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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Veterans Day Parade on Woodward Avenue

For Rachel Button, who hails from metro Detroit but now lives in the state of Washington’s North Cascade Mountains, images of a Veterans Day parade on Woodward Avenue in Detroit remind her of the march that often goes unacknowledged. Specifically, Eric Seals photographs for the Detroit Free Press inspired her to write this poem:

You wanted the poor and tired huddled masses—
the slack-jawed and stubbled—
but we march alone on Woodward
uniforms stiff on our still-broad shoulders,

The Free Press took pictures.
Photos of men,
mostly men,
marching a street edged by empty sidewalks,
black men and white men
some of us in leather and flannel
others in uniforms which trim our bodies
into silhouettes framed by brass buttons.

Imagine the hands at our sides:
wrinkled, smooth, freckled, gloved—
scarred by cuts and burns, scrapes and time—
hands that held babies,
hands that held our heads when loneliness
felt too heavy to hold on our necks.

We bend into cold with something like pride
not for the battles we fought,
but because we’re still standing, walking, moving,
together, slapping our shoes on Woodward,
standing straight, even if not one soul watches.

For an engaging and informative read, I highly recommend John Carlisle’s columnaccompanying Mr. Seals photos.

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"When you live in a city like Detroit, it’s not just buildings that have become ruins. It’s that a way of life, a way of thinking has died and something else has been born — a new culture, a new spirit. And I think that’s what you get in Detroit if you are able to look past the ruins. What an opportunity. What a time to be alive."

Here’s a different story about Detroit. With the recent news coverage of its declaration of bankruptcy, we travel to a city of vigor where joyful, passionate people are reimagining work, food, and the very meaning of humanity. Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American philosopher and civil rights legend, is the heart and soul of this largely hidden story, which holds lessons for us all.

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Sylvia Boorstein Reads Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet”

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps the huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of frightening ourselves with death.

During our show this week, Krista Tippett asked Sylvia Boorstein to read the Pablo Neruda poem she always carries with her. Quite a few listeners have asked where they can hear "Keeping Quiet" again, so here she is reciting the poem in front of a live audience in suburban Detroit.

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Art from Detroit’s Ashes

by Susan Leem, associate producer

"It ain’t clean. And, it ain’t easy. And it ain’t a lot of things, but it’s so many things at the same time."
Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of The Heidelberg Project

The Heidelberg Project is a living outdoor art installation in the heart of urban Detroit. Artist Tyree Guyton created a massive art installation spanning two city blocks where deteriorating homes are reinvigorated with paint and repurposed materials. In the video above, you’ll see some of the somewhat wild colors (from pastels to brilliant primary colors), patterns (polkadots), and materials (stuffed animals).

Much like Jimmy Boggs’ mantra to “make a way out of no way,” Guyton says the philosophy of his 25-year project is "to take nothing, and to take that nothing and create something very beautiful, very whimsical to the point that it makes people think.”

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Detroit Becoming, Detroit Jesus

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Campus Martius Fountain in Detroit Kids play at the Campus Martius Fountain in Detroit. (photo: Maia C./Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

After listening to this week’s show with Grace Lee Boggs ("Becoming Detroit"), Peter Putnam sent this inspired response:

"Time Inc. was here for a year — and this is the story they missed: Detroit becoming. Full disclosure: I’ve known Grace since 1993. In fact, I met my wife, Julia, through Detroit Summer, Grace and Jimmy’s (r)evolutionary idea to utilize the spirit of young people to revitalize, re-imagine, and re-spirit Detroit. Julia was actually Detroit Summer’s first volunteer and is now deep in the process of creating a place-based school in Detroit, the Boggs Educational Center, that will draw on many of the people and principles that came out in your show. Ending with Invincible’s hip-hop song was also right on.”

He then ended his note with this poem, which he composed for Grace Lee Boggs on her 96th birthday:

Detroit Jesus

Time, Inc., buys a house in Detroit
and tries to track him for a year.
But he’s invisible to those looking for a
            blue-eyed dude in a white robe
or for a city gone completely to hell.

He is the cinnamon of my son’s skin
with a green thumb and a Tigers cap
and my daughter’s dove-grey eyes.
He prays into Blair’s guitar,
hangs out on Field St.,
bakes bread at Avalon
and plants tomatoes on the East side.
He rides his old-school bike down the heart
            of Grand River,
paints a mural in the Corridor,
shoots hoop in the Valley
with priests and pimps and lean young men
trying to jump their way to heaven.

At night,
while the Border Patrol counts cars,
he walks across the water
            to Windsor,
grabs a bite to eat,
walks back.

