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April 21st, 2020 5:55:56 pm

Conversations for Change: Grace Lee Boggs and Narrative 4

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We find ourselves in a time that demands creativity and collaboration across difference, In this essay, we situate Grace Lee Boggs as an exemplary public philosopher who used conversation to stimulate social change. We then draw connections to Narrative 4, a global nonprofit organization that has developed a methodology of story exchange that similarly uses the power of story to empower young people to spark collaborative change in their own communities. Boggs held that conflicts among diverse individuals are the potential sites of idea-formation and that working to understand one another through language—“the great universalizer of experiences”—can lead to greater social cooperation. Narrative 4's unique story sharing methodology shares similar commitments to the humanizing power of using stories to understand one another and create the world anew.

Public Philosophy Journal

Conversations for Change: Grace Lee Boggs and Narrative 4

Tess Varner, PhD, and Gina Sandgren


 “The one true democracy we have is storytelling.

It goes across borders, boundaries, genders, wealth, race—everyone has a story to tell.”

– Colum McCann, President and Co-founder of Narrative 4


I.                 Introduction

Less than a decade ago, philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs, well into her nineties, wrote the following words: “These are the times that try our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.”[1] This conviction—that humans have the power to create the world anew—was one that she maintained throughout her long life as a movement activist. The theme of re-creation and evolution of our country and our communities was foundational throughout her life and work. Re-creation and evolution, she argued, take place through deeply social processes involving diverse individuals. These processes are the potential sites of idea-formation, where language functions as “the great universalizer of experiences,”[2] and which can lead to greater social cooperation.

In this paper, we situate Grace Lee Boggs as an exemplary leader using conversation to stimulate social change, and we draw connections to Narrative 4—a global nonprofit organization that uses a distinctive methodology of story exchange to empower young people to spark collaborative change in their own communities. Now, in yet another period in history which demands re-creation and evolution, this essay considers how conversations like those exemplified through Boggs and Narrative 4 can move us forward.

II.                “What Time Is It On The Clock Of The World?”[3]

When Boggs declared that we were in a time that demanded for us to “grow our souls” and take back power from those who were holding it, she couldn’t have imagined the period we find ourselves in today. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in a series of moves unthinkable only months ago, the world is largely shut down. Around the world, nearly all educational institutions have moved their courses online. All but “essential” businesses have closed their doors, and even those that are still open have dramatically changed the ways people interact. Families and groups of friends and political organizations are communicating only remotely, unable to inhabit the same physical spaces. There are almost no in-person social gatherings whatsoever. In order to stop the spread of a deadly communicable virus, we’ve stopped being together, at least in the most familiar sense of being together.

The grief about these lost opportunities to be in the presence of others and to gather to make change is palpable—especially when more and more elements of our social life that demand change are revealing themselves vividly, such as our need for social support in light of the economic shutdown, accessible and affordable healthcare, clear management and leadership in light of public health crises, and the racial disparity of health outcomes. In any other time, when these urgent needs became evident, our inclination might be to gather to instigate change. And that is precisely what we cannot do in this moment.

Yet although our ability to physically gather is—at least temporarily—halted, the ability to connect and collaborate to make change is not. Even in this complicated time, we assert the power of conversation and storytelling to bring people together, albeit in unconventional ways, to collaborate and create the world anew. In what follows, we will highlight two examples—through Grace Lee Boggs and the non-profit organization Narrative 4—whose philosophies and practices rely on conversation and storytelling aimed at making change, no matter the circumstances.

III.              Grace Lee Boggs

When you walk into the late Grace Lee Boggs’s apartment in Detroit, which has been preserved nearly exactly the way it was when she passed away in 2015, you see stacks and stacks of dusty books and periodicals in nearly every corner. The room adjacent to the living area is a library with makeshift shelves, each painstakingly labeled with distinctive categories like Urban Studies, Witness, Democracy, Communities, Race Relations, and more. Throughout the apartment, there is little blank space on any wall. Awards and honors and diplomas and certificates line the hallway. Yellowed photographs of Grace and her late husband Jimmy Boggs hang next to caricatures and artistic renderings of them, overwritten by their own quotations, right next to portraits of global peace workers and bumper stickers containing statements like “Black, Proud, and Beautiful” and “Why not draft our patriotic oil barons and conserve our young men and women?” fastened with thumbtacks. The apartment is a veritable museum—a tribute to global peace and justice work and to Detroit-specific movements, from the auto workers union to urban gardens. Light peeks in through heavy drapery to reveal a time capsule of community-based leadership. The sitting area contains old, mismatched seating, arranged so that each seat faces inward, creating a circle for the discussion groups that met in this space for decades to connect, to engage deeply, and to organize.

The apartment— situated just below the meeting rooms for what is now called The James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership on a residential street in Detroit—was and still remains a site for growth and transformation. For decades, people from all kinds of social situations were invited to take part in conversations with Jimmy and Grace, aiming to understand each other, to uncover shared experiences and commitments, to work cooperatively to instigate change in the local community, and to empower people to mobilize together toward joint aims.

