The Boggs School Oral History Project: Linking Youth and Elders to the Past, Present and Future

Cassandra Van Dam co-authored this post. Cassandra, a junior at the University of Michigan, is studying Women's Studies with a minor in Community Action & Social Change. She hopes to obtain a masters in social work and continue to pursue the field of alternative education once she finishes her degree.

Front (left to right): Nova Thomas, Laverne Albright Ethridge and Lucia Putnam; Back (left to right): Rene McLemore, Na'Kyah Adjuman, Michaela Jenkins, Angel Baker, Athena Baker, Eliza Baker and Maya Wheeler.

On Detroit's east side, a school exists that offers an alternative vision to the future of education. Named after James and Grace Lee Boggs, the school promotes the revolutionary teachings of these significant Detroit activists. Its core values include community empowerment, trusting authentic relationships between teachers and students, and high levels of critical thought, creativity, and learning. Currently serving 79 students, K-5, the Boggs School is a community-based school in a predominantly Black neighborhood that is creating future change makers who have pride in where they come from and possess the skills necessary to transform the world around them.

On Friday, December 5th, The James and Grace Lee Boggs School hosted "The Sophie Wright Celebration Day" to honor the stories of neighborhood residents through a collection of interviews and celebrate the legacy of the building the school resides in. The event also recognized the work that the Boggs School Oral History Club did to conduct and document interviews. The idea for this event was sparked by door-to-door, community conversations, initiated by the Boggs School's summer interns, which revealed the fond memories that neighbors have of the Sophie Wright. Settlement houses emerged in the U.S. during the 19th century and were a nexus for political activism and social service delivery, offering skill building workshops and helping to meet the basic needs of their communities ( The building continues its tradition of activism and community empowerment with the Boggs School.

At the event, a "Then and Now" photo exhibition revealed the building's continuing tradition of community empowerment by juxtaposing old photographs of community activities with current pictures of Boggs School students in classes and on field trips. A short film that compiled and honored the oral histories of community members was played. To make this history come alive, The Oral History Club, a student group, formed in October. The Oral History Club (Angel Baker, Na'Kyah Adjuman, Lucia Putnam, Maya Wheeler, Michaela Jenkins, Athena Baker, Nova Thomas, Rene McLemore and Eliza Baker) conducted community interviews after school and explored the importance of history. These students themselves defined history as a connection to their ancestors, information about why the world is the way it is, and hope for their future. Lucia Putnam, a second grader, says, "I love to learn what it was like back when the Boggs School was Sophie Wright."

Through conducting interviews, students discovered how the building was used as a settlement house, what effect the settlement house had on the transformation of community members in their youth, and how the neighborhood has changed over time. Laverne Albright Ethridge, a community member who was interviewed, said "I enjoyed sharing my stories and knowledge with the students at the Boggs School, who were very excited to learn about the history of the building." Athena Baker, a second grader, reflected on how the Oral History Club allowed her to "learn about the kind of history [she] needed to learn." In the process, the students made personal connections with local history and the lived experiences of community elders, which they valued as an important source of knowledge. Jackie Bell, a grandparent of a Boggs student, said "As a senior myself, I think it is important that children appreciate the seniors in their community and the knowledge and wisdom they have to share." This is reflected when Na'Kyah Adjuman, a third grader, says "I joined the Oral History Club to learn about my ancestors and what they experienced, so that I can learn from what they have done and it can help me do things in my future."

The Boggs School implements a place-based model of education, which incorporates local heritage and culture into the curriculum. In this way, students are taught to respect and learn from the community they live in. Maya Wheeler, a second grader, says "I learned more about people's history." The event brought students, families, staff and community members together. Fran Dorn, a community member featured in the film and grandmother of Boggs School students, encouraged students at the event to have conversations with their relatives and learn about their family history. Regarding the event, Janice Fialka says, "Children who may not readily take risks, stood in front of the audience to share. Older folks felt listened to and shared their stories with pride. So many lessons were learned at deep levels. History matters, stories matter, the past matters, community matters, artists matters, the future matters, we matter, and on and on." This event created a powerful space that engendered the kind of education that is transformative, humanizing, community-centered, and nurturing of a beloved community.

Grace Lee Boggs often asks, "what time is it on the clock of the world?" We are living in a moment when the crisis of racial injustice demands a new vision and a new way forward. Rich Feldman, a Boggs School board member, said "At a time when fear is so dominant in the hearts and minds of mothers and grandmothers because of the recent murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the total failure of the "justice system" it is so important to feel the safety and the love at the Boggs School for the children, the staff and the parents." The space the Boggs School has created for students to feel safe and learn skills they will need to change and transform our world is an important piece to creating a new paradigm. One of the ways the Oral History Club students defined history is "hope for our future." These students understand that being "solutionaries" (how they often refer to themselves) to the problems of our time requires an understanding of the past. Angel Baker, a 5th grader, says "I care about my history, others' history, and our kindergartners having a better future." Mama Hanifa Adjuman imparts this reflection,

The Oral History Club is a powerful example of the importance of intergenerational dialogue between our youth and the elders. It is the knowing of what has been -- not simply what is -- that informs the limitless possibility of what can be; the elders are the link that bridges the past to the present and provides the vision for what can be.

A short film of community interviews conducted by the Boggs School Oral History Club can be found here: