A Lifelong Search for Real Education

Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs brought people together to rebuild inner-city Detroit and to teach the things you can’t learn in a classroom. At 94, Grace is still at it.



My education began in 1992, although I’d already finished my sophomore year at the best high school in Detroit. I was a successful student by the standards of my family and my teachers—I had certainly learned how to get good grades. But I was 16, and I felt stuck. Stuck in a city that everyone seemed to agree had reached its heyday and was now dead—no hope of ever having beauty or vitality or relevance again. Stuck in a high school that felt empty and soulless.

Then, my friend, Mary, excitedly met me in the cafeteria.

“Did you see the couple who were here today?”

“No. What couple?”

“An Asian lady, Grace Boggs, and her husband. He was black. They were visiting classes. They started this program called Detroit Summer. You should check it out.”

Mary shoved a flier in my hand. And there it was. The call to Detroit Summer. And my real education began.

Where Detroit Summer Came From

Detroit Summer was Jimmy and Grace Boggs’ response to Mayor Coleman Young’s idea that casinos would replace Detroit’s disappearing auto industry jobs and solve all the city’s problems. Jimmy and Grace, longtime activists, knew that such a quick fix would not rejuvenate Detroit and, especially, would not engage its young people, who were dropping out of school in appalling numbers. They recalled how sending young people south for Mississippi Summer re-energized the civil rights movement. Detroit Summer was their way of recreating that energy in the inner city.

Jimmy and Grace realized that young people needed a chance to make a difference in their city. They had long been active in the Black Power movement in inner-city Detroit. Grace says, “I identified more with Malcolm X than with Martin Luther King, Jr., and like most Black Power Activists, I viewed King’s ideas of nonviolence and beloved community as somewhat naïve and sentimental.”


Julia Putnam, left, was the first youth volunteer to sign up for the first Detroit Summer in 1992. She met with Grace Lee Boggs recently to talk about how Detroit Summer changed her life and those of many young volunteers.

Photo by Eric Seals

But she found herself revisiting the words of King as he struggled with what he saw in the cities he visited after rebellions erupted in the streets. When I met with her recently, Grace said, “That’s why my opening ceremony speech at the first Detroit Summer centered on his response to these rebellions. He proposed that young people ‘in our dying cities’ needed programs that were designed to change themselves and their society.” Grace and Jimmy’s experience in Detroit had led them to the same conclusion.

“We wanted to engage young people in community-building activities: planting community gardens, recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, rehabbing houses, painting public murals,” Grace says. “Encouraging them to exercise their Soul Power would get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning would come from practice, which has always been the best way to learn.”

My First Detroit Summer—and Beyond

The flier my friend handed me sounded as if someone had read my mind. It spoke of the crisis in Detroit: disappearing factory jobs, blight, hopelessness, helplessness. All the stuff I’d heard time and again. But this time, there was more. Just as young people made the difference in the civil rights movement, the flier said, so too would young people be the difference in Detroit. A movement was beginning, it said, a movement to rebuild, revitalize, and respirit Detroit from the ground up.

There are very few things I have been so sure of as knowing that I would be a part of Detroit Summer. It was a relief and joy to know there was someone out there who believed as I believed. I was not alone.

I took the bus to the First Unitarian Universalist Church on the corner of Forest and Cass on the day of registration. The opening ceremony was in the church basement, and a huge banner hung inside with a paint can drawn in as the “O” in Detroit and a hammer as the “T.”

That’s where I met Jimmy Boggs. He was old but handsome—regal. I had to listen closely to understand his Alabama accent. He punctuated his sentences with a high-pitched “OK?” He told his audience of volunteers that young people today wanted to get paid to go to the bathroom. But if we were going to make a difference, it would have to be about more than money. He said that’s why he was so proud of us for showing up to volunteer our time to make a difference in the city. Because his generation was tired, and he was depending on us to take our turn. OK?

Kids Take Charge of School

Diana Morales-Manely self-portrait

Fifteen-year-old Diana Morales-Manley struggled with reading when she was a young child. Instead of lowering her grades or holding her back, the Albany Free School let her pursue a budding fascination with photography. “Even though I wasn’t good at reading, I enjoyed looking at photos in books,” she says. She improved her reading by sounding out words in photo captions and looking for context clues in the images.

