A STORY OF SMALL BEGINNINGS

Posted by in Austin, Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

By All of Us

In 2014, we held the very first Dinner of Small Beginnings in our East Austin home. Since then, four more Small Beginnings events have been held across the country.

Two pivotal events prompted this gathering of radical hospitality. The first event was the small beginning of three years of activist-scholarship (and God-willing, 5-7 more, followed by a lifetime). The second was a book.

ACTIVIST-SCHOLARSHIP?

In 2013, I began working on my Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. My intention for the two-year professional program was to create an archive of historic typography used on commemorative plaques and original hand-painted signage in Texas and Louisiana. I excitedly visited a National Historic Register site in Norco, Louisiana—two cemeteries of enslaved Africans from two sugar plantations.  However, there was no plaque, no sign, no indication of any historically significant material or events. Instead of moving on to the next Historic Register site (with an actual sign), I started looking in to the history of the cemeteries.

The cemeteries had been flooded and plowed under in 1927 to build a militarized Mississippi River control structure. This history was hidden and actively repressed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Efforts by descendants to commemorate the cemeteries and re-inter salvaged remains have gone were silenced. I slowly proceeded down this rabbit hole, encountering descendants, organizers, pastors, archaeologists and government employees. I searched desperately for answers.

My typographic photo album seemed paler and paler. Not to belittle such a project, but I was not ready to encounter state-sanctioned silencing of slavery’s descendants in rural Louisiana. Neither my training nor biography prepared me to research systemic racism in Southeast Louisiana. Yet I was compelled to pursue this path and leave behind slideshows of serif and sans-serif fonts.

When I wasn’t commuting to New Orleans every weekend to track down more documents and more people, I lived in a collective house in East Austin. My roommates were community organizers. Patty Zavala was a fearless fighter for labor justice for immigrant workers. Paige Menking subverted the power of the Mexican Consulate to set up free health services and plans to keep undocumented immigrant families together when a member was hospitalized for serious injury, illness, or surgery.

I shared the cemetery story with them. “What do I do to fix this? What can I make to fix this?” They told me that I wouldn’t fix it, but the work being done was a revelatory awakening to society’s most oppressive systems, and in turn awakening others to the buried stories we can no longer ignore. This was called activist-scholarship.

I wasn’t sold. Patty was leading street blockades in front of the Capitol in two languages! Paige was getting treatment for an 8-year-old undocumented child with brain cancer. I was going to class, hoping to not get kicked out of a Fine Arts program.

“I’M A HUMAN HUMAN BEING!”

The second pivotal life event occurred during a difficult advising session. “I can’t do this! I’m an Asian graphic designer trying to join a struggle for spiritual reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans! I have no right to talk or write about this. Can’t I just go back to fonts?”

My advisor, Gloria Lee, handed me a book. It was called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century written by a woman I had never heard of—Grace Lee Boggs. “I think it will be good for you to read. This is her latest, but if you like it, you ought to check out some of her other books.”

Grace’s words, especially those about dedication to becoming more human human beings, finally clicked with me in a way that design criticism, urban planning and visual rhetoric texts never did. Grace’s challenge to build the world anew through creativity and conversation lifted my spirits and provided a frame for all of this grief work. This work was not about Asian women obtaining a hall pass to narrate black struggle. This was about the power of commitment to a project larger than yourself. A project that does not only tear down, but builds new ways of learning, loving and speaking. Grace’s call for self and structural transformation evolved over the course of her life. This call  gave me courage to forge ahead, keep fighting for commemoration of the cemeteries, keep talking about it, and not let the historical burden become corrosive to my psyche.

A week later I ran in to Glorias’ office. “I have a role! I’m a human human being! We all have a responsibility to evolve into more human human beings!”

She laughed and ran her fingers through her hair, suddenly deep in thought. “Did you hear she entered hospice care last week?” I had just found the words and work of Grace Lee Boggs! How could I say “Thank You?”

RADICAL HOSPITALITY

I knew exactly what I was going to do for my next project. I was not going to design a poster or create a documentary. I was going to cook an enormous meal for friends, mutual friends, and perhaps complete strangers. We would join together in fellowship to celebrate the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. We might begin to find the shape of a better world together, over food and drink.

My roommates joined the event planning because it was too big to do on my own. We came across a quote from Henry David Thoreau, “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be.” I was so nervous that the dinner would be a flop, that no one would attend and no one would share a connection to Grace’s ideas. Regardless, it would be a small beginning. We would serve everyone who came to our door and invite them to conversation. We personally invited about 10 people we knew through school or organizing work.

However, on the night of the event, thirty people arrived at our doorstep. The news of the dinner had spread by word of mouth. Attendees ranged from LGBT filmmakers, the owner of a radical Latin@ bookstore and an archivist of global human rights struggles. We received an unexpected guest —a language justice organizer who had met Grace while traveling all over Texas to translate stories of families trapped in detention centers. He had made a special trip to Austin after hearing about the dinner. A woman attended who had spent time with Grace in Maine.

We ate a generous meal featuring recipes from my grandmother, and then wrote letters to Grace, telling her about small acts of resistance and creativity. The prompt was: “Write a letter to Grace Lee Boggs and share a story of your own small beginning.” While we digested our meal and digested our conversations, we read excerpts from The Next American Revolution and streamed the Grace Lee documentary for more intimate viewing groups. We facilitated discussion on balancing serious commitment to revolutionary politics with maintaining everyday optimism. Guests shared stories of the first time they encountered the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs, or simply events leading to their embrace of activism, activist-scholarship, or community organizing.

Some folks proudly read their finished letters out loud to the group. Others folded theirs up neatly and hung them on the wall. A man told a story about growing up the only gay boy in his small Massachusetts town. Every day his classmates poured the trash bin out on his head because he had finally come out. His small beginning was moving to Austin, a place where he founded an LGBT film festival and never had to be lonely again.  We envisioned these letters reaching Grace’s hospice. We thought she might like to read the thoughts of people so far from Detroit, but to whom her presence was constantly felt. She was with us in the streets, on the road, and in the classroom. I packaged up the letters along with an extra place setting, and sent to The Boggs Center.

THE SPREAD OF SMALL BEGINNINGS

Grace and grace had brought us together. To this day, I exchange emails, phone calls, coffee, and surprise visits with some of our guests.

After posting photos from the dinner online, a friend from Philadelphia sent me an email. She was holding a candlelight vigil for Grace, inspired by the Small Beginnings Dinner. She sent us candles from the event in solidarity.

A landscape architect and farm apprentice who attended the dinner brought neighbors from a Austin “food desert” together using the Small Beginnings concept. They hosted a pie walk to get people out of their homes and talking, sharing recipes, and engaging in a healthy competition for the tastiest pie. They shared their experience of the Dinner of Small Beginnings with the neighborhood and invited them to join this second iteration.

At SUNY Buffalo, a new junior faculty member who had attended the dinner during her Ph.D. program in Austin, reached out for permission to use the Small Beginnings graphics for a screening night of “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” She brought the idea of Small Beginnings into the classroom Undergraduate students organized the event.

We never set out to network Small Beginnings around the country. We never set out to write any kind of self-congratulatory reflection.

We know that loving can be our most radical movement. Inviting others to conversation can be our most politicized act. And breaking bread in the midst of struggle to build each other up is part of building the world anew.

Austin, TX (Dinner of Small Beginnings)


Austin, TX (Small Beginnings Pie Walk)


Philadelphia, PA (Small Beginnings Candlelight Vigil)


SUNY Buffalo (Small Beginnings Movie Night)