An Hour with Tiffany Lee on Grace Lee Boggs
In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, our Cultures Connecting team member Judy Lee had an opportunity to speak with Tiffany Lee, niece to civil rights leader Grace Lee Boggs. We spoke about Tiffany’s memories of her aunt Grace, the impact Grace has on her and her work in early childhood education, and the inspiring way Grace transcended her time to become a powerful civil rights leader.
Please note: The interview transcript was edited for clarity. This is a condensed version of the hour long interview. You can download the full transcript here.
Please see the end of the interview for links to the referenced documentary and books.
Judy: What was it like having Aunt Grace in your life? I would like to hear a bit about your personal experience and connection to her and generally what she was like as a person.
Tiffany: It tickles me beyond anything when people ask me about Grace because she was such an extraordinary woman. My dad and Grace and his siblings spent most of their lives in New York City in Jackson Heights and my dad made his way west and then ultimately landed in Hawaii where I grew up. Grace and the rest of their siblings ended up in the Midwest so we didn't have any family around. So when my dad talks about Grace, I think of him saying “my sister Grace” and he was really close to her, especially towards the end of his life.
I remember the first time he told me, “Do you know how your Aunt Grace, my sister Grace, is a pretty important civil rights leader?” I think I was in high school and I rolled my eyes as a teenager.
I remember I went to camp in Michigan so I took a bus from camp to Detroit and Grace picked me up from the bus station. It was the first time that I had ever been in a car with her. It was the most amazing experience because she just talked really fast. Her ideas flowed so quickly and as a 17 or 18 year old teenager, I was struggling to keep up with her. It's just really funny how this very petite woman, who you make these assumptions about because she's older, was just on fire.
Grace, as a sister, was everything to my dad. I think being a single dad was really hard and I think not having any female support around gave cause for him to reach out to her. I think Grace was a source of strength for him and he would often reach out to her for advice. If my dad had trouble making rent that month, she would give him money. So even though she wasn't physically present because she was in Detroit, I felt her as a constant presence because of my dad's constant references to “my sister Grace.”
"I just so often wish that I could talk to Grace or my dad. I would ask them, when you were 43 years old, were you as worried about the future as I am? And I just want to hear that they were because it just feels like right now, we're in such a bad place. I think there's been so much backwards movement."
Judy: What was the impact of having someone like Grace so close to your family? How did that influence you and what is something about her that's made a lasting impact on the way you live your life or what you value?
Tiffany: I didn't know this until after reading her books and seeing the documentary. I had this sort of epiphany that a lot of my work and a lot of my learning and engagement with it professionally…all of my learning and growth are born from discourse and conversations.
I think Grace felt really strongly about conversations, about their role in our collective growth and learning. I'm always really proud of that because it's not common where people want to engage in those long, often weedy conversations but I always rely on that steadfast belief she held about the importance of conversations and discourse, especially with people that have differing viewpoints. I think that that requires a lot of energy and a lot of resources but when you have those conflicting beliefs and you're trying to reconcile and move forward together, that is really where growth is born and that's something that I'm really proud of.
Judy: Her being Asian American and a female Asian American, knowing the context of culture and this was way back when, how did she end up becoming such a powerful woman?
Tiffany: I think she feels so present with many of us today that we often forget that she was born in 1915 and it just was so different then. I suspect, based on what my dad used to share about their childhood and their parents, that a lot of it had to do with her relationship with her family. Her father was very busy. He was always at the restaurants and was hugely successful but not super present and also very strict. Their mother was so giving and generous and so warm. So my dad had the greatest stories about what it was like to have her as a mother. Grace and my grandmother, her mother, didn't really get along super well sometimes and my dad even talks about how she was different from the rest of the siblings. I think she came out just special. And all of the events that occurred in her upbringing―it seemed like it was the universe or destiny because all of the things sort of fell in place for her to be able to learn and grow in the way that she did.
