The Global African: Grace Lee Boggs & Dyett Hunger Strike

Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African we’ll talk about the life and legacy of revolutionary activist Grace Lee Boggs. We’ll also talk about a recently completed hunger strike in Chicago protesting a school closing.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks so much for joining us. And don’t go anywhere.

~~~

FLETCHER: On Monday, October 5, civil rights icon, educator, unapologetic radical Grace Lee Boggs passed away in her adopted home town of Detroit, Michigan. She was 100 years old.

For more than 70 years, Boggs had been a leading voice in social movements around the country, and indeed around the world. She spent the last few years of her life mentoring and teaching community organizing to young people in the city through an institution known as the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

Grace Lee Boggs was married to the autoworker and author James Boggs, who passed away in 1993. In 1992, James and Grace Boggs founded Detroit Summer, an intergenerational, multiracial collective, working to transform communities through youth leadership, creativity, and collective action.

Grace Boggs was a protege of the prolific author C. L. R. James and would later work with Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Danny Glover, and many other prominent activists.

On this segment, we’re going to examine the life of Grace Lee Boggs.

Here in our studio we have Shekinah Hockenhull, who is a native Detroiter, youth organizer, and artist, and worked closely with the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., and is enrolled at Howard University.

Joining us on-screen is Adrienne Maree Brown, who is a writer, activist, and social justice facilitator living in Detroit. She is the coeditor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. And finding out that she’s a science fiction fanatic made us friends for life.

Welcome to The Global African.

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: Thank you for having me.

SHEKINAH HOCKENHULL: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Shekinah, how did you get involved with the Boggs School?

HOCKENHULL: So, as a young person living in the city of Detroit, I knew something was wrong. I knew that the way my family or my families were living within the city did not make sense. I knew that I was going to a school that didn’t necessarily meet the needs that I had as a Detroit public school student. And I didn’t know how to go anywhere with that.

But I found myself in a youth program that was founded by the Michigan Roundtable that was inspired by the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs and her work with the Detroit Summer. And it really put me in the place to become an actual youth organizer as a youth. So how do I empower my peers to care about their surroundings? But how do I empower them to have confidence in who they were and to see the positive in their neighborhood? How do we build bikes? How do we plant gardens? But also how do we have tough conversations about what it means to be inclusive of other individuals who may not necessarily be like ourselves? Which were conversations that those who were older than myself didn’t expect me to have as a young person.

And then, after I finished that program, I transitioned into working for the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, which was centered in place-based education. So how do you educate a student to really care about the environment around them, but also integrate that within the curriculum? And so that’s how I really got into talking about the philosophy of James and Grace Lee Boggs and how do I think dialectically about what’s really going on in Detroit and within myself.

FLETCHER: And where does that take you in terms of what you want to do?

HOCKENHULL: I think while a lot of my peers are very much into getting money and understanding that they live in a capitalist society and accepting that and finding a way to navigate through it, I’m reimagining what my reality could be like and what a community can be like where we don’t necessarily focus on the dollar. How do we think beyond what has already been given to us?

So I’m literally trying to create an entire new ecosystem of what I prioritize to be–so freedom, responsibility, mutual respect, and bartering, ultimately, how do we barter, how do we trade things that we need, instead of thinking that money has to be our end-all, be-all, which may seem very trivial, but in reality a lot of the young people I know, they’re experiencing a lot of distress about coming up now, because they don’t know where they’re going to go, how they’re going to pay for school. The debt crisis is incredible right now, student debt. And I’m trying to think beyond that. And Grace taught me, in a way, to do that.

FLETCHER: Adrienne, what’s the connection for you, or in your understanding of Grace’s philosophy, between this sort of reimagining, re-envisioning, repositioning, however you’d want to describe it, and the question of fighting for power, for the traditionally oppressed?

BROWN: Awesome. You know, it’s been a challenging process for me, sitting with and learning with Grace around that exact question, because my background–you know, I came from doing voter organizing and then doing direct action. And a lot of the work was–power exists in a static place. Like, it’s up here, it’s always at the top of this pyramid or this triangle. We’re trying to take over that top, be the king of the hill, sort of claim that space and put our folks, folks with our belief systems, into those positions of power.

