A fundraiser for the Chinese-American Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs attracted students and community members to East Quad’s Keene Theater Friday night to discuss the organizer’s legacy, as well as grassroots movements occurring in Detroit.
The money raised will go toward hospice care and hospital expenses for Boggs, who is 99 years old and facing poor health.
The University’s Semester in Detroit program sponsored the event, which featured a screening of the documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.”
The film follows Boggs’ life beginning with her years as an undergraduate at Barnard College in the early 1930s. She started a job as a librarian in Chicago, where she lived in a Black community and witnessed firsthand how African-Americans continued to struggle after the challenges of the Great Depression ended for many white workers.
She realized that mobilizing the Black community to call for change in their communities could make a big impact. Boggs moved to Detroit, home to a large population of Black workers, where she ultimately joined the Black Power movement.
After the film, a panel was led by Stephen Ward, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, Tawana Petty, activist and member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture and Sylvia Orduño, organizer with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.
LSA sophomore Katey Carey, a recruitment coordinator for Semester in Detroit who helped organize the event, said she first saw the film during its premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts in June 2014. She decided to plan the fundraiser after her friend sent her article noting that an organization was offering a free DVD of the documentary to those holding their own fundraisers.
“I thought, ‘Wow, it would be great if Semester in Detroit could do something like that on Grace’s path,’ ” Carey said.
Boggs’ most notable moments include organizing the 1963 march down Woodward after which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech, and launching Detroit Summer in 1978, a program where young Detroiters could transform vacant lots and buildings by planting gardens and painting murals.
Ward, who was featured in the documentary, said Boggs’ career was kept under close watch by the U.S. government. In the film, he is shown holding a thick stack of paper, which he said was a fraction of her FBI file.
More recently, Boggs’ activism has focused on topics in Detroit including sustainability, urban farming and climate change. In her 90s, Boggs has continued to travel around the country and talk about change. Boggs also regularly invites people into her home, pushing them to develop their ideas
“It’s so obvious that we are coming to a huge turning point,” Boggs said in the documentary. “You begin with a protest, but you have to move on from there. Just being angry, just being resentful, just being outraged doesn’t constitute a revolution. So many institutions of our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream.”
Carey said the Asian heritage shared by Boggs and filmmaker Grace Lee also plays a role in the film.
“It’s really cool because you also get to see a little bit of the filmmaker’s story and her process and kind of looking at her identity as an Asian woman while making this film about (Boggs),” she said. “So I guess it’s kind of a personal film and a journey for (Lee) too which is really interesting to see.”
Refilwe Nkomo, who attended the event while visiting the University with her traveling theatre company, We Are Here, said during group discussion that she often wonders what change, if any, comes after the protesting, marches and rebellions.
“I went to a ton of marches in terms of Black Lives Matter and what’s really happening in the United States right now, and I’m from South Africa and it’s really always interesting for me how we value or how we view change,” she said. “And I think this is again reminding me that it takes time, not only does it take effort and hard work, but it takes time being invested in a space. And that’s what Grace Lee Boggs did and does. She’s still invested.”
Petty, one of the event panelists, said Boggs emphasizes reflection, especially in today’s fast-paced world.
“Before she got ill, she was pretty much making sure that we met at least once or twice a week in the morning to not only go over what was happening in society but she would ask us if we read The New York Times that morning, she would ask us if we read The Michigan Citizen, ask us what work we’re engaged in,” she said.
“So she’s very cognizant of the changing conditions in the city or the country and globally. But she absolutely values taking the time to dialogue about those things, because as you heard her say in the film, we overestimate the role of activism and underestimate the role of reflection,” she added.
Carey said she hopes students will be inspired to start thinking about how they can respond to challenges both in Detroit and elsewhere.
“A lot of what I forget and I think others forget sometimes is that there are a lot of new, really great and exciting things happening in Detroit,” Carey said. “But we need to recognize that there have been really great and powerful things happening for a long time as well.”