upper waypoint

5 Lessons We Can Learn from the Long Life of Activist Grace Lee Boggs

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Photo: Wiki Commons

Author, activist and feminist, Grace Lee Boggs passed away yesterday at the ripe age of 100 years old. After seeing Boggs speak at Stanford in March 2012, I wrote a rambly Tumblr post called “My new favorite lady is 96 years-old.” The post was mostly about her most recent book, The Next American Revolution, but there are other lessons from her life and work that are worth sharing. We seem to occasionally overlook those old and wise souls in our midst with so much to teach us. 

In honor of Grace Lee Boggs:

1. Remember: Life Is Long

Grace Lee Boggs lived to see 100 years. Can you even imagine? I can’t, that’s why we need to take care of our relationships, our bodies and our retirement plans, but also take risks while we are young and take advantage of the potential for life beyond the right now. It sounds like a cheesy retirement advertisement but life expectancy these days is about 78 years for a man and 81 for a woman. Life is long, we need to remember this and reimagine accordingly.

2. Have a Foundation in Community


Rooted in the Detroit community, Boggs founded the Detroit Summer, a multi-racial, intergenerational collective working to transform communities. As she told her Stanford audience in 2012, she is a big believer in transformational organizing. “Linking love and revolution is an idea whose time has come,” she said. At the heart of movement building is “the concept of two-sided transformation, of ourselves and our institutions.”

She encourages us all to reimagine community: “The social activists among us struggle to create actions that go beyond protest and negativity and build community because community is the most important thing that has been destroyed by the dominant culture.”

How might we reimagine our various Bay Area communities? 

3. Rethink Work

It is not just about reimagining community, but work as well. In Detroit, and all over the country, there are very few jobs for people who want them, she told her Stanford audience. As a result, people think what we need are jobs. “They don’t realize that jobs have only existed for a few hundred years… before that, people didn’t work for pay.” Instead they worked for what the community needed. Boggs believes jobs have actually mangled us and “fragmented" us, making us into machines.

In a survey released by Bentley University in 2014, 77% of millennials said that flexible work hours are key to boosting productivity within their generation. Grace Lee Boggs' ideas go beyond that. She asked, “How are we going to re-imagine work, so that it enhances our humanity?”

4. Figure Out What Needs to Change

Grace Lee Boggs has lived through both World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and everything in between, an experience that cemented a deep understanding of the necessity of change in her. “What made me start to recognize that change was necessary in this country was that I was born during the first World War, to Chinese immigrant parents. I was born female, and when I cried, the waiters in my father’s Chinese restaurant used to say, leave her on the hillside to die, she’s only a girl baby."

Her experiences growing up prompted her later activism and work on issues of race and poverty. In a statement released by the White House, Barack Obama said she understood "the importance of bringing about change and getting people involved to shape their own destiny."

5. Create Something New

Her book, The Next American Revolution, moves with ease, from art and activism to politics and creating sustainable communities. She writes, “We need artists to create new images that will liberate us from our preoccupations with constantly expanding production and consumption and open up space in our hearts and minds to imagine and create another America that will be viewed by the world as a beacon rather than as a danger.”

In her talk three years ago, she implored people to reimagine. I think she would do the same today: “I hope that each of you will come away reimagining revolution, reimagining education, reimagining family, reimagining neighborhoods, reimagining security, reimagining economics… It’s such a wonderful time for imagination and reimagination.”

Rest in power, Grace Lee Boggs.

If you need more Grace Lee Boggs in your life, check out the 2014 documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs on Hulu.

lower waypoint
next waypoint