Highlander Center: Change You Can See

Inside the justice and training center's photo archive, recording nearly 80 years of social activism

From the perspective of the workers at the Highlander Center, 2009 looks a lot like 1932, the year the center was created. The economy is in the tank. A charismatic, progressive leader has just taken the White House. And there's a lot of work to be done.

Leaders at the 77-year-old justice and training center say they see both challenges and opportunities in the years ahead, with a potential ally as president and a possible long recession looming, making the struggle for social justice even more vital.

"Everything we've worked on will be harder for folks now," says Susan Williams, who is part of Highlander's education team. "Things will be harder, but maybe there will be some political opportunities."

Originally located in Grundy County, Tenn., near Monteagle, the Highlander school was founded in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West. Its purpose was to educate "rural and industrial leaders for a new social order." It was part of that generation's growing labor movement, though to many outsiders what the school taught sounded a lot like communism.

Since then, countless civil rights, labor, environmental, and youth leaders and foot soldiers have come here to strategize and connect in their struggle for human rights and social justice. Over the years, luminaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and many others have participated in workshops, given talks, and plotted strategy.

As backlash against the civil rights movement grew, Highlander became a target. It was dubbed a "Communist training school" on billboards and in newspaper articles. The state of Tennessee revoked the school's charter and confiscated its buildings and land in 1961. The school soldiered on, temporarily moving to Knoxville before it found a permanent home in 1971 in New Market, Tenn., about a 20-minute drive from Knoxville.

Today, there's little controversy over Highlander's presence or mission—most people are oblivious to both. But Highlander quietly continues going about its work, bringing together progressive activists from around the world as it advocates for social change through democratic participation.

In the coming years, there will be some physical changes at the center. Highlander is in the process of buying 80 acres adjacent to its current 110 acres. Organizers want to build a new dorm and resource center on the property and develop trails that could be accessible to the public, as well as guests, giving people a chance to interact with the land more. Highlander also hopes to grow produce that will be used for meals prepared there, says Pam McMichael, who became the center's director in 2005.

"When people come there, we want them to participate," McMichael says. "It might be as simple as when there's a break, people go to the garden and pick some lettuce, which will be eaten for supper. We had some hip-hop kids from Boston here this summer. They had never picked an apple from a tree before."

The physical place of Highlander is one of its strongest attributes. "It's a retreat space," Williams says, pointing to the view of the Great Smoky Mountains. "It gives people who are often doing risky things and hard things in their communities to come and feel safe and relax and talk to people doing similar things and not feel so alone. Part of that is being in a very beautiful place."

"There's a mystique about it in some ways," says Gaye Evans, director of the Appalachian Community Fund, a non-profit group that raises money and distributes it to progressive groups throughout Appalachia, including Highlander. "When people are in that space, because of the history, it's a special kind of place. People internalize that history and understand they're not just at a meeting. All those people who have been through there and learned from each other is really present when you're there."

As for the challenges that Highlander will confront in the next few years, it's not all that different from those facing other groups.

"There are economic challenges for everyone in these times," McMichael says. "Organizations are going to face fund-raising challenges. We haven't seen the worst of these economic problems, I think." So far, the center hasn't had to lay off any of its 13 full-time employees, Williams says. However, they expect fund-raising will lag during a prolonged recession and the administration might be forced to make some hard decisions.

But fighting for economic justice has always been a part of Highlander's mission—it first made its mark helping coal miners, farmers, woodcutters, and textile workers organize.

"Part of our mission is to help people demystify the economy," Williams says. "They try to make the economy seem complicated. People have been marginalized for a long time but this will up the stakes."

McMichael says Highlander has always tried to stay ahead of the curve on social issues. The center recognized early on the tensions that were being stoked between Latinos and the Southern communities they were settling in—even though there were plenty of common causes to rally behind. The center helped found Across Races and Nations, which identified problems faced by Latino immigrants as well as Southern communities where they were moving and developed strategies for dealing with them. It also founded Pueblos de Latinoamérica, a group to help train immigrant leaders and advocate for immigrant issues.

Highlander has several programs working with young people. "Seeds of Fire" works with 13- to 19-year-olds, giving young activists the support and training they need. Under that program is also the Children's Justice Camp, now in its 22nd year, which is held every summer at Highlander. The camp is for children 7 to 12, who come from families involved in activist work. The camp is designed to encourage social responsibility and interaction between people of varying backgrounds.

Evans says Highlander's work with young people is one of its most inspiring programs. "They're not just bringing people into a place where they can learn skills, but learning from them as well," she says. "We tend to talk about how we need to reach people and teach them. But [young people] have a whole other way of doing things that we need to learn from and Highlander sets that up really well."

The issues that the young activists at Highlander work with are similar to issues in any community. They're worried about getting a good education and decent jobs, McMichael says. They're also concerned about the "criminalization of youth."

McMichael says that Highlander believes everyone has a role to play. "It's not like the older generation lighting or passing the torch to the younger one—each generation has something to offer," she says. "We need each generation and we're lighting each others' torches. Nobody's done."

But by one measure, Highlander's organizers take hope in the recent political developments. The election of Barack Obama as president can be seen as a victory for the kind of grassroots democracy advocated by Highlander for more than 75 years, as it pushed for a truly inclusive democracy in the United States. But nobody at Highlander is under the delusion that the next four years are going to be easy.

"The excitement people have [about the election] comes out of a long history—encouraging people to be a part of the system," Williams says. "I think the election shows how being a part of a democratic process can bring about change. But it also showed that no matter who is president, you have to get organized."