Asian & Asian American Heritage: Grace Lee Boggs and Co-Liberation

Last updated: May 2, 2023, at 9:06 p.m. PT

Originally published: May 1, 2023, at 11:04 a.m. PT

Headshot of Grace Lee Boggs
Photo CC: Grace Lee Boggs. (2023, March 19). In Wikipedia.

by Indira Bahner, YMCA of Greater Seattle AVP of Equity & Justice

"People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values." – Grace Lee Boggs 

I am the ancestor of indentured servants circa 1879, colonized and forced into labor on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With hundreds of years of cultural connection to the Fijian culture, my ancestors carry the souls of the Pacific Island peoples into my being. I am the adopted daughter of a Black woman. She brings with her the vibrant ancestry of The Continent along with the harrowing story of the enslaved for over 400 years, carrying their souls into my being.

It is on these shoulders that I stand, deeply entwined in the multicultural organizing story of Grace Lee Boggs. One of our time's greatest philosophers, activists, and organizers for cross-racial justice and radical redesign, Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs, is, as author Kaitlin Smith shares, "one inspiring example of what it can look like to discover shared stakes, commit to collective action, and leave a legacy that nurtures ongoing resistance." Grace Lee Boggs spent her lifetime working with her spouse James "Jimmy" Boggs sparking a movement of solidarity and collective action in Black and Asian communities.

As COVID-19 continues to teach us, our liberation from oppression is only found when we understand the common barriers in systems that bind us to oppression and work together as a collective to rethink and redefine the very systems that afford us education, health, housing, well-being, and life. With the rise in Asian hate crimes and the disproportionately high numbers of deaths and continued violence against the Black body, we must all see what Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs were able to articulate and move into organizing and redesign thinking – that multiracial coalition work that centers rethinking the systems and creating what systems should be is our collective work.  

Grace Lee graduated with her Ph.D. and faced anti-Asian racism when looking for work and housing. She was able to find a job at the University of Chicago for a meager salary. She began living in the only housing that she could afford, which was substandard housing in an all-Black neighborhood. It was at this time that Grace Lee started working with Black housing advocates. Smith writes, "This experience transformed that idea from an abstract concept to an experience that touched her own life and suddenly bound her to this shared struggle. It is through her involvement with this housing-related activism that Boggs began to forge what would become a career centered around struggling with and in service of the Black community."  

Grace Lee Boggs' work began with advocating for and teaching about radical change to the economic system. Dr. King also called for this same economic revolution during his Poor People's Campaign. We know that economic systems themselves are the very way in which a society defines itself. Does a society use the specious concept of genetic race as a tool to divide the workers from the wealthy and deny access to safe, critical systems by race and its intersections, or does a society ensure that economic systems are a way to ensure that all people have access to safe critical systems (housing, food, clothing, education) by creating a shared and collaborative approach that centers our humanity?

Rethinking economic systems in multiracial coalitions is the base for us to engage in redesign thinking. As a philosopher, the second important concept that Grace Lee Boggs emphasized was taking the time to slow down, think deeply, and deliberate solutions from a collaborative perspective. At the same time, ensuring that those most impacted by racism intersectionally (poor, Black, Trans, Femme, disabled) are the strongest voice in the solution and redesign itself. Grace Lee Boggs taught young people this critical deliberation skill while helping support their work to transform the environments and systems they were forced to navigate. In the 1990s, the Detroit Summer organization was formed as a multiracial and intergenerational coalition of thinkers to come together, deliberate, and design new ways to see and rethink the problems in systems that Detroit faces.  

This May, the Y will honor Asian & Asian American Heritage Month. And this month, and every month, remembering Grace Lee Boggs is so important. Grace Lee Boggs knew that if we focused on our humanity, took the time to think deeply, and ensured that our work was collective with those most impacted by racism intersectionally leading the work, we could redesign the world we live in. It is with the spirit of Mrs. Grace Lee Boggs that I end this with hope, love, and a belief that we are beautiful, powerful, and brilliant. Most importantly, we can collectively rethink our systems to create a more just world.