The Why and How of Visionary Organizing By Grace Lee Boggs

The Why and How of Visionary Organizing

By Grace Lee Boggs

Sept 29 – Oct 6 2012

At this time on the clock of the {R}evolution, movement activists need to discuss and struggle around different forms of Organizing. That is what I hope this column will trigger.

During my lifetime I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from two gifted visionary organizers: University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant and Jimmy Boggs who was my husband and partner in struggle for forty years.

Bunyan’s contributions have been mainly in the field of Environmental Justice. I am looking forward to celebrating these at his upcoming retirement party.

Jimmy’s were in the plant and the community. From his experiences as an organizer he had learned that human beings are individuals and not just masses or members of a class or race. For example, as he used to say. “ Some workers organized the union; others had to be whipped into it. “

In the 1980s as our communities were disintegrating in the wake of deindustrialization, Jimmy wrote a number of articles which have been published in Part IV of Pages from a Radical Workers Notebook, compiled and edited by Stephen Ward., available at the Boggs Center.

In “Going where we’ve never gone before” and “Building Community: An Idea whose time has come, ” Jimmy recognized that while many, perhaps most people have been demoralized or immobilized by our disintegrating communities, there are also some who want to or are already trying to rebuild our communities.

So he initiated the program we called Detroit Summer to reach out to those in the second category.

That is what a Visionary Organizer does. S/he devises methods of Self-Selection through which visionaries can identify themselves and join with others.

That is why in the early 1990s, we created Detroit Summer, a multicultural intergenerational program to Rebuild, Redefine and Respirit Detroit from the ground up to bring together individuals who wanted to or were already doing this..

Only a few dozen people became involved in Detroit Summer but these few were individuals with the energy and the drive themselves to do something positive. Given the opportunity to work with others on different programs these natural leaders not only developed themselves and each other. They also inspired and developed us. Moreover, most of them became lifelong activists and leaders in the city of Detroit.

Our first volunteer was 16 year old Julia Pointer. Today Julia, the mother of two toddlers, is an organizer of the Boggs Educational Collective (BEC) which is starting a new neighborhood school to educate children by involving them in solving real questions in their/our communities.

That is how Visionary Organizing works. It is a method for identifying and helping leaders to develop, a process of Self-Selection and Self-Development . Movement organizers can help that process along but it has to be Self-Initiated.

Those movement organizers who do not understand or engage in this process are likely to begin acting like politicians, trying to impress or attract victims of the system by providing them with the needs and services denied them by the system.


Early this year Left Turn magazine published an article by Matt Birkhold, a Brooklyn-based writer and activist, entitled “Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing.” The article was an attempt to “clarify” a quote from a recent interview with Boggs in which she argues that young activists today should “Turn [their] back on protest organizing” because it leads them into “defensive operations. “ Instead, Boggs argues, activists should practice “visionary” organizing which “gives you the opportunity to encourage the creative capacity in people.”

The interview caused a small stir. “Fans of Grace” treated her argument as “common sense,” while others felt like her position “bordered on conservatism.”

Subsequently Left Turn published “A Critical Reply,” full of quotes from Marx, Engels and David Harvey.


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