Julia Putnam, the 42-year-old principal of Detroit's James & Grace Lee Boggs School, is the most recent in a long line of strong women helping to build the next generation — dating back to her great grandmother, the first in her family to come to Detroit from Alabama, a woman called "mother" by all in her family. Putnam's grandmother was a receptionist at a social services agency, her mother a nurse, and so it makes sense that the next generation in this matriarchal line would embody work and service to community.
But when 16-year-old Renaissance High School student Julia Putnam became the first young person to sign up for the Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs-sponsored Detroit Summer in 1992, she could hardly have imagined the horizons the experience would open up for her.
"Renaissance was a good school," she says, relaxing on the front steps of the Boggs School. "I learned how to get good grades. But I didn't learn why Detroit was the way it was, or why people talked about its glory in the past tense, or why the message I was getting in school was you were successful if you got away from this place — and I didn't want to get away from it, but I understood it could be better."
The experience of working with a broad spectrum of people also challenges some of the preconceptions she'd picked up as a youngster.
She had accepted it on faith that suburbanites would hate her because she was from Detroit, and defiantly returned the sentiment in kind. "That was kind of my 16-year-old attitude going in," she says, "and then I kind of realized that's not how it is at all. Detroit Summer, at 16, it was the first time I had talked to someone from the suburbs. And meeting these college students from out of town was really interesting. It was the first time I knew about some of the kind of out-of-state colleges like Amherst and Berkley, you know?"
It turned out that Detroit Summer, and the diverse crew of excited volunteers drawn to its emphasis on public art, urban gardening, and aiding elders, was exactly what Putnam was hungry for. "I hadn't realized that's what I was looking for," she now recalls, "but that's exactly what I was looking for. ... I stayed as a volunteer all through high school every summer."
Putnam's horizons would broaden further, with undergraduate studies at Michigan State University, a degree from U of D Mercy, six weeks studying abroad in Italy, and attainment of a teaching certificate and master's degree at Wayne State University. By then, she was not only a coordinator and recruiter for Detroit Summer, but the conversations with young people had inspired her teaching degree.
"And then, maybe a couple years into that, I realized it was not feeling good, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be, and so I went to Grace and I said, 'This is feeling icky," and she said, 'You're not the only one who feels that way. It's the system. You should seek out other educators who feel similarly."
Not only did Putnam find like-minded cohorts, but the conversations they began having bore fruit. The Boggses' central idea — that instead of overthrowing the institutions that oppress them, people should create alternative institutions that uplift them — inspired the small group to found a school.
"There were many years of conversations before we actually said, in 2008, let's formally plan a school that's based on these values we were talking about and these conversations we were having," Putnam says.
Those conversations, Putnam says, were about different approaches to young people and education: "There's a different way to do education that's not dehumanizing," she says. "And we get to practice it here. It doesn't always go smoothly, but we do it and that is meaningful to me: We get to practice how to be in society the way we think society should be."
The job isn't an easy one, and Putnam says some days she even wants to give up, but is energized by the meaningful surprises the work offers.
"The meaning comes from the relationships I've built and the relationships other people are building because of what we've created," she says. "Like when I saw the families connecting at the family action committee meeting, there's middle-class people, black people, white people, a Latina woman, and it's intergenerational, and just the buzz was so amazing, I was just overwhelmed by it. I went to get my colleague and said, 'Just come look what we did.' And she comes in and she's like, 'Oh my god, it's like a Detroit Summer meeting!'"
After a hearty laugh, she says, without the school, "I'm not sure these people would have met and been talking. That's meaningful to me, that people have found community and are working to build it, even when it's hard."
Putnam now recalls the early days of Detroit Summer, including one observer who asked that while it was great to see young people doing cool projects, what would the larger impact of the program be?
"Now you see Avalon Bakery, and Back Alley Bikes, and you see the Boggs School, and it's clear that it's not just the projects — it's how you inspire people to do things. Even if we were to stop now, something really amazing is going to come out of these last five years. And if we keep going, who knows how that multiplies and ripples out? I mean, I can look around, I can see the next president. I can see the next mayor. I can see the next Oscar-winner and Pulitzer Prize-winner. They're all here. They're right in this building."
From our 2018 People Issue.
Next: The Catalyst.
Previous: The Homesteader .
Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.