A weekly magazine-style radio show featuring the voices and stories of Asians and Pacific Islanders from all corners of our community. The show is produced by a collective of media makers, deejays, and activists.
Join the Powerleegirls Miko Lee & Jalena Keane-Lee, a mother daughter team, as we continue with “We are the leaders” series. Episode three focuses on “Movement Builders”, people who have shaped or led the way for AAPI justice. We talk with Helen Zia about Vincent Chin and the start of the Asian American movement, we hear from Yuri Kochiyama about AAPI Black solidarity and we talk with Julia Putnam about the legacy of Grace Lee Boggs.
We are the leaders is inspired by ancestor activist Grace Lee Boggs quote, “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” The series is intended to be amplify our history of AAPI activism and inspire social change and action.
More information about what was discussed on the show.
Who Killed Vincent Chin? Christin Choy, Renee Tajima, 1988 documentary which Helen Zia is featured in and covers the hate crime in exceptional detail
Yuri Kochiyama – more info and short bio film about Yuri from Zinn Education Project
The James & Grace Lee Boggs School, led by guest Julia Putnam
The Boggs Center, which Grace and Jimmy founded, and lead Detroit Summer
7.16.20 WE ARE THE LEADERS Transcript
Opening: Asian Pacific expression. Unity and cultural coverage, music and calendar revisions influences Asian Pacific Islander. It’s time to get on board the Apex Express.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:00:32] Good evening. You’re tuned in to Apex Express. We’re bringing you an Asian American Pacific Islander view from the Bay and around the world. We are your hosts, Miko Lee and Jalena Keane-lee the powerlee girls, a mother daughter team, and tonight join us for our series, We are the Leaders, which will highlight our AAPI history of resistance and change from our ancestors to the leaders on the ground today, we will use the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a way to politically activate our community and amplify ways we can support each other. “We are the Leaders” is inspired by one of our ancestor activists. Grace Lee-Boggs quote. “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” So keep it locked on apex express.
Miko Lee: [00:01:13] Welcome to Apex Express, Helen Zia as a journalist scholar, activist, powerhouse woman, we are so thrilled to have you join us. Right now in this time of COVID-19 and racism. I’m wondering if you can just take a moment and talk with us about the similarities of our time right now, and when Vincent Chin was murdered on the streets of Detroit.
Helen Zia: [00:02:20] Unfortunately, It’s a historical commonality when there is a time of great crisis and misery and people are suffering that all too often, they are a susceptible to blaming other people and targeting them. So we’ve seen that at various times in history. The killing of Vincent chin was one of those times in 1982. And I just want to say for listeners that more recently, nine 11 was certainly a time that unleashed a great deal of hatred toward anybody thought to be Muslim. And the Islamophobia, but the similarity between today and the 1980s is, is really striking. So at that time there was a, a great economic shock and crisis to the country that began as an oil crisis in 1979 and, the manufacturing sector of the United States collapsed. So it began in the auto industry, where I worked, I was a, large press operator at a Chrysler stamping plant. And so I was one of the people laid off during that period, but, pretty much. The auto industry came to a halt and every industry that was part of the, supply chain, you know, whether it was tires and rubber or plastics and anything you can think of also collapsed.
So we’re talking about millions of workers in pretty high paying jobs that, suddenly lost everything. Lost homes lost. Second homes lost two or three cars lost recreational vehicles lost their future. Lost their children’s education. Lost everything that they had worked hard, all their lives for. And it looked like there was no, no safety net insight. I remember standing in unemployment lines that snaked around several city blocks and the dead of a Michigan winter and that you would be waiting there all day. In the hope that you would make it to the unemployment window in time to get a very small check.
And it was debated in Congress every six months, whether to continue unemployment, the, suffering index was incredibly high. And so was the feeling that somebody. Somebody had to be blamed for this. And there were a lot of debates that went back and forth. You know, the, the auto industry first blame the workers saying that the workers were lazy.
