Julia Putnam

Portrait Image

location

Detroit, Michigan

age

36

occupation

Director, Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs Education Center

interview date

08/28/2012

“Grace said, 'You are going to have to think beyond what you even believe is possible.'”

INTRO

Julia, Amanda Rossman, and Marisol Teachworth are the co-founders of the  James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. This interview occurs the year before the school opened when Julia was director of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Education Center.

In 1992, at age 16, Julia was the first person to sign up for Detroit Summer,  a multicultural, intergenerational youth program to “rebuild, redefine and respirit” Detroit from the ground up, which was founded by Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs. Julia later wrote of the experience: “During the three-week span of the first Detroit Summer, we immersed ourselves in the community. We planted urban gardens, painted murals, and helped rehab a house for an elderly woman. We held peace vigils downtown every week with Save Our Sons and Daughters to acknowledge the young people who had been lost to gun violence. We marched against crack houses in the neighborhood with We the People Protect Our Streets. We participated in intergenerational dialogues where elders came to open up their lives like textbooks and then let us ask questions. […] . These activities and the process of engaging in community projects that improve the neighborhoods we were in during those three weeks made Detroit Summer the first manifestation of Place-Based Education in the city.”

I had scheduled an interview with Julia and Grace, together. I requested an initial phone conversation with Julia to get some background before the face-to-face interview with her and Grace. But I was so impressed by what Julia had to say about her passion for opening her school and how powerfully she conveyed it, I decided to make it a separate interview.

You can read the subsequent interview with both of them here.

I

So I’m working on opening a charter school in Detroit, hopefully in 2013, based on the principle that education really is about transforming community, and it’s how we transform ourselves, and that’s really the purpose of education.

It goes back to maybe ten years ago.  I was teaching and not happy with it, and went to Grace [Lee Boggs] to talk to her about that and get her advice. She said, “Well, I’m hosting meetings like the old Freedom Schools at my home.  You should come.  There will be other educators who have similar questions as yours.”  I met other educators, and five of us ended up sitting together and saying, “We’ve been talking about education and our frustrations around education.  We know these principles of community engagement, we believe in these principles.  Why don’t we start a school?”  So that formal process started in 2008.

We didn’t know what the school would look like, and we didn’t know where that would take us. We just would meet every week and say, “Okay.  If we want to start a school, what is it that we think people should learn?  What is the purpose of school?  Who do we want to see standing in front of us after 12 years in a school we created?  What have they learned, what have they gotten from their school experience?  So those are the kind of questions we ask ourselves.  We knew we wanted them to be literate, not just in reading and writing, but we wanted them to be able to use their hands and be able to create things and fix things.  We wanted them to be able to be comfortable in any kind of social situation.  Cross class, cross race; we wanted a person who could love and receive love easily.  Not be guarded and bitter and angry.  We wanted them to be kind.

I’m the only one of the team who was born and raised in Detroit and went exclusively to Detroit public schools.  What I know from that experience, which is true for most Detroit kids even today, is that the message we got growing up was that success means that you’re able to get out of Detroit.  That you figured out some kind of way, by getting good grades and by going to college and by getting a good job, you’re now able to leave this community.  And if you’re a really good person you’ll come back and contribute in some kind of way, but really, success means leaving.  That you got out.  So we wanted to think about, What if we redefine success?  What if we thought success was not that you have to leave this community because it’s so messed up, but that you’ve been contributing to the success of the community since you started kindergarten, and you don’t have to leave because you’re helping create a place that you’re proud to stay in?

So you’re looking to change Detroit, too.

One of the ways in which we want to measure our success is whether or not we’ve impacted the community in a positive way because we’re there.  And right now, “good schools” are often schools that are plunked in the middle of a community, and they’re brand new and they’re beautiful and divorced from what is going on in the community.  So we don’t want to do that.  We want to belong to the community, we want the community to belong to the school and we really want to make the community better, and we want kids to learn from doing that.

So from the time they were five years old, they’ll have been identifying community problems, addressing community problems.  For me, the potential leadership that could come from this kind of activity is astounding.  I get really excited about the possibilities.

II

Tell me about your own schooling.   

I’ve always loved school.  I could do school really well.  I’m really obedient, and I really like to read.  (Laughs)  I think those are the two things, really, that’ll do it. It worked for me really well.  I got lots of praise for being obedient and liking to read. It served my self-esteem in really good ways.  I just always really liked it.

And when I was getting ready to go to high school, I was really, really excited, because I thought, I had lots of questions at this point about why Detroit looked the way it did. How hard is it to rebuild a rotting, falling building?  This should be easy.  This city could be beautiful.  I don’t understand why it’s not; I don’t understand why people talk about it in the past tense.  All this stuff was starting to percolate.  I had lots of questions coming up.

I remember in eighth grade, I had a German teacher who was from Berlin, and like she was really emotional while watching the footage of the wall coming down.  I didn’t get why that was so emotional for her.  I didn’t understand what a Cold War was.  What’s the difference between a Cold War and a Hot War?  Like there were these things that were going around in my life that I didn’t understand, and I wanted answers to, and I thought high school was going to be the place to get them.  That’s where you get the big fat textbooks, you know?