Like Grace,
born in Providence,
he lives so simply,
he could live anywhere:
Dublin, Palestine, Malibu.
But Detroit is his home.
It was here one Sunday
a boy invited him down
            off the cross
and into his house
for a glass of Faygo red pop.

That was centuries ago, it seems,
and how far he’s come,
reinventing himself more times than Malcolm.
He’s been to prison,
been to college,
has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on one arm,
Judas on the other,
and knows every Stevie Wonder song by heart.

He’s Jimmy, he’s Invincible, he’s Eminem.
He’s the girls at Catherine Ferguson
            and their babies,
and he’s the deepest part of Kwame
still innocent as a baby.

The incinerator is hell,
but he walks right in,
burns it up with love,
comes out the other side,
walks on.

He can say Amen in twelve religions,
believes school is any place
where head and heart and hands
            meet,
and wears a gold timepiece around his neck
with no numbers, just a question:
What time is it on the clock of the world?

And every second of every day
he answers that question
with a smile wide as the Ambassador
and a heart as big as Belle Isle,
hugging this city in his arms
and whispering to each soul
words no one else dares to say:
You are Jesus,
this is your Beloved Community,
and the time
on the clock of the world
is Now.

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One of the things I learned from my father is that a crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. That’s in the Chinese characters. And how you take advantage of the opportunity of the crisis rather than become despairing because of the danger. Is something we’re facing all the time, particularly at this time. It’s a philosophical approach I think that is very much needed and alive here in the city of Detroit.
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Within Crisis, Opportunity

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Ancestors watching over the Boggs home."That’s in the Chinese characters." This passing reference by the 96-year-old Chinese-American philosopher Grace Lee Boggs got us wondering. What exactly does she mean? And what do those characters look like?

As it happens, explains our Public Insight Network colleague Melody Ng, the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters: 危 or wei (pronounced “way”) and 机 ji (pronounced “gee”). Wei means dangerous or precarious. Ji means opportunity or chance.

危机

Bound up in the meaning of “crisis” are both danger and opportunity (see update below). In each trying moment, there’s a chance for something positive to occur. Today being Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dragon, what a most auspicious thought to carry forward as we encounter our own crises in 2012.

UPDATE (Jan 31, 2012): Since posting this story, we have since heard from several people on Facebook who dispute Boggs’ interpretation of the meaning of the two characters. Michael Barreto pointed us to an article by Professor Victor H. Mair who takes a much different position on the interpretation of wēijī from Grace Boggs. On the one hand, he offers a better interpretation of jī as “incipient moment” instead of “opportunity”:

"Aside from the notion of “incipient moment” or “crucial point” discussed above, the graph for jī by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jī can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings."

But since there are other kinds of interpretation, better and worse, is Grace Lee Boggs’ father, a native speaker, really wrong in hers? Professor Mair even offers alternatives for someone looking for jī as “opportunity”:

If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means “opportunity” (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely “crisis” (viz., a dangerous, critical moment). One might choose, for instance, zhuǎnjī (“turn” + “incipient moment” = “favorable turn; turn for the better”), liángjī (“excellent” + “incipient moment” = “opportunity” [!!]), or hǎo shíjī (“good” + “time” + “incipient moment” = “favorable opportunity”).”

Though Grace Lee Boggs’ interpretation may not be linguistically accurate, this conundrum reminds us that connotations of meaning are culturally subtle. Meaning can be hidden, reinterpreted, and even evolve within a language as it travels. Though it is dangerous to create posts like this one, it does point to the depth and complexity of language, especially as it crosses cultures. That’s a marvelous thing.

A portrait of Grace Lee Boggs’ father hangs in her Detroit home. Chin Lee was a successful businessman who owned Chin Lee’s American and Chinese Restaurant on 49th and Broadway in New York. (photo: Trent Gilliss)

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Becoming Detroit: Reimagining Work, Food, and the Very Meaning of Humanity

by Krista Tippett, host

Grace Lee Boggs During an Interview with Krista TippettThis trip to Detroit came about because of technological failure. It was a tremendous gift, and a revelation.

The technological failure was the connection between my voice and Grace Boggs. Her ears, after all, are 96. And when we weren’t able to have a real, fluid conversation between St. Paul and Detroit, I immediately decided we would fly to interview her in her home. This was a relief, really, as preparing for the interview had made me long to meet her.

