She got involved in the troubles and experiences of others and stayed there for almost seven decades.
Boggs, who died Monday at her home in Detroit, was the Rhode Island-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who over the course of her life worked directly on causes related to workers' rights, economic organization models, racial justice and inequality, housing discrimination and conditions, educational access and the list goes on and on.
By all accounts brilliant, Boggs entered Barnard College when she was just 16 years old and, less than a decade later, earned a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College. Boggs told NPR that the experience of searching for work -- doctorate degree in hand -- awakened her social-justice instincts in a way that never ceased. Simply put, Boggs had conversations with department heads and professors at highly respected universities who felt no need to camouflage their bigotry. As Boggs told, they simply said -- in no uncertain terms -- that they did not "hire Orientals" and certainly not an Asian woman.
Boggs eventually found work in the library at the University of Chicago and, during her off hours, began to apply her rich understanding of political philosophers such as Georg Hegel and Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx to the work of advocating for better housing conditions in some of the city's poorest communities. Boggs had even worked to translate some of Marx's writings.
But in Chicago, the philosophical became highly practical, she told me during our only conversation. That lead to a long line of other causes in New York, Chicago and Detroit, where Boggs moved in the 1953 with her African American husband and compatriot in social-justice causes, James Boggs.
By the time I had the pleasure of talking with Boggs in November 2011, she was 96. I reached out to her after covering the then-developing phenomenon of Occupy Wall Street protests and tent cities. I noticed that many of the assorted issues Occupy activists denounced -- the paucity of living wage or better paying jobs, still rising unemployment, the rising tide of student loans and other unavoidable personal debt, etc. -- affected people of color deeply. Yet almost all of the Occupy protesters I met were young and white. In Zucotti Park, the movement's lower Manhattan headquarters, people of color were actually hard to find. But then I heard tale of a group taking shape around the name "Occupy the Hood," active in a few cities, including Detroit.
The women and men organizing themselves around the banner of Occupy the Hood were dropping by the tent cities that were getting so much media attention and sometimes participating in the movement's leaderless meetings and protests. But they were also raising funds to help single mothers with school supplies and back to school clothing, with unpaid utility bills and end-of-the-month food shortfalls.
After talking to one of Occupy the Hood's primary organizers in Detroit, I wanted Boggs's help understanding what limited non-white participation in the larger Occupy movement meant and what this state of affairs signaled for the movement's long-term prospects. And, for that matter, why did it seem that so many of the young and mostly white people occupying those tent cities were animated by debate and then more debate? Meanwhile, the young and mostly black people organizing around Occupy the Hood were engaged in anything but theoretical or even inherently political causes. Their focus on practical needs seemed noble, but also like the work of people who had abandoned any hope in improving the system.
I thought, Boggs will know how much, if any, of this matters. And she did. She had a lot to say. An assistant who regulated her time had allotted precisely one hour for our conversation. But Boggs's mind was sharp -- razor sharp -- in a way that made made 60-minute conversations almost impossible. We talked for two and a half hours.
Near the end, Boggs said something that today, when I learned of her death, immediately came to mind.
"To ask, ‘Where are the people of color?’ I think, is to look at the wrong idea,” Boggs said. “That is a question of the past. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves, which the Occupy movement has raised, is: What are our obligations to each other and to the world? How inclusive are our institutions, and if they are not, why not? And why is it that the worst things and all the worst options do appear to be open to all?"