They were the cause of failure of the auto industry. The workers blamed the factories and I too saw just how decrepit and run down these factories were too. Produce defective parts that made the cars not desirable in a time that, you know, yes had gone up from 20 cents a gallon to $4 a gallon. So people couldn’t even afford to drive these cars and the people in Washington, you know, they were flinging accusations back and forth, but finally they all agreed that the true enemy to blame was Japan. You know, the language of war we’re at war. We’re talking about that. Now we’re at war. You know, blame China, blame, you know, and the GOP handbook actually says, you know, for this election coming up, this presidential election cycle, deflect, everything and blame China.
And unfortunately, that pump has been primed for quite a long time. To, to see China as the diabolical enemy out to destroy America, the strategic enemy. And so, so pointing the finger at China is definitely how this is going to go. And unfortunately, the Democratic Party looks like they’re going to go there too. It’s going to be a real race to the, to the depths of where, racism can go. And, and so the kind of anger and racism that happened in the 1980s that led to the murder of Vincent chin. We’re seeing at the very beginnings today.
Miko Lee: [00:06:37] And now the more millions are even unemployed and there’s questions around cutting out unemployment and, and running out of unemployment. So it’s feels like it’s magnified at an even greater level than during that time.
Helen Zia: [00:06:53] Oh, Oh, definitely. It definitely magnified at a much greater level because every sector in American society is, is as underwater. You know, the numbers of people unemployed and it’s worldwide. So we know that this global recession that could become a global depression, economists can’t even tell us when they foresee anything, you know, opening up here. And then you put on top of that, that people are getting sick and dying. We’ve got the economic, misery and the public health crisis, which we already see is causing, a lot of conflict, in Washington and in the white supremacy house to elevate, the economy over people’s health, but either way you put it, People are suffering. And so they’re very receptive. People are receptive to blaming someone else and taking out their frustration and pain on others. And those who are open to violence and racism, they’re there, it’s happening.
Miko Lee: [00:08:00] There was during the Vincent chin time, this galvanizing of solidarity among communities to stand up and really helped to coalesce the Asian American rights movement. I’m wondering what you see from that time that we can learn from, to apply to the time we’re living in now.
Helen Zia: [00:08:20] Yes. I mean, there are lessons that we can learn from there’s no question. We cannot overcome the covert crisis or the pandemic of racism unless we come together. And so in the 1980s, what happened was, Vincent chin was killed. We’re looking Japanese. He was a Chinese American. And what made even, that racist. Attack and hate crime even worse was that his killers who were two white autoworkers, got off Scott free; basically they got probation and fines. And the judge said in a city of Detroit, he said, these are not the kind of men you sent to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not to the crime.
In other words, well, these two white guys don’t have to go to jail for beating somebody to death. And then what does that mean about who should be punished in a city like Detroit, which was, even then, you know, about 70% African American. So there was a large uproar throughout the city. People were just, just appalled, you know, all people of conscience, you know, said, what do you mean? You’re going to let murderers killers off scott free it’s almost like we get the message every day that people can’t come together, people are just to, two divided. Well, in fact, people do come together and we had had many historical periods where people of very different backgrounds came together and in the Vincent chin case, you know, it was not only Asian Americans and that came together and, and remembering that time. And then I actually knew the eighties, Asian Americans were not together. Vincent chin was a Chinese American Chinese community had to come together with the Japanese community, which was being targeted and. You know, the, the Southeast Asian and Filipino and South Asian they were all separate.
So the Asian American community came together in a pan Asian movement. And so did the allies all around us. We knew that we were. Too small a community to do this on our own. , The various African American civil rights organizations and churches came out. So all of that, just like any organizing really took taking time to reach out to each other, to sit down and talk, and there would be leaders in different communities who would open that door for us. It was a very, very broad based multiracial, multicultural, united effort to try to do something that helped launch an Asian American civil rights movement. And we need that today very much. Because it’s, you know, Asian Americans are being targeted and blamed, but we also see all of the disparities in health, who’s black and Brown people who are making up many of the essential workers who are getting sick at a much higher rate and, and, and death. There was a Chronicle article that came out the other day saying that the death rate among Asian Americans also is among the highest of all of the different racial groups. And so what what’s causing that well, it’s the systemic racism that has existed, and when people say we want to get back to normal, no, we don’t want to go back to normal. Actually, the virus is showing us all the fault lines that we knew were there, but it really is a matter of life and death. The idea that we can’t come together really has to be banished it’s part of the poison that, keeps us from coming together and is actively fomented actually from, white supremacists, including in the white house who realize keeping people divided is a way that they can continue and keep their power.
