The University of Michigan School of Social Work reflected on the legacy of Grace Lee Boggs as part of their celebration of Martin Luther King. Stephen Ward and Shea Howell of the Boggs Center joined Jim Toy and Raina LaGrand for the panel discussion. Here are Raina’s remarks opening the conversation with about 250 students, faculty and friends of Grace.
My name is Raina LaGrand. I am a Master’s student at the University of Michigan Schools of Social Work and Public Health. I sit on the School of Social Work Multicultural and Gender Affairs committee, and the subcommittee that organized this years MLK Symposium event for the School of Social Work. The event sought to reflect on the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs, and consider how her philosophy and activism can help us better understand our role as “solutionaries” in the fight for radical social change today. I was asked to sit on the panel, among some amazing people, including your very own Shea Howell. I was flattered and humbled when Shea asked me to share my comments for your newsletter. I hope you enjoy – or, in Grace’s spirit, perhaps some of you will entirely disagree!
When I was asked to speak on this panel, I was aware that I am not a Grace Lee Boggs expert. But, I am indeed an enthusiast. So I thought about what I would bring to the table. Personally, when I leave events like this, I sometimes walk away grateful for the new information, but unsure of what to do with it. I wonder, “Now what?” So the perspective I am bringing today is one from a student, evolving in my ideology regarding politics and social justice, and considering what Grace’s perspective offers me as an emerging professional. I hope what I offer will help some of you, especially the students, think through the “Now what?”
Grace talked a lot about radical social change. That word – radical – has a number of negative connotations: to some it sounds scary or even violent, to some it might sound like it will pit groups against one another, and for some it may sound unattainable. For Grace, however, radical social change is more about interconnectedness and love. Radical social change, therefore, is not necessarily seizing power and overthrowing governments. Rather, it is radical to change the ways we interact amongst each other, it is radical to think about the way we approach developing social solutions, it is radical to flip solutions for justice and equity on their heads – to think way outside of the box.
Grace mentions in her last book how some of these notions of radical social change were influenced or reinforced by some of the perspectives of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. She appreciated the concept of person-centered activism: shifting responsibility and power from distant governments to local community members, and seeing issues as involving people. As well as two-sided transformation: that we must transform ourselves in addition to our communities and our institutions. Grace said that, “we need to embrace the idea that we are the leaders we have been looking for.”
It is important to consider, therefore, what is as well as what is not radical, and how we all sometimes perpetuate the status quo and conform to outdated strategies and perspectives. There are a few ways I’ve identified that we do not, but can more effectively, work towards radical social change.
The first realm is our standards. In the same way that we value certain movements over others, we also continue to support certain practices. We constantly hear about the “best practices” for solving X issue in X community, and the importance of evidence-based practice. For social work students, we are told that everything we do must be backed up by evidence. While we do need research and evaluation to improve society, we also need to see that following this norm is not necessarily radical because we’re often not giving voice to those who deserve to be heard.
I just learned this term: practice-based evidence. It’s the idea that there are things that work, and that individuals really appreciate and benefit from, but they may not have strong evidence to defend their existence. The fact is that we pay to learn and get paid to do what has always worked. Yet, the times change quickly, and in Grace’s Hegelian perspective our thoughts and practices should too. Sometimes we don’t have the evidence for it just yet. We need to push ourselves to see value in perspectives and solutions that may not have evidence or large followings. Especially as social workers, we need to advocate for these things when communities ask for them. We need to remember as educated folks that education does not make us experts.
The second area we risk losing sight of radical social change tactics is in communities. The attention that is brought to social injustice is great, but it also skews the perception of who is responsible for social change. Similarly, our educations sometimes unfortunately reinforce these perceptions of what our responsibilities are and are not. Many folks try to place themselves in a new community and then expect the community to adapt to their way of doing things. This happens a lot in places like Detroit and southern African countries, for instance. We go where we think our skills our needed. Other folks may avoid their own communities, because they have lost faith in them. We don’t seek how we are most beneficial to the communities we are actually a part of.
This isn’t to say that we should not be aware of other social problems or contribute to solving them (because interconnectedness acknowledges our part in greater global challenges), but that we are aware of where our expertise truly lies. Who knows your self, your family, and your community better than you do? We need to stop working so hard to attain the identity of “activist” and instead see ourselves as responsible community members and citizens. It is important to remember that education does not give you a free pass to go anywhere you please.
Another way we conform to the status quo is by fitting into roles, and this has been a lesson for me recently. In the process of advocating for and enacting radical social change, and even once our radical utopia exists, there are different roles that are necessary. Some roles are more sexy than others, such as “community organizers.” I remember when I graduated high school, and my friends and I were unsure what to put on our resumes. We were interested in social justice, so we thought we were community organizers. We didn’t realize that community organizers have specific skills, expertise and networks; that many are community members who simply care about the wellbeing of their neighbor. Again, our education can make us believe that you can pay to learn how to be a “community organizer.”
In our society now, we have many moving parts, and our radical utopia will be no different. Garbage men don’t necessarily have the most desired job, and they don’t have to go to the University of Michigan to be garbage men, but we would indeed suffer as a society should they not exist. So, the lesson is to build on your strengths instead of compensating and meeting everyone else’s expectations. Remember that the things you enjoy doing – not the things you dread – are what you will do best at. This doesn’t excuse the discomfort of learning new lessons, but is still valuable to consider where you are putting your energy, what brings you joy, and how can you bring joy into suffering.
Our commitment to transforming ourselves in addition to transforming our communities and institutions requires a level of self-awareness. This is crucial to our ability to contribute to society. If we push ourselves into the wrong fit, we are perpetuating suffering at the same time that we are trying to eliminate it. Our own plight is the plight. We are our own leaders. When we are thoughtful about the movements, standards, communities, and roles we buy into, that is where we are acting as solutionaries (Grace’s word for those who think critically and differently about solutions to problems of social inequity). When we stop buying into the way things have always been done, when we stop doing what we are told is “right” or “professional,” that is radical. In Grace and Martin Luther King’s vision, love should be the significant motivator for our action – and if that’s not radical, I don’t know what is.