At the School of Social Work Building Monday afternoon, more than 100 students and faculty convene to discuss one of the most influential activists of the 20th century, Grace Lee Boggs.
Boggs, who died last year, was an activist, writer and speaker with seven decades of experience advocating for civil and women’s rights. The event was part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. symposium.
Stephen Ward, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, is writing a dual biography of Boggs and her husband James, titled “In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs,” is a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and helped to organize the event.
Ward said the language used to describe Boggs’ activism doesn’t give a full picture of her work because she doesn’t fit into traditional classifications of an activist.
“In some ways most of those are only partially accurate, or there’s some ambiguity there,” Ward said. “Grace doesn’t seem to fit our own categories.”
In particular, Ward said an Asian American woman was anomalous in the civil rights movement when Boggs began her work, and it would be more fitting to refer to her as a human rights activist. He said those who call Boggs a revolutionary would hit closer to the truth, but are no closer to identifying her.
“I think in the use of ‘civil rights’ we sometimes lazily use to describe Black people or other types of struggles without properly recognizing what it takes to make a movement,” Ward said.
Raina LaGrand, a School of Social Work alum, is a member of their People of Color Collective, a group which aims to create a space for people of color interested in making radical social change. LaGrand said for Boggs, it was important to view issues as people and not politics.
“We need to embrace the idea that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for,” LaGrand said.
In speaking about the biases of the individual that inhibit social change, LaGrand highlighted how important it is that students learn about groups and communities different from their own through the process of practice-based evidence.
“When we solely rely on research and evaluation we’re not really giving voices to the people who need them,” LaGrand said. “As students, education doesn’t necessarily make us experts, but because we have education we must advocate certain things that communities want.”
She added that increasing attention to social justice is a double-edged sword. While it draws awareness to social issues, she said, it skews who is responsible for social change
“Education and money doesn’t give (students) a free pass to go wherever we want,” LaGrand said. “When we stop buying into what is done, that’s when we become radical.”
Activist Jim Toy, who co-founded the Spectrum Center at the University and worked with Boggs, said during the workshop each individual has their own area of the world, their corner, that they are responsible for making more socially aware.
“Grace had a corner and she brightened that corner where she was and we each I think are called to brighten our own corner,” Toy said.
Sharon Howell, an Oakland University professor of communication and journalism, met Boggs in 1973, and said she worked with Boggs and her husband on a daily basis for decades.
Howell said Boggs believed Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a time to think and talk about how civil movements can progress, especially given her relationship with King, which Howell described as contentious at times.
She noted that because she was not a worker and came from a privileged background, Boggs had difficulty fitting in when she moved to Chicago, and Howell said it was not until Boggs married and moved to a Black community in Detroit that she was able to find a home. Howell said there was no safer place for anyone at that time than within the Black community.
“If a Black family moved into say, Livonia, we’re gonna hear a lot more about it than we do the gentrification that’s happening in Detroit,” Howell said. “Grace loved Detroit not just because of its people but because in Detroit an evolution is happening of a profound scale.”
University alum Chase Cantrell, who attended the workshop, said he has participated in the symposium every year since 2001. He said he saw Boggs speak at a meeting of the Michigan Progressives and was impressed and inspired by what she had to say.
“I’ve been contemplating starting a nonprofit organization in Detroit,” Cantrell said. “Being here it makes me want to move forward with that goal.”
Social Work student Liz Zhang, an international student, said because of her background as a Chinese woman, she related to the story of Bogg’s life and her struggle to fit in.
“I just want to find out more about Grace Lee Boggs and the connection with her work and Martin Luther King’s,” Zhang said.