Miko Lee: [00:12:19] There have been times in our American history where we have fought back, the third world women movement in this building of the ethnic studies programs at San Francisco state. And there’s been so many others where people have come together. What do you think about like this time right now, of different people of color coming together and helping to reshape the American story, do you feel that’s happening? Is that something you can kind of read in the, in the tealeaves based on your experience?
Helen Zia: [00:12:50] I do. I believe not only can that happen, but it must happen everybody is under siege and it’s very clear that, none of us can solve this alone, no group, whether that’s political, racial, you know, sexual orientation. Gender, or political party, none of us can do it alone. It really is going to take everybody working together and to, to kind of, you know, tune out all of the noise, that are aimed to keep us divided.
Looking at American society, people of color in California, for example, are already in the majority. If we could unite, we would be in the majority. And then you layer on that, that people of conscience from every color and walk of life are vastly and majority yet we haven’t yet come together and this crisis has to be a wake up call for all of us. And you know, California is one of about a dozen States that have already crossed that milestone. Within the next 10 years, the entire country is going to be majority people of color. And what does that mean? That means if we just. Tune out the messages that keep saying, Oh, you’re too divided. You know, the, anti-black views within the Asian community anti-Asian views within the black community, black and Brown versus yellow and white, and dividing, you know, having that narrative divide us continually is just. Serving that purpose to keep us divided. If we came together in what we have in common, we really are the majority and we could really make some change and we have to make change because people are getting sick and dying within our communities. That’s the vision, we have to hold on to, I, I do think we’ll get there. We have done it before many, many times in, in our history, so, that’s, those are the lessons we need to draw from and seek out the unity that we really do have.
Miko Lee: [00:15:03] Some of the key figures in really holding up that unity and helping us to realize the social justice movement have been women and particularly mothers. From Emmett Till’s mom to the founders of black lives matter. There’s been so many women and moms that have really helped. The leaders. And I’m wondering about your experience of working with Vincent Chin’s mom, because without her, we would have also not, be so aware of his case.
Helen Zia: [00:15:33] If it hadn’t been for Lilly, chin Vincent’s mother, she was the inspirational leadership for all of us to, to follow her, her willingness, to keep fighting and bearing her pain over and over again, to to say, no other mother, no other family should have to suffer this. Her quest for justice was what really kept this movement going. And it is women. You know, we’ve already noticed, I think some, some of the world has noticed that it’s the countries that have had women leaders at the helm that have done the best with, fighting this virus. Leaders aren’t having the big egos that say it’s all about me. We can look to the women leaders. I think that would take us very far.
Miko Lee: [00:16:22] What do you want young activists to know about our API activist history?
Helen Zia: [00:16:30] I would love for the API younger activists today to know that we have such a rich history of activism that goes back to our first days on this continent. They should be proud of that. And to know that they’re carrying on a very rich and strong legacy. Forward. When, Martin Luther King and the other civil rights activists were crossing the Pettis Bridge, that famous March through Selma, Alabama, they were all wearing leis. I was very sad to see that the movie that just got made about that, show them without the leis. Where did the leis come from? They came from, activists in Hawaii who were supporting that March and many. People many Asian people were also there.
Miko Lee: [00:17:21] My dad was there.
Helen Zia: [00:17:23] He was, yes.
Miko Lee: [00:17:25] My dad was a Reverend Dr. Robert Lee and he marched, he was one of the, that was my feeling about seeing that movie too. I loved it. I love Ava’s work, but I was saying, where are our people that they were part of the story? My dad was part of the story. So.
