is supported by Omidyar Network, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pivotal Ventures: a Melinda Gates company, and Unfinished. Our theme music is composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Segiura. And I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us email@example.com. Remember to subscribe and share. Next time on Radical Imagination.
Upcoming Guest: 26:54
Our algorithms that are being used to actually decide whether someone is guilty or not. And a lot of decision-making that used to be done by humans is now kind of being moved to being automated in some form.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 27:05
The ethics of Artificial Intelligence. That's next time on Radical Imagination.