Grace: Author, lifelong social activist. Julia: Co-Founder, Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs School
“Telling young people, the challenge is yours.”
Grace’s political involvement includes the major U.S. social movements of this century: Labor, Civil Rights, Black Power, Asian American, Women’s and Environmental Justice. In the l940s and l950s she worked with West Indian Marxist historian C.L.R.James, and in 1953 she came to Detroit where she married James Boggs, African American labor activist, writer and strategist. Working together in grassroots groups and projects, they were partners for over 40 years until James’ death in July l993.
In 1992, they organized the first Detroit Summer, which they describe as “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective in Detroit, working to transform ourselves and our communities by confronting the problems we face with creativity and critical thinking. We currently organize youth-led media arts projects and community-wide potlucks, speak-outs and parties.”
Julia Putnam, at 16, was the first to enroll. She now plans to open a school in Detroit based in the principles of the Detroit Summer experience. See my interview with Julia, alone.
Grace’s autobiography, Living for Change, was published in 1998. Her most recent book The New American Revolution¸ was published in 2011. Be sure to see the documentary film, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.
I interviewed Grace (97) and Julia (36) together in Grace’s living room. Grace had just come from an organizing meeting. Throughout my visit, she hands me leaflets, articles and books I need to read. Somehow, all of them seem immediately within reach.
We talk about what led to Julia’s commitment to opening a school based in Grace’s work, a commitment that began when she was a teenager and first met Grace.
GRACE: Julia and I have known each other now for… You were 16; you’re now 31?
JULIA: Thirty-six. It’s been 20 years.
GRACE: I have a picture in my mind of her at 16. Of how she’s developed over the last 20 years and how much of our encounter 20 years ago had to do with how she has emerged.
What do you remember of the first encounter 20 years ago?
GRACE: Julia tells a story. Why don’t you tell the story?
JULIA: I remember you, it was either the first day of Detroit Summer or another day during lunch. You came and you sat down next to me and asked me a question like, “How are we going to fix the world’s problems?”
GRACE: And I didn’t know that’s what you’d been thinking about.
JULIA: I remember wanting to look around, like, Is she talking to me? Like, me? Grace is always really good about asking young people what they think about things, and she asks them really good questions. She leaned in to listen, as if I was going to say something really profound and intelligent. At that point, I didn’t have a profound and intelligent answer, but what occurred to me was, I should have a profound, intelligent answer for that. This older person is asking my opinion. I should have an opinion.
And that’s what I think Grace does for people. I think she challenges them to live up to something deeper. I’d been around grownups who thought there were certain things I could do work-wise, but there’s a difference between being asked to perform a task and contributing your voice to something. Grace pushes people to think harder than they normally would.
I’m wondering if what she asked you initiated something new in you or did it make you recognize something already in you?
JULIA: No, I think that was always there. I was reading about the Civil Rights movement before Detroit Summer, which is why the language in the call to Detroit Summer so resonated with me. It was young people who have always been the defining factor in social justice movements. And just as young people traveled down south during Freedom Summer in the 60’s, we needed young people to be in Detroit the summer of 1992. I thought, finally, someone’s giving me an opportunity to make a difference in this city. I know what this city used to be, because everyone loves to talk about what Detroit used to be. I knew what I wanted for myself in this city, and I knew it didn’t exist, and here was an opportunity to help contribute to what I wanted to see occur.
GRACE: When I came to Detroit in 1953, the population was two million. The Chrysler plant where my husband worked employed 17,000 people. And if you threw a stone up in the air in this area, it’d fall on a Chrysler worker. Because of globalization and decentralization, the Chrysler plant eventually only employed 2,000. If you threw a stone up in the air, it’d fall on a vacant lot. An abandoned house. I have lived in this house nearly 62 years. Across the street there’s an abandoned house. Next door there’s another abandoned house. Diagonally across there’s an abandoned house. And to most people, that vacant lot or abandoned house seems like blight. But to African-American elders who’d come from the South, that naked lot is a place to grow food and also to teach young people that it takes time to make change.
When we created Detroit Summer, these elders joined in order to work with the young people, and they invited them to help in their gardens, and the young people loved it. It gave them contact with the earth. It started the urban agricultural movement. A whole lot of things happened.
I think what I learned from Julia was that young people in the city were thinking about how they could contribute to the country and to the world the way that the young people in the South had done. This was the 90’s and there was a love and excitement around the Civil Rights struggle, and kids in the city wanted to know more. They wanted to do more than perform well in school so you don’t end up in prison or on the streets. And here they were, these young people who wanted to be part of rebuilding, redefining and respiriting the city, which was also their habitat. You don’t find out how to do that if you don’t give young people a chance. If you create a cage within which they’re supposed to develop, which is what the modern school is, you limit their horizons. They may have no idea their own hunger until you propose something that appeals to them very profoundly.