Helen Zia: [00:17:41] Absolutely, and wow, that’s, that’s so wonderful to, to know that your dad was part of that. And so, so what we see is even today with such a wonderful movie to, to, commemorate and, and embed. That moment in all of our psyches is missing a historical piece, because any photograph of that time, you see, the involvement of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that were there. So we get erased. I want young activists today to know that yes, we have been marginalized erased. I call it MIH that we are at so often missing in history. The only thing that’s going to change that is our voices. We have to restore that history. We were there and. It’s just that other people don’t know that. We’ve done a lot to, affect the lives of every American. That was true for the Vincent chin case. That was true after 9/11, the “me too” movement. Women who have survived, sexual harassment or sexual assault standing up at a trial, basing their accuser and saying, this is what that harm did, to me, part of that victim impact statement momentum for that also came from the Vincent Chin the fact that we can, be born in America and be citizens that’s because. Of a Chinese American back in the 1800’s who took that all the way to the Supreme Court. Brown versus board of education, the legal justification for that came from, a Chinese American laundry who objected to be taxed as separate. So that was a Supreme Court case to that then was the underpaid underpinnings for, Brown vs. board of education. The great grape boycott that was initiated by Filipino American farm workers and then involved Cesar Chavez and the, Chicano farm workers that was initiated by Asian Americans. We have so many things that we should, we can be proud of, but are MIH missing in history.
The only people who are going to have to point that out is us because we’ve been systematically removed from, from this history. And that’s part of the racism that we have to fight too. Asian American activists can be proud of the things that our forebears have done for us and for the whole country.
Miko Lee: [00:20:18] You’ve been a path maker pioneer in so many ways from, being the labor worker in Detroit and editor of Ms. Magazine and undercover and sweatshops and Chinatown and a pioneer in marriage equality. So much of your life is kind of embedded in this wanting to tell the missing in history, the story that hasn’t been told. How do you want our next generation to take that on?
Helen Zia: [00:20:45] None of us is just one-dimensional. We’re not just our race or our sexual orientation or gender or. Our ability or any of that it’s that we are humans. So we have many dimensions and we’re complex beings. So to whatever energy and extent, every one of us has to raise our voices and raise our hands. No matter what the issue is, if we can, if we can do that and speak from our hearts about our own authentic experiences. By raising your hand and speaking and standing up no matter which arena you know, of, social justice and equality and, all of that, no matter what it is, then we make a difference. We, we show up in all of our complexity, wherever we do that, it really makes a difference. And that’s where organizing comes in too so that we’re not the only ones, you know, that the task is to get other people to speak up too. And then we have a movement and the potential for great change.
Miko Lee: [00:21:49] Thank you for your wisdom as always. We really appreciate you.
Helen Zia: [00:21:53] Well, thank you for having me, Miko, and thank you for all the great work that you’re doing. Such important conversations.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:22:00] Next up, listen to Blue Scholars Ode to Yuri Kochiyama.
That was Blue Scholars, Ode to Yuri Kochiyama. When we first envisioned the series, one of the first ancestor activists that came to mind was URI. I was raised with an understanding of the legacy of solidarity that she represented and saw her speak at community events. And I’m still inspired by her lifetime of activism.
Yuri Kochiyama was born in the Bay area. And as a 21 year old was incarcerated at camp Jerome in Arkansas. One of the concentration camps that held 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens during World War II, she has talked about how that illegal act helped shape her political identity. And then after World War II, Yuri moved with her husband, bill to New York, where they raised their six kids in a low-income housing project in Harlem.
Miko Lee: [00:24:56] She spent time at the Harlem freedom school, a grassroots organization advocating for safer streets and school integration and learning about black history from black speakers, artists, and activists. It was through the Harlem freedom school that Yuri first met Malcolm X. Let’s listen to Yuri describe Malcolm X coming to her house.
Yuri Kochiyama: [00:25:15] came here to meet with some of the writers of the Hiroshima Nagasaki book, peace study mission, because they wanted to meet Malcolm more than any other person in the United States. I think they were curious to know why the U S government would be so afraid of just one black leader.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:25:37] Next up, listen to Yuri at Asian American heritage month, at Laney college in 2002. She speaks about the hidden history of interactions between Asians and Africans and Asian Americans and black Americans.
