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The Boggs Center - Photo by Marvin Shaouni
The Boggs Center - Photo by Marvin Shaouni


Shea Howell

The Boggs Center

3061 Field Street
Detroit, Michigan 48214

The Boggs Center

By Tunde Wey
November 9, 2012

The disadvantage of capturing stories is the expectation of the audience. Somehow a story is supposed to represent an individual, an event or environment in their entirety. Inversely, the advantage of these stories is that they preserve and transmit wisdom, knowledge, and philosophy. Stories enrich the world with the truth. The story of Grace Lee Boggs and The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (commonly called The Boggs Center) cradle this paradox. It is impossible to tell in justifiable detail the impact of Boggs and the Boggs Center, but it is imperative that everyone, dissenters and disciples alike, understand the philosophy embodied by Boggs and disseminated through the work of the Boggs Center and its affiliate groups.
“The struggle we're dealing with these days … is how do we define our humanity?" Grace Lee Boggs, now 97, has seen the world change. She was born soon after the automobile gained widespread popularity as a result of the Model T’s success. Her life has spanned the poverty-cracked fields of the Dust Bowl and Depression-era United States to the heady days of the dot-com bubble, its subsequent burst and the election of the first Black president. She, much like this country, has shifted her ideologies in her search for a revolution more complete, enduring, and impactful for all Americans.
While she regarded the nonviolent Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King as naïve, she was still present to witness Martin Luther King’s dream first hand, helping organize the June 23, 1963 Civil Rights march down Woodward in Detroit, the same march that culminated in Martin Luther King’s first public delivery of his historic “I have a dream” speech. Smitten as she was by the then radically labeled Black Power Movement – Malcolm X even stayed with Boggs and her husband, noted labor leader James Boggs, during an engagement in Detroit – King’s dream took root in her heart. After experiencing what she insists were rebellions – not riots – in 1967, she questioned the definition of revolution as popularly represented by previous social movements and returned to King’s idea of a “beloved community.” King, who in describing his hope for community said, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor,” influenced Boggs to rethink revolution.
Boggs, who has literally been at the epicenter of the most important social movements of our time, considers revolution through the lens of her question “… how do we define our humanity?”
Boggs was born in California and received a PhD in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. She is arguably one of the most influential living activists and community theorists in Detroit, where she has lived since 1953 when she married James Boggs. Together the Boggs worked as activists, advocating and organizing for labor and civil rights. After her husband’s passing in 1993, Boggs and a coterie of activists, whom she and her husband had worked with, converted her home into the Boggs Center.
Shea Howell, fellow founding member of the Boggs Center, says creating the Center was a way to “preserve the legacy of that space because it had been so central in developing movements in the city up until that moment. “
The influence of Boggs through the Boggs Center is veritably unquantifiable – at least to the extent that her ideas, as disseminated through her authored books, numerous speeches, editorial columns, television appearances, conferences and more, have become an indelible part of the way people converse about the post-industrial narrative.
A more demonstrable example of the impact of Boggs’s people-centered philosophy is the diverse network of people and organizations directly founded or significantly influenced by her.
The Boggs Center was to be a community space where the ideas she espoused could be discussed and acted on. It has since grown into an impressive network of people, projects, conferences and summits working on a grassroots level across a wide variety of issues. The issues represented by the network of organizations affiliated with the Boggs Center span food access, education reform, digital justice, youth leadership and minority empowerment.
The philosophical tentacles of the Boggs Center permeate Detroit. Detroit Summer, a “multi-racial, inter-generational collective in Detroit that has been working to transform communities through youth leadership” was started by Boggs, Howell and other local activists in 1992. From Detroit Summer sprung Back Alley Bikes, a community-focused youth bicycle education collective and retail shop in the Cass Corridor. Detroit Future, an organization working “to help educators, community organizers, artists, and entrepreneurs use media and technology to transform education and economic development in Detroit” was another organization born from the Boggs influence. The Detroit Asian Youth Project, a corollary program of Detroit Summer – which promotes Asian-American identity and culture to youth in the city – is another organization whose founding benefitted from the work of Boggs, with cofounder Soh Suzuki relocating to Detroit to help launch it.
Boggs also helped found Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), and her work frames the philosophical underpinnings of organizations such as Allied Media Projects (AMP), activist rapper Invincible, and a host of others. The most recent addition to the Boggs legacy is The Boggs Educational Center, a place-based education model that will begin educating children within the Detroit Public Schools District.

Part of the humanity question posed by Boggs is closely connected to what she sees as the difference between work and a job. Boggs defines a “job” as a solely economic endeavor devoid of human creativity, while “work” is a spirit-enriching enterprise in communion with community and environment. This distinction is important and core to the creation of the sort of community Boggs envisions. Howell explains further, saying, “It is critical to think about the difference between jobs and work because people need to work in new ways and that new work will create a new kind of culture. It is a work rooted in place. It
is not abstract and is evident in the urban agriculture movement, in the fab labs opening up across the city, motorized bicycle shops, bakeries and breweries.” To further accelerate this discussion on work, the Boggs Center hosted about 300 people at its Reimagining Work Conference earlier this year.
In framing the social milieu that Boggs has created Howell says, “More and more people are realizing that the dominant view holds no answer for the future. The old way of thinking has gotten us as far as it can take us. What we are about is a deeper historical understanding that we are living in a moment of great transformation of a kind that has only happened four times in human history – a shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, from agriculture to industry and then now from industry to something that we now call the postindustrial society – which doesn’t tell us what it would be but what it won’t be.”
What the postindustrial city will be is actively being shaped by Boggs’s ideas and her actions. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and early admirer of Boggs is rumored to have said, after she refused his marriage proposal, “If Grace had married me we would have changed Africa.” Instead she married James Boggs and changed Detroit.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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    Soh Suzuki is the co-founder of The Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project, which educates youth about national and local Asian-American history using community projects and conversation to help them understand the connection between their heritage and the larger Detroit.

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