Detroit 2: Grace Lee Boggs & the Angels

Sunday, 13th November 2011


I was so delighted to get a call on Sunday morning from Rich Feldman of the Boggs Centre for Nurturing Community Leadership. He had received last night’s email and could meet me today and hoped that Grace may also be able to meet me. He sent over some reading, including a YouTube link to Grace’s message to Occupy Wall Street and a great list of contacts for the positive community in Detroit.


The Centre is in a house in east Detroit, in what would be a ‘nice neighbourhood’ if half the properties weren’t abandoned. Grace lives downstairs and is at the heart of a swirl of activity. Rich and I talked fast about their work and mine, checking out our respective positions in a way that reminded me of the sectarian shorthand of a Northern Irish introduction, finding lots in common in our commitment to local people building their own solutions. Then we went downstairs to meet Grace who was surrounded by paperwork, books, a laptop, busy preparing new prefaces to her book ‘The Next American Revolution’. Sharp as nails, warm as toast, born in the First World War but with a 21st century sensibility to match any bright young occupier, she was, of course, an inspiration. I wish my historian boss, Steve Wyler, could have been there. I wish I’d had a tape recorder to keep her voice. I wish i lived in Detroit so I could be part of her crowd. I loved her parting words – “until we meet”. I hope we do, and I hope I live like this when I am old.




Grace spoke about ‘visionary organising’ – focused towards people creating and owning their own solutions rather than only trying to influence the powerful. We talked about supporting local economies, how Locality members run all kinds of buildings and businesses, creating wealth in local communities and keeping it there.They are still buzzing from their Reimagining Work event. Recognising that this is what I have been trying to do for 10 years, I ran the Community Allowance past her. Although broadly supportive, her response reminded me how language divides us like the ocean. She asked how we would make sure it was ‘supportive rather than enabling’. The word ‘enabling’ was seen as negative, creating dependency. It’s like the term community development which here is completely associated with physical buildings. We’re back with the ess and the zee…


Back upstairs I showed Rich our Meanwhile report, ‘No Time to Waste’. Detroit’s empty property issues seemed to me way too big but Rich, like Kendall in New York, felt there was real potential in the approach, particularly around foreclosure. It would be great to see a Detroit massive on the meanwhile ning at


So then I walked again. I kept hoping there’d be a bus but not really believing in it. I’d gone nearly three miles, past nearly 200 empty properties, before I saw it coming up

behind. I was nowhere near a stop but the kind woman driver saw the foot-sore hunger in my eyes and waited for me at the traffic lights while I ran to catch up. Not a single person on that bus was white. Some seemed more battered down than others but only the driver smiled.


It was only 3 blocks before I had to get off again but it was a welcome respite. Then another long walk up Woodward, passing in daylight the spaces that had unnerved me last night in the dark and certainly hadn’t got any prettier.


By the time I got to the Detroit Institute for the Arts I was tired out but a cup of spearmint tea and the superb collections revived me – among them my eclectic favourites Giacometti, Titian, Whistler, Van Gogh, and a beautiful 450BCE rider.


Then suddenly I was in Rivera Court surrounded by the Diego Rivera murals and remembering that one of the many takeaways Rich had loaded upon me was an article about this great Detroit artwork. I spent a good hour with it which felt like a cleansing, and was glad to have missed the Ford propaganda machine at Dearborn. I’ve got lots of good pics but here’s just one – I love it because it is the only panel that actually shows a car and it’s tiny – a little red thing about 2 inches across! The people and the work mattered so much more than the product.


At the exit door, the lovely Vanessa called a taxi for me and then looked after me while we waited for it long time. However mad this city is, the people of Detroit are adorable and they will win through. When I told Vanessa how scared I’d been on that long night walk, she said my angels had been walking either side of me. She was so convincing I can still see them now – seven feet tall, but one looks like her and the other like Antonio from the Motown Museum!


Next post: The Funders and a Bus to Chicago


This entry was posted in Community Allowance, Community Organisers, US trip. Bookmark the permalink.

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