Yuri Kochiyama: [00:25:50] That’s the year that the us government launched a Chinese Exclusion Act, this act or law rule that Chinese will not be allowed to come into this country again. And yet this act went into effect just after the Chinese spent years building the railroad tracks from the police. Pacific coast to the Midwest.
There was only one lone voice that oppose this order, the Chinese Exclusion Act this courageous person was a black man. The first black then became centered the Senator in Mississippi, Senator Blanche, K Bruce, Bruce felt an Exclusion act was an outright show racism. There were no other Exclusion Acts before. This was, he felt there would surely be more people who would be excluded and send away from him.
[00:27:00] I think the sensitivity to the Chinese was because he was himself black and had experienced many such situations. He fought against the bill that himself, of course, the bill for years and years, Chinese were not allowed to come in, but we as Asians, we must never forget those. Trying to assist us in our journey as this lone black Senator did, you will not find everything in school textbooks, we must dig them and find them ourselves.
In 1899, Roosevelt’s United us army invaded the Philippines and committed one of the most horrendous massacres in history. Nearly a million Filipinos were killed. The black soldiers who were part of the us army were so shocked by the tower and I’ve talked to the Americans and because they were feeling more of a kinship with the brown skinned Filipinos, the black soldiers left the American army and went into the Hills and joined the Filipino guerillas. One of the blacks, David Fagan organized the black contingent of guerillas and fought side by side with the Filipinos. Of course you would not find this kind of story in American history books
Miko Lee: [00:28:49] Yuri worked on so many different issues. In addition to rights for the African American community. One of the things she’s probably most well known for is this iconic image of her in Life Magazine, cradling, Malcolm X, as he was assassinated. And I remember seeing that when I was young thinking, who is that Asian woman in the image? And I always wonder why her story wasn’t told. And so finding out more about her and all the work that she has done has been really powerful.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:29:17] Yeah. And she’s been involved in so many different stances and so many different political actions all throughout her extremely long life, which I think is just so impressive. And it’s such a testament to really committing to activism as a lifelong practice and not, and, you know, making it sustainable in some ways too, in order to be able to do it for so long. She’s been involved in anti imperialism and anti Vietnam War protest, labor organizing, supporting the development of ethnic studies. Prison abolition. And as a long time pen pal of Mumia Abul Jamal, and even co-founded Asians for Mumia, a collective of Asian and Asian Americans fighting for Abu Jamal’s release.
Miko Lee: [00:29:57] And she was also one of the people advocating for reparations for Japanese Americans that were incarcerated, such as herself and her whole family. She fought against racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims and South Asians after 9/11. So she was really doing intersectional work before that term was even something that was used so commonly. She has been a powerful member of our community and we really honor her. And the legacy she’s left behind is not just so many activists we know, but her own children like Audee Kochiyama, who is out there still working at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. And we’re so proud of the contributions that she has made. So next up, we’re going to listen to her great challenge to the API community.
Yuri Kochiyama: [00:30:39] Asian Americans must be more vocal, visible, and take stands on crucial issues. Hopefully Asians will side with the most dispossessed, oppressed and marginalized, remembering our own history. We Asians need to reshape our image from the rather quiet, ambiguous, accommodating uncomplaining, palatable people to a more resolute, sensitive advocate for human worth, human rights and human dignity.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:31:11] Wise words from the great Yuri Kochiyama. Next up, listen to Blue Scholars. No rest for the weary.
Welcome back. You’re tuned into apex express on 94.1 KPSA and 89.3 KPFB in Berkeley and [email protected] That was Blue Scholars. No Rest for the Weary.
Miko Lee: [00:33:39] Welcome Julia Putnam to Apex Express. We are so thrilled that you’re joining us. You are the co founder of the James and Grace Lee Boggs school in Detroit can you just first talk with us about how you very first met Grace Lee Boggs.
Julia Putnam: [00:33:53] I first met Grace Lee Boggs. When I was 16 years old, I had shown up to the opening ceremony for Detroit summer in 1992. Detroit summer was the youth program meant to rebuild a Reese spirit and redefined Detroit from the ground up and grace co-founded that organization with her late husband.
Miko Lee: [00:34:14] I understand that she sat behind you on your first day and asked you a question. What was the question?
