At age sixteen, Julia Putnam recognized how Detroit could be revitalized. Her involvement with Detroit Summer introduced her to the effort to rebuild Detroit through community-based projects under the leadership of legendary organizers James and Grace Lee Boggs. Putnam is a teacher, community organizer, and most importantly, a life-long Detroiter. After the Detroit Public School district was placed under emergency state management, Putnam recognized how systemic racism had impacted the Detroit Public Schools. Drawing from organizing experience with Detroit Summer, Putnam developed the James and Grace Lee Boggs School which opened in 2013. The Boggs School utilizes a place-based education system that emphasizes learning from the history, environment, and people of Detroit. With the Boggs School, Putnam empowers her students to strive for excellence in themselves and the city of Detroit.
Julia Putnam was born in 1976 in the city of Detroit. She grew up in working-class neighborhoods—mostly around Eight Mile-Livernois—attended public schools and eventually graduated from Renaissance High School. Growing up, Julia spent a lot of time talking with elders and learning about Detroit’s history. “There was a pervasive feeling of decline of Detroit growing up,” she recalled, “both that I could see in the neighborhood of my great-grandmother but also the way the adults around me talked about Detroit.” Despite the stories of the good old days in Detroit, Julia was often left wondering “why people talked about its glory in the past tense.” She held deep admiration for her city and did not understand why the adults were losing hope (Jackman, 2021). “I didn’t understand why it was so hard for things to be better,” she explained, “like, what does it take to rebuild a building?” Despite talks of Detroit’s glory days in the past from her elders, Putnam continued to find sparks of joy in her community.
At age sixteen, Putnam became involved with Detroit Summer. Detroit Summer was a community program launched in 1992 led by James and Grace Lee Boggs that strived to revitalize Detroit through community projects, such as gardening and fixing houses. Putnam pointed her involvement with Detroit Summer as a “moment of clarity.” “I also found my people,” she explained, “and the definition of my identity got to expand because I saw other people who had a broader idea of like what Blackness was than like some of my peers.” Through the experience, she met people from outside of Detroit, “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.” Through this experience, Putnam became enthusiastic about the effort to revitalize Detroit, “It was just like I want to rebuild, redefine, and re-spirit Detroit from the ground up!”
After high school, Julia studied at Michigan State University and University of Detroit Mercy for her certification to become a teacher. She also continued to be involved with Detroit Summer as a coordinator and recruiter. During this time, the emergency management and state takeover of Detroit Public Schools under state government began. “I was around people who were resisting it and saying that it was really bad,” Putnam recalled. “I remember having to ask questions about that and why people were so upset.” “It wasn’t immediately obvious to me…the Detroit Public Schools were so bad because even when they were great, I had critiques…” The fact that Detroit Public Schools were out of the hands of officials residents of Detroit bothered Putnam and other Detroiters as well, “…that I began to hear from people was this sense of disenfranchisement, this sense of like if there’s an emergency manager, what about the people who are elected?” As a result, Putnam began to consider personal actions she could take to improve the state of education in Detroit.
In response to the state of Detroit Public Schools, Putnam helped to develop the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. The mission of the Boggs School is “to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.” Drawing from her experience with Detroit Summer, Putnam uses placed-based education in the school, which is an education model that focuses on the community the school is located in. “Place-based education is learning that’s rooted in the local,” Putnam explains. “So, you take the state content standards, and you embed them in the study of the geography, history, culture of the neighborhood or the place that the school is in… the audience for your learning is not just the classroom.” An example of a lesson at the Boggs school may be, “The concept of volume might be taught by having children calculate how much dirt they need for a garden bed.”
The teachers at the Boggs School aims to support their students navigate the real world through interactions with the community. When explaining the place-based curriculum that takes place in the Boggs School, Putnam detailed, “One teacher taught tally marks to her younger kids by like going around and counting the broken windows in the neighborhood and come up with ideas about like what we could do about them or some suggestions or who we might write a letter to.” Putnam’s vision for the Boggs School can be summarized with the statement, “I want a kid to graduate from our school and be able to look around and say, ‘I’ve been in this neighborhood forever; I know exactly what businesses work. I know exactly what the needs are in this community.”
To Julia Putnam, Detroit is a place of great possibility. Through stories of Detroit’s past from her elders and her involvement with Detroit Summer, Putnam recognized the potential for the city of Detroit. Her experiences as a life-long Detroiter and an educator paved the path for the development of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. With the Boggs School, Putnam empowers the next generation of Detroiters to strive for excellence. In her words, “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.”
- Boggs, Grace Lee. “`Children Are Solutionaries’ School Opens in.” Michigan Citizen, vol. 35, no. 46, 22 Sept. 2013, p. A10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=90425244&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Jackman, Michael. “How Boggs School Principal Julia Putnam Is Rethinking Education.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 7 Mar. 2021, www.metrotimes.com/detroit/how-boggs-school-principal-julia-putnam-is-rethinking-education/Content?oid=14096362.
- Kuras, Amy. “City kids: High-quality charter schools await Detroit families.” Model D, 13 August. 2013, https://www.modeldmedia.com/features/creativeed813.aspx
- Putnam, Julia. “Re-Imagining Teaching.” Michigan Citizen, vol. 34, no. 15, 19 Feb. 2012, p. A10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=73390834&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- “Mission & Core Ideology.” Boggs Educational Center, www.boggsschool.org/mission-core-ideology.
Julia Putnam, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, July 18, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.