Reshaping the American Dream: Lessons from Detroit
By Greg Smith
The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs (with Scott Kurashige), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Few, if any, Americans can match the long-term and sustained commitment to civil rights, social justice, and grassroots democracy of 95-year-old Detroit activist and intellectual Grace Lee Boggs. A friend of Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Boggs blends the vision and insights of a PhD-holding philosopher with the street-smart savvy of a community organizer. In her new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press, 2011), she provides a roadmap for individuals and communities ready and willing to respond to the challenges and contradictions of our special time “on the clock of the universe.” For Boggs, this special time will require nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the way human beings have come to envision their lives on this small and increasingly imperiled planet. She believes, furthermore, that young people can be enlisted to play a significant role in the “re-building and re-spiriting” of our communities and that public school teachers have a major responsibility in assuring this happens.
At the heart of Boggs’ critique of the current world system is the same concern about the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” that Martin Luther King Jr. articulated in 1967 at New York City’s Riverside Church during the Vietnam War-motivated meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned. She argues that in the nearly half century that has passed since this speech was given, little has been done to resist let alone reverse the social and environmental consequences of these handmaidens of the corporate state and transnational capitalism. She goes on to say that little will continue to be done unless people today reject the notion that they are victims of the systems and individuals that perpetuate these ills and instead take up the responsibility of becoming the creators of an alternative society predicated on “hope, cooperation, stewardship, and respect” (p. 17).
She unhesitatingly states that central to this transformation must be a recognition that the lifestyles of most Americans are directly related to the exploitation of people in less advantaged countries and the planet, itself. The shaping of a new social reality will require embracing frugality and rejecting the fruits of an economy largely based on endless growth and domination. This message will not come easily to people who already enjoy these benefits or to those who have long been denied but now aspire to them. Boggs writes:
The next American Revolution, at this stage in our history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility. It is about acknowledging that we Americans have enjoyed middle-class comforts at the expense of other peoples all over the world. It is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming but also end the galloping inequality both inside this country and between the global North and the Global South. It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire. It is about practicing a new, more active, global, and participatory concept of citizenship. It is about becoming the change we wish to see in the world. (p. 72)
Participating in this revolution does not merely involve abandoning expectations of an endlessly increasing standard of living within and across generations—the stick that has induced far too many of us to forego what is humane for the comfortable. This revolution instead promises to bring with it a deeper sense of connectedness and personal fulfillment. One of the generally unrecognized consequences of capitalism is the relational, moral-ethical, and spiritual impoverishment that accompanies the pursuit of wealth and status. Recent research on the nature and experience of happiness is making this evident (Layard, 2005). As Bill McKibben suggests in Deep Economy (2007), people in the twentieth century were fooled into believing that more and better are the same thing. Having enough is certainly essential, but more after a certain point does not make us happier. Boggs concurs, arguing that “Real poverty is the belief that the purpose of life is acquiring wealth and owning things. Real wealth is not the possession of property but the recognition that our deepest need, as human beings, is to keep developing our natural and acquired powers and to relate to other human beings” (p. 60).
Grounded in the experience of relatedness—of membership in what both King and Boggs called the “beloved community”—people can begin to take steps to bring this alternative world into being. For two decades, Boggs has been doing just this. A central element of her approach to change has involved inviting young people in Detroit to participate in the restoration of the city’s social and natural environments, an effort that lies at the heart of her educational proposals. Called Detroit Summer in memory of Freedom Summer when children and youth in the 1960s were given a chance to participate in the Civil Rights movement, this project has provided young people with the opportunity to engage in a wide range of activities aimed at strengthening or beautifying their communities. Youth work in urban gardens, paint public murals, help organize arts and health festivals, and learn building skills as they rehab deteriorating or abandoned houses. Over and beyond opportunities to engage in on-the-ground activities, Detroit Summer organizers also facilitate workshops and intergenerational conversations aimed at deepening participants’ understanding of what rebuilding Detroit is likely to entail and the meaning of their activities for the broader society.