I went to Renaissance High School, considered one of the best high schools in the city.  It’s one of those you have to test to get into, it’s college prep, so I was on this road and ready to learn, and what I learned very quickly is that what I was going to learn there was how to get an A.  It was very different from getting the answers to the questions I had.

Was that disappointing to you?

It was incredibly disappointing to me.  And deflating.  And I was angry, because I started to realize, grownups don’t really have answers.  Maybe that’s why they’re not telling them to me.  As an obedient kid, I assumed grownups have the answers.  That’s why you listen to them.  So all of that was starting to kind of break down.  I was 16 at this point and Grace and Jimmy Boggs came to speak at Renaissance about Detroit Summer.

It was the first time I’d heard of them.  A friend of mine handed me this Detroit Summer flyer.  It said all the things I’d been thinking about.  Detroit’s in crisis, everybody knows it, it’s a post-Industrial age.  I’d never heard the phrase post-Industrial before.  But Detroit can come back, but it’s going to need young people.  In every social justice movement that’s ever worked, it’s been young people that have made the difference, and so too can young people make the difference in Detroit.  But that’s what I remember reading, and thinking: Finally, finally!  This is what I’ve been trying to figure out.

The lore is that I was the very first young person to sign up for Detroit Summer, and I couldn’t wait for the summer to start.  Sure enough, I go to the opening ceremony, and there’s Jimmy Boggs speaking.  He’s this tall, lanky grandfather type.  Now, I didn’t have a relationship with either of my grandfathers. And I remember Jimmy saying in his great Alabama accent you could barely understand, “Young people want to get paid to go to the bathroom these days. And yet here you are, willing to give up three weeks of your summer for free to make a difference in Detroit, and I’m really proud of you and thank you; we need people like you.”

And for some reason that really hit me.  Like it was a profound impact on me to have this guy saying he was proud of me. What I realize now is, no one had expected this of me before.  He was tapping into the best part of me, the generous, wanting-to-be- engaged, wanting-to-make-a-difference idealist in me that no one in school had ever expected of me.  School had been asking me to be really selfish.  Work really hard, get good grades so you can get a good job so you can make lots of money and get out of Detroit.  That’s all we’re requiring of you.  And it struck me then, Oh, I think we really want to do more than this.  We really want to make a difference.

That summer,  I got to meet lots of people, both from Detroit and from the suburbs and from colleges all over the country who are really interested in this stuff, and I didn’t feel so lonely and alone and hopeless. I often tell people that my education started when I started Detroit Summer.  That’s when I really started to learn stuff that was meaningful to me.  So how do we institutionalize that?  How do we make Detroit Summer a school? Can we institutionalize this?  Can we re-imagine school?  A small group of us got together and started asking these questions and forming the idea of the school. We went to Grace and asked her blessing to name the school for her, and she said, “You do have my blessing to name the school after me, but you are going to have to think beyond what you even believe is possible.”

We bring that up almost every day, because she says you’ve been just as indoctrinated as everybody else as to what school is, and you guys more than most people because you have been successful at the model that exists.  So how are you going to rethink it?

III

What would you identify is the Goliath you face as educators?

Just one Goliath? As educators, I think we are up against a society that says it respects kids but doesn’t.  I think we’re up against an economic system that puts profits before people.  I think we’re up against a community of people who feel deceived.  And we’re up against a system that doesn’t really believe in the public good. I want to teach kids to ask, How do we use our individual lives toward the collective good?

What would you say is your slingshot?

Our slingshot is that deep down we all know what we want, what our children deserve.  And somehow tapping into that will help us make the right decisions.  Hope? What’s the Martin Luther King Jr. quote?  About the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice?  I think we’re bending toward justice, and in my lifetime it might be just one school, you know?  And it might not change the national and global education conversation, but I’m okay with that, because I think you just need one thing to point to.  I just want to get this school open so we can point to something and say, “Look.  Here’s the hope over here.  See, see what’s happening in this neighborhood, see what’s happening with these kids?”  And no one may ever even notice that or care about it, but whoever those kids are will. The same way it happened for me when Jimmy said, “Julia, I’m proud of you.”  We can’t even conceive of the possibilities of greatness that exist in the kids of Detroit.  But I know they exist.  Tapping into the hope and the possibilities that exist in our children, that’s our slingshot.

EPILOGUE

A week after we spoke, I interviewed  both Julia and Grace Lee Boggs in Grace’s home. See my interview Grace and Julia together.

POST-SCRIPT

The Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs School opened in the Fall of 2013. Stories about the school were aired on Michigan Public Radio throughout the year and can be found on the school’s  website: www.boggsschool.org. You can also see Julia in the documentary American Revolutionary, The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs: http://americanrevolutionaryfilm.com

In the summer of 2014, as they were preparing to begin their second year, Julia wrote to me:  “I still believe our slingshot is building relationships that create a safe and loving community. This is incredibly challenging and worth every effort.”