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Highlander School

By Elandria Williams, a Black Unitarian Universalist.

The Highlander Research and Education Center is an 80-year-old popular education center in the mountains of East Tennessee, which serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement-building in Appalachia and the South. The center supports the efforts of those fighting for justice, equality, and sustainability to take collective action to shape their own destiny. It was founded in 1932 by young adult radical ministers who wanted to start a school in the South modeled on the Danish folk school movement of the early 1900s, which showed students that they could make change and love their communities. The center has been and is at the forefront of movement and social change work in the South, Appalachia, the United States, and the world.

I first came on to Highlander's land as a kid playing at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church picnics. Myles Horton, the founder of Highlander, was a member of our church. I attended the children's camp one summer and other events over the years. For the past five and a half years, I have worked at Highlander, which has afforded me the opportunity to learn from, grow, and build multiracial progressive organizations and movements for positive social change. I am now an Education Team member and the coordinator of Seeds of Fire, our youth, young adult, and intergenerational program.

Highlander's mission since the beginning has been to bring grassroots leaders together across race, age, and community to build a broader movement for change. In the early years the focus was on economics, which included building cooperatives and labor unions. During the civil rights movement, Highlander trained leaders in the citizenship schools. In the 1970s and '80s, Highlander brought together people working against toxic waste dumping and strip mining. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to NAFTA and the impact of globalization and immigration. In the 2000s, the organization has reaffirmed the importance of youth development and organizing as well as the power of those who are directly impacted when they work together across identities to develop community power and act to shape their communities.

We who are part of Highlander believe that through popular education, participatory research, cultural organizing, and language justice we can have a profound impact, helping to create the world we wish to see. Popular education is a type of education that leads to action, based on the idea that education is not neutral. You are either teaching in deference to the status quo, or you are engaging in liberation education and critical analysis. Following the model of educators Paulo Freire, Howard Zinn, and Myles Horton, popular education encourages local community leaders to work with their community to research problems and issues in their community, and then to work to build their community's capacity to advocate for changes in policies and practices that benefit the community as a whole. Community leaders work strategically with art and culture so that organizing campaigns honor and credit the base community from which they arose. Leaders practice intergenerational organizing and build multilingual capacity so that all members of the community can participate, regardless of language and age. All of these practices support the development of antiracist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural communities that engage in political education, promote social healing, and serve to accompany those who are oppressed as witnesses and allies.

When I think about all of the programs, workshops, and opportunities to serve as a witness and ally of which I have been part during my time at Highlander, what stands out to me is not just the campaign wins that organizations have achieved, but how movement "family" has been built as people come together across divides that they never thought they could break and connections are formed—not just within communities, but between and among them.

I remember my first Seeds of Fire camp in 2007, where youth and adult allies from across the South gathered to work together. Although members of the group committed to working across identity and against oppression both at the camp and back home, at first everyone stayed in their own cliques and worked with those who were comfortable for them. As the camp experience began, people were nervous about sharing a dorm or group activity with people who were not from their organization. This was especially true around language and culture: The Latino and Latina kids bunched together, the Black youth bunched together, and the queer youth of color had a clique. Although gathering in affinity groups had some benefit (for example, most of queer youth of color came from rural spaces and needed to see and be around other queer youth of color), the Seeds of Fire staff were committed to helping young people find common experiences that would ground their work together. Common ground emerged through a workshop that Power U of Miami, Florida, led about the criminalization of youth in schools. Every single one of the young people at the camp had been criminalized for wearing a rosary or a hoodie, for being perceived as a threat, or because of their sexuality and gender identity. Finding commonalities through sharing stories of how they had each been treated in schools created a sense of togetherness. That togetherness was enhanced by sharing dances, songs, food, and stories of their community work over the following days. At lunch times, YouthPride out of Atlanta held a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) session, and JASMYN from Jacksonville challenged everyone about Transgender rights. During the middle of the week, after a powerful workshop about immigration and the Dream Act led by undocumented youth fighting to change laws, some of the adult allies in their 20s and early 30s proposed dialogue about oppression and healing through theater. With my support, youth ensemble members of Carpetbag Theater, an African American theater troupe from Knoxville, Tennessee, led a process whereby people bore witness to each other's stories, supporting each other and singing through pain. The personal and the political were both brought into the room; the process allowed a young woman from Palestine to share her experiences with the Intifada, a young woman from El Salvador to share what it meant to live through the civil war as a youth fighter, another young man from Guatemala to share about his mother's and his possible deportation, and a young man to share about sexual assault that occurred in his home. That first round of stories led to many more rounds of growing together in community.

Now, when I go to North Carolina and see one of the leaders in the Dream movement, I recall him in that room five years ago. I think of the many other amazing young people that are running community organizations and moving the work forward—building community that stopped repressive legislation 287(g) [federal legislation authorizing law enforcement officers to identify, process, and detain immigration offenders] in counties throughout the South, stopped youth prisons from being built, started Gay Straight Alliance-type meetings in rural Mississippi, and more. That work of that one Seeds of Fire experience has multiplied out so many times that sometimes I just sit back in amazement and think about the many connections, relationships, and changes that have occurred—and also the changes that still need to happen.

Highlander believes, and I believe, that the main job of a popular educator is to get the right people in the room and to create a space whereby people quickly get out of their comfort zones and go deep in powerful and profound ways. In order to create liberating communities, it is crucial to develop youth and young adult leaders that critically analyze the world around them, get politically educated, both in congregations and in community organizations, and build movements for social change. While Unitarian Universalist communities that I work with do not always share the life situations of the leaders at Highlander, some of the most powerful leaders and organizers that I have worked with are Unitarian Universalist young adult leaders who are pushing toward the Beloved Community and working to create multiracial, anti-oppressive, antiracist communities both in congregations and out in the world.

I close with a quote from Septima Poinsette Clark, who was the Education Director at Highlander during the early civil rights movement. She said:

I am not weaving my life's pattern alone. Only one end of the threads do I hold in my hands. The other ends go many ways, linking my life with others.

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Last updated on Friday, July 20, 2012.

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