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  • I have no warm and fuzzy stories to tell about Grace. Grace was tough. I remember how she came to Milwaukee in the early 1980s and switched our local National Organization for an American Revolution (NOAR) chapter--of teachers, mostly--from community-based neighborhood organizing to unemployed organizing, in the face of the Rust Belt recession layoffs. There was no arguing with Grace. Still, I’m very proud that we were the group in Milwaukee with an informational leaflet when 20,000 people stood in line to apply for 200 jobs at A.O. Smith manufacturing. Then we followed up with informational picketing at the plant against overtime, robotization, and disinvestment outside the country. This was how to be “on time,” politically, and “of the place” where we lived. Milwaukee never recovered its family-supporting manufacturing jobs base in our “Machine Shop of the World.”

    What I loved most about Grace, and Jimmy Boggs too, was how their eyes would light up when they engaged with you in political discussions and follow-up organizing. They were clear headed, and luminous even, when they drew out your opinions, looked for your strengths, pushed your thinking and your organizing to a higher level. You would feel you were suddenly in a different league. (And you’d better be ready or you’d be in trouble for not doing your political homework.) What I learned from Grace and her husband and our colleagues from Muskegon and Detroit would serve me well in the decades following, especially in Green, environmental justice, and solidarity work with Native American activists who appreciated the strategic thinking and organizing skills I brought to the table.

    Grace and Jimmy may have been many things to many people, depending on which part of the Boggs’ legacy you touch. To my mind, they evolved to being revolutionary decentralists, which is why we studied Small is Beautiful economics, community schools educating to govern, and why they helped keynote the first national Green gathering in 1987 and helped me link with the Green City/bioregionalist movement. Grace always encouraged me as a writer and she modeled the difficult but dynamic dialectic of writing and activism. She encouraged me as a “theoretician,” as we used to say, though I have the distinction of being the Green theoretician that few, including the Green Party, take seriously. (You know, “the primary contradiction is now ecological,” as in The Sixth Extinction.) So I’ve long admired the Boggs circle that keeps them of continuing relevance and in print.

    My favorite part of the American Revolutionary documentary (Grace Lee on Grace Lee Boggs) was Grace working with young people in Detroit. Most striking was Grace’s ongoing hope and optimism which continued through, and perhaps fueled, her fiery intellect and dedication. It’s hard for me not to be deeply cynical about what has become of the Cities and where the Planet in going. I find hope these days when I work with young people who commit themselves to the organizing of today—here it’s Sacred Sites Run (2006-2009), Penokee Hills support (2012 to early-2015 when the mining proposal was withdrawn), and the climate justice movement. It keeps my cynicism in check. And what else can we do but support them and my own grandchildren in the days ahead?

    I’ll introduce my concluding remarks with a shout-out also to Dr. Jimmy Jackson of Muskegon. He taught Ellen and I to “put as many things into motion as you can.” Then, like a juggler, you deal with whatever ones come back to you and go with that. Nowadays, Ellen and I tend to do one thing at a time politically. We spend most of our time with gardens and grandkids. It turns out, despite all the other efforts and intentions of the NOAR years, our most lasting contribution to the Black community in Milwaukee has been our adopted and fostered children and now their children (our grandchildren), plus our 30+ years each as teachers in northside Milwaukee schools (our paying jobs; now retired), and our Block Watch organizing in all the northside neighborhoods we’ve lived in.

    We did return to the abandoned and shuttered A.O. Smith lot a few years ago for a candlelight vigil. The city had contracted with the Spanish firm Talgo to build high-speed rail cars for our region (and beyond), but Gov. Scott Walker in his first act as Governator in 2010 iced the contract and re-shuttered the plant and the hopes of the surrounding community.

    This is where we are in time and place today. But we remember fondly and with reverence all we learned and all we were inspired by Grace and her circle. From afar, we join with you in celebrating the amazing life and work of Grace Boggs.

    Rick Whaley (and Ellen Smith), October 2015

    The accompanying photo shows Grace, in a light mood, Halloween-time if we remember correctly, taking a break from heavy political meetings; with Rick Whaley, Milwaukee, circa 1982. Photo by Ellen Smith
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