And I feel like so much of what Grace offered was the whole structure is to be dismissed, the entire–the way that power gets held currently. There’s such a limit to what can happen there. So I remember when Obama got elected and I, like many of my peers, even though I wasn’t like, yes, Obama’s liberation, but I definitely had a moment of like, okay, like, this is someone who comes from a community organizing background, he’s black, we can celebrate. And I remember sitting down and having a conversation with her, and she’s like, and our work will really begin now, because people will begin to see that it doesn’t have to do with what the person looks like or anything else; it has to do with what does power mean in America. It’s tied to the fact that America’s a capitalist, imperialist society. And so anyone who’s holding power is going to have to step into those shoes. And if we want different shoes, if we want a different society, then we have to think differently about what it means to hold power. It is not something we elect and get official individuals to do. It’s something that we have to share as a community. And that means to take responsibility, to learn how to do it.

FLETCHER: But what does that mean at the level of strategy?

BROWN: At the level of strategy, one part of it is starting to change how we build relationships. So rather than building these transactional relationships–what can my organization do for you, how much money can you give my organization, how can I receive funding–. Right now, so many–you know, I do facilitation for all these organizations. So much of the focus is: how do we get funding? How do we get funding? How do we get funding? Even if people don’t realize that’s what they’re actually trying to do, it’s more about getting funding than actually building community strength and power.

I think a brilliant strategy that’s playing out in Detroit right now is the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, because it’s saying, we have to start with folks at the youngest age, when they first start to come into really relating with others, and change at that level how do we listen to each other, how do we take responsibility for the place we live in, what is the food and water situation in the place that we live in, how do we cultivate and care for and keep that clean and safe and available to all the people here. So those strategies come out of this post-apocalyptic condition in Detroit where we cannot count on our politicians in any way to make sure that basic food, water, and heat are rights that we have here.

FLETCHER: Shekinah, you’re teaching now, right?

HOCKENHULL: Mhm.

FLETCHER: So how does this–how does your, for lack of a better term, upbringing in the Boggs universe, how does that play itself out in terms of what you’re doing now?

HOCKENHULL: So I define power as taught by Fred Hampton is defining phenomenon and making it act in a desired manner. And so I think what I’ve learned about Grace in terms of power is what Adrienne was talking about and realizing that I have the power and that I have the responsibility to create what I want in my community.

And so I think what I’m doing now in teaching is: how do I equip my young people to understand what’s going on right now, to understand that mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex is an issue that will affect them, and that they need the tools and the knowledge and the wherewithal to fight against that? I’m also trying to get them to have the skill building of building community, so actually using the verbiage community, ’cause they’re very young students, but how do you teach them to build community within the classroom, how do you teach them to take care of their fellow students, and also disciplining them in a way that isn’t necessarily to take away their humanity, which is what a lot of our schools do today? So that’s what I’m trying to do within the school.

FLETCHER: Adrienne, how did–this may sound like an odd question, Adrienne–how did Grace deal with her mortality?

BROWN: Oh. It’s a great–that’s a great question, ’cause she was kind of hilarious around it, actually. I met Grace when she was 91, and I think within maybe the first or second meeting, she said something around going gentle into that good night and that she was going to be ready soon. Around 95, she was more often in a wheelchair, starting to slow down with her travel. And this is–for me this–she was 20 years older than anyone else I knew, and she was still going at this rate.

This past year was particularly interesting. I got the privilege of being near her as she went through hospice and as she was making this transition. And I’m not sure language-wise if I could say all of the things that she said, but she definitely was just like, you know, dying is–she said, “Dying is a bitch.” You know. And she really felt like this part of the process is tedious, but I’m ready to go. And she was so ready for this transition. Many of us have been saying how she was ready. We may not have been ready, and we may never have been ready, but she was so ready for this.

