In this week’s episode, we head with Julia Putnam over to The James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit to learn about place-based education and its relationship to community action. Many think of school as a place where you get to know yourself…but what if it was also how you got to know your community? Ethan Lowenstein teaches us the basics of place-based education and how it knocks down the wall between school and community to better prepare students to live empowered, active lives. Then Julia Putnam, Amanda Rosman, and Marisol Teachworth (administrators at the Boggs School) tell us how language arts, science, and social studies classes can bring students into their communities to practice problem solving and engaging with the people around them. Our guests teach us about visionary organizing and how it focuses not just on what systems we’re tearing down but also what we’re building up. Listen in for these alternative models of academic success!
AMANDA: Growing up in Detroit, Julia Putnam was a good student. She was attentive. She went to class, she stayed out of trouble. She studied hard, but she felt something was missing. She was learning really well, how to get A’s…
JULIA: But not so much why Detroit was the way it was, why it looked the way it looked, why abandoned buildings weren’t being fixed. Why people talked about Detroit in the past tense and felt so hopeless about its future.
AMANDA: The questions that 16 year old Julia had were not being answered or even addressed inside her school.
CASEY: But then one day, a couple of legendary philosopher activists showed up to Julia’s class and her life changed. The couple was Grace and James Boggs.
JULIA: And they both believe that the purpose of learning and the purpose of education was to build community. And that the way to engage young people was to have them actively involved in their education and in transforming the community while transforming themselves and the ideals of Grace and Jimmy have made sense to me since then.
CASEY: Today on Freedom Dreams: What happens when you knock down the wall between school and community? I’m Casey Rocheteau, the communications manager at the Detroit Justice Center.
AMANDA: And I’m Amanda Alexander, the founder and executive director of the Detroit Justice Center. We’re going to hear how Julia’s auspicious meeting with Jamie and Grace changed the course of her life a little later, but first we want to dig deeper into this concept of place-based education, which becomes the foundation of so much of Julia’s work.
ETHAN: I think the first thing to say is that it’s not, it’s not a new approach. It’s an approach that’s been practiced for thousands of years by land-based cultures, by grassroots movements today. So my name is Ethan Lowenstein. I am a professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan university. And I also serve as the director of the Southeast Michigan stewardship coalition. And we work with young people and their adult guides to address serious social and ecological issues in the Great Lakes Region. You know, the idea of school is kind of a bizarre concept, right? Like why do we have this thing called school? And this other thing called community? It doesn’t make sense. We live in webs of relationships with each other and with the more than human world. And so those webs exist. So let’s focus on those webs and stop parsing out this institution called school, this thing called community. Cause it’s a strange division. So the question is how do we take the time that’s usually spent for formal schooling and open it up to all of the different places that young people are learning and help them live into their own power as well. And so it’s really about when you notice problems in your community, how do you cooperate with others to address those problems in an informed way? And I, I love it, this idea of dreaming and imagination and that’s key here, right? So it’s not as if you’re dreaming, not like there’s no basis for your dreams. You’re using the subject matter. You’re using, you know, English language arts, math, science, social studies in order to dream in order to imagine in an informed way. And then you’re taking action.
AMANDA: So Ethan laid the groundwork really well for us. It’s this idea that education is more than about just indoctrinating young people with information it’s about helping people become more human beings to be part of a community, to take action about the world around them. I’ve heard Julia Putnam talk about it in terms of helping young people to know that they are embedded in beloved community and to change the idea of success as you know, not being, how do you grow up and get as far away as you can from Detroit, but how do you grow up and think of yourself as deeply part of a community and responsible to it.
CASEY: When we left off with Julia Putnam earlier, she’s 16 years old and into her classroom walks Grace and Jimmy Boggs. For those of you that don’t know these names you are in for a treat.
BILL MOYERS: They couldn’t have been outwardly more different. He was a black man, an auto worker from Alabama, and she was a Chinese American college educated philosopher, but they were kindred spirits and their marriage lasted four decades until his death.
GRACE: I think that I owe a great deal of my rootedness to Jimmy because he learned to write and become a writer because in his illiterate community, nobody could read and write. He picked cotton and then went to work in Detroit. He saw himself as having been part of one epoch, the agriculture epoch, and now the industrial epoch. And now the post-industrial epoch. And I think that’s, that’s a very important part of what we need in this country is that sense that we have lived through so many stages and that we are entering into a new stage where we could create something completely different. Jimmy had that sense.