Julia Putnam: [00:34:21] I remember her asking, what is it that I thought young people could do to, rebuild Detroit? And I remember thinking that was a huge question. I did not know the answer to it. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she asked it in a way that made me understand. She really thought I could contribute to that discussion. And that she took me seriously enough to believe that I could add to that and it made me think I need to take myself seriously enough, and I need to be thinking about these things.
Miko Lee: [00:35:00] So I understand that she was sort of famous for asking probing questions.
Julia Putnam: [00:35:06] Yes.
Miko Lee: [00:35:08] And sometimes it was, might’ve been hard, right?
Julia Putnam: [00:35:11] They were almost always hard questions if you came to visit her and we’ll talk with her way without doing what she thought was your proper homework, she would be very dismissive. And just like, why am I spending my time with someone who isn’t thoughtful? So you didn’t ever want it to be in that situation with grace?
Miko Lee: [00:35:30] I understand that, Grace and Jimmy’s house was sort of like an activist boot camp, that there are always people around that were working on issues. Can you describe a little bit about what their household was like?
Julia Putnam: [00:35:41] People who have long time been in their movement say that there’s no activist in Detroit who has not visited Jimmy and Grace’s home. And it’s a warm place. It’s got a living room where there are just couches and chairs and books. And when you would walk in, you would be greeted by Jimmy and Grace. And just greeted by a great conversation. They would often have things for you to read articles you should take away, videos you should watch. There so many more people who could speak to that, than me who came to the house, later in their years. And they had been doing so much work for decades before I came to the fold.
Miko Lee: [00:36:25] So you were 16 though. When you, when you first started working and signed up for Detroit summer, right?
Julia Putnam: [00:36:33] Detroit summer was geared towards young people. So it was very specifically for 14 years old, into college age. There would be young people, high schoolers and college students working with longtime activists. We would have intergenerational dialogues weekly where the young people would come up with the question and interview an elder and then have a conversation amongst all of us about a particular topic. And it was really impactful for me as a high school student to see college students engaging in this work and taking it further beyond high school. It just helped me understand that there was not only a history of activism in Detroit, but that I could see myself as doing this for the long-term.
Miko Lee: [00:37:21] Why do you think intergenerational dialogue was so critical to grace?
Julia Putnam: [00:37:28] I think it’s because Grace understood the importance of dialectics that elders could come up with solutions to problems, but that it wouldn’t be the end of those problems. They would bring up new contradictions and new things to think about and new problems to solve. And it was important for young people to be engaged and in order for the work to continue, the young people would have to continue that work and they have to do it while being rooted in history and rooted in what came before. The wisdom of that and the lessons of that. And also young people energized older people, and vice versa. I just think that she thought that there was so much that generations could learn from one another.
Miko Lee: [00:38:14] What is one of your strongest memories of grace?
Julia Putnam: [00:38:19] I was 19 or so I was her intern for a summer. My role is I saw it was helping grace to organize her, study she would have these, cardboard folders that would contain articles that she read over the years or newspapers. And she would label topics and put these articles in newspapers, in those folders. And a lot of the newspapers were yellowing a lot. A lot of the papers were kind of just jammed in there. And I would say, you know, grace, you’ve written an article on this already, or the newspaper that exists here digitally, we should get rid of these or we can throw these away. And she was very resistant to that. And it was really frustrating because I thought, well, what am I supposed to be doing here? And I came to her one time, really troubled. And I said to her, you know, it feels like we’re arguing a lot. And she grinned me and she said, “I know it’s great, isn’t it we’re struggling.”
And she said it was such joy. And it helped me understand that for her arguing conflict struggling was not a negative thing. She was saying, as we’re learning from one another, we are frustrating one another, which is moving us toward forward. And I. It helped me to not be so afraid to be in conflict with people that I cared about to be in conflict with people that I trusted. I can have an opinion that is different from hers. And she sees that as okay. Because it means that we’re struggling through something. That was really helpful and continues to help me in my work today.
Miko Lee: [00:39:59] I love that story. Can you also talk about how she signed her letters? How she did her sign off?
