How Grace Lee Boggs Helped Me Define My “Asian American-ness”

How does a young Asian American woman find her compass in an environment where her “Asian-ness” can foster confusion and alienation?

With the release of the hailed documentary, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, Shetroit revisits Stephanie Chang’s post on the indelible and life-changing impression that Grace made on the evolution of her own life:  

Grace and I had only met a few times before and I don’t believe any of our previous conversations had lasted more than a few minutes. Yet there I was again, standing in front of the legendary Grace Lee Boggs. I almost couldn’t believe it.

Because of her decades of involvement in all the major U.S. movements, Grace is honored in multiple women’s halls of fame, has received countless honorary degrees and awards, and has authored many books and articles. But most importantly, everyone who meets Grace leaves with new questions to ponder, new ideas for solutions to community problems, and a new understanding of needed paradigm shifts. I was no different.

She is one of my Asian American sheroes/heroes!

Ok, enough gushing. Let’s back up.

Grace Lee Boggs, now 98 years old, was the keynote speaker at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote – Michigan dinner on June 8, 2012. Top clockwise: me-Stephanie Gray Chang, Sarolina Chang (my mother), Sue Sung, Grace, and Shenlin Chen

My Asian American identity led me to Detroit. Not a predictable statement in a city where Asian Americans comprise only 1.4 percent of the population. But my landing in that moment resulted from the progression of many moments.

I recall then-90 year old Chinese American writer/activist Grace Lee Boggs coming up to me that summer in 2005.

We were at the Detroit Asian Youth Project summer program closing ceremony in the Osborn neighborhood.

I don’t remember all the details about the event, but there are two things I know must have been true:

• We all ate great food. Seriously. An Asian American community event is incomplete without countless trays of good food.

• The young people from the Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project youth had awesome poetry to share, per DAY Project standard!

That sunny memorable afternoon, Grace – incredibly – asked me if I wanted to stay with her at the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit. I was honored and surprised … and of course said yes!

Growing-Up with a Feeling of ‘Otherness’

Canton, the Detroit suburb where I grew up, now has one of the highest Asian American populations in the state. But it certainly did not feel that way growing up as the only Asian American girl in my elementary and middle school classes. From the name-calling and vandalism on the side of my family’s home to simply not having others who looked like me in my classes, everything added up to a feeling of otherness.

In high school, I was lucky enough to stumble upon opportunities that had a profound impact on my course in life. I discovered and joined the Asian Pacific American Club and the club’s advisor, my high school’s only Asian American teacher, became my mentor.

My freshman year, my mother had urged my sister and me to participate in APAC. I was originally reluctant. My Asian-ness was something I felt was better left at home and at Saturday Chinese School.

But, as the saying goes, mother really does know best. I participated in and eventually facilitated issue workshops for the other students and developed both my sense of identity and my leadership skills.

The hits kept coming. My senior year, I read about my community’s history in Helen Zia’s classic Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Reading about the local 1982 murder of Vincent Chin and the injustice of his killers’ light sentences helped provide part of the historical context for my family’s experiences – everything began to make sense.

Talk about powerful – by the time I entered college these experiences were instrumental in making me proud of being Asian American and committed to serving my community.

In fact, I was drawn to the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies (APIA) at the University of Michigan – and became a student of the program’s second class. I took courses like APIA history, APIA community service learning, and APIAs in the media from Professors Emily Lawsin and Scott Kurashige, among others.

I also have Scott and Emily to thank for drawing me into the Asian American community in Detroit. The Detroit Asian Youth Project was just getting organized for its first summer program in 2004 when Scott and Emily invited me to a brainstorming meeting. Through DAY Project, I met an amazing group of young Asian American Detroiters (who now are not-so-young).

Through learning their stories, history, fears and dreams, I began to fall in love with this city.

In many ways, it makes perfect sense that my new life in Detroit began at a DAY Project celebration of Asian American identity.

Six years after that encounter with Grace, I am grateful that my path, which began simply with a Helen Zia book and some workshops, led me to the city that I now call home.


About Steph

Stephanie Gray Chang's passions encompass helping Asian Americans in Michigan increase their civic participation and advocating for a range of civil rights and criminal justice issues. Her work experience includes efforts to defend affirmative action and reform the public defense system. Stephanie is pursuing dual Master degrees in Public Policy and Social Work at the University of Michigan. Born and raised in Metro Detroit in a Taiwanese American family, she lives in Detroit's Lafayette Park with her husband Sean and two super amazing cats. Check out Steph's blog on socially conscious weddings:

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