To celebrate Grace Lee Boggs — born on this day in 1915 — we should reflect on her concept of “living for change.” While she built and strengthened a wide array of intersectional movements throughout her 100 years of life, the challenges facing radical visionaries have only grown more immense since Grace joined the ancestors. War, colonialism, exploitation and pandemics are bound up with climate change and the resurgent fascist threat.
As such, the work and ideas that Grace produced — substantially through her four-decade partnership with James Boggs — are more vital than ever. We have been charged by Grace to carry on this revolutionary legacy through the James and Grace Lee Boggs Foundation. As we work to uphold the directives in her will and recorded statements, it has been uplifting to watch and partake in the spread of the Boggs’ influence through the combined efforts of activists, educators, artists, and so many other diverse creatives. The answers we need will not come from a detached vanguard party: They are, as Grace declared, coming from the bottom.
The concept of movement building as an organic process in harmony with natural rhythms of change is encapsulated in Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, a Black queer feminist writer and organizer. brown spent many of her formative years in Detroit, where she regularly conversed with Grace about the working ideas that became her “radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help” book. The Allied Media Conference network became a model of Grace’s insistence, inspired by author Margaret Wheatley, that critical connections are more important than critical mass. A large demonstration or gathering does not necessarily create a lasting impact. When meaningful relationships are tied to visionary practice, small acts can reverberate through a web of networks to create transformative change, as the student sit-ins did during the civil rights movement.
A practitioner of emergent strategy, Andrea Ritchie embraced Detroit as the place “where I met Grace Lee Boggs and learned about her visionary legacy.”
This visionary legacy includes the Boggses’ classic book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, whose lessons have come to the fore in the aftermath of the 2020 rebellions and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. They implored organizers to transcend the outrage and militance — no matter how justified — that fueled the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. Taking power without reimagining culture and society, they asserted, is nothing more than a coup.
The Boggses’ philosophical approach to activism has become integral to the abolitionist movement, which rejects the impetus to seize and deploy the state’s monopoly on violence to exert power over others. “Detroit has taught me,” Ritchie writes, “about the necessity and joy of dreaming the world we want to build even as we fight the world that is.”
Critics (and even some sympathizers) of the “defund the police” movement have asked, “What is the alternative?” Grassroots organizations like the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality have modeled transformative justice approaches to community safety by creating “Peace Zones 4 Life” that combine economic self-sufficiency with deescalation strategies, providing neighbors with tools and confidence to rely on each other rather than the police.
To go beyond thinking of revolution as a singular “D-Day” event or a simple reversal of positions between the oppressors and oppressed, we need to reimagine all of our institutions. Wealth inequality is the most glaring manifestation of capitalism. Drawing from the philosophical writings of Marx, however, Grace saw a deeper underlying problem: “Real poverty is not just the lack of food, shelter, and clothing,” she wrote. “Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things.”
Reflecting Grace’s belief that we cannot restore our humanity without restoring our stewardship of Earth based on principles of environmental justice, the journal Race, Poverty and the Environment became Reimagine! in accordance with Grace’s vision. Indeed, the climate catastrophe epitomizes the spiritual and ethical impoverishment under capitalism.
Water for All
The 21st century is increasingly being defined by struggles over water as a human right. Corporations have sought to privatize the water of the Great Lakes — just as they’ve done with other elements of the commons — and these pressures will only increase with time. To make things worse, racist and neoliberal austerity measures have deprived tens of thousands of people of safe and accessible water. Following the poisoning of the water supply under right-wing “emergency management” in Flint, I (coauthor Jennings) am acting as co-counsel for a class-action lawsuit in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where lead poisoning made it unsafe to drink untreated tap water.
In 2014, while having one of our frequent conversations, Grace and I talked about the mass water shutoffs that were occurring throughout our communities in Detroit. Thousands who were poor, low-income, elderly and medically challenged lost water, while the taps continued to flow for corporations with millions of dollars of arrearages. Seeing the resistance that was building around the water shutoffs as a model for visionary organizing, Grace urged me to get involved as a lawyer and organizer, supporting the efforts of the People’s Water Board Coalition, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, We the People of Detroit, and many others, in Detroit, Highland Park and Flint.