And she really felt like she had done her good work, that she had–you know, when she talked about it, she was like, so much of this felt like it was even above and beyond, that when Jimmy passed, that she didn’t know at that point that she still had so much of her career, so much for political life ahead of her. She published her autobiography after that. She toured and really stepped into her own leadership as a woman, as a philosopher who was really shaping all of these folks around her. So much of the work that we know came in what we would think of as this last fourth of her life. And then I think she was just like, wow–who knew that it was going to go like this, and I feel good about what I’ve done, and I’m ready to go.

FLETCHER: Shekinah, what’s the one memory, the most important memory for you of Grace?

HOCKENHULL: I think my most important memory–. After Trayvon Martin died, we went to talk with Grace. And I was working for an organization that was a corporation, and I didn’t agree with their politics. I didn’t agree with what they did with their profit and how they were polluting our community. And I asked Grace, what was I supposed to do? I was in a difficult situation and I needed money. And she was asking me, well, sit back. What does it really mean to work? That was really the question that she gave me. And she asked it to me in a way that brought me back and helped me think about what I really wanted and whether sacrificing my humanity to work for someone else at that time was really worth it. And I left there feeling more invested in building community and building myself in leaving that job than I’d ever felt about anything–the most sure decision ever.

And I think she supported me and the other young people who I was with in realizing that we’re not alone, that we’re together, that when other young people who look like ourselves are being shot down, that we have each other to lean on. And so her fostering that space for us is something that will be forever, like, within me.

FLETCHER: Adrienne, same question.

BROWN: I have two that come to mind, and I’ll share them both briefly. One is bringing my parents to meet Grace. Once I knew that I was down for Grace–like, I spent a few years battling with her and trying to push back, push back, push back. And finally I was like, you know, she’s right about most of these things, or at least about the process. So I was like, let me bring my parents to meet her; I think this will be important. And my dad was in the military for 30 years, and then went to work for a defense industry company. And I was a little nervous. Like, how is this going to go, you know, this revolutionary and this military black man? And the way that she engaged my parents as potential revolutionaries and as philosophical beings and as humans who could still change how they were living or could just think more deeply about stuff, she loved them, and they loved her, and they had a really beautiful and politically forward conversation that has shifted how I engage with my parents. So that’s one.

The other is just singing for Grace. I got the honor to sing at her birthday a few times. And this past year as she was sick, I got to be at her bedside and just sing to her. She liked hearing hymnals. She liked hearing Sam Cooke. She liked original songs, just humming. Whatever it was, she would just get this little smile on her face and just kind of light up. And it was just such an honor to get to be present with her in that way outside of both of our minds, our strategies, our ideas, or anything else, just human to human, rhythm to rhythm. And I’m grateful for that time.

FLETCHER: I want to thank both of you very much for joining us and for sharing this. And it was her impact, the people she touched–it really does feel like a ripple that continues going further and further. And it’s not clear where it will end, but there are so many people that have been touched. And you’ve given us a bit of an understanding as to why. So thank you both very much.

BROWN: Thank you. Thanks for honoring her in this way.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure.

And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: On August 17, community activists in the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville took part in what would end up being a 34 day hunger strike, ending on September 20. The action was taken to protest the closing of Walter H. Dyett High School, which was shut down back in June by city officials in Chicago. Residents of the community were upset about the closing of Dyett High School, arguing that students would be left with poor options, including schools far away from their neighborhood, schools with selective enrollment, and schools located in the midst of gang violence.

On September 3, the city announced that it would reopen Dyett as an arts school. Community activists were not satisfied, arguing that an arts school is not what students need. Instead, they have advocated for a green technology oriented school that provides a curriculum more oriented towards the future.

Since then, the city has agreed to incorporate a technological component to the curriculum at Dyett High School. Challenges were made for activists, such as the selection of the new principal and ultimate control over the school.

The attempted closing of Dyett comes at a time when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has shuttered over 50 schools in the city since 2013.

We’re joined now by Jitu Brown, who is the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. He’s been an active member in his community in Chicago, organizing the Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood for over 17 years by bringing community voices together to discuss and reform issues faced by public education.

Thank you very much for joining us.