AMANDA: Jimmy died in 1993 and Grace was with us until she was 100 years old. She died in 2015 and I am honored to serve on the board of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to nurture community leadership here in Detroit. I had admired the work of Jimmy and Grace for a lot of years. To me, the legacy of Grace and Jimmy has been about seed planting. So I hear so many stories of people who were part of programs that Jimmy and Grace started over the years in the eighties and nineties and how they have risen to become some of the most incredible organizers and educators and activists and leaders in the city of Detroit. Part of what Jimmy and Grace really encouraged was putting relationships first, doing the work of community building that will “grow our souls” as they put it. They also were really focused on this idea of visionary organizing that informs so much of what we do at DJC. So this idea that it’s not enough to talk about what we’re tearing down, we actually have to take responsibility for dreaming and imagining and creating a better way of being in community together and creating the world that we want.
CASEY: Yeah. I don’t know what I would even add to what Amanda said. I think so for me, when I think about the legacy of Grace and Jimmy’s work, one thing that really stands out is the importance of digging into where you live, as opposed to looking for the sort of journey of moving from city to city to city, being rooted in place. And what that means, it sort of provides the context for what I think Amanda was just saying, because they were able to build these programs that then people are meeting each other at and developing these relationships over years and spans of time. So it’s like all the time I run into people, it’s like, oh yes, I know this person from way back at Detroit Freedom Summer and this year. And that’s how I met this person. And this is how all of this movement has happened over time. And a lot of it is rooted in just being in the same space and community together and building out of that. Okay. So Grace and Jimmy come to Julia’s high school in 1992, looking to recruit teenagers to join this new organization they founded: Detroit Summer.
JULIA: And when I heard their idea that there was a crisis in Detroit, but in every social justice crisis, young people had made the difference and they had hoped that young people would be interested in making a difference in Detroit, by revitalizing it, re-spiriting and rebuilding it from the ground up. I became the very first young person to sign up for the program.
AMANDA: So Julia becomes the first young person to join Detroit Summer. Grace and Jimmy become mentors to her. Julia grows up, she goes to college. She becomes a teacher at a Detroit charter school. And within a few years she realizes…
JULIA: Oh, this is not a place where my voice is valued. This is not a place where I’m going to have any say in what happens. The leadership skills that I do have are of no interest.
CASEY: So Julia and a group of teachers and parents and community organizers start to think about opening their own school and not just any school, but a place that creatively addresses the current circumstances Detroit finds itself in. A place that takes to heart the lessons Jimmy and Grace planted them.
JULIA: You know, Jimmy used to say it is only in relation to other bodies and many somebodies that any of us is anybody. And that is without question. Like I would never be a school administrator by myself. I need my girls. I need my team.
AMANDA: After years of planning, the James and Grace Lee Boggs school opened on the lower east side of Detroit, just a short distance from Grace and Jimmy’s house.
AMANDA ROSMAN: My name is Amanda Rosman and I’m the executive director and co-founder of the school.
MARISOL TEACHWORTH: My name is Marisol Teachworth, a co-founder of the Boggs School.
JULIA: My name is Julia Putnam and I am the principal and the co-founder of the Boggs School.
AMANDA: After a quick break, we’ll be back with the founders of the Boggs School.
WHITLEY: Hi, I’m Whitley Granberry. And I’m a staff attorney in the Detroit Justice Center’s Economic Equity Practice. The concept of equity has become a bit of a buzz word that gets tossed around in conversations about diversity and inclusion, because people want to be seen as doing the work to address the historical and systemic oppression of marginalized groups. However, one of the surest ways to create true economic equity is to build it into the structure of an organization and make it intergenerational. That’s what makes the work I do at DJC, like creating work around cooperatives and community land trusts, meaningful, knowing that we’re giving people tools to sustain equity for future generations. If you want to support this work, feel free to donate at detroitjustice.org/donate.
CASEY: Now would probably be a good time for me to say that I actually worked at the Boggs School for a year as a community teacher, teaching arts and writing. And what I remember most about my experience teaching at the Boggs School is it feeling very different from any other public education setting I’d ever been in as a student or as a teacher because it really felt to me like every student understood that they were loved unconditionally by the teachers and staff in that building.
AMANDA: So I would love to hear from each of you. So when we talk about these, you know, philosophies of Jimmy and Grace’s, when it comes to education, like what is it about the philosophy that’s different in terms of how you approach education at the Bogg’s School?