Julia Putnam: [00:40:06] She would sign off ” in love and struggle, grace,” that love doesn’t come without struggle. And that when we communicate with one another, we are communicating out of love and we are also communicating out of the struggle we have with one another.
Miko Lee: [00:40:20] She’s really saying the struggle is messy and it’s hard, but it’s all part of it.
Julia Putnam: [00:40:26] It’s all part of it. Yeah,
Miko Lee: [00:40:28] What do you feel is the legacy that she leaves behind? And obviously with her husband, Jimmy too.
Julia Putnam: [00:40:34] When we asked for permission to name the school after her, the James and Grace Lee Boggs school, she said yes, but with the challenge that we would have to as the school founders think beyond what we even believe is possible. I am one of the cofounders along with Amanda Rossman and Marisol Teachworth and the three of us together. As three women, three women of different ethnicities, very much love and struggle together and also take it very seriously. This idea that we’ve been indoctrinated as to what school is and when things get hard, we will deflect to what we know.as opposed to continue to imagine something different. And so we often challenge ourselves with that and challenge our staff and we all challenge one another to, are we thinking beyond what we believe it’s possible? What is the, what is beyond the binary that we’re being stuck in right now?
Well that’s the legacy that grace leaves to us that is very important. And the other thing is that again, the idea of her taking young people seriously, and she saw young people as solutionaries, people who are able to problem solve to see a challenge and come up with solutions for it. She saw young people as, especially creative in their ability to do that. And so. On the school, t-shirts that kids get there’s the, the Boggs school logo, but on the back it says “Solutionary” and the kids really take on that identity. They take it very seriously. They take it very personally. Often when they come up with a solution to a problem, they’ll just kind of put their fingers up and just. “I’m a solutionary, I figured it out.” and, and having that identity, as young people is, has been really important to our school, for all of us.
Miko Lee: [00:42:25] I love that. I was really excited to visit your school a couple of years ago and meet you. And I was struck by one, of course, the engaged students and also the beautiful artwork that was all around. And I think there’s a mural in there that has that grace quote. “We must believe we have the power within us to create the world a new.” Which really kind of speaks to what you’re talking about, that leaving behind this idea of thinking about the world in a different place. Can you share one example about how your school, embodies that, how you, transform the traditional kind of systemic public education system and use it in a different way?
Julia Putnam: [00:43:06] We’re still thinking about how to do that and still challenging ourselves, beyond what’s traditional. But one way we do that is that we use a place-based model of education and learning, and we belong to a network of schools, that do that. And so every year there is a community forum that, that, that organization, the coalition puts together Simeon. Southeastern Michigan stewardship coalition and the community forum is a time in which the community comes together to be the audience for children’s learning. And so, the kids are presenting and the kids are teaching us.
Miko Lee: [00:43:44] That’s great. I love that. Going really back to when you first met her. I mean, there’s not that many Asian American folks in Detroit, right.
Julia Putnam: [00:43:51] Remember there being a Chinese restaurant and Charles was, Kind of the outlier, the last remaining Chinese restaurant in what was Chinatown in Detroit. And so, and I learned that there was huge Hmong population, in Detroit and that Asian Americans actually did have, and existence, it’s just the Detroit. So segregated and the conversation is often so centered around black and white, that there isn’t room. There hadn’t been room for this conversation about Asian Americans and there hadn’t been visibility, from, from my perspective as an African American growing up. So that was another gift that Detroit summer gave me, but also it is true that grace surrounded herself in the black power movement and in the black struggle. And so she was often seen as an, as an outlier. But she isn’t alone in Detroit. And I think that it’s her work in Detroit summer and people finding her young, Asian American activists, finding her and using her story as a way to develop their own identity and their own voice in activism in Detroit really allowed her to, Connect with her Asian American identity. And I just want to give a shout out because the mural that you mentioned in the school was made by Katie Yamasaki, who is Japanese America again. And has written children’s stories about, the internment and also just joyful stories about her cousins and growing up with them. And so even to have that presence in the school and have the kids know that Katie is the granddaughter of a famous architect in Detroit, Japanese architect in Detroit is another way in which we’re making, beyond black and white visible in our school.
