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Dr. King's Beloved Community in Detroit

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"History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories -- triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectically -- has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings." -- Grace Lee Boggs, 'The Next American Revolution'

It will take more than a day to unpack Dr. King's vision and ideas, explore the evolution of his thoughts, and ponder the contradictions of his life. MLK Day celebrations, forums, and symposiums that began January 15, 2014 have helped visionaries, organizers, activists and citizens across our country honor Dr. King and celebrate his struggle toward social justice; however, the struggle is not over and the fight for sustainable social change continues to be a long and uncertain journey. As we continue to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. throughout Black History Month, it is important to deeply examine the ideas and contradictions of our "heroes." Julia Putnam, Principal of The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, is doing just that. Reflecting on Vincent Harding's book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, she emphasized the importance of really learning and understanding the lives and work of our "heroes." She said she wants her students to be able to see beyond the "heroism" of Dr. King, learn something meaningful from his life, and realize that they themselves can continue to work for change in the context of their own community. MLK's vision relates to a new community-based school, The James and Grace Lee Boggs School on Detroit's east side, which is creating a beloved community that empowers students to be agents of change in their community.

In popular culture, Dr. King has become an American symbol for unity and is most known for the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech he delivered in 1963 at the March on Washington. Grace Lee Boggs wrote:

They regard him as a positive figure who worked with whites to help the United States overcome the problems of bigotry and segregation that served as the nation's principal obstacles to progress. This rosy recasting of King's life and struggles also distorts history. It erases from view both the real hostility with which his ideas and actions were greeted and the profound changes in his views as he wrestled in the last three years of his life with the challenges of the Vietnam War and the urban rebellions.

Although King advocated for non-violence, his ideas were constantly evolving over time. During the last months of his life, he reached the conclusion that the next stages of the movement could not rely on the government and new strategies must be used to force unwilling authorities to yield to the demands for justice. Before he was assassinated, he spoke boldly about radical social change ideas that did not receive widespread acceptance. Vincent Harding writes that Martin was assassinated because he advocated for fundamental change in this country. King played a critical role in the development of a revolutionary movement -- one that continues to grow and transform here in Detroit.

Many Detroiters have been resisting the city's emergency manager laws and the downtown corporate takeover and fighting to reinvent the city in a way that is just, transformative and paradigm-shifting. Activists in Detroit have been asking, "What kind of revitalizing does Detroit need at this point in history?" Gentrification and social entrepreneurship that ignores history and context and does not address the root causes of the economic disinvestment in the city of Detroit is not the kind of change we need.

During the last three years of his life, King "viewed the American preoccupation with rapid economic advancement as the source of our deepening crises both at home and in our relationships with the rest of the world." King's vision of sustainable change and the creation of a beloved community do not focus on rapid economic growth and consumerism. At the core of Dr. King's beloved community is agape love which is understanding and redeeming goodwill for all. Agape love is love seeking to preserve and create community -- the kind of community that is being created and nurtured at the Boggs School.

The James and Grace Lee Boggs School was started by Julia Putnam (Principal), Amanda Rosman (Executive Director), and Marisol Teachworth (Programming Director) -- three women who are shifting the educational paradigm in our country every day. They have created a school whose mission is to nurture a beloved community that extends beyond the school's walls and views success as the quality of character students develop and the kind of relationship students have to their community. Zak Rosen wrote, "Julia and her partners want to convey to their students that they don't have to wait until they're older to contribute to society. You can do it right now, at six, at eight, at ten, at twelve, whatever."

The students are engaged in the creation of a community-based school culture and often refer to themselves as "solutionaries."

Dr. King called for self-transforming and structure-transforming programs to involve young people in direct actions in their cities and neighborhoods. The Boggs School is providing an environment for students to undergo self-transformation and is creating structures that are transforming education. The Boggs School is a place-based school that encourages students to take pride in their culture and heritage and learn about and connect deeply with their community. In December, they hosted an event called the Boggs Bazaar to enable students to share their learning with the community. I have never felt more joy or inter-connectedness among a community at a school activity. Families and neighbors were invited to participate and students were empowered through the sharing of their learning. Stephanie Chang, a core member of the founding team and the former Community Engagement Coordinator, explained, "Before the school started, the school team and volunteers went door to door and knocked on over 1500 doors on the east side of Detroit in various neighborhoods and asked people what they wanted to see in a new school and started building relationships with community residents."

The school has partnered with many community organizations, including ones doing work on the east side where the school is located. The school continues the process of relationship-building, through a community-initiated group called the Exploratory Community Outreach group, by facilitating monthly community conversations in the neighborhood and at the school. The school is currently working to develop a curriculum that addresses the needs of the school and community as well as utilizes the resources of both.

The Boggs School is working to involve young people in making community changes and is transforming the lives of young people through authentic relationship building and collaborative, community-generated projects. The Boggs School is one facet of paradigm-shifting change taking place in Detroit that grew out of a series of conversations among transformative educators, organizers, and activists in the city that needs to continue in order to keep growing Detroit's Next American Revolution.

To learn more about the Boggs School, please visit our website.