JULIA: I think, um, one important thing is that they talked a lot about building community and that’s one of the ways in which you learn. And they also talked about the idea that if you want young people to be citizens and to be able to be an active part of the community, that they needed to practice that not just go through school and then come out at 18 expected to know how to be citizens without having practiced democracy, without having practiced being in community with other people, practiced being in conflict. And they believed very much that our, they would call Detroit one of our dying cities and the young people needed to be a part of reviving them. That was the call to Detroit Summer. And that one of the ways in which to provide for our cities is to include young people in the process. And school was the perfect place to begin doing that work. And so school should benefit the community and the community should benefit the school. That was kind of like the reigning, the beginning kind of nugget.
AMANDA: Here is Marisol:
MARISOL: I mean the same for me too. Like the two things like the sense of community, right. School should be a part of community, communities should be a part of school. And in other experiences that I had, there was very clear division. Like community is not welcome in the school, parents aren’t welcome in the school. And I thought that there was something wrong with that and that things could be a different way. And then as Julia said earlier, like really respecting that youth voice that young people often can add a tremendous amount of value to a conversation, especially when it comes to new ideas or asking questions, because they’re curious, that help adults. And so, this idea of like working or creating space where children are really respected.
CASEY: Here’s Amanda Rosman, the Boggs School ED.
AMANDA ROSMAN: And I remember hearing Julia say a lot that when she was 16, she just wasn’t used to adults saying, so what do you think the answer is? And then sitting there and waiting and actually wondering what the answer was. And I didn’t, I, you know, I met Grace in my early twenties, but even then I was like, I didn’t know I was supposed to be at this table contributing to what the elders have—I thought it was done and decided! But it sort of evolved to where we think about in the school that, you know, we’ve empowered our kids. We’ve told them that their voices are important. And then after maybe, I dunno, maybe it was a year, maybe it was a week, we realized that they had unbridled activism and thought that all we should hear were their voices. And so then we had to really think about how to responsibly teach activism that shows their responsibility in having a voice and what they bring to the table and not just demanding things, but creating things, which was something I took from Grace and her moving from sort of fight against something to creating something new on top of it all. And I think we see that our teachers have really embraced that with our students, I think, and we’re all sort of evolving in that way.
JULIA: One thing I’d add too, is this, we also talked very deliberately about redefining success. And when I was growing up and I’m the only native Detroiter in the group, but the message was that success meant that you could leave Detroit that you could get a job that would take you away. And as opposed to success meaning you have the skills to contribute to the community and contribute to making it better. And we wanted our kids to feel the sense of responsibility to the city and the place in which they grew up. And even if they left it, it was not because they had to do so in order to be successful, but because they decided to leave because it contributed to their own their selves and their sense of what they needed to do to be successful and contribute to the wellbeing of their community, whatever community they chose that to be. And also the idea that a four year college degree is not necessarily the end all be all definition of success, that there are many ways and many paths to success for many different kids. And so we try really hard to bring that home to where our students.
AMANDA: So I’m curious, kind of what this looks like day to day. I mean, I certainly feel as an admirer of the Boggs center from afar, this like just radiating beloved community. I mean, I, you know, saw over the weekend, the photos of the cooking class that you guys had with Baba Wayne and Curtis, and like, and I feel every time I look, there’s just like something you guys are doing to create community, build community, ground the young people in community. And so I’m just curious about examples of what this looks like in practice day to day.
JULIA: Well, I’ll talk about some of the ways it looks in practice academically. So we use a place-based model of education. So it’s learning rooted in the local. And so as much as possible, we try to take the Michigan State standards and embed them in the ways we look at the culture and history and geography of the place that the school is in, and to root the kids in that. And so how do we help the kids love their place and love the environment of their place and so that they feel some stake in preserving it and taking care of it. And one of the ways we do that is through science. Our teacher had our middle school students actually helping track air quality data in the community. There was one group that worked with the Detroit river international wildlife refuge, because they had been dealing with this…They were trying to create the refuge but were dealing with this invasive species called phragmites. And so they wrote a challenge letter to our science class and they got in groups and they all studied different ways to address this invasive species. And the group that won their idea was to use goats because goats eat the phragmites right down to the root so that they don’t regenerate. And they presented, the group that won the challenge, got to present at the community forum. And this was a forum in front of scientists and farmers who also were dealing with invasive species. And as the kids were presenting, those people in the audience were asking questions and the kids were answering them based on their research and the teacher, the science teacher leaned over to me and said, “I didn’t even know. They knew that.”
