Looking at change differently

“Reading Grace Lee Boggs


helps you glimpse a United States that is better and more beautiful that you thought it was.” – Michael Hardt    


“When I first came upon James Boggs’s writings three decades ago, it changed my life. Poring over each of the essays collected here by the indefatigable Stephen Ward, I know why he had such an impact. His work was always incisive, clear, dialectical, and genuinely revolutionary. A visionary thinker, Boggs is as relevant now as he ever was.” 

– Robin D. G. Kelley


Rethinking Schools

By Greg Smith


Greg Smith teaches in the Graduate School of Education at Lewis & Clark College.  The following is from his review of TNAR in the current issue of Rethinking Schools


For two decades, Boggs has been inviting young people in Detroit to participate in restoration of the city’s social and natural environments. Youth work in urban gardens, paint public murals, help organize arts and health festivals, and learn building skills as they rehab deteriorating or abandoned houses.  Detroit Summer organizers facilitate workshops and intergenerational conversations aimed at deepening participants’ understanding of what rebuilding Detroit will entail and the meaning of their activities for the broader society.


Drawing on this experience, Boggs asserts that education provides one of the most important vehicles for shaping the new world she believes we must build.  Her vision of teaching and learning has little to do with what most children encounter in contemporary schools.  She calls for a paradigm shift away from global competition, privatization, and the standardized testing associated with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.


Boggs’ educational proposals are informed by Dewey’s call for a diminished boundary between classrooms and communities; Gandhi’s recognition that human maturation requires the development of heart, hand, and head; and Freire’s belief that all people have the capacity to become social actors capable of creating more humane and equitable social relations.  Schools she uses to illustrate what she has in mind give young people the opportunity to rehabilitate degraded riparian habitats, restore historic buildings, or use digital media to share their findings about pressing social issues.


Imagine what might happen if young people were treated as full-fledged citizens able to make genuine contributions to the welfare of those around them.  For one, children and youth might come to see themselves as people who are valued, competent, and responsible rather than superfluous.  Imagine, too, what our communities could become if the energy and intelligence of the young were directed to the challenges now facing humanity.


Since the 1990s, Detroit Summer has sparked a variety of community-based projects that have drawn the attention of writers such as Rebecca Solnit (2007), and filmmakers from the United States and England.  The 2010 U.S. Social Forum chose to meet in Detroit in part because of the way activists there are demonstrating that it is truly possible, to borrow the old Wobbly refrain, “to build the new society within the shell of the old.


Community gardens have become widespread as residents have turned abandoned lots into sources of food and pride.  Small locally owned businesses are providing livelihoods in communities abandoned by corporate America.  People are coming together to write and make art, exploring their creative potential and enacting what it means to be human.  Groups have formed to address issues like homelessness, health care, and education, drawing on their own intelligence and energy rather than the state and federal agencies that have become increasingly unable or unwilling to respond to the complex, interconnected problems facing urban populations.


None of this means that Detroit is an easy place to live or that the new world Boggs envisions has arrived.  As she describes it, the city is a work in progress, but it is work that serves as a source of inspiration for others experiencing the consequences of a neoliberal global economy in which things and profits have become significantly more important than people.


Will her vision of locally based activism be enough to create the “great turning” she calls for?  Probably not.  But without work in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities, the deep shift in our relationships with one another and the planet is unlikely to happen.  If humanity is to make the transition to a world where the needs of all people are met while preserving natural systems, change must become part of our blood and bones.  This will only happen when we are participants in this process.  Boggs calls for all of us to contribute whatever we can to the transformation of our understanding and our institutions to bring our species to the next level of evolution.   She believes it is possible if we put our shoulders to the wheel, in the same way she has for nearly a century.

You can read Smith’s entire review here.



Questions of Circumstance

By Shea Howell


The rapid-fire attacks on the people of Detroit feels personal. Now Emergency Financial Managers are accompanied by a new scheme, the Educational Achievement System. The city council, mayor and EFM are holding meetings, telling us how much they will cut, close and cancel. 


All of this, they say, is forced by circumstance. We have no money. Our population is shrinking. Our schools are not performing. The powers that be have no choice.


Yet the financial crisis facing the city and state are a smokescreen for a much deeper political agenda.


If we step back from the immediate decisions that seem to pile one on top of the other, three very clear patterns emerge. These patterns have everything to do with political power, not budget short falls or low performing schools.


First, there is the assault on voting rights. For more than 70 years, conservative forces have been trying to turn back the expansion of democratic rights.  Since the earliest days of the republic, when voting was restricted to a small group of white, male property owners, the rest of us have been organizing and pushing to expand that right to all of us. Whatever the shortcomings of President Obama, there is no question that his election represented the culmination of these struggles.


Now in Michigan, the right to vote is simply being “set aside.” State legislatures with the stroke of a single law have eliminated the bedrock of this electoral system—local elections. Meanwhile, as their redistricting efforts show, the republican dominated state legislature is twisting electoral districts to benefit their own power and to diminish the voice of cities in Lansing and Washington.


Second, there is the assault on community control of education. Along with the expansion of voting rights, one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement was community control of education. In cities and towns across the nation, prior to the 1960’s, public education was failing our children, forcing them to learn from outdated texts with irrelevant curriculum in wildly under funded schools.


The demands for community control resulted in some of our best practices in developing our children. Curriculum began to reflect the communities where people lived. Ideas about culture, conflict, ecology and peace were incorporated into daily studies and new kinds of alternative education emerged. People raised questions about what education is for and what role it should play in a democracy.


Now in Michigan, communities are told we cannot control our schools. After decades of cutting funding, resisting meaningful change and imposing rigid, often irrelevant standards, the State Legislature and the Governor are removing schools from the local public domain and placing them into the hands of a Governor appointed super EFM.


We are apparently all supposed to accept this because some kind foundations are promising to provide two-year college scholarships to our students if we go along with this plan.


Third, there is the assault on labor unions. The state has asserted the power to set aside or renegotiate contracts, conditions of work, pensions and basic protections for health and safety in the name of financial responsibility. Unions are demonized at every opportunity, so we are told that schools are in trouble because of teachers unions, business and government services are in trouble because of greedy workers.


Voting rights, community control and labor unions all evolved with contradictions. But with all their limitations, they are the result of struggles by people to make a more perfect union in this land.


Today, it is not economic circumstance that is dictating these assaults. It is a desire to consolidate political power in the hands of the few. These circumstances demand that we raise the real questions of what kind of country will we be? What values will we hold? What will democracy look like?

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