Skip to main content

Fractal Abolition

To build the world we want, and tear down the old one, we can and must start small.


As we confront questions of safety, violence, and systems of oppression on a large scale, emergent strategies teach us that change happens at the smallest levels. This means that we can start practicing abolition here, now, and freshly each day, at a scale that is accessible to every one of us. Emergent strategies—a concept popularized through adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds—invite us to focus on starting small. We can then make space for—and learn from—uncertainty, multiplicity, experimentation, adaptation, iteration, and decentralization as we do so.

This approach to building the worlds we want is not new, and draws on a much deeper body of work rooted in the workings of the natural world, Indigenous lifeways, complexity science, change theory, Grace Lee Boggs’s later writings, the work of the Complex Movements collective, and the observations of scholars and organizers across generations. In many ways, Emergent Strategy distills and invites us to home in on key principles already at play in effective organizing efforts and movements.

One of the core principles of emergent strategies is that complex systems are fractal—a fancy word to describe how small structures are replicated in larger ones. Broccoli is made up of tiny broccolis, fern fronds are made up of smaller fronds, snowflakes look like the microscopic crystals of water they’re made of, the patterns of our fingerprints are reflected in the shape of galaxies, and so on. As adrienne puts it in Emergent Strategy, “small is all,” because “what we practice at the small-scale sets the patterns for the whole system.” Or, as I learned through Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. Therefore, shifting complex systems requires us to act at the individual level to “create patterns that cycle upward.”

Erin Butler, a Detroit-based organizer who also happens to be a mathematician, explains that replicating a simple pattern over and over again is how complex systems are generated. The key is to find the pattern that will produce the system you want to create. Translating this mathematical principle to human interactions, Erin says:

It’s the idea of replicating patterns in your life at the small scale, at the scale of you, at the scale of you and another person, at the scale of a small group of people, to community gatherings, to larger scale formations. I think about how principles like consent can apply when it’s just me, and what consent looks like when it’s me and another person, and what consent looks like when it’s a group of us, and how to make consent operate at each level of interaction.

The fractal principle points to individuals, critical connections, and networks as sites at which larger systems, like society, are formed, and can—and must—be shaped. In As We Have Always Done, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says that, in the Anishinaabe communities she is part of and descends from, “the ethics and values that individuals use to make decisions in their personal lives are the same ethics and values that families, communities, and nations use to make decisions about how to live collectively.” When it comes to abolitionist organizing, Erin notes:

You have to ask yourself, what was our strategy here? How do we implement that at the next level? It’s not something that happens on accident, and you can’t stop at just the individual level. You have to recognize the pattern and implement it intentionally at the next stage. Because it’s increasing in complexity it’s not going to look the same, so you have to work hard to find the building blocks of the pattern—it takes reflection to find the key.

In other words, working through fractals isn’t just about finding what will produce a shift at the individual or one-on-one relationship level, but the thing that will produce a shift that can magnify to a systems level. It’s also about noticing what fractals you are reproducing that are perpetuating the systems that already exist. Policing looks both similar and different at every level that it operates—internally, in relationships, in families, in communities, at the level of the nation-state, on a global scale. We must ask ourselves, what are the building blocks we can replicate at the level of critical connections that can break its hold on our imaginations and actions?

The fact that fractals are simple doesn’t mean they are easy to identify or practice, Erin concludes. But she finds comfort in creating and shaping complex systems, and that we don’t have to wait for something outside ourselves to act—a deity we pray to, a leader we look to, a vision we wait for someone else to have, a movement we wait for someone else to build to get to a world we can’t imagine.

More from our decarceral brainstorm

Every week, Inquest aims to bring you insights from people thinking through and working for a world without mass incarceration.


Sign up for our newsletter for the latest.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The simultaneity and interrelationship between how you talk to yourself, how you are in relationship, and how our societies are structured may be hard to pitch in a ten-minute meeting with a city council member or to break down to a family member or neighbor. But it helps us to understand that it is in our power to shift the world within and around us.

Understanding complex systems as fractal is one of the most important principles of emergent strategies for abolitionists, particularly those of us pulled toward ten-point plans. Nikkita Oliver, an organizer, poet, and founding director of Creative Justice in Seattle, told me:

I used to really be focused on gigantic systems change first. That’s still a goal, but especially when we’re creating responses to harm, I feel like there is a value in starting small and that the small can add up to something big. This has led to a shift in my own work in how much time I spend on different things. I spend more time on the small experimental incubation of work and building relationships within our ecosystem that can endure the impact of the larger ecosystem we’re still in. I feel like emergent strategies have led me to think about how we build community infrastructure, even if it’s block by block or house by house or friend group by friend group, that could at some point render the systems we’re wanting to abolish obsolete. Now that doesn’t mean we also don’t have elements of large systems change work, but I don’t spend 100 percent of my time doing that anymore. I spend a much greater bulk of my time thinking about the fractal elements and how do those add up to a bigger picture.

Understanding abolitionist organizing as fractal also frames the project and practice of abolition on a human scale. The work of tearing down the entire prison–, police–, military–, and surveillance–industrial complex—and ensuring they are not replaced by new versions of the same things—while creating conditions to meet everyone’s material needs and produce greater safety for communities across the globe can feel daunting, to say the least. But emergent strategies’ focus on the fractal brings abolition into the realm of the actionable. As shea howell puts it, it helps people to “look at the place where they are and ask, ‘what are the things we can produce locally that are unique to this place, that sustain life and develop the capacities of our people, while protecting the Earth that’s around us?’ that’s different in every place.”

The notion that change takes place on a fractal level makes the task of “turning the world all over,” to quote Black lesbian feminist poet and organizer Pat Parker, more tangible, and helps to move us from being just “visionary talkers” to visionaries in action. Each of us can begin the work of abolition today and every day by shifting the ways we each respond to harm, conflict, and need—individually and collectively—in our families, communities, and institutions. shea says:

I think the heart of abolition is the belief that if we have relationships of integrity and substance, much of the harm we do each other will not happen. Those aren’t just relationships, but those are relationships that have established a social, economic, and political base where people feel valued and not threatened. The only place to do that really is in small relations. You can’t have a mass approach to safety.

We can examine the ways we engage with ourselves and each other. We can ask ourselves if our behavior is rooted in punishment, exile, and abandonment, or if it offers invitations and creates possibilities to transform individual and collective conditions. We can reach toward the world we long for by using every day as a practice ground in which we generate new possibilities that can proliferate and ultimately reshape our world.

Excerpted from Andrea J. Ritchie’s Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies, published by AK Press, with permission of the author and AK Press.

Image: Intricate Explorer/Unsplash