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The how and why of Bunyan Bryant

By Grace Lee Boggs

Special to the Michigan Citizen

As I write this, it is Tuesday, Oct. 2 and I am looking forward to next weekend’s Retirement/Celebration party for University of Michigan professor Bunyan Bryant at the Ann Arbor Sheraton and thinking about the how and why of this gifted visionary organizer.

I received from him recently a letter that offers clues to these questions.

Like Einstein, Bunyan recognizes the importance of the imagination. He wrote:

“We have lost much of our ability to envision the future in imaginary ways. I remember as a kid lying on my back on the grass in my yard and peering up at the clouds. I would do this with other kids in the neighborhood. We would compete with one another and help one another see what we saw. Somewhere along the way, with the increased responsibility of adulthood, people lost much of their ability to be imaginative. Perhaps we should solicit our children to teach us how to regain our imagination.”

Born and raised in the segregated South, Bunyan realizes (as my late husband, Jimmy, did) that people of color not only have special needs, but a special role to play in transforming this country. He wrote:

“Twenty years ago, I was influenced by futurist Alvin Toffler’s ‘The Third Wave.’

Although I liked his book, I felt it failed to speak to the needs of people of color. Therefore, I decided to organize a conference of futurists who were primarily people of color in order to solicit their ideas and to compare their ideas with those of Toffler.

For more on the special role of people of color, I recommend contrasting the Preamble to the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice adopted by the First People of Color Environmental Summit, which Bunyan helped write, with the Preamble to the 1787 U.S. Constitution written by merchants, lawyers and slaveholders:

“WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice:”

Bunyan also recognizes (as Jimmy did) that at this time on the clock of the world, both the Soviet Dream (of Planned Economy) and the American Dream (of Jobs) are dead. Hence his challenge to us in the 1992 School of Natural Resources and Environment workshop at UMich, during Martin Luther King, Jr. week, to create a new dream (See “Rehearsing The Future” at www.context.org).

A civil rights activist in the 1960s, Bunyan (Like MLK and Jimmy) views building community as our generation’s challenge. He wrote:

“We must develop an environmental justice attitude — an attitude that is nurtured by our consciousness and one that determines our behavior. It should be an attitude that calls us to action to build communities that are in environmentally just and sustainable. Ray Anderson states we must build communities and systems that mimic nature because in nature the waste from one life-form becomes food for another life-form. So too we must build communities and production systems where the waste from one system could become the raw materials for another. We have the technical know how to build such systems. What is lacking is the attitude and political will. The ideas of Karl Henry Robert will also be helpful here in building healthy communities and healthy people. He offers us a partial solution to this dilemma by posing four questions to guide our production practices. They are as follows: 1) Is the material or chemical naturally found in nature? 2) How persistent is the chemical? 3) Does the chemical bio-accumulate? and 4) Is it possible to predict the tolerance limits of such an unnatural substance?”

Bunyan’s letter concludes with a call to re-imagine education:

“The school no longer has a monopoly on knowledge and its dissemination. People do not have to congregate in the classroom to access knowledge because now they can get instant answers to questions by Googling. Through new social networks students will learn from people who are both near and distant. But I hasten to add that students will need considerable help to evaluate such information and to develop skills of critical thinking. I feel that schools as we know them today will become monuments to failure and will fall under their own weight. It’s a matter of time. I envision a society where we can do much better than that.

“I feel that everything cannot be left to building social networks or learning through the use of computers. I feel that on our way to the future we should revisit the educational philosophy of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Miles Horton and Paulo Freire that you so elegantly talked about in your book (‘The Next American Revolution’). I would add a couple of other educators, name: Leland Bradford and Ron Lippitt. What these educators have in common is that people have the resources to solve their own problems or they believe in education for liberation from the oppression of an educational system that reduces students to passivity. They all believe in democratic principles as a part of the educational process and in some form of action or participatory research.”

Contact Grace Lee Boggs at boggscenter@boggscenter.org

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