“…activism can be the journey rather than the arrival…” – Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
Grace Lee Boggs carries many titles. One of them being a visionary organizer – someone who practices the art of imagination to create alternatives to existing systems. In her earlier years, she received her PhD in philosophy, but she could not find a job because she was a Chinese woman. It was while she was living in a rat-infested basement that she started to become involved with organizing for better living conditions with her Black neighbors. That was the beginning of her fight for civil rights alongside the Black community.
In her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” Boggs proposed a need to transform our institutions and people. In the new American revolution, we would focus on nurturing the humanity within us rather than growing an economy based on racism, capitalism, and militarism. Within this vision, we would be responsible and respectful humans who are kind and compassionate towards ourselves, each other, and the community; we would be artists, thinkers, and makers of a world we want to live in. But resisting isn’t enough for systemic change. Our day-to-day life has been conditioned to see, act, and think in specific ways that upholds racism, capitalism, and militarism that to reimagine a new, responsible America, we also need to change ourselves. Change will take time, action, and internal reflection and change does not have to be dependent on our leaders.
Community engagement is a form of resistance to white structures as it disrupts the idea that we are powerless to make changes. Boggs argues that change is the most effective and important action to “rebuild, redefine, and respirit” our broken and seemingly desolate communities from the ground up. There can be a negative connotation when we start small – there would be voices saying it would be hard to have an impact that influences a “big” change; that starting small is a weak movement bound for failure. But starting small is the most powerful tool we have because through these “small” acts of involvement, we become leaders, thinkers, and compassionate people that see ourselves as makers of history and agents of change (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs).
Growing up, I always envisioned leaders to be smart, all-knowing, and confident – they were the most visible and active person standing in representation of others. Those were the people I saw who were celebrated, so I subconsciously ingrained this image of leadership to validate and invalidate who were “good” and “bad” leaders – myself included. With my narrow imagination of leadership, I wasn’t sure what it meant when others would say “everyone is unique in their own ways” or “we all have something to contribute.” It felt a bit ironic to learn about Boggs’ idea of community engagement as a form of self- and communal empowerment when I think about being a “Community Engaged Fellow” on campus. This role has helped me better understand the people of Colorado Springs and the inequities that affect them, but it constantly felt like I was going through the motions. I certainly didn’t see myself as an “agent of change,” so I started questioning what the point of community engagement was. What is my purpose of being there?
Maybe feeling loss reflects how I haven’t found a space I deeply connect with. Maybe it’s because I don’t see the impact I have. Learning about Boggs, however, I think I was also in the wrong headspace – I was so caught up with the idea of “having an impact” that I failed to recognize that community engagement is about the people and not about me. The act of starting small and rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting from the ground up is a collective resistance to oppressive structures because through our involvement, we are growing our communities, each other, and our souls. I don’t have to know the answers or see myself as a particularly “useful” person – it is also important to reflect and recognize our struggles, mistakes, and the humility to change.