JITU BROWN: Oh, Bill, thank you for having me. We appreciate it.

FLETCHER: So I want to just jump right into this. You know, you were one of the leaders of a hunger strike. And it would be useful for our viewers to understand what provoked this hunger strike, what were the issues, but also why the choice of the tactic of a hunger strike.

BROWN: Yeah, I appreciate the question. I think it’s important for people to understand that through our lived experience, we came to understand that there is no such thing as school choice in black community, black and brown communities. The whole notion of school choice is a marketing term that’s been used it to kind of grease the rails to privatize our schools and to broker the responsibility of educating our children on the private operators.

The reason I say that is because since 2009, me as an organizer bringing together parents and young people and educators in the Bronzeville community, we engaged well over 4,800 parents, students, community residents, educators. Over 4,800 people in a neighborhood chose Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We held six town hall meetings. We had thousands of petition signatures. We almost had 600 people in the neighborhood mail letters to the mayor. We had actually given the district a blueprint on how to really engage communities of color, because either they don’t know or don’t care to know how to do that, not only in Chicago, but around the country. We’ve met with every bureaucrat. We’ve gone to every scam board meeting, testifying to people who have no skin in the game in regards to the decisions they make. We’ve met with every spineless elected official who chose to be an instrument of privatization instead of actually demanding equity in public education.

FLETCHER: Let me just ask you, when you were going down this road, was it simply that there was a disagreement with the city? Did you feel that the city was disrespecting you and the community? What was the sense of the moment?

BROWN: Well, Bill, to be honest with you, it wasn’t a feeling; it was a fact. The fact was, as I mentioned, we developed a proposal for Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, and we presented that to the district. We didn’t ask to run it as a charter school. We did not seek to capitalize off any contracts. We simply wanted the district to do their job like they do in other communities, do their job.

Their response, just to give you kind of the real history of this, was to open up an RFP process. Now, in that RFP process–now–and mind you, the decision to reopen Dyett was won about a year ago after 13 of us chained ourselves to the fifth floor of City Hall and refused to leave. And we chained ourselves to the George Washington statue. I mean, I just want you to hear the tactics that we have to do simply for a neighborhood high school, right, our last open-enrollment neighborhood high school in the community. So we won the battle to reopen it. But then they were going to–they opened it up for an RFP process, because they wanted to award a struggling alternative contract school the building, a politically connected organization that ran a poor, poorly performing contract alternative school. And their poor performance is not a reflection on the children. It was their lack of capacity in running a school. So that’s when we realized that they were still trying to privatize this school. We had no other alternative.

The question we raise is: why for black and brown children is the answer always privatization?

FLETCHER: So what was the stand of the Chicago Teachers Union on this? And the second is, what happens next? ‘Cause I understand that there’s a dispute around the principal that was picked.

BROWN: Oh, yeah. So I think Chicago Teachers Union was a staunch supporter as well. Two of the teachers, two of the educators, are CTU members [incompr.] and Dr. Monique Redeaux were two of the hunger strikers. So CTU was very connected to this.

But I want to say that our fights have to be community-led and union-supported, labor-supported. They can’t be labor-led, because we’re going to do things that most teachers can’t do.

FLETCHER: Right.

BROWN: Right? So this was not something that was dreamt up by CTU. This was something that was dreamt up by mothers and fathers who were sick and tired.

And I want to say it was an overwhelming victory. In our planning, we said, our ceiling was Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, but our victory would still be that school reopening as a neighborhood school, ’cause they’ll never out-organize us in Bronzeville. And I mean that knowing that I got to work to back it up. But we’re willing to do that work and we’ve got that base in the neighborhood. So that school will serve our young people or we’ll shut it down. It’s that simple. And I mean that. I’m not saying that to talk tough. I mean, we will do that if necessary.

FLETCHER: Jitu Brown, thank you so much for this and for taking this time with us. This is a very important victory, very important struggle, and a tremendous example for the rest of the country. So thank you so very much for joining us on The Global African.

BROWN: Thank you, Bill. I appreciate it.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time. Take care.

End

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