In 1940, Boggs earned a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, having written a dissertation on George Herbert Mead called The Philosopher of the Social Individual. She would never go on to formal academic employment, but her philosophical background remained foundational to the work she would proceed to do. Boggs became a leader in many of the most pivotal social movements of the twentieth century, including the labor movement, the Black Power movement, the Asian-American movement, the women’s rights movement, and the environmental movement, among others. She was a community organizer and activist from her early years just out of college until her final years, and all of these efforts were grounded in a philosophical commitment to robust dialectic and the importance of conversation. She embodied these commitments in her day-to-day life, making conversation the centerpiece of her activist work, allowing diverse others to enrich one another and collaborate in the service of making change in their local communities.

Boggs’ efforts were aimed at creating leaders by empowering them—young people, especially—to see themselves as change agents. She boldly asserted that “we are the leaders we have been looking for.”[4] She insisted that we must not look to those in positions of power to make change, although we may demand it from them. We need to realize, rather, that they are the ones who have put us in the position to be engaged in perpetual war, to be reliant on fossil fuels, and to be stuck in consumer capitalism, which commodifies our activities and our relationships. About those who hold power she wrote: “They have created the crisis. They are not going to solve it. We’re the ones who have to solve it by creating another kind of society and by taking advantage of their helplessness and powerlessness to do it.”[5]

To that end, she rallied members of her community to take back the power to create society anew by working to help people to see each other as human beings. When we fail to engage in the co-creation of our own realities, being passive receivers of suffering or dissatisfaction, rather than agents struggling together and collaborating for change, we fail to fully realize our power as humans. Boggs writes: “The continuing struggle of human beings [is] not only to survive, but to evolve into more human human beings.”[6]  We become more human when we develop the capacities within ourselves and through our relationships to imagine alternatives and work toward them. And these are the kinds of rich conversations Boggs made space for in her Detroit living room. Gathering diverse, cross-racial, intergenerational groups of people together, she “enlist[ed] them in the solutions to the problems of [their] communities.” [7]

“How do we create the new ideas? How do we create alternatives? How do we get beyond our oppositional thinking? And all the anger that is involved with oppositional thinking? How do we really understand that revolution is a new beginning? Not only in terms of our economic systems and how we make our living, but in how we think and become more human.”[8]

IV.              Narrative 4

Narrative 4 gatherings do not look much like the meetings that once took place regularly in Boggs’ living room or the ones that continue to take place now in the Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. But the resonance between the philosophies that ground both efforts is striking. What they share is the commitment to use stories to build community across difference, and then empower community members to make change collaboratively on the issues that they, as stakeholders, identify as important. Sharing stories cultivates empathy into action.

Narrative 4 is a global nonprofit organization that has operations all over the world, from youth to college to community. It was created by authors, poets, and artists who believed that sharing stories can help to foster fearless hope through radical empathy. Harnessing the power of the story exchange, Narrative 4’s mission is to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world. Much like Boggs’ belief that language was the “universalizer of experience” that could mobilize community action, the story exchange model of Narrative 4 unites participants through shared human experiences  that “build empathy and sparks collaborative change.”[9]

The hallmark of Narrative 4’s work is the methodology and the process of story exchange. Story exchanges come in countless varieties and are always growing and evolving. The majority of story exchanges take place in k-12 classrooms. Increasingly, colleges are hosting story exchanges in classrooms, residence halls, athletic organizations, and more. In some places—like our own community in Fargo-Moorhead— intergenerational exchanges take place, gathering people to share stories on topics like interfaith dialogue, local immigration policies, and environmental issues.  But no matter what kinds of people are gathered, certain key elements of the story exchange are consistent. People get together in pairs or small group to share a story with their partner, often, prompted in advance with questions to help them think of a story to share. Then, after they’ve shared their story—with their partner, actively listening without interruption or judgment—they become the listener. Their partner(s) share with them, and they listen attentively, again without interruption or judgment. The act of attentive listening alone is, to some degree, counter-cultural. Deep listening, in a society that regards perpetual motion and noise above most introspective activities, is a skill often undeveloped so these exchanges provide opportunities to practice. But the listening doesn’t stop at the initial pairing. Active listening continues when everyone returns to the circle to hear each participant share their partner’s story in the first person., holding the person’s story as if it were their own.

