Grace Lee Boggs – an 87-year-old Chinese-American social activist who has devoted over a half century of her life to the revitalization of Detroit – addressed more than 1,100 people at Rackham Auditorium yesterday as the keynote speaker for the 16th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.
Echoing the theme of this year’s symposium, Boggs challenged students to “be the change that you want to see.”
“Become part of new movements because this is your opportunity to be a pioneer,” Boggs said in an interview with The Michigan Daily after the speech.
Some students said that Boggs’s message of social change and philosophy was in line with that of King and other advocates for social change.
“I learned that, as students, you have to be the one who initiates changes instead of expecting things to change by themselves. If you don’t do this, this world will just be stagnant,” LSA junior Venkat Polavarapu said. “You can look back at Ghandi and MLK and other social activists including Grace Lee Boggs, and this is the philosophy that they held.”
Boggs, who has a doctorate in philosophy, said she became involved with social activism after her own encounter with racism in finding a job as a university professor. She said that she had been told repeatedly, “We don’t hire Orientals.”
“When I found the power of (the) African-American community, I decided to join,” said Boggs, whose late husband was a black labor activist in Detroit.
Since coming to Detroit in the 1950s, she said her work has focused on labor and civil rights, gender equality and African-American and Asian-American rights.
“Her ideas are more timely than ever,” said American culture Prof. Scott Kurashige in his introduction of Boggs. Boggs commenced her address by referring to the University’s pending cases concerning race in admissions.
“The University has been courageous in maintaining race among all other factors in admissions,” Boggs said.”I passionately believe in the power of ideas,” adding that it is important to combine physical activism with the theories and ideas of urban transformation. This was the concept underlying The Boggs Center, which she founded in 1995, as both a community center and a think tank.
“I am saddened by (the city’s) short-sightedness,” Boggs said, referring to the recent building of more casinos and sports stadiums. Boggs said that a “post-industrial” city such as Detroit must focus not only upon economic and technological developments, but also on “human and community developments.”
“What we need to do now is to engage … our children,” Boggs said. She added that an essential way to revitalize Detroit is to involve its youth and students in community projects like Detroit Summer.
Detroit Summer encourages local youth to transform vacant lots into parks and gardens and to paint murals over graffitied walls. The goal is for the “community gardening programs to reconnect city youth with the earth and the mural painting program to connect youth with the city space,” Boggs said.
The Chinatown Workgroup is another initiative by The Boggs Center that tries to increase cultural diversity in Detroit, Boggs said. By encouraging Asian-American youth and college students to be part of the revitalization of the city, Boggs said she wishes to create cultural diversity that is “more than just black and white.”
“We are building on the legacy of Gandhi and King,” Boggs said about her center. “I hope you will respond to what we are doing in Detroit.”