Shea Howell discovered she possessed the heart of a revolutionary as a child growing up in a Pennsylvania coal mining town.
Her first transgressive act, she recalls, happened on the third day of first grade. When a teacher slapped her hand and told her writing with her left hand was incorrect, the young Howell responded in disbelief.
“I’m like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ Because I’m such a good writer,” she remembered. Her grandfather taught her how to read and write, and she entered that classroom confident in her literacy skills. “She told me that it was the work of the devil.”
One day, she abandoned the classroom, despite her best efforts to comply with her teacher’s lessons. She stopped going to school and instead, went up the hill and underneath some railroad tracks, where she found refuge drinking coffee over a fire and fishing with local squatters.
More than 60 years later, that moment of defiance during her school days remains a crucial lesson etched in her memory and influences her decades-long career as an activist.
“People in authority don’t always know what they’re doing,” Howell said.
She came of age as the American civil rights and women’s movements, and anti-Vietnam War protests crescendoed. She joined the Poor People’s Campaign and the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR) in her 20s. The idea that people should be able to live their lives fully and on their own terms, free of dehumanization and degradation, always resonated with her. The works of Frantz Fanon, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Simone de Beauvier, Rachel Carson, and a slate of others shaped her activist philosophy.
The rise of Detroit’s Black leadership inspired Howell to journey to the city. In the early 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young, along with city council member Erma Henderson and Congressman John Conyers, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, welcomed pioneering Black Power activist and academic Angela Davis to Detroit during an activist convention, Howell remembered. Davis was a symbol for the Black liberation struggle and her support for the Soledad Brothers drew national acclaim and intense repression. NAARPR, the organization created to advocate against the unfair treatment of people because of their race or political beliefs, and whom Howell became a member in her youth, grew out of the struggle to free Davis from incarceration. So Detroit’s Black officials’ embrace of Davis, who’d long faced political persecution because of her ties to the Community Party, enticed Howell to make the move to the Motor City. From the corridors of power to the city streets, there was a potential harvest for radical thinking.
During that time, the city was still reckoning with the aftermath of the 1967 rebellion. The city suffered a population and economic decline and crime rose in the neighborhoods as jobs drained from the city. Howell relocated to Detroit in 1974. Her hunger for global revolutionary change, the dismantling of systems that oppressed the city’s communities of color, turned out to be a bigger job than Howell initially thought as a twenty-something.
But she’d quickly realize that in order to change the world, you had to change yourself. Howell said Davis enticed her to come to Detroit, but longtime activists Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs got her to stay. Their guidance influenced the ways Howell would mobilize people to action.
“You couldn’t create a revolution if people still believed in the types of things that racialized capital,” she said. “The United States was so distorted…we needed a radical change.” Her early activism challenged racism, militarism, and materialism.
Along with Grace Lee and James Boggs, Howell spurred those visions to life through the formation of the National Organization for an American Revolution, a movement committed to political and personal transformation, in 1978.
The organization existed in the vein of the Trotskian model of a vanguard party, which, Howell described in simple terms, aimed to develop a small group of leaders to develop programs and ideas in order to spark revolution. Those industrialized tactics hoped to dismantle the capitalist class’s control not only over people’s bodies, but also their values and beliefs, she said.
Although her involvement in the party gifted Howell with rich experiences, she now recognizes the limitations of the approach, citing the strict ideologies of the practice created difficulties.
The crux of her activism then dramatically shifted toward a focus on community power: how does one lead a life of some integrity and dignity when it seems like everything around you is falling apart?
The books Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century by James and Grace Lee Boggs and later adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds helped evolve Howell’s thinking on social change and shape the organization’s work. It wasn’t just about lifting up grievance but to advance people’s thinking beyond a capitalistic economic system.
Howell started mobilizing people around community challenges, such as the fight to save the Poletown neighborhood in the ‘80s, rampant unemployment, the drug epidemic, and neighborhood violence.
That leveraging of community power would also prove crucial beginning in the early 2000s, when Michigan legislators set in motion what many local activists would dub a troubling and corrosive period of autocratic governance: emergency management. Emergency managers were state-appointed officials dispatched to municipalities deemed in financial crisis. Yet those municipalities, including Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, and Detroit, were majority Black and low-income. Emergency managers held unprecedented power to overrule local ordinances, sell assets, and nix labor union contracts, effectively shunning local officials and residents from the democratic process.
The stripping of local authority ushered in an era of ruin instead of rescue, many local scholars argued. In 2014, nearly thousands of Detroiters lost access to clean, running water after the city’s water department began accelerating the pace of shutting down services to those with overdue bills. These efforts were spearheaded by then emergency manager Kevyn Orr to help resolve the city’s massive debts. But the shut-off campaign devolved into a crisis.
Howell and other Detroit activists began building community coalitions resisting state-takeovers. One of those coalitions became Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM). Howell, also a prolific columnist herself, wrote extensively on the impact of the water affordability crisis on neighborhood families living in poverty. She chronicled activists’ protests and meetings with water officials. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, access to clean water was necessary to stave off potential virus infection and transmission. Howell scrutinized the city’s efforts to restore residents’ water as sluggish and lacking urgency in an opinion piece for Riverwise Magazine, a local publication covering grassroots movements. She’s also advocated for the adoption of a water affordability plan, which is also supported by the People’s Water Board, a community coalition championing water as a human right.
Howell also organized residents around education justice. State oversight of Detroit Public Schools was a tumultuous period marked by a school board that lost its policy and budgetary authority, school closures, teacher pay cuts, the gutting of arts programming, and colossal debt. Even after state lawmakers returned local control of the district to the elected school board, Howell contributed to the formation of the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, a supplementary education program modeled after the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement that cultivates the unique strengths and curiosities of each learner, divorced from the traditional school system’s conventions of high-stakes tests and standardized curriculum.
These days, Howell’s also helping shape the next generation of grassroots activists at The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. She’s optimistic about local neighborhood efforts, such as Detroit’s urban farming movement, which has the potential to disrupt the current food system.
One of the next big fights, Howell said, is against police surveillance. Researchers have found that facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and hasresulted in unjust arrests. Residents and activists fear the technology acts as a racial profiling tool.
“We put that system in the hands of police, which we know discriminates against people,” Howell said. “So those are the big questions in front of us.”
Shea Howell, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 23, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.