In solidarity with the struggle at Standing Rock reminding us that “Water is Life,” the Detroit movement created an income-based water affordability plan that has catalyzed state and national legislation proposals advanced by the National Coalition for Legislation on Affordable Water. The coalition’s work is captured in the new film, Whose Water?, depicting the dire realities urgently necessitating water access and sanitation policies. Grace was recently remembered as a water warrior at the film’s Detroit premiere.
Education to Govern
A revolution to expand our common humanity must thus begin with a process of decommodification to ensure that the essentials of life are available to all: water, food, housing, care and education, which became an intense focus for Grace. The signs of the education crisis are abundantly clear — school shootings, book bans, teachers denied fair pay and working conditions, homophobic and transphobic laws, and moves to outlaw ethnic studies and anti-racist curricula.
Yet, the responses too often push in the wrong direction. The achievement gap is widening, but the faux solution of more standardized testing is further gutting the soul of education. While the move to ban affirmative action is another pillar of the counterrevolution, the default option in hyper-segregated and deeply impoverished cities like Detroit has too often become sending the “best and brightest” away for education — many never to return. The vast majority are relegated to a “command-and-control” system rooted in a mentality of deficit-thinking. Arguing that it was rational for young people to reject such a system, Grace urged us to see them not as failed “dropouts” but as righteous “walkouts” demanding more dignity and purpose in their lives.
Located on the Eastside of Detroit, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School is centered on place-based education. In fact, the power of place is embodied in the K-8 school’s reclaiming of a building that displaced the Boggses’ former home through eminent domain over six decades ago. It is guided by the Boggses’ belief that the most transformative changes in education will occur when those who are most harmed by and alienated from the current system feel engaged and empowered to study and apply knowledge to solve the most pressing problems in their lives and communities.
A visionary approach to education links directly to the Boggses’ maxim, “Change yourself to change the world.” Our relationships and practice, individually and collectively, should model the values of the new system we are working to create. Revolution, in other words, must be rooted in a two-sided transformation of ourselves and our structures.
Toward Multiracial Solidarity
Jimmy Boggs particularly stressed that it was pivotal to “stop thinking like a minority.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, this resonated strongly in cities like Detroit, where accelerating white flight generated new opportunities and responsibilities for governance by a Black majority. In her later years, Grace repeatedly challenged activists of color to think of ourselves as constituting both a global majority and an emerging U.S. majority. Like Jimmy and Grace embodied in their partnership, we believe that this means drawing from the rich traditions of Black and Asian American movement activism and Afro-Asian unity.
During the pandemic, Grace’s new status as an Asian American icon became readily apparent through the wave of Stop Asian Hate demonstrations. Confronting numerous attempts to foment division, 13-year-old Mina Fedor galvanized her peers to unite by drawing inspiration from Grace’s history of Black and Asian American movement activism. The most forward-thinking and coalition-minded Asian American community activists have rejected both anti-Black narratives of anti-Asian violence and carceral nonsolutions to “hate crimes.” They recognize that true community safety requires addressing the structural roots of racism and oppression.
In Philadelphia, Asian American activists, who have long fought against anti-Asian violence and xenophobia, have tied their struggles to building community and multiracial solidarity. Just as Jimmy and Grace rejected the repeated calls by mayors to build downtown casinos and sports stadiums, Asian Americans United has organized with coalition partners to block these pseudo, quick-fix answers to urban problems that only divert public resources to subsidize developers, gentrifiers and tourists. As in Detroit and nationwide, freeway construction that bulldozed through Black and Brown neighborhoods sliced apart Philadelphia’s Chinatown. The district’s survival has since become a key example of residents, workers and immigrant small business owners taking to the streets to sustain community in the face of corporate domination.
In her biographical film, American Revolutionary, Grace poses the question, “With people of color becoming the new American majority, how are we going to create a new vision for this country?” We are excited to see these examples arising from so many voices in so many corners. We invite you to honor Grace’s birthday by building and sharing your own examples.