Students at the Albany Free School and its sister school for upper grades, Harriet Tubman Democratic School, decide how and what to learn. The schools believe kids learn what they need if given time, space, and access to mentors. Read on...

:: More Radical Acts of Education

I was moved, touched that this man who knew nothing about me was proud of me. Had I been that starved for this kind of praise? I think so. My family praised me, but it was for things I was supposed to do—I was obedient, didn’t cause trouble, and my grades were fine. For that, my family was proud, appreciative. Jimmy was proud of me for going beyond that. He was proud because I cared about something other than myself. I’d never even thought to give myself credit for that. I was ready to put my time and energy toward a Detroit that I could be proud to live in.

Grace taught me how to put my intellect into that endeavor. I met her a few days later, during lunch. Grace pulled up a chair, sat directly across from me, and leaned in close. She locked her eyes on me, and asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was. There have been many over the years. It was undoubtedly a big one, something philosophical and impossible to answer easily: What do you think should be done about gang violence? Why do you think young people feel alienated in school? What does God look like?

I had to resist the urge to look over my shoulder. What did I think? No adult had ever asked. Certainly not with this kind of intensity and gleeful expectation, as if my opinion mattered, and with the assumption that I’d have an intelligent response.

After I got over the shock and shared my opinion, Grace did what I’ve seen her do a thousand times to hundreds of young people. She listened intently. She grinned delightedly, touched my knee, got up and moved on to the next conversation. Grace is not necessarily interested in the right answer—she’s interested in the ideas. She delights in young people grappling with the tough questions. She watches the process of movement building as it is handed down from generation to generation and evolves over time. Grace, at 94, says, “I’ve lived long enough to watch evolution happen.”

In Detroit Summer, I was surrounded by adults who not only asked me real questions, but took time to answer mine. Grace gave everything historical context, helping us understand how Detroit had evolved into the place it was—how the industrial period and the post-industrial period affected the daily lives of people in the city.

The other volunteers not only taught me skills, but also challenged my assumptions. Christopher Shein, a super-tall, surfer-dude-accented Californian—not a common sight in Detroit—taught me to dig my hands into compost and feel the heat of decay that would nurture our garden.

Ray Jimenez, an ex-gang member from Fresno, came the first year. At one dinner, he shared with me and a few others his fear of coming to Detroit. We described our fear upon hearing that we’d be working with ex-gang members. Then we all laughed. How stupid, we realized, the fears that we’d been fed that kept us divided, separated, hostile.

Like Carrie, who went to a Catholic high school with Anne Rashid. Anne lived in Detroit, but Carrie lived in a wealthy suburb, and she was terrified her parents would find out that, instead of hanging out safely at Anne’s house, she was driving to the east side to paint houses and fight neighborhood blight. Part of cleanup was to inspect Carrie to make sure she had no obvious stray paint on her.

I was raised to believe that suburbanites feared and hated me. They thought I was poor and black and scary. It was healing to see that there were people like Carrie who risked disapproval (and sure punishment) because they wanted to join in rebuilding Detroit. There were so many conversations and conflicts and triumphs that happened over the course of that summer and the summers that followed, opening my mind to what it meant to live in a community that was diverse in class, race, gender, age, and abilities. It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fun, but it always produced growth and a kind of learning I would never get in school.

The learning and growth wasn’t just for the young people. Grace says, “It felt expansive to be around young people who were not bogged down by old ideas. It was an extraordinary mix of people from all over.”

We, as young people, were not just serving the community. The community was also serving us. Volunteers had long, important conversations with each other, often over lunches that the adults made so we could concentrate on our work revitalizing the community. Many of the young volunteers didn’t drive, but adults 30 to 40 years our senior could be counted on to drive us to and from events. We were serving one another. And this, I learned, is what community means.

Forgetting Detroit Summer

At age 19, I became Detroit Summer’s youth coordinator, and I’ve worked with young people ever since. I became a teacher when I was 23 because I believed that I could take my Detroit Summer experience into the classroom and use it to help young people struggle with the big questions.

There were two main reasons I was good at teaching. First, I remembered, in great detail, what it felt like to be a powerless student, and that helped me to connect with the most disconnected child. Second, I modeled my interactions with young people on Jimmy and Grace and on my Detroit Summer experience. Like them, I tried to ask the real questions, not condescend or coddle. And, like them, I believed that young people could be of use—not when they got older or when they got a job, but right now.