But they want to do that both independently and in relationship to elders. It’s a very interesting thing. I think that’s one of the things we achieved in Detroit Summer. When we enlisted the young people, the elders came forward and worked with them. We grappled with one of the most serious issues of our time; namely, the segregation of generations.
Julia, how is your school going to offer children something that enacts what Grace is talking about?
JULIA: When we went to Grace and asked her blessing to name the school after her, she said, “You do have my blessing, but you are going to have to think beyond what you even believe is possible.” As we’re planning the school and as we’re writing curriculum and as we’re thinking about teachers, we have to keep doubling back to Grace’s challenge because it’s so easy to fall into, “Well, if we want to stay open, we’re going to have to teach kids to pass tests.” And then we fall into this same system of winners and losers.
It’s an experiment. We don’t know if we’re going to succeed yet. But our hope is that the whole idea of what school is will be challenged by our school, which is why we didn’t want to call it a school. We call it a center.
GRACE: The concept of place-based schooling is so important, because actually the school system today is a mechanism for getting kids out of the community. If they succeed in school, they leave Detroit, and that’s so destructive. It’s destructive to every fundamental relationship between elders and young people.
It really is very interesting in terms of seeing how human evolution has taken place as a result of intergenerational relationships. During the agricultural epoch, that was the case. It’s only in the industrial epoch that we have this erosion of the family. That whole sense of how education takes place, not only in schools, but in the raising of children and their interaction with one another has been lost. I think Detroit Summer was so important because it provided an opportunity for restoring those relationships. You don’t learn that in school, now. In school, what you learn is fear. You fear what’s going on inside, and that the outside fears you.
JULIA: I remember the first year of Detroit Summer, Miss Thomas was one of the neighbors that we were doing a project for. I remember her saying, “I used to be afraid of young people, and you guys have given me hope.” It was profound to hear, because I didn’t know anyone was afraid of me, first of all. I certainly didn’t want anyone to be afraid of me, and to believe that I had taken some of that fear away just by doing what I wanted to do was really profound.
I think that the division between the generations is based on a lot of fear. That older people don’t believe that young people care for them, which I don’t think is true, and young people thinking that older people don’t care for them. So how do we give a space for that caring to show up?
Our thought is, what if the neighborhood is better because our school is in it, as opposed to having this disconnect between the inside and outside of school walls?
And so if Detroit needs its communities rebuilt, why aren’t young people rebuilding them as part of learning in school? And our neighborhoods will be better and the children will learn and everyone wins.
Julia, you’ve been a lifelong Detroit citizen. Grace said that the aim of school, here, is to be able to get out of this city. You did well in school. What is it that’s kept you here?
JULIA: This is home, is part of it. I always felt as if Detroit was where I wanted to come back home to. Part of what brought me to Detroit Summer was looking around and being really confused as to why Detroit wasn’t better. I want to stay here, and I want it to be better, and Detroit Summer gave me a way to do both. To be able to stay here and be able to make it better so that I could feel good about staying here. Now I want a school whose whole mission, whose whole purpose is to make Detroit a better place.
GRACE: And the White House has no idea of this at all. No clue. They think it’s test scores.
JULIA: Which is different from accountability. Because a lot of people think that schools or teachers are afraid of the word accountability. No. I don’t want to be accountable to a test, but I do want to be accountable to my neighborhood. I do want to be accountable to my peers and my fellow students. I do want to be accountable to the parents who do this tremendously trusting thing, which is to walk their young child, who they have been nurturing for five years, and place them at the school doorstep.
This is what I did to my child, Henry, just yesterday, and I cried, walking away. I walked away knowing that he was going to be fine but also thinking, Wow, what a trusting thing I just did. What an amazing thing. [Her eyes tear.] They’re going to shape his life, and I’m not in control of that part anymore — after I breast fed, made food, read all these books. And even the parents who don’t do that stuff, they’re still loving their child all that time and then saying, “Now I give this kid over to you.” What a profound thing you’re doing, and you have to be able to trust that your kid’s going to be okay.
GRACE: I didn’t realize in ’92, when we started Detroit Summer, that actually we were on the threshold of another kind of education, and that if young people were given an opportunity to contribute, it would change everything. And it has. I think of the whole future of this country as being quite different from what it has been, and the solutions that come about are because we see young people not as a problem, but as a solution. I think they want to be. It’s about recognizing that people want to be part of making change in a situation that needs change; there’s that hunger. It’s what gives meaning to their lives, and organizing means recognizing that. I think what made Detroit Summer so important and what is the secret to revolutionizing our education, is telling young people, ‘The challenge is yours.”
JULIA: When Henry was born, Grace said, “If we don’t have a school to send Henry to in five years, we all have failed.” (Laughs) So, you know, it’s taken me seven years, maybe eight, but we’re getting there.
The Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs School opened in the fall of 2013.