Ever since my conversation with Vincent Harding last year, her name kept coming up. Her identity is full of unlikely conjunctions: Chinese-American and an icon of African-American civil rights, philosopher and activist, elder and change agent. She was born Grace Lee above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. She received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1940. She had a heady life in intellectual, revolutionary circles of the early twentieth century, from Europe to Africa. Wall of Photos at Grace Lee Boggs' HomeShe moved to Detroit when she married the legendary African-American autoworker, organizer, and civil rights thinker Jimmy Boggs. Together they were the heart and soul of civil rights in the Motor City.

Jimmy Boggs died in 1993. Already by then, years ahead of what most of us are experiencing as the new global economic crisis, the post-industrial future had begun to show itself in Detroit. In this emerging world, Grace Boggs is at the heart of reimagining, renewing, and “re-spiriting” this city — seeing the possibilities amidst the ruins of abandoned storefronts, houses, and industrial plants that have defined our cultural vision of Detroit in recent years. She learned, she says, to “make a way out of no way” from Jimmy Boggs. She draws on everyone from Hegel to Dr. King to Margaret Wheatley when she speaks of our capacity to “create the world anew.” With all she knows, and all the change she’s seen, the sheer magnitude of years she carries, you can’t help but listen when Grace Boggs describes the tumult of our time as a rare and precious opportunity: “What a time to be alive.”

This sweeping statement might be less infectious if it were not planted in a world of engagement that both affirms and continually informs Grace Boggs’ thinking. You walk into Grace Boggs’ living room — which is also the ground floor of the James and Grace Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership — and you are surrounded by joyful, passionate people who are literally recreating their corners of the world. She points them out as we speak. Gloria Lowe in front of her home in East DetroitAfter our interview, we are taken on a tour that is like a trip into a parallel universe to the Detroit we’ve seen in the news.

We meet Gloria Lowe, who is not merely putting formerly incarcerated and injured vets to work, but making houses livable and beautiful while creating urban models that are affordable and green. We meet Wayne Curtis and Myrtle Thompson, a couple who are tending one of Detroit’s 1,600 urban gardens. They’re not merely growing food, as they tell us, they are growing culture. Their way of talking about “food sovereignty,” about the necessity of flavor, about “nutrient density” reminds me of the chef Dan Barber.They are a living response to the question he’s often asked, of whether the local food movement is just for pampered elites. 

Wayne Curtis' public art work asking people to "Eat Local."

Detroit’s urban agricultural movement began as a matter of survival and became a matter of consciousness, and of reimagining the essence of human identity and community.

So many of my conversations are ultimately about the vast, seismic changes of our time. No city could be held up more easily as a symbol of the destructive side of this change than Detroit. But nowhere have I encountered people as animated by change, as “privileged” to experience it, as in Detroit.

In recent decades, Grace Boggs has become ever more attentive to the word “evolution” wrapped inside the word “revolution.” The identity politics and rights focus of the rebellions of the 1960’s, she says, paved a way for a more enlightened and slower revolution now — a new and deeper sense of a common human identity, from how we work to how we eat to how we govern ourselves. Ever the philosopher, she reminds us that “we’re not only being, but we’re non-being and becoming.” In Grace Boggs’ living room, and in the Detroit of hope which she helps inspire, these lofty words become something to live by.

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Tuesday Evening Melody: “Detroit Summer” by Invincible

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Invincible calls out the crowdInvincible on stage at center. (photo: David Smith/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

One of the stars in the constellation of Grace Lee Boggs’ world of change is hip-hop artist Invincible, whom the Village Voice calls Detroit’s "femme-emcee extraordinaire." Invincible (aka Ilana Weaver) is a rapper and spoken word artist who leads workshops through the Boggs Center’s Detroit Summer project. 

In one of these workshops, she leads kids in collecting and studying interviews with community members. They use these conversations as the source for their own hip-hop pieces and brainstorm alternative solutions to the problems raised by their interviewees. She says this about her friendship with Grace Lee Boggs (whom you’ll hear in our podcast this Thursday):

“Grace doesn’t talk down to you; she doesn’t come like that to young people. She comes to you with questions rather than lecture to find out what’s relevant to you and tries to relate to it… My whole life has been transformed by my work with Detroit Summer. First of all as an artist I ground all my art in a larger purpose and vision for community change that’s led by the community.”

Enjoy the tune inspired by Invincible’s transformative work with Detroit Summer, and look for a Grace Lee Boggs cameo in the video.