Miko Lee: [00:45:45] I’m wondering if there are thoughts that you feel Grace would be teaching right now in this time.
Julia Putnam: [00:45:51] I think Grace would be highlighting that fact of the young people in the movement, their leadership in this movement think she would be encouraging us to listen to young people. I think she would be listening to young people. And I think that she would say, I actually think she’d be very excited by this time heartbroken in the ways that we all are, but also excited that we are being forced in this moment to realize that things need to be reimagined. We are being forced to use our imaginations for how we stay connected in this time, how we educate in this time, how we, organize in this time, how we govern ourselves and how we think about governance in a completely different way than we’ve ever had to before. This is the moment where not only do we have to reimagine, but we also have to realize that we’re the leaders that we’re looking for.
She would often say when we were thinking about the school is that we don’t have a lot of leadership around education and certainly not around the education. We know that our communities need. She would say, “Julia, Amanda, Mani, you all have to imagine this differently yourself. You are the leaders that you’ve been looking for? No, one’s coming to figure this out for you.” And so, we feel as the founders that we, with our community of parents and students and community members are beginning to think about how to do this differently and to look to the leadership of young people.
Miko Lee: [00:47:20] Can you share about the school and how it got started and sort of what you feel are the, the greatest successes and then the ongoing challenges?
Julia Putnam: [00:47:29] James and Grace Lee Boggs school is a K through eight school on the East side of Detroit. We began planning the an offshoot of conversations that we’ve been having, we educators have been having increase in Jimmy’s home for many, many years. And in 2008, decided to formally plan a school that was based in the values that we have been discussing. The school opened in 2013, as a K through four school. And we’ve grown to include K through eight. And I think the successes of the school is that; it very much feels community-based that. I think young people feel as if their voices are valued.
I think family’s feel is if they truly are partners with us. We care for one another in very deliberate, ways, even when we struggle. We don’t always have the resources that we need to do all of the things that that we want, but we are able to do a lot with a little, including making sure that kids have arts and gym, and music, African drumming, and dance. And the kids see themselves very much as our mission, which is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the wellbeing of their communities.
I think ongoing challenges are continuing to feel restricted by, by the continuing belief in standardization in this country, and us not being able to imagine young people as being in charge of their education and their learning. And the fact that school funding is not equitable, or responsive to the needs, the very diverse needs of students and families. And that we also live in a system in which schools are relied on to provide social services that should be intact in other places, such as healthcare and food. And so those are the, ongoing challenges of education that I’m excited that are becoming more of a national conversation then they happened before.
I would also just say how glad I am to be in solidarity with so many people from all ethnicities right now and how good it feels to, for people to be discovering that we are. We all have a common struggle together, and that is equal rights and justice for all. And I’m proud to be part of Grace and Jimmy’s legacy. And I’m proud to be at this moment in time, struggling through what it means to be a free country.
Miko Lee: [00:50:16] In love and struggle, right?
Julia Putnam: [00:50:17] Amen. Yes.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:50:19] Next up, listen to George Jackson by the blue scholars.
Jalena Keane-Lee: [00:56:30] Over the next three months, every other week, we’ll continue with our series. “We are the leaders,” we’ll feature ancestors and current social justice activists, such as Helen Zia, Audee Kochiyama and Saru Jayaraman. Join us to carry on the legacy of our activist ancestors, because like Grace Lee-Boggs says “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”
Miko Lee: [00:56:52] Please check out our website, kpfa.org to find out more about we are the leaders and the guests we spoke to and how you can take direct action. We thank the San Francisco foundation for helping us to set up home studios and supporting the, we are the leader series. We thank all of you listeners out there.
Keep resisting, keep organizing, keep creating and sharing your visions with the world. Your voices are important. Apex express is produced by Preti Mangala-Shekar, Tracy Nguyen, Miko Lee Jalena Keane-Lee and Jessica Antonio. Tonight’s show was produced by your hosts, Miko Lee, and Jalena Keane-Lee thanks to KPFA staff for their support and have a great night.
Thanks to the San Francisco Foundation for making this series and our home “studio” possible.