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Remembering Grace Lee Boggs and the Revolution She Inspired in Me

Grace Lee Boggs, 1915-2015. (Photo by Eric Seals)

This week, I returned to Detroit as I have every few years. On Thursday, I visited the James and Grace Lee Boggs School and heard of the influence Grace had in founding a school that is deeply rooted in community. On Friday, I visited the Boggs Center and talked to board members about their perceptions of displacement, water shut-offs, and community power in Detroit.

And I had a chance to sit with Grace, hold her hand, and bring our greetings from YES!

“I’m tired,” she told me.

I first encountered Grace and James Boggs when I was about 20 years old. The two were speaking in Portland, Oregon about their book “Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century.” I was just starting out as an activist, trying to understand both how to build local empowerment in the face of the growing power of corporations and how to change my own community. Grace and Jimmy, deeply immersed in the Black Power movement in Detroit, brought a message that resonated. Rebelling against wrongdoings and oppression is a first step, but rebellion ultimately relies too much on asking those in power to make change. The real work of creating a different world is to take responsibility upon ourselves to lead that change to create the sort of world we want.

This idea resonated as deeply with me then as it does today.

Some years later, in the mid-1990s, at “The Other Economic Summit,” a counter summit to the G8 Summit, I invited both David Korten and Grace Lee Boggs to participate in a panel entitled, the Post-Corporate World. Dave brought his global perspectives after having written “When Corporations Rule the World.” Grace brought her grassroots perspectives from a lifetime of organizing and study with the people of Detroit.

Grace became closer to YES! in subsequent years. She was a regular participant in our twice-yearly “State of the Possible” retreats, offering us a wise and deeply empowering perspective on the work of transformational change. During one of those retreats, Grace and the Boggs Center hosted visitors from around the country, and showed them the blossoming food culture, local cooperatives, and cultural events that signaled a re-spiriting of Detroit, as well as some of the decay and abandonment. Since then, when I meet someone from Detroit or from other Midwestern cities who are extraordinary leaders, it often turns out that they were deeply inspired by their encounters with James and Grace Lee Boggs.

Rest well, dear friend. Millions of us have been enlivened and empowered by your wisdom and spirit. We’ll keep on asking “What time is it on the clock of the world?” and we’ll keep on working to create a world where “growing our souls,” rather than the economy, is our aim.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is founder and director of, co-founder of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Follow her blog and connect with Sarah on Twitter: @sarahvangelder

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