Editor’s Note: Grace Lee Boggs is a Chinese-American political activist who had relationships with such heavyweights as Malcolm X. Hyphen Magazine published this story about her March 1.
had the fortune to interview long-time civil rights activist and writer Grace Lee Boggs via phone prior to her visit to the San Francisco Bay Area this week, where she will participate in at least three public events at Stanford, UC Berkeley and San Francisco’s Chinatown. Boggs, 96, may not be as well-known as other activists, but has more than seven decades of activism and grassroots organizing experience, including the labor, Civil Rights, black power, feminist, Asian American and environmental/food justice movements.
She lives in Detroit and was married to late husband James Boggs, an African American autoworker, activist and philosopher. Along with other community members they co-founded Detroit Summer, a program that has helped rebuild the city from the ground up. In 2012, Detroit Summer will celebrate its 20th year.
She recently published The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century, written with Scott Kurashige. A documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs by filmmaker Grace Lee (no relation) is in the works. To read more about her visit to the Bay Area, read the article I wrote for this week’s East Bay Express. Boggs also wrote about her most influential books for Hyphen’s Action issue in 2009.
I asked her about activism today and her experience as a Chinese American in a mostly black movement. Below is an edited version of the interview.
How are the issues facing Detroit similar to or different from ones in Oakland and other cities in this country?
The whole country is doing a lot of worrying about jobs, doing a lot of worrying about revolution, doing a lot of worrying about where do we go from here … I think for the first time in the country for a long time, there’s a sense that we are all in trouble, and that we all have to seek solutions.
In the video that you directly addressed to Occupy Wall Street protesters back in October, you said, “There’s a long road ahead because you’ll have the opportunity to create something new that’s based on completely different values, but you’re going to have to be thinking about values and not just about abuses.” What did you mean by this?
I think that the country is more aware that the issues we’re facing are not only economic, though they are very deeply economic, but a lot of values are involved as to how we regard ourselves as human beings and what we think is the role of education, what is the role of work, what is the role of relationships. I think all those questions are on the minds and in the hearts of people more than they were in the past. I think the values issue, the idea that higher wages or fancy clothes or bigger cars can make up for dehumanization, is not as popular today as it was in the past. I think people are asking much more profound questions of what it means to be a human being, in any other time that I can recall in the past.
I think that the old American Dream is dead and that creating a new dream is on the agenda in the hearts and minds of a whole lot of people, from very, very different backgrounds. These are questions that we have to resolve, and that no one is going to resolve for us.
What advice would you give to a young activist?
I would say to a young activist, ‘Do visionary organizing. Turn your back on protest organizing and recognize how that leads you more and more to defensive operations, whereas visionary organizing gives you the opportunity to encourage the creative capacity in people and it’s very fulfilling.’
Can you tell me about your involvement with the urban agricultural movement?
I was one of the founders of a program called Detroit Summer, which involved the young people in rebuilding, redefining and respiriting our city. That attracted the attention of African American elders who