Grace Lee Bogs sits on a couch, smiling while looking out a window.

Grace Lee Boggs and Our Responsibility for Change 

Grace Lee was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Rhode Island in 1915. After attaining a Ph.D. in philosophy, she struggled to find work as an Asian American. She moved to Detroit and married a Black auto worker and activist named James Boggs. Grace Lee and James Boggs played leading roles in the labor, Black Power, and socialist movements for decades. Working with Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, and generations of Detroit activists, Grace Lee Boggs continued to support grassroots social movements until her death at 100 in 2015. Co-founder of Detroit Summer and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, Boggs was the author of books including The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First CenturyLiving for Change: An Autobiography, and Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century.

Grace Lee Boggs’ birthday, June 27, is an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of her political thought and over seven decades of community organizing. Her example and words challenge us to commit ourselves to community empowerment and revolutionary change throughout our lives. “You cannot change any society,” said Boggs, “unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it” (Her Story). 


• Support the James & Grace Lee Boggs School and the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.

• Consider: what is your relationship with activists, youth, and different communities of color? What would you like that relationship to be like in ten years? Twenty? What role(s) can you take in the “struggle for radical social change”? What can you do in the next week to deepen that commitment? 

Becoming an activist

“I did my PhD in 1940. Just imagine that. And then I went out into the world and I found that even department stores would say, ‘We don’t hire Orientals.’ So I got on a train and went to Chicago, found a job there in the philosophy library for $10 a week. It wasn’t very much to live on, so I found a woman who said I could stay in her basement rent-free. The only trouble was that I had to face a barricade of rats in order to get to the basement. So one day I came across a meeting of people protesting rat-infested housing. That brought me in contact with the Black community for the first time… 

Being in contact with the Black community brought me in contact with the 1941 March on Washington movement to demand jobs for Blacks in defense plants. Tens of thousands of Blacks were ready to march on Washington, and Roosevelt couldn’t afford that to happen, so he issued Executive Order 8802 banning discrimination in defense plants. I found out that if you mobilize a mass action, you can change the world. I thought to myself, if a movement can do that, that’s what I want to do with my life” (PBS).

On voting and political power

“I’m not calling for a boycott on voting. But I think it should be very clear that just voting is not going to solve our problems. And we need to undergo a very radical revolution in values. And we need to think about what it’s like to have become so materialistic that we think having a good job, and consuming like crazy to compensate for the dehumanization of the job, is living like a human being” (Guernica).

“I don’t expect moral arguments to take hold with the powers-that-be. They are in their positions of power. They are part of the system. They are part of the problem…. I think we’re not looking sufficiently at what is happening at the grassroots in the country. We have not emphasized sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves in order to force the government to do differently. Things do not start with governments” (Bill Moyers).

Protracted struggle

“I am often asked what keeps me going after all these years. I think it is the realization that there is no final struggle. Whether you win or lose, each struggle brings forth new contradictions, new and more challenging questions” (Teen Vogue).

“It is a time of deep change, not just of social structure and economy but also of ourselves. If we want to see change in our lives, we have to change things ourselves” (NPS). 

On revolution 

“Our country is also a work in progress. This is our time to reject the old American Dream of a higher standard of living based upon empire, and embrace a new American Dream of a higher standard of humanity that preserves the best in our revolutionary legacy. We can become the leaders we are looking for.

Towards that end we need to keep combining practice with reflection and urgency with patience. That is what I have learned after nearly seven decades of struggle for radical social change” (Intercommunal Workshop). 


• Grace Lee Boggs was a Chinese American philosopher, writer, and activist who supported the Black Power, labor, and environmental justice movements for over seven decades. 

• Boggs emphasized the role of grassroots organizing and cultural transformation in fostering revolutionary change. 

• We need to take responsibility and action to achieve social change in our lifetimes.

1506 1134 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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