And I was of use as a teacher. For a time. But teaching under the restrictions of the existing system began to get to me. No matter how much you resist, there is the prevailing, nagging notion that teachers know best, that we are there to impart wisdom that the kids should feel privileged to receive.

I realized I’d lost my way when I found myself thinking vicious thoughts about a student who refused to read. I had tried everything and I was afraid that his poor performance would reflect badly on my teaching. I had given up and turned against him—he was lazy and apathetic and doomed. I’d given up on a kid who was only 13. I needed a break.

I’d started to use only the lines I’d been given in my education training and was trying to get my students to read them aloud along with me. I had forgotten my own high school experience and that moment when my real education began.

If I wanted to teach again to my own standards, I had to remember the lessons of Detroit Summer—to relearn as an adult those things that meant so much to me as a teenager. I had to remember that a real education is not about jobs and an increase in class status. I had to remember Jimmy’s idea that, “The chief task of human beings is the struggle for human relations rather than for material goods.”

I had to remember Grace’s words that “learning must be related to the daily lives of children. It is not something you can make people do in their heads with the perspective that, eventually, they will get a good job and make a lot of money.”

The Legacy of Detroit Summer

Just as I was feeling ready to return to teaching, the Boggs Center began to host Freedom School meetings. By then, Detroit Summer no longer existed in its original form. It carries on in other venues, including the Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project, which involves young people in collecting oral history and in activism through media; the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, an organization created to promote and continue the work of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs; and Detroit: City of Hope, an organization that builds connections among nonprofit organizations and activists in their work to rebuild Detroit.

I had to remember that a real education is not solely about jobs and an increase in class status. I had to remember Jimmy’s idea that, “The chief task of human beings was the struggle for human relations rather than for material goods.”

The Freedom School meetings were in response to the crisis in the Detroit public schools. At those meetings, I met other educators and community members who shared my struggle to create in schools the educational experience that I had in Detroit Summer. Since May 2008, a diverse group of parents, educators, community members, and residents of Detroit have worked on starting the Boggs Educational Center, a school dedicated to the transformative educational experience that King proposed before he died and that Jimmy and Grace have modeled in their lives.

The school will be rooted in the Hope District, on the east side of Detroit. The school’s philosophy is centered on Grace’s position that children are most intellectually and physically engaged when they are involved in the struggle to revitalize their community. Our mission is to nurture creative critical thinkers who employ multiple literacies and contribute to their surrounding communities.

We challenge the notion that there is only one path to success, and that this path necessitates being stuck in a classroom for 12 years. We believe that there are as many paths to success as there are children in a room, and that success comes from having a sense of self and a sense of purpose. We believe education is about becoming our best, most human selves.

The Boggs Educational Center will demonstrate Grace’s vision of a new kind of education where “much more learning will take place outside school walls. Inside, an integral part of the educational process will be the design and operation of the building.”

We will provide a response to Grace’s observation that “the reason why so many young people drop out from inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory. They are crying out for another kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.”

Instead of the message that children are merely empty vessels that must be filled with facts, the community of the Boggs Education Center will tell our children: You are of use, you are important, we need you. You can learn anything you need in order to be the best person you can. Since we are all counting on you for our very existence, we need you to be your best self—to be healthy and kind and committed. And you can do it. We are here to support you. We love you.

These are the words I know children long to hear. They are the words I heard from Grace and Jimmy in 1992 and that, with the wisdom of her 94 years, Grace still speaks today. They are the words I heard from every adult in Detroit Summer. They are the words I had to remember to say to my students before I could teach again.

They can be hard words to say. Especially to sullen teens who put on a mask of indifference and defiance, to teens who seem so far gone that they might cuss you out at your very attempt to love them. But when we say them, we are being our best selves, and we are inviting the best self of the person in front of us. Our success is related directly to our interconnectedness, and it is this idea that education should be designed around.

Julia-Putnam.jpgJulia Putnam wrote this article for Learn as You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Julia lives in Detroit with her husband and two children. Currently, she’s developing a school inspired by the ideas of Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs. Find out more at boggseducationalcenter.org.