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Creating a New American Dream: the Timeless Words of Grace Lee Boggs

Updated: Apr 24

painting of Grace Lee with hand on chin and writing above her head

Portrait of Grace Lee Boggs by Robert Shetterly, 2006, as part of his series for Americans who Tell the Truth

For many, MLK's birthday is a day of service, and some years in mid-January, I manage to get out and volunteer to honor his life and work. Last Monday, I celebrated the day at home, stranded by the snow and ice that encrusted Portland and is just now melting. I decided to learn something new about the Civil Rights movement, and I stumbled upon a moving documentary about social activist, writer and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.

What little I knew about Grace previously was introduced to me by Susan Banyas, my artistic mentor who blends storytelling, dance and history-as-activism into her unique performance art and teaching. At a weekend workshop I took with Susan over 10 years ago, she shared a few of Grace's choice quotes about the New American Dream. Susan threw a whole lot of other mind-blowing stuff at us that weekend, and the handout about Grace got lost in the pile.

So getting to know Grace's life and work through "American Revolutionary, the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs" was a long overdue excursion. Grace was born in Providence and raised in New York City by Chinese immigrants, and she earned a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. She became involved in tenant and workers' rights and eventually moved to Detroit with her husband James Boggs, an auto worker and labor organizer. Over several decades, the interracial couple collaborated in their organizing, their writings, and their community activism, which lives on through the Boggs Center for Community Leadership in Detroit. Grace outlived James into her 100th year and continued to engage people in community projects and transformative conversations until the end of her life in 2015.

black and white photo of Grace Lee and James Boggs

Grace Lee and James Boggs in 1974

I knew that Grace's example would inspire me to engage more in social issues and take action. What took me by surprise was how much she centered creativity, imagination, and self-transformation in her philosophy of social progress.

Too often, I fall into the trap of seeing creativity as a narrow privilege. I view it as something that everyone has, but that only some get to enjoy using - a luxury that only people with a financial cushion and a certain level of education and privilege can apply to their lives. And in many conversations, creativity is framed as an individual quality and pursuit, rather than something that is part of a collective, social force.

Grace saw creativity as the key to liberation for all human beings, as the path toward a higher level of consciousness, a richer imagination, and greater problem-solving capacity. And she considered authentic conversation and social collaboration to be the most powerful vehicles for creativity in the broadest sense. We change one another by challenging one another to think differently. We dream of a better future by expanding our imaginations. And when we see our small creative acts connect to our human beings, we experience the power of our agency.

Sequined image of Grace Lee Boggs, with white hair and big glasses

Portrait of Grace Lee Boggs by Sky Bradshaw, as part of the Everyday Saints series, 2022

A few of Grace's quotes that link creativity and social progress:

  1. On how open conversations transform people:

Talk and write in a way that encourages the mutual exchange of ideas and acts like a midwife to people birthing their own ideas.

2. On how successful revolutions rely on rich imagination:

A revolution is not just for the purpose of correcting past injustices, a revolution involves a projection of man/woman into the future...It begins with projecting the notion of a more human human being, i.e. a human being who is more advanced in the specific qualities which only human beings have - creativity, consciousness and self-consciousness, a sense of political and social responsibility.

3. On transformative creativity in tough historical moments:

A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.

4. On what education is for:

We urgently need a paradigm shift in our concept of the purposes and practices of education. We need to leave behind the concept of education as a passport to more money and higher status in the future and replace it with a concept of education as an ongoing process that enlists the tremendous energies and creativity of schoolchildren in rebuilding and respiriting our communities and our cities now, in the present.

5. On how small projects transform people from the inside:

We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of 'critical mass.' It's always about critical connections.

woodcut image of Grace Lee Boggs with large quote around her

Portrait of Grace Lee Boggs by Emily VP, 2018

It has been a long time since I've felt this energized by an activist. I still have a lot to learn from this dynamic, brilliant person who gave so much in her many actions, conversations, writings, and speeches. More than ever, I aspire to connect creativity and inner transformation to the greater evolution of humankind, through my own small actions, conversations, writings, and artistic expressions. And now I feel more convinced than ever before that small actions are anything but.

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