Transform yourself to Transform the world

Bin Li
3 min readMay 3, 2021

Adrienne Brown has written everything I’ve done in Emergent Strategy but much deeper and interconnected with systemic and community-based approaches. The quote I connect the most is “Transform yourself to transform the world” (P53) by Grace Lee Boggs. It means “to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet” (P53).

I stepped into social impact in 2011 and also have gone through many family challenges since then. I used meditation to prioritize my endeavors and Buddhism to search for meaning, yet I felt separation and that confuses and immobilizes me. The above quote helped me realize that my family is the frontline to transform my community, society, and humanity. It’s where everything starts, and my social impact endeavors are just the societal manifestation of my practices at home. All could be measured by relationships.

Relationships are developed through connections, and connection starts with ourselves and close ones. While faith and meditation are helpful, practicing fairness, respect, trust, honesty, empathy, appreciation, etc. are also powerful ways to enhance connections with ourselves and families before the community and societal work. Furthermore, the purpose of the relationship is social justice, equity, happiness, meaning, and liberation but not productivity, achievement, wealth, power, and social status as key success measures under Capitalism and materialism.

My mom was a relationship queen and made friends throughout her life, however, it came with the cost of her own needs and her social change contribution was more of sacrifice than alignment. I naturally learned how to connect with others under her influence but consciously put righteousness before the relationship from my dad’s education about Confucianism. With the social awakening movements in recent years, I learned to speak up more for myself and things deserving social justice and sustainability over meaningless relationships.

Social justice work is to build better interconnection with each other, but if it conflicts with relationships, we need to examine whether or not it’s a healthy relationship focused on justice, as they should be inclusive of each other. Helena Liu explored many manifestations of racism, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy in relationships in “Redeeming Leadership”. And in “Purpose of Power”, Alicia Garza also took a break from reproductive justice work that didn’t operate from a perspective of race, class, and gender. It became a lens she applied more frequently as the years went on.

Meanwhile, I’ve also experienced instances in the social impact sector that people advocate or impose idealism and standards on others but not themselves. They work in the sector for job opportunity, career development, wealth or fame accumulation, legacy building, etc., not to build a sustainable, socially justiciable, and collective society. They carry over the imperialism and capitalism norms, and respect hierarchy over equality, power over relationship, authority over community, dictatorial over democracy, material wealth over meaning and purpose, judgment over recognition, indifference over empathy, popularity over solidarity, etc. They’re not using their own life and work as the frontline to tackle social change but for personal benefits.

Our team discussion on this topic was a joyful one, and both Dennis and I really liked “Emergent Strategy”. His pick of the favorite quote was the “Skunk medicine” by Holiday Simmons in the “Resilience” chapter, a unique self-protection approach without harming but rather diffusing violence or aggression. Being a skunk is a muscularity hence Dennis was very interested in it as a male building the right muscularity. We both reflected that relations are not built on pressure and domination but trust and connection. We also spent time discussing Adrienne Brown’s definition of Emergency, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions”, which provides us a path to social changes from small scales.

My plan to unlock this myth of social transformation is to continue writing about subjects like this and sharing my reflections and experience to bring more awareness, while using my life and work as the frontline to keep practicing and restoring social justice. To enhance it with my family, I’m planning a trip home this summer to re-connect with them and will start building family trees and an online family website. They are an inseparable part of my life journey and our society’s journey and building a solid relationship with them reinforces my alignment with systems, sustainability, and social justice, so we could all enjoy the bigger sociological imagination I’m contributing to.