It makes me think about when she earned her Ph.D. and they weren't hiring women, especially Asian women with Ph.D.s, for even jobs like secretary or administrative assistant. So she then felt a calling to go to Chicago where she had the experience of poverty and all of the awful conditions and housing. That was her first exposure to life that was divorced from some type of privilege, from economic privilege, and an example of how all of these events sort of fell into place and allowed her to ascend to this position of knowing and understanding and having a vision about how things could be. I think that that's the most striking thing about her. Grace just had such an extraordinary childhood living during the Depression, during the wars, and being part of the labor movement in Detroit. And meeting Jimmy―I think was a big part of that as well, a big part of her education and how they partnered together, always challenging each other through discourse and learning and growing together. That's how I think she got to where she was.
Judy: Even the fact that she married a black man is an extraordinary thing for an Asian American woman of that time.
Tiffany: Yes because there weren't any role models and they just had such different upbringings. She primarily spent most of her formative years in the northeast and he in the south and she just felt compelled to build a life with him as part of a movement. When I see them interacting in those clips [in the documentary], I think about how it's a true intellectual partnership and I imagine how that manifested in their daily domestic life, especially when I reflect on where we are as women in terms of our relationships and the load we bear, what our expectations are and what society expects of us. We are undergoing a change, a shift right now and I think about where Grace and Jimmy were, where they were true equals and I think she's just such a great example. For it to have been in the forties and thirties… Wow.
Judy: If you think about the state of social justice today, if she were alive today with just everything going on in the country, what do you think she would say about it and more importantly, what would she do about it?
Tiffany: I think that she would be commanding her army because she was so good at galvanizing and organizing and inspiring people with her words and her energy. I just so often wish that I could talk to Grace or my dad. I would ask them, when you were 43 years old, were you as worried about the future as I am? And I just want to hear that they were because it just feels like right now, we're in such a bad place. I think there's been so much backwards movement. We've really regressed and I think that she wouldn't be discouraged. That was the thing about her. She, from my sense, was always about moving forward. She was always looking forward. What do we need to do to mobilize? How can we collectively advance this cause and make things better? And I think that's what made her as powerful as she was even into her later years. I think she would be very motivated and fired up. I think this would have been a good time for her to be here.
Judy: Is there a life lesson that you took from or something you watched about her personality or the way she moved through the world that stayed with you and informed the way that you are?
Tiffany: I'm in the field of education and so immediately I think about that conversation that she had with Danny Glover [in the documentary]. He's on her couch and they're talking about standards in schools and there's this point where they're in a disagreement and he says ‘I think this should happen and this is the way it should be.’ Her response was to question that. ‘Why? Why is that? Why do you think that?’ She was challenging what the objective of education is and so that's something that I really carry with me―to always question and not just accept things. I think that's especially important in education because of education's role in forming and shaping the future.
Judy: I don't know if you know the answer, but I wonder how Grace saw her Asian identity.
Tiffany: She just operated in a way that allowed her to be at the table with men―black, white men, all men. I think she spent the majority of her life just steadfastly focused on the injustice that she saw and the most glaring and salient injustice was faced by the black community.
It's so rare to have people, for an individual, to take on a cause that seems only peripherally related to your own but I think that she did transcend and that it wasn't seen as ‘not my cause.’ I think she saw the bigger picture because she was such a visionary and I think that maybe she knew that advancing racial equity as a whole necessitated this movement that she played such a big role in.
Judy: One of the things that I really appreciated about her was that instead of being ‘self centered,’ she was very focused on a ‘community centered’ mindset and approach to seeing things, seeing the injustices of the world.
Tiffany: That's so true and I wonder if that is a result of her having lived in a sort of a community. Can you imagine having all those sisters and brothers and growing up in that big family? Then in academic settings, she was early on a student leader very much before she found her direction, her philosophy and was more independent. I think about her work in Detroit Summer, for example. I think it was her knowing that she alone doesn't have the answer, that not one person knows all the answers, and that her skill and talent in engaging communities and facilitating those conversations is what yielded Detroit summer. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn't it be neat if we had this new program?’ it was, ‘What are the problems that we're trying to solve in this community?’ and then mapping backwards and building that really extraordinary activity that endures even years after her passing.
I wish I were half the intellectual that Grace was. I think we all do because she was superhuman and I think education is important, because it was her vehicle. I think she needed that foundation to help her to become the powerful thinker that she was but she was also born with that gift of a voracious desire to just know everything and to problem solve and to to be a changemaker.
Judy: Well, I can clearly see her influence on you. Thank you and I really appreciate your time.
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