MARISOL: Yeah. I mean, I, I think that, you know, one of the main purposes of school is to better know yourself. What am I good at? What are my strengths? What am I challenged by? And so part of that is like, school could be a place, needs to be a place that brings these experiences and exposes young people to things beyond the academic instruction. And so most of my work deals with like how to bring these experiences to kids just so that our little people can grow into older people, you know, who, who can do lots of things. And part of our core ideology, like achieve ambitious goals and live lives of meaning. So you know, where have they traveled? We go to winter camp, they’re building five. They learn how to build a fire or ski, or use the compass. Going to Northern Michigan and seeing the Great Lakes and experiencing, and living and being in some of the things that they’ve studied about, you know, I think that’s important growing your own food. We have a roots to fruits program. Why do we grow our own food? How do you grow your own food? Cooking your own food, preparing a meal. I mean, these are things that traditionally don’t fit into schooling. But I think at this school it’s important for our young people to be exposed and to have those experiences, you know, what is Avalon and how do you make bread? I mean, if we provide these opportunities for our young people, then they’ll better understand who they are and what will make them successful or how they want to become successful in the future. So there’s lots of things from, you know, how do you change a tire on your bike to, you know, how do you make an important phone call or order something? And actually Amanda has been putting together like a life skills curriculum that we’re getting ready to roll out that we’re really excited about. But I think about schooling, less about schooling and like, how are we humanizing education and how are we helping our little people grow into big people that can do lots of things and have a good sense of who they are and what their purpose is? I think also one of the things, I guess this is not so specific about the Boggs school, but one of the things that I would want people to know that it is possible to create a school where you are re-imagining education is possible to do that
AMANDA: Education, so often, is just about training people to be good workers and good servants of capitalism. And instead what places like the Boggs School are doing is raising people to be more human, human beings, to band together and build community to subvert capitalism and oppression.
CASEY: Absolutely. Yeah. And also be critical thinkers, right? And like take any issue and look at it and say, how do we get to the root causes of this? And, once we know what the root causes are, how do we address them in a way that shifts the conversation? Right. I think very often about a project that the bug school did around the incinerator here in Detroit. And these were, I think the third grade class was learning about climate change and the environment and their local community. And within, I think within years of that, that third grade class doing that project, they’re seeing the incinerator shut down and understanding like their, they were part of a conversation that led to actual like change in their community for the better. So that’s the kind of work that I’ve, I find inspiring. It’s beyond just like a civics class or civic engagement. It’s really about a framework that is more of a liberatory practice than it is like teaching to a test in all of these ways. So, yeah, and not about rote memorization, but instead about how to be curious about the world and how to love the world and be committed to the world and to community by first being curious about it and learning how to follow that curiosity. So the last question that I’m going to ask for all three of you is the question that we ask everybody on the podcast, which is what are your freedom dreams? If you think 20 to 50 years in the future, what is the legacy that you hope your work now will leave behind?
JULIA: My dream is 20 years from now, a Boggs’ student is leading the school or Boggs’ students are leading the school. And they’re able to say that what we did was a bridge to what they’re able to do.
AMANDA ROSMAN: I would say I was going to say the same thing. I hope that, and if it seemed dreamy before, it seems so real now that some of our kids are in high school and just like dominating the high school life, that you know, that we see them in every realm that they’re owning their own businesses or that they’re, you know, makers and creators or they’re in government or whatever it is they want to do. And then that they’re sustaining, you know, they’re feeding back into our school that people who went here are working here, that they’re bringing their kids here, that the effect of the school can be seen in the neighborhood in a positive way. But yeah, that our school sort of feeds itself and the three of us can kind of step back and not bear all the stress of it and just watch, watch the magic go.
MARISOL TEACHWORTH: And my hope is that the school we, the staff students, families stays dedicated to the mission of the school so that our young people, you know, are leading the school are in positions of power, political power, whatever community power, whatever that means we’ve provided the space and the learning experiences and opportunities for our young people to become the adults that we all hope our children to become.
AMANDA: Freedom Dreams is a production of the Detroit Justice Center. Special thanks to our team, Zak Rosen, our producer, as well as Lawrielle West and Elana Maloul for research and assistance.
CASEY: The Freedom Dreams theme song is by Asante, artwork is by Gunnar and Hobbes. If you want to learn more about today’s episode, head to freedomdreamspodcast.com, where you can send in your freedom dreams.
AMANDA: You can also write to us on social media, we’re freedomdreamspod on Instagram and freedomdreampod on Twitter.
CASEY: If you feel compelled to donate to the work we do, you can find us at Detroitjustice.org/donate.
AMANDA: And lastly, if you love this show and want us to find a wider audience, please leave us a rating or review at Apple Podcasts.