Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In the presence of genius: Grace Lee Boggs

I hang out with a lot of very smart people but tonight was different. Tonight I was in the presence of genius.

After spending the day with other community development practitioners at a LISC Learning Forum in Detroit, including a tour and workshop in the Morningside and East English Village neighborhoods, we were treated to a remarkable dinner presentation by 93-year-old civic activist Grace Lee Boggs.

She surprised us over and over again. First, this daughter of Chinese immigrants with a Ph.D. in philosophy, who later married African-American labor activist James Boggs, well, first she introduced an 11-minute rap video by the Detroit artist Invincible, a young woman whose words burn deeply as she spits them out against a backdrop of apocalyptic post-industrial Detroit. "Selective memory, convenient amnesia," she chants, and a whole lot more.

The video features a few snippets of interview with Grace Lee Boggs and other activists, but is really about youth and how, in Boggs' words, "their need to be useful can be the foundation for life in the 21st Century." I've pasted the video, directed by Joe Namy, at the end of this post, in two parts.

I can't do justice to what came next. Ms. Boggs spoke to us, in a quiet but forceful voice, about the whole sordid history of America's industrial cities, tracing the fall of the auto industry, the construction of highways that helped cut in half the city's population, and after years of economic decline for working-class African American residents, the "young people harassed by police who they thought of as an occupying army," after all that came the five days of explosive rebellion in July of 1967 that marked the beginning of a whole new era for Detroit, an era of decline that is starkly illustrated in the Invincible video and that we saw for ourselves on our bus tour this afternoon.

From all this, Boggs sees a bright future. In 1992, Boggs and her husband founded something called Detroit Summer, which used gardening, of all things, to bring older residents together with youth, and which taught those young people, "who thought everything was instantaneous, a sense of process." The same movement spawned a youth bicycle-fixing operation, Back Alley Bikes, the Avalon Bakery that set up shop in the wreckage of the Cass Corridor, and the Earthworks urban farm created by a Capuchin monk to grow food for a soup kitchen and a home for teenaged mothers.

Detroit is among a handful of cities, including Milwaukee, New York and Chicago, that have begun converting their vast acreages of vacant land into productive agricultural space. Was it a coincidence that three groups out of eight at the afternoon workshops suggested "green" development of Detroit's east side expanses, or were we seeing the same thing that Boggs and the seniors and youth saw: the promise of Detroit's next phase? "The whole concept of reconnecting to the earth has such magic to it," she said, especially in the face of today's "energy crisis and planetary crisis."

Referring to the gardening work and the rap video, Boggs said, "we have a model and inspiration for young people across the country." For sure, yes, but the inspiration for me was Grace Lee Boggs herself, a brilliant woman who left us, tonight, with a mandate to carry her work forward.

The video, titled Locusts, part one:

Part two of the video:

1 comment:

Maureen Kelleher said...

Wow, what great resources!

I may be back in Detroit in the fall; if so I'll be looking out for Ms. Boggs and Invincible.