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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.

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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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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King constantly pointed out to those in the freedom movement that their refusal to respond in kind to the violence and terrorism of their opponents was increasing their own strength and unity. He reminded them and the world that their goal was not only the right to sit at the front of the bus or to vote, but to give birth to a new society based on more human values. In so doing, he not only empowered those on the front lines, but in the process developed a strategy for transforming a struggle for rights into a struggle that advances the humanity of everyone in the society and thereby brings the beloved community closer to realization. This is what true revolutions are about.
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Martin Luther King in 1966Grace Lee Boggs, from her article “The Beloved Community of Martin Luther King” commemorating the 75th anniversary of his birth.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Paris in March 1966. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

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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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