The idea is that telling someone else’s story in the first-person is a transformative experience—one that activates the part of the brain responsible for empathy. Not only do these encounters with a partner’s story provide practice for deep listening, but also empathy. When we see someone as fully human, through engaging with their story, it cultivates empathy, builds trust and encourages collaboration.  The data gathered from the story exchanges confirm its potential: “People who go through a story exchange experience an immediate, powerful sense of connection not only with their partner but also with the others whose stories they hear. Teachers report increases in student engagement and improvements in outcomes, administrators tell of school cultures and climates changing dramatically after the story exchange became part of their instruction’s core practices.”[10]

A report from the University of Chicago documented that empathy levels increased after a story exchange—and it isn’t just in the participants who are already particularly empathetic. Notably, the students with the lowest pre-exchange levels of empathy saw the greatest gains. A nationwide survey conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that students at schools that used the story exchange felt more accepted, confident, interested, and respected than students at other schools: “The short-term result is happier, healthier students, schools and communities. And, in the long run, collaborative, empathic global citizens.”[11]

In community conversations like those held in Boggs’ living room or in the Narrative 4 exchanges held in a classroom, a church basement, or a public library, people are compelled to see each other as human beings with untapped creative, collaborative potential. These kinds of conversations humanize the other and forge opportunities for people to come together and envision a different reality and to work together to create it.

V.               Conclusion

In her final book, published just before her passing in 2015 after a lifetime of working for community-based change, Boggs wrote the following:

Our challenge, as we enter the new millennium, is to deepen the commonalities and the bonds between these tens of millions, while at the same time continuing to address the issues within our local communities by two-sided struggles that not only say ‘No’ to the existing power structure but also empower our constituencies to embrace the power within each of us to create the world anew.[12]

This challenge remains urgent today—and perhaps even more so, in light of deepening inequalities, increasing migration, worsening climate crises, and even the ongoing global pandemic. The need to empower people to create a different world and to collaborate to make change is vital.

                   As we write this, the kinds of social processes that took place in Boggs’ living room, or which take place in sixteen countries around the world through Narrative 4 story exchanges, can’t happen as usual. We cannot gather to have these kinds of empathy-building, mobilizing conversations we need to have. But the absence of physical connection cannot serve as a barrier to the important work that needs to be done.

Boggs faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges herself—those that led her to take part in and to be a leader in the tenants’ rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and more—the great humanizing movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She saw these as humanizing movements because their efforts made active agents of their participants, rather than passive observers of suffering, and they allowed participants to connect their own self-interest to the interests of others.

                   In the face of today’s particular challenges, including the demands of physical distancing, Narrative 4’s work hasn’t missed a beat. Story exchanges have ramped up, moving to virtual platforms, creating community even across tremendous physical distance. People continue to be paired together to share stories. They continue to return to the exchange circle to practice the empathy-activating re-telling of stories in the first-person. They build trust across difference, they collaborate to envision a world anew, and they take action to work toward that shared vision.

                   A recent example of deep connection across physical distance is an ongoing relationship forged between two high school classes—one from rural Kentucky and another from the Bronx. These students have forged these relationships over the last three years, having connected remotely and in person to deepen their collaborative relationship. In April 2020, prohibited from gathering in person, as had been scheduled, they met virtually, finding ways to connect to understand each other better, bridging the urban/rural divide that face our country tremendously. One of the teachers who facilitated this ongoing relationship explains that the connection between the two classes offers the opportunity to celebrate “what makes us unique and what connects as human beings, even in a time such as this.”[13] In attendance at their most recent virtual story exchange was one of Narrative 4’s board members and resident writers, Ishmael Beah, author of the bestselling memoir Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider. During the story exchange, he reminded the students: “Stories allow us to remake ourselves over and over again.”[14] Through stories, we connect and we recognize the creative potential of human beings to transform the world, remaking ourselves and remaking the world.

                   As Boggs reminds us, “every crisis, actual or impending, needs to be viewed as an opportunity to bring about profound changes in our society.”[15] Even at a time when we find ourselves physically distanced from one another, we also find opportunities—through intense and sustained narrative dialogue—to make the world anew. Boggs was known to ask in meetings: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” It is time for deep listening across difference, igniting empathy into collaborative action.

[1] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 33.

[2] Grace Chin Lee. George Herbert Mead: Philosopher of the Social Individual. New York: Kings Crown Press, 1945. p. 10.

[3] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 18.

[4] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 159.

[5] Grace Lee Boggs. “Reimagine Everything,” Race, Poverty, and the Environment vol. 19, no. 2 (2012): 45.

[6] Grace Lee Boggs. Living for Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. p.255.

[7] Grace Lee Boggs. “Reimagine Everything,” Race, Poverty, and the Environment vol. 19, no. 2 (2012): 45.

[8] Grace Lee Boggs. “Radical Visions, Possible Worlds,” Race, Poverty, and he Environment, vol. 17, no. 2 (2010), 78.


[10] Narrative 4. “The Science of the Story Exchange.” Narrative 4 Facilitator Toolkit, 2019.

[11] Narrative 4. “The Science of the Story Exchange.” Narrative 4 Facilitator Toolkit, 2019.

[12] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 51.

[13] Personal comment by Floyd Central High School teacher, Mary Margaret Slone, April 2020.

[14] Ishmael Beah, in a talk with students in a virtual story exchange, April 2020.

[15] Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. xxi.



    Tess Varner and Gina Sangren. "Conversations for Change: Grace Lee Boggs and Narrative 4."



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