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Spiritual Activism of Grace Lee Boggs

I met the then 98 year-old Grace Lee Boggs in spring 2013 when she visited Stanford. She was in a wheelchair and as I knelt beside her I felt that I was in the presence of a great being. We shared a moment of levity as I told her that unlike everyone else who was praising her for her age, I was not impressed at all, as my grandmother was 111, so compared to her, Grace was just a spring chicken.

But I was impressed in many other ways, perhaps mostly by her smile, which radiated a warm sense of peace and passion. I felt that she was a realist who had nonetheless not given up hope. Despite all that she knew and engaged with, she still believed that the struggle to make a better world was worth it. She was facing life’s hardships every day and had not given up. I felt that I too had to do the same. Grace has become a beacon of light and inspiration for my work.

Her concept of leader is empowering, when she points out that “leader” implies “follower,” and asserts that we need to embrace the idea that “we are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” While some people are clearly great leaders, Boggs gives us the clear message that we all have responsibility to assume leadership. Boggs devoted years of her life to active engagement in social justice issues, encouraging us to stop viewing ourselves as victims and to embrace the power within us to change our reality.

Grace understood how the insurmountable nature of the problems we face today and the struggle for our own survival consumes so much of our time and energy. But she asks each of us to stop thinking of ourselves as victims and recognize that we must each become a part of the solution because we are each a part of the problem. While we may be victims of racism, sexism, capitalism, and ableism, we each need to make a leap beyond determinism to self-determination. She calls on each of us to be true to and enhance our own humanity by embracing and practicing the conviction that as human beings we have free will.

We cling to our identity as victims, though we may sense that as victims we are stuck in our development, denying ourselves growth and maturity by clinging to the past. Blaming someone for our misfortune may relieve some anxiety but ultimately is self-defeating and does not allow us to rise above the situation and move on with our healing. Buddhism teaches that if we haven’t forgiven, we keep creating an identity around our pain and that is what is reborn, that is what suffers. We need compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to avoid resentments and hatred, to understand suffering in the world—our own and others’.

Boggs calls for the realization of our connectedness in many ways, both inside ourselves and between ourselves and others. Connecting to ourselves is part of the solution because we are part of the problem, but we can move from passive observer to active and empathetic participant by identifying with the oppressed.

"These are the times that try our souls. Each of us needs to undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation. Each of us needs to be awakened to a personal and compassionate recognition of the inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies; between our physical and psychical well-being; and between our selves and all the other selves in our country and in the world. Each of us needs to stop being a passive observer of the suffering that we know is going on in the world and start identifying with the sufferers."

She is clear and honest about the urgency with which we need to assume individual and collective responsibility for creating a new nation. She believes that the “next American revolution” will create a nation that is loved rather than feared and one that does not have to bribe and bully other nations to win support. Boggs asserts that this revolution and transformation to global consciousness is necessary for human survival.

"Our lives, the lives of our children and of future generations, and even the survival of life on Earth depend on our willingness to transform ourselves into active planetary and global citizens who, develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies."

Despite the immensity of the problems facing us, Boggs places importance on such basic things as growing gardens.

“The importance of inner-city gardens that bring not just healthy food to people denied it, but a different way of relating to time and history and to the earth. "A garden helps young people relate to the earth in a different way. It helps them to relate to their elders in a different way. It helps them to relate to time in a different way. . . If you just press a button and you think that's the key to reality, you're in a hell of a mess as a human being.”

Boggs links responsible action to grapple with the interacting and seemingly intractable questions of today’s society, with spiritual consciousness in which we recognize the sacredness in ourselves and in others. This allows us to view love and compassion not as some “sentimental weakness but as the key that somehow unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” Her work responds to this call by Dr. King: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Her mission is to nurture the transformational leadership capacities of individuals and organizations committed to creating productive, sustainable, ecologically responsible, and just communities. Through local, national and international networks of activists, artists and intellectuals she and her colleagues foster new ways of living, being and thinking to face the challenges of the 21st century. She encourages us to be the leaders we are looking for.

Grace Lee Boggs passed away in the fall of 2015, a few months after celebrating her 100th birthday. A woman who Cornel West calls “one of the great freedom fighters in the history of this nation…a revolutionary in spirit, heart, and mind,” leaves a legacy of dedicated social activism inspired by philosophy and spirituality. In 2011, still going strong at 95, she published The Next American Revolution, her fifth book after receiving a Ph.D in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940.

She provides a powerful role model of an Asian American woman who found her mission focusing on issues that affected the African American community in Detroit, where she lived for many years, and nationally. The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, founded in the early 1990s by friends of Grace Lee and husband James Boggs, continues to be a hub for community-based projects, grassroots organizing, and social activism both locally and nationally. Grace still inspires people like me to keep going, with hope, in building healing communities.

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