The next morning I wake up in New Market, Tennessee. I head down a gravel road to Highlander’s Workshop Center, nestled on top of “the hill”. Octagonal in shape, I would later learn—as the story goes—following Highlander’s forced relocation from Monteagle, TN to New Market, no one would agree to build for Highlander except a vacation home contractor. Many of the Highlander buildings, now more than 50 years old, were only meant to stand temporarily.
Slowly but surely, I am gaining a deeper understanding of Highlander’s history, methodologies, and mission. I hear these stories in passing, during staff-led workshops—or by reading passages in new and old visitor materials. A couple who had been young adults during the civil rights movement stopped by the center, full of enthusiasm and awe of this place. A staff member offered to walk with them up to the Workshop Center. As we shared the sun, I listened as she told the story of the buildings.
Highlander is not a boastful place. My articulation cannot do justice to the breadth, depth, or roots of Highlander, but these are the pieces I am beginning to put together.
Myles Horton and others founded Highlander in 1932; Horton traveled to Denmark and modeled Highlander after Danish Folk Schools. In The Long Haul, as Horton is cultivating this conception—a space of popular education, movement building and strategizing—he speaks with Jane Addams, founder of Hull House. Sharing the importance of creating spaces for people to reckon with their own power and capacity, Addams tells Horton: One group can act two different ways when confronted with a problem—they can ask an official to tell them what to do, or they can talk it out and do it themselves. What is Democracy? Democracy is when they do it themselves.
After its inception, Highlander hosted integrated groups for labor and union organizing, cultural work, and desegregation workshops. In the 1950s and 60s, Highlander participated in the development of the Civil Rights Movement—Martin Luther King, Pete Seegar, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, Marion Berry and James Bevel were among those who attended meetings and workshops.
When the state shut Highlander in Monteagle down in 1959—deeming it a “Communist Training School”—Horton told reporters, “you can padlock a building, but you can’t padlock an idea.” The center re-opened in 1961 where it stands today, where I am sitting today, in New Market, TN. Sitting on the backside of the hill is a building Horton built himself, “The Horton House”.
Highlander works on a host of issues facing those living in Appalachia and the South—including youth engagement with the region, environment—land displacement, strip mining, black lung and toxic waste in the 70s and 80s—and labor issues.
I’ve taken on work that I enjoy and that best fits my skillset—researching and writing. I’m currently creating a bit of content for an extensive Economic and Governance curriculum; one activity includes a timeline of international economic and governmental occurrences and concepts—I’m creating digestible write-ups of these events and ideas. An example is a concept I find inspiring, a solidarity economy.
SOCIAL AND SOLIDARITY ECONOMY
The core belief of the Solidarity Economy Movement is that people are deeply creative and have the capacity to develop their own solutions to economic problems. The current system profits very few while exploiting many. A solidarity economy seeks to strengthen existing and emerging economic alternatives across the globe, linking these solutions in mutually supportive ways. Centralized structures of control are replaced by shared responsibility and democratic decisions. These economic alternatives promote societal collaboration and a more just world.
The Econ & Gov. curriculum is meant to facilitate groups’—communities, organizations, and coalitions—assessment of their community’s assets, resources, capacity and decision-makers. Groups identify action steps to make sustainable changes locally while deepening their understanding of the systems beyond their community, that affect their community.
The STAY institute (“Stay Together Appalachian Youth” ) ran a shortened version of the curriculum at their summer institute. STAY is a diverse regional network of young people throughout Central Appalachia who are working together to advocate for and actively participate in their home mountain communities (see: http://dev.thestayproject.org/about-us/). Just as I learned of the outpouring of young people from Mississippi while living in the state—youth in Appalachia are often incentivized and encouraged to leave their communities, communities that need their skillsets, energy, and innovation.
I attended STAY’s three-day workshop. It was a mind-altering experience in regards to my thinking about social issues, especially gender and sexuality.
During STAY’s governance and economy workshop, groups were asked: what is your community? What does ‘economy’ mean to you? What does ‘democracy/governance’ mean to you?
What is a law or rule that could help bring about change? A few called out ‘legalize weed’—which my Seattleite pride appreciated—and others answered “self-governing and self-protecting” communities, “raising the minimum wage,” and “non-discrimination ordinances”.
When the economics and governance curriculum is finished, it will eventually become publically available on the Highlander website. Highlander envisions an online database where others can download workshops created by and at Highlander, and offer feedback around their experiences using the content in classrooms, coalitions and beyond.
In addition to the governance and economy curriculum, I’m facilitating planning for Highlander’s upcoming Homecoming—a momentous event in Semptember—and outreach for the Appalachian Fellowship Program by calling applicants and finalizing their applications.
There is an undeniable energy in these hills, and a vision—always forward—that is empowering. Groups and individuals come here to reflect on their own knowledge and tap into their own solutions, to learn highlander methodologies and listen to akin others.
You plug into this hill’s energy to recharge and reinvigorate, before returning to make change happen in your neighborhoods, your schools, your communities—your home.