In honor of Grace Lee Boggs, who passed last week at a tremendous 100 years old, I am posting an excerpt from my book, which was influenced by meeting Grace and studying her work in Detroit. This section of the book focuses on the North Dakota Study Group meeting in Detroit in 2014, which was hosted by Grace and other Detroit activists and educators.
When educators and students cross borders between schools and between schools and real life and between hierarchically divided groupings of age, race, and culture, they are taking part in the democratic work of coalition building. I offer here a brief sketch of a group that has practiced democratic coalition building continuously over the course of generations, and between generations. A strong collective history of community organizing in social justice movements enables North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) participants to recognize and nurture organic connections between the different constituencies in and around schools – from parents to policy makers to community organizations. By choosing to fight for the dignity of every child in every community, following the lead of the families in these communities while remaining aware of their own identities, these democratic educators step outside of prescribed roles and foster a new kind of freedom.
Learning in Community Partnerships
Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic system, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people drop out of inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and certifies them like products of a factory because it was created for the age of industrialization. They are crying out for the kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.
–Grace Lee Boggs
I will touch on a moment from my own experience at a NDSG meeting to provide an example of how school-community exchange leads to greater understanding of student learning. Every time I attend one of these NDSG meetings, I hear stories of young people taking leadership and exchanging wisdom with elders in their home contexts, whether in Texas or New Orleans or Hawa’ii. The young people describing artfully designed partnerships with older generations have deeply influenced my thinking about education.
The 2014 meeting was in Detroit, at the invitation of Grace Lee Boggs, a powerful social justice leader almost 100 years old, who along with other Detroit community organizers and educators introduced NDSG to the work Detroiters were doing “re-imagining and re-storying” the city. In the weeks leading up to the conference, participants read articles like James Boggs’ “Community Building: An Idea Whose Time has Come,” which argues,
our first priority must be the rebuilding or the regeneration of our communities because it is in community that human beings have always found their personhood or their human identity as persons. You can’t find your human identity out there by yourself. It is in the community that our human identity is created because it is in the community that love, respect, and responsibility for one another are nurtured. (2011, p. 334).
Grace Lee Boggs describes the growth of local community power in her speaking and writing as an “organically evolving cultural revolution.” Detroit, like thousands of other local communities fighting for social justice, is “growing the soul” of interdependence and resistance to dehumanization. “In ’this exquisitely connected world,’” Boggs writes, quoting Margaret Wheatley, “the real engine of change is never ‘critical mass;’ dramatic and systemic change begins with ‘critical connections’” (Boggs & Kurashige, 2011, p. 50).
At the 2014 meeting of the North Dakota Study Group, participants continued a many-year inquiry into the relationship between education and sustainability. One of the community sites that participants had an opportunity to visit was EMEAC — Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council. At EMEAC’s beautiful site, a gilded age era mansion called the Cass Corridor Commons, which houses several social justice organizations, leaders talked to a small group of educators not about plants and pollution but about learning, relationships, and personal growth as environmental issues.
At Cass Corridor Commons, young adult leaders from the community engage teenagers only a few years younger than them in “hip hop literacy.” This community organization is not the kind of external partner that impose top-down change from outside of students’ experience, but the kind that supports critical analysis people in the schools may not have access to, such as structural analysis of race and power and interpersonal relationship building.
The young EMEAC leaders explained the educational premises of this literacy pedagogy to the assembled educators, who are mostly teachers a generation or two older and uneducated in the meaning of hip hop.
Hip hop literacy, we learn, presents the conditions and issues that are most real in young people’s lives within a critical framework that enables young people to construct meaning and connect with values that affirm them culturally and linguistically. In hip hop art, “Maturity and power can be triggered through vocabulary,” Todd Ziegler, one of the young EMEAC leaders, explains. Hip hop is a deeply democratic art, an expression of healing and hope: “Hip hop,” Todd narrated, referring to histories of violence in urban communities that drove people into isolated and fearful private spaces, “came out of people bringing people back on the street…bringing music outdoors…the message was, ‘stop staying indoors, come together!’” The hip hop modality of sampling is also democratic education: by setting iconic musical “texts” in new relations to each other and connecting them with contemporary rhythms and beats, hip hop music traces the knowledge and the histories that span the generations. In this way, young people can connect to the cultural legacy of musical traditions of past generations like jazz and blues; hip hop puts them in dialogic relationship to past knowledge and power that they can build on.
Because they were so recently teenagers themselves, and were themselves mentored in empowering ways, these young community educators have powerful insights about liberatory educational relationships. Through dialogue, conversation invoking values and recognizing capacities, drawing on what both adults and students know and don’t know, a learning exchange unfolds between educators and students. In this reciprocal exchange, it isn’t “students’ learning” or “teachers learning,” but learning as the field that connects them.
As I listened, it seemed to me that this approach was more natural – and thus more possible – with young African-American leaders in educational relationships with African-American youth. When I asked how this exchange might translate for white teachers of students of color, EMEAC leader Will Copeland responded with the story of a young white teacher who came to teach in the neighborhood school. The first thing she did, he said, was learn where the young people spent their time out of school, and go there. Even though she didn’t live in the community, she spent her free time in the community spaces where her students were. She knew that she didn’t walk in the door with the kind of relational capital that a colleague who is a person of color might, and that she faced a steep learning curve. By respecting students in their neighborhood environment, trust developed that could nurture strong reciprocal learning relationships. This white teacher was doing her part in the “re-storying” of Detroit, by basing her teaching in the close company she kept with her African American students, in their neighborhood.
I highlight the educational work of EMEAC not as an exceptional program with exceptional people (though they are exceptional!), but as an example of the kind of local knowledge and democratic practices that thousands of ordinary people all over the country (and the world) are engaged in. The social knowledge that blooms in grassroots organizations is a transformative resource for our schools, as the scores of schools in Detroit who partner with such organizations understand.
A speaker at the NDSG meeting later that day underscored what was so important in the approach the white teacher took in the Cass Corridor neighborhood. Former Black Panther Ron Scott emphasized that unacknowledged racial tensions poison education in America. Of education reformers who make claims about transforming kids and communities, he said, “we never put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to transform ourselves.” “The charity model,” he continued, “created a dynamic we can’t handle. It’s crippling. You want to come into an area and you don’t want to respect the indigenous knowledge that’s already there – a wall goes up.” Unlike the white teacher Will had talked about earlier, many educators as well as education policy makers assume that they are doing good without taking the time to learn how to enter a space respectfully. In this way, a white supremacist master narrative remains unchallenged.
As Boggs and other NDSG leaders showed us, adult society needs to learn to take young people seriously, not only respecting their agency in their own lives, but also recognizing them as leaders who have an important role to play in democratic progress. Instead of pinning them to individual measures on standardized scale, schools should be nurturing youths’ understanding of themselves as part of a vibrant collective leadership. They should be helping students learn the language and methods of collective power. We have the ability to change the rules that make up the structures of our individual and collective lives – and thereby change the structures themselves.
Boggs, G. L. & Kurashige, S. The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first century (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011).
Boggs, J. (2011). Pages from a Black radical’s notebook: A James Boggs reader. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.
— excerpted from Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action
For other writers’ posts on Grace Lee Boggs, click here.