a city of the people, for the people, by the people.
Grace Lee Boggs remains one of the most iconic figures in Detroit history. At once an author, activist, philosopher and feminist, she challenged individuals to think critically about their own activism, and empowered countless communities to create change on their own terms.
That sentiment is echoed in one of her most notable quotes: “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.” A message that also resonates in the work of Detroit Lover and Michigan State Representative, Stephanie Chang.
“Grace really cared about Detroit and inspired so many people to rethink the way we do things in our communities, whether in education, the economy or simply the value we give our neighborhoods. You could never really have a conversation with her without being given some type of assignment, like an article to read or some issue to think and write about. And she especially loved hearing what young people had to say about issues in their communities.”
Chang’s own passion for serving others was galvanized during her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan.
“I majored in psychology and minored in Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies, and was active as a student organizer on a lot of issues affecting students of color on campus. I actually wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, so my first few years of college I was planning to go to law school.”
Those plans began to change as she progressed through school though.
“I had two professors — Emily Lawsin & Scott Kurashige — who were very active in Detroit and got me involved with the Detroit Asian Youth Project. It was through that and our A/PIA Studies program that I met Grace Lee Boggs. She came to our closing ceremony in 2005 and somehow knew that I wanted to stick around Detroit, so she invited me to be her live-in assistant. Many years later, I served as the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Boggs School working with friends I had met those first two years in Detroit.”
She accepted the offer and moved to Detroit, beginning a new chapter that would come to define much of her career moving forward.
“I lived at the Boggs Center for two years and it really influenced the way I view the history of Detroit, as well as my perspective on grassroots organizing in neighborhoods. It also introduced me to people like Jackie, from Avalon, and other people that were doing great work with their communities. It not only shaped how I approach things as an organizer, but also as a legislator and Detroiter.”
Despite her growing commitment to service, politics didn’t enter the picture until later.
“Politics weren’t really on my radar. I was working as an organizer on a number of different issues — affirmative action, immigrant rights, voting rights, criminal justice reforms — then Rashida Tlaib and other friends asked me to consider running for office when Rashida reached her term limit. I was reluctant at first, but I ultimately realized it was a great opportunity to make a difference in a bigger way.”
She seized that opportunity in 2014, becoming the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature.
Today she works on a wide range of issues — from the environment and education to economic justice — but her priorities are always rooted in needs of the communities she serves.
“There are so many issues that tug at my heartstrings that I want to get involved with. For example, right now I'm working on some housing and environmental issues — I didn’t come in knowing I would work on housing issues, and I don’t have an environmental science degree, but it's important to the people in my district, so I learn as I go and collaborate with experts and residents in my district as I develop legislation.”
Much of her success in office can be credited to the years spent working in the very same neighborhoods she now serves. The reputation and relationships she established, combined with a deep understanding of grassroots organizing, makes her an authentic voice and trusted ally for the people who call those communities home. And that’s key, because when policy reflects the true needs of a community, real and lasting change becomes possible.
“A lot of good ideas come from neighborhood leaders then eventually turn into policy. Maybe a neighborhood is working on solar energy, improving wireless access, creating safe walking routes to school or building community gardens… Government doesn't necessarily have to play a role in those things. I think the idea of doing it yourself, then being able to show it's a replicable model that can ultimately inform or shape policy, is really powerful.
“Right now, Detroit is in the middle of a unique opportunity to ensure development is helping everyone, but also requires engaged citizens and elected officials who are willing to continually push to make things happen.”
Though she’s carved her own remarkable path since working for Boggs, one can still sense some of her unmistakable wisdom in Chang’s philosophies.
“Grace said we can all be ‘solutionaries.’ It’s part of the Boggs School model (and even on their t-shirts). Being a solutionary means you’re playing a part changing your community for the better, and ‘making a way out of no way’ as her husband Jimmy always said. Grace was really big on neighborhoods doing things for themselves instead of waiting for the government to step in. That’s such a Detroit thing. It speaks to how resilient people are here. And it’s great to see the school helping young kids understand that they can be the change in their communities. I think that’s really powerful.”
This year, Chang is channeling that solutionist spirit in her bid for the Michigan Senate, where she’s hoping to continue to nurture the growth of Detroit and Downriver.
“I think Detroit is facing some of the same struggles as the rest of our country right now, and that we can be a model for how to deal with those challenges if we do it right. There are a lot of eyes on Detroit and I hope that we can be a symbol of equitable progress and an example of how community and government can work together to solve problems.”