Induction into Highlander began when I landed in Knoxville. A member of the Center’s staff drove me out to the property, 180 acres on top of Bay’s Mountain with a clear, sweeping view across the Tennessee Valley to the Smoky Mountains. As we rode into darkening skies, he told me about Highlander’s work, and the efforts of interconnected organizations across the region.
Solutions seemed to drop from his dialogue like gemstones. Throughout meetings and gatherings at Highlander, I quickly learned to listen carefully for the brief mention of these local and international existing and emerging alternatives to the current exploitative social, economic and political system. Alternatives like cooperatives, living wage laws, community supported agriculture, community schools, popular education, participatory budgeting, and the reversal of the privatization of local services.
So often I find myself speaking in problems, discussing with graduate colleagues and undergraduate students the tragedies and injustices symptomatic of an ill system. I can be quickly frustrated and stagnated by the oppressions that must be challenged and changed—capitalism, the patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, norms.
As we skimmed across the Interstate, I listened to this young sage’s seemingly unbounded understanding of the system, and I learned about the local and international empowered efforts interconnected with Highlander that endeavor, little by little, to force that tower to topple. Hope, faith, need, vitality was in his tone—a courage was effervescent in his verse.
While speaking in problems extracts the resiliance and conviction from your will, speaking in solutions fuels your soul.
From that first car-ride, I recognized a distinct current of energy—an unrelenting seeking of knowledge. An awareness. A consciousness from reading and speaking and reflecting, always. Now, every time he* or others at Highlander speak, I have a journal ready to take rapid notes—on the exploitative practices of Uber, or the cooperatives in Italy. The question of what could have been the impact, after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, if Blacks in the south would have continued using the alternative economic system they had created—ridesharing, community taxis and walking. What power for change does economic solidarity in the African American community hold today? Activists at Highlander are always reading, learning, sharing, seeking, and gaining deeper understandings. Work does not end at 5pm; no matter the environment, no matter the moment, the world is perpetually seen through a social justice lens.
Pulling up to the house I’m staying in—a large two-story with broad wood paneled walls tucked into the woods at the backend of the Highlander property—I feel the currents of anxiousness and excitement welling in my stomach like the fireflies flickering in my new front yard.
The two African American gentlemen I’m living with—motivated, inspired, humorous, wicked smart—are working on preparing for Highlander’s Seeds of Fire tour, a roughly 11 day trip through the south with Southern and Appalachian youth, young adult and adult ally leaders.
The first night, I sit on that broad porch with one of my housemates and learn about his ongoing activism. Cicadas and bugs the size of ping-pong balls whiz through the air, bouncing off porch lights and restless human legs—but I pay them no attention. His stories make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. And into the night, I’m reminded of why I’m here.
One of the largest agricultural co-op corporations
*Not using names for privacy purposes