Growing my soul in New York
By Tawana Petty, mother, poet, author, organizer and partner with the Urban Network.
For three days last week, I was in New York, with members of the Boggs Center, for the Foundry Theatre “This is how we do it!” event at Cooper Union and several “Next American Revolution” meetings at the New School, featuring lifelong activist and Michigan Citizen columnist Grace Lee Boggs.
New York City is a city where pedestrians travel almost as quickly on foot as motor vehicles do on pavement. It’s a place where you can find anything from produce to earrings right smack in the middle of 6th Avenue. It ‘s a consumer’s dreamland, and although I’m not much of a shopper, I must admit that I was caught up in the allure of it all for about three days.
We were in New York to show New Yorkers how we are doing things differently in Detroit , how we are reimagining everything: the way we eat, , the way we live and think. the way we view the democratic process. We traveled hundreds of miles to give New Yorkers a piece of Detroit Soul, to say. “We don’t need more education; we need a different kind of education. We don’t need more Jobs; we need a new kind of Work. We have to do more thinking, more imagining. We need to view the devastation of abandoned factories and vacant lots not only as blight but as possibility, as opportunities to grow food for ourselves, as the end of one epoch and the challenge to begin another.
The Foundry Theatre event in the Great Hall at Cooper Union was power packed. The panel discussion was facilitated by Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now. It featured Andrea “Andy” Smith, co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Nelson Johnson, initiator of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and co-founder of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, N.C., as well as Grace.
Because of time constraints, the discussion did not reach the depth I ‘d hoped for, but casing the audience , it became clear to me that it gave people the sense that a new world was not only possible, but already in the process of becoming.
Just hearing about Andy Smith’s global work combating violence against women of color, Nelson and Joyce Johnson’s Beloved Community building, and Grace’s visionary organizing was a profoundly transformative event for many, including myself.
The following day, as I sat among the New School students in the class of Bill Gaskins, author, filmmaker and teacher, I realized how important it is that we truly recognize what time it is “on the clock of the world”. I must admit that until this discussion I hadn’t thought deeply enough about what Grace has been saying about this time. As I listened to these young and brilliant students talk about how they viewed the world and community, I had a new sense of my responsibility not only as an elder of sorts, but as a Detroiter. I felt the urgency and necessity of the visionary organizing we are doing in Detroit: our urban gardens like Feedom Freedom Growers, our “restoring the neighbor to the hood” at Urban Networks, our building community at the Birwood Block Club, our efforts to replace War Zones with Peace Zones.
Matthew Birkhold told the story of how his very personal experiences in Detroit had reshaped his view of Love. Nelson and Joyce shared their experience of how losing five friends to violence by the Ku Klux Klan had challenged them to create the Truth and Reconciliation process to bring the community back together.
The students were visibly moved and transformed. So the discussion moved from an intellectual dialogue to a soul-filled one, giving the students and all of us a sense of what we can do with our current resources to change our own circumstances. It was an emotionally profound event.
The last night of our trip, at a meeting in the New School auditorium, I had the extreme pleasure of witnessing a bridge in the generational gap that has plagued our society. Grace and New School student and OWS activist Melina Pelaez were both asked by Bill Gaskins to respond to sections of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here” speech.
Grace said that it had taken her decades to understand that Dr. King’s nonviolence was not just a tactic but an expression of his philosophic conviction that in every person there is a humanity struggling to emerge.
Melina told me that she was nervous about taking the stage with Grace. She was humble but firm and confident in her belief that a new world was in fact possible.
When audience members were asked to share what they planned to do in their own lives to effect change in their communities, a woman approached the microphone and described how just days earlier a young man had been killed in front of her home for an Iphone. She said, that she was still distraught about the incident which had brought her block together in solidarity. But it wasn’t until she heard Grace speak that she was able to visualize the vacant lot across the street as something more than just a vacant lot. She now visualized a community garden or even a community center. She thanked Grace for changing her life that day and quietly took her seat.
There is no way that I could cover everything that transpired over that three day period in New York but what I can say is that spending time with human beings like Grace Lee Boggs and Joyce and Nelson Johnson allowed me to grow my own soul. I look forward to continuing our visionary work in Detroit and sharing it with the rest of the world during the summer of 2012 and beyond.