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On Being in Detroit
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A few days before the holiday break, we flew to the Motor City for an interview with Grace Lee Boggs at the Boggs Center in East Detroit. The 96-year-old philosopher and activist did not disappoint, and neither did some of the wonderful people and projects happening there. Look for our show “Becoming Detroit” this coming Thursday, January 19.
Along the way, we stopped by to see our good friend Mikel Ellcessor, the general manager of WDET at Wayne State University, and couldn’t resist having Krista pose with this massive wall sign in the lobby. This public radio station is doing some pretty interesting on-the-ground reporting and community building; check ‘em out online or on the radio, if you’re in the area.

On Being in Detroit

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A few days before the holiday break, we flew to the Motor City for an interview with Grace Lee Boggs at the Boggs Center in East Detroit. The 96-year-old philosopher and activist did not disappoint, and neither did some of the wonderful people and projects happening there. Look for our show “Becoming Detroit” this coming Thursday, January 19.

Along the way, we stopped by to see our good friend Mikel Ellcessor, the general manager of WDET at Wayne State University, and couldn’t resist having Krista pose with this massive wall sign in the lobby. This public radio station is doing some pretty interesting on-the-ground reporting and community building; check ‘em out online or on the radio, if you’re in the area.

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Most young people don’t look at history through the lens of hip-hop. Once they see this very powerful and profound history, they get a whole different respect for the culture.
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Khalid el-Hakim, from the Detroit Free Press

His Black History 101 Mobile Museum educates people on African-American history and culture by displaying selections of more than 5,000 artifacts from black history in the United States. Wish I was in Dearborn last night to see some of pieces on hand…

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Grace Lee Boggs Challenges Occupy Wall Street Protestors to Reinvent Society and Not Just “Expose the Enemy”

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A couple of weeks ago we posted Grace Lee Boggs’ first video in which she called on Occupy Wall Street participants to use this moment as a time for personal contemplation and reflection. Here is a follow-up video in which she challenges the 99% movement not to just “expose the enemy” but to become the solution by reinventing society, work, education, and culture.

We’ll be interviewing her today at 1 p.m. Central for a public radio show to air in few weeks. If you want to participate and ask questions while we live-tweet, follow us at @Beingtweets.

(Big thanks to WDET’s Mikel Ellcessor for the alert!)

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To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.
- Grace Lee Boggs, from her autobiography Living for Change
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From Zone 8 to Cell Block to Urban Network Bookstore

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"My mama became my hero and my father became my mentor."
Yusef Shakur

Yusef Shakur and sonHunkered down in a WDET motor city hoodie and a down sleeping bag listening to KAXE in northern Minnesota, I caught the first episode of The Listening Post, a documentary series from the BBC that “invites close, unhurried listening to the stories of individuals.” And wouldn’t you know it, the first profile tells the story of a Detroit native.

Yusef Shakur, who now runs a bookstore and community center in Zone 8, grew up in the same neighborhood and became a gangster as a teenager. At the age of 19 in 1992, he began serving a nine-year prison sentence. While there, he reaches out to his father who’s also serving time — a man he’s never met and considers “a sperm donor.” His father’s reply changes the course of his life:

"Son, let your past mistakes become your teacher because your mistakes can become our greatest education. … You must use this time to prepare yourself to leave better than what you came in as. Turn your cell into a university by rebuilding yourself from the inside out. … P.S. You misspelled knowledge, religion, envelope, address, message and religious. If you don’t have a dictionary, you need to get one. Words are powerful because they convey who we are. Use your mind to free yourself or somebody will use your mind to keep you a slave."

It’s a story about the power of a lost father’s love, hope and resurrection, and a tale of the meaning of time and attention in the most dire of circumstances.

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Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditation with Sylvia Boorstein

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Sylvia Boorstein speaks with Krista Tippet

In mid-February, we partnered with WDET to hold a live event in a quaint suburban village outside of Detroit. The topic: raising children in complex times.

Krista’s conversation with Sylvia Boorstein was rolling along quite nicely — stories were being told, approaches to child-rearing were being shared — when somewhat unexpectedly, Boorstein (a Jewish Buddhist teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California) offered to lead a lovingkindness, or metta, meditation for a crowd of more than 300 folks.

With that size of a crowd who hadn’t necessarily attended for a mindfulness retreat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What resulted was a magical experience in which the audience fully participated in this impromptu moment of reflection.

If you’re game, we’d like you to use this as a guided meditation. As a producer, one’s never certain if an impromptu experience like this works because it was part of a particular time or if it translates into a fruitful experience for others online. What do you think?

Photo by Trent Gilliss

Correction (June 11, 2011): This post mistakenly referred to Ms. Boorstein teaching at Split Rock Meditation Center, and has now been revised to Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

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