Drawing on her experience of Detroit Summer, Boggs asserts that education provides one of the most important vehicles for shaping the new world she believes people alive today must establish. Her vision of teaching and learning, however, has little to do with what most children encounter in contemporary schools. She calls for a paradigm shift in our concept of education away from global competition, privatization, and the standardized testing associated with No Child Left Behind and the current administration’s Race to the Top to an educational process that
[creates] a much more intimate connection between intellectual development and practical activity, [roots] students and faculty in their communities and natural habitats, and [engages] them in the kind of real problem solving in their localities that nurtures a love of place and provides practice in creating sustainable economies, equality, and community that are the responsibilities of citizenship. (p. 157)
Boggs’ educational proposals are informed by Dewey’s call for a diminished boundary between classrooms and communities; Gandhi’s recognition that human maturation requires the development of heart, hand and head; and Freire’s belief that all people have the capacity to become social actors capable of creating more humane and equitable social relations. Making this kind of teaching and learning real demands moving beyond instructional practices that are largely passive and involve the internalization of knowledge produced by others to experiences that call for learners to inquire, discover, reflect, and do. Her educational vision is one that must be enacted in specific places for specific purposes that have both meaning and consequence for others.
Schools she uses to illustrate what she has in mind give young people the opportunity to rehabilitate degraded riparian habitats, restore historic buildings, or use digital media to share their findings about pressing social issues. She urges her readers to
imagine what our neighborhoods would be like if, instead of keeping our children isolated in classrooms for twelve years and more, we engaged them in community-building activities with the same audacity with which the civil rights movement engaged them in desegregation activities fifty years ago. Just imagine how safe and lively our streets would be if, as a natural and normal part of the curriculum from K-12, school children were taking responsibility for maintaining neighborhood streets, planting community gardens, recycling waste, rehabbing houses, creating healthier school lunches, visiting and doing errands for the elderly, organizing neighborhood festivals, and painting public murals! (p. 158)
Imagine, indeed, what might happen if young people were treated as full-fledged citizens able to make genuine contributions to the welfare of those around them. For one, children and youth might come to see themselves as people who are valued, competent, and responsible rather than superfluous. Imagine, too, what our communities could become if the energy and intelligence of the young were directed to the challenges now facing humanity.
Since the 1990s, the learning experiences associated with Detroit Summer have sparked a multiplicity of community-based projects that have drawn the attention of writers such as Rebecca Solnit (2007) and filmmakers from the United States and England. The 2010 U.S Social Forum chose to meet in Detroit in part because of the way activists there are demonstrating that it is truly possible, to borrow the old Wobbly refrain, “to build the new society within the shell of the old.” Community gardens have become widespread as residents have turned abandoned lots into sources of food and pride. Small locally owned businesses are providing livelihoods in a community abandoned by corporate America. People come together to write and make art, exploring their creative potential and enacting what it means to be human. Groups have formed to address issues like homelessness, healthcare, and education, drawing upon their own intelligence and energy rather than state and federal agencies that have become increasingly unable or unwilling to respond to the complex and interconnected problems facing urban populations.
None of this means that Detroit is an easy place to live or that the new world Boggs envisions has arrived. As she describes it, the city is a work in progress, but it is a work that is serving as a source of inspiration for others experiencing the consequences of a neoliberal and globalizing economy in which things and the profits they bring to the few have become significantly more important than people. Nor are these activities being allowed to evolve without the interference of local political and economic power holders and brokers. Now that urban agriculture has demonstrated its viability, plans are afoot to consolidate whole blocks into corporate farms whose produce and profits will benefit not the local community but distant shareholders. And the current mayor of Detroit is working to attract large investors to the city whose motivations have little to do with the creation of vital local economies. This is the backdrop against which Grace Lee Boggs is working.
Will her vision of locally-based activism be enough to affect the “great turning” she calls for? Probably not. Reversing current trends like the build-up of atmospheric carbon, declining fisheries, the North-South gap, or the consolidation of wealth by transnational corporations and economic elites will almost certainly require action at national and global levels, if nothing else than to provide the necessary space within which alternatives can take root and flourish at the community and regional level. But absent work in our homes, neighborhoods, cities, and states, the deep shift in our relationships with one another and the planet is unlikely to happen. If humanity is to make the transition to a world where the needs of all people are met while preserving natural systems, necessary changes must become part of our blood and bones. This will only happen when we are participants in this process. Boggs calls for all of us to contribute whatever we can to the transformation of our understanding and our institutions required to bring our species to the next level of evolution she believes awaits us if we put our shoulders to the wheel in the same way she has for nearly a century.
Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. New York: Penguin.
McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York: Times Books.
Solnit, R. (2007). Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape. Harper’s Magazine, July, pp. 65-73.
Greg Smith teaches in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. He is co-author (with David Sobel) of Place- and Community-based Education in Schools (Routledge, 2010.)