Influence comes in many forms, from high-profile advocates who are shaping ideas on an international stage to local heroes who are breaking barriers and defying expectations in their own communities. In our inaugural series celebrating influential Asian American women, Audrey Magazine highlights eight newsmakers, activists, leaders and trailblazers who encourage us to pursue our dreams, explore the unknown, and stand up for those without a voice. Story by Ada Tseng.
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Grace Lee Boggs used to think Martin Luther King, Jr. was naïve. At the time a Malcolmist, Marxist and Black Power activist, Boggs would dedicate many more decades to civil rights and labor movements in Detroit. Scholar and activist Angela Davis says in the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs: “Grace has made more contributions to the black struggle than most black people have.” And yet 35 years later, in 2004 when she was in her late 80s, Boggs would publish a column about revisiting King’s writings on nonviolence and how she came to believe his “prophetic vision is now the indispensable starting point for 21st-century revolutionaries.”
“Ideas have their power because they are not fixed,” says Boggs, who was such a big believer of conversations that she often recorded her fiery debates amongst her activist friends. “Once they’re fixed, they’re dead.”
The 98-year-old Boggs has been involved in the African American Movement for more than 70 years. A Chinese American woman who pre-dated both the Asian American movement and second-wave Women’s Movement concerned with gender inequality, Boggs’ first experience with activism came when she got involved with protests in the black communities of Chicago over rat-invested housing. A Ph.D. graduate in philosophy who was told they wouldn’t even hire “Orientals” in department stores, she worked for $10 an hour in a philosophy library and lived rent-free in a woman’s basement that was surrounded by rats.
Once Boggs witnessed the 1941 March on Washington Movement, which pressured President Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination, she was hooked on the power of mass movements as a tool for change. And when she married the late James Boggs, a black auto worker, union activist and writer who proposed to her on their first date, she found her kindred revolutionary spirit who would fight by her side for 40 years.
American Revolutionary director Grace Lee first captured Boggs on camera for The Grace Lee Project, a 2005 documentary about the many women around the country named “Grace Lee.”
“She blew my mind, as a Chinese American woman who devoted her life to radical revolutionary politics,” says Lee. “She had been steadily working on a very local level for so long without anybody knowing about her, and when I read her  autobiography, I was shocked. It was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
This is a woman who wrote radical leftist essays in the ’40s under her underground “party name” Ria Stone, had a thick FBI file that stated she must be Afro-Chinese, helped organize Dr. King’s 1963 Grand March down Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, and founded Detroit Summer, a multicultural program that encourages Detroit youth to transform the community. She still travels the nation as much as she can, and continues to host visitors in her home to listen to their ideas and reflect on how she can help them change the world.
While Boggs had never considered herself an Asian American activist, she’s become an icon that expands our notions of what an Asian American activist can be.
“When we think about Grace in the 20th century, she is very much an outsider,” Scott Kurashige, a historian who edited Boggs’ 2012 book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, says in the documentary. “[But] in the 21st century, she represents the uniting of people from different races and different backgrounds in a way that is now defining America.”
GRACE LEE BOGGS-ISMS
You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be.
Keep realizing that reality is changing and your ideas have to change. Don’t get stuck in old ideas.
History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.
Do something local. Do something real, however, small. And don’t diss the political things, but understand their limitations.
We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.
You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.
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