On a chilly April morning earlier this year, I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee to a place I had never been. Nevertheless, it held a storied presence in my mind. For years, I had heard and read about how the Highlander Research and Education Center has played a pivotal role in Southern movements for justice since its founding as a folk school in 1932.
During the Depression era, Highlander staff trained and supported union organizers across the region. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the focus shifted to racial justice, and Highlander became a site where civil rights organizers gathered to develop plans and programs. This drew backlash from the state in the form of secret FBI surveillance, public investigations, and legal battles. In 1961, Tennessee seized Highlander’s land and property, forcing the organization to move. In the 1970s, Highlander worked with Appalachian communities to address environmental problems caused by coal mining and other extractive industries. Since the 1980s, the Center has helped catalyze and develop movements to challenge interconnected forms of oppression within and outside of the South.
Throughout, Highlander’s approach has emphasized people’s lived experiences, knowledge, and culture in creating social change. Highlander staff have never purported to know the solutions to people’s problems. Rather they have created a space where folks can gather, sit in a circle of rocking chairs, and figure out the answers together.
This year, Highlander turns 85, and celebrates two new directors who stepped into leadership not long before I visited.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson was born and raised in East Tennessee. She cut her teeth at organizing when, as a high schooler, she planned the Chattanooga stop on a reenactment tour of the 1964 Freedom Rides. From there, she got involved in struggles for environmental, reproductive, and racial justice. She became an organizer with Concerned Citizens for Justice and Project South, as well as a participant in the Movement for Black Lives, before taking the helm at Highlander.
Reverend Allyn Maxfield Steele, from North Carolina, is a minister, educator, and organizer who has been involved in solidarity struggles with Thai people’s movements and community organizing throughout the South.
Arriving at Highlander, I drove halfway up a long, steep hill past a garden and a chicken yard to a squat office building nestled in a field. Farther up were historic buildings that house workshop spaces, archives, a library, cafeteria, and lodging. Hiking trails wind through the surrounding woods––200 acres in all. I joined the Ash-Lee and Allyn on a screened porch behind the office, where we had the following conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna: Can you tell me about some of the things in your life and your work that led you to Highlander?
Ash-Lee: I was blessed with the privilege and challenge of being born into a politicized family. My dad’s from Memphis. His people are from the Delta, from Mississippi and Memphis and from the Black Belt South, from a whole crew of missionary Baptist preachers and partiers and sometimes both at the same time. (Laughs.) But good people. Good Southern people. My mom, her people are from Georgia and Southeast Tennessee, from a little unincorporated town that’s been annexed by the city of Chattanooga, called Summit, which is where I bounced in between the city and country. So I was the city girl with the country accent and the country girl with city friends.
I was taught through church how to question everything and hold people accountable to the narratives that we create about what we believe and what our politic is. And also, you know, learning about what it means to have more than just a political ideology, but a practice. So having your home open for people when they need you, and sitting in meetings until the work is done. Just learning the discipline and rigor from people who never got paid to organize but did it because it was the right thing to do.
The first time I came to Highlander was at the 75th Homecoming. I just remember what it felt like to be around hundreds, if not thousands, of people who all felt at home at a place, even folks who had been gone and had not been back in decades, and then young people who might be there for the first time. Just how equitable it felt.
Then I remember being at this concert with the SNCC Freedom Singers. Ani Difranco, who I’d never heard of at the time, was performing. And I remember I was sitting with my partner at the time and we were singing all the freedom songs and there was this queer couple beside us and they were like, “How do you know all these songs?” And I was like “What? You’re at a Highlander concert and you don’t know the Freedom Singers?” Then Ani Difranco performed and they knew every song and I was like, “How do you know this?” And they were like, “You’re a millennial and you don’t know Ani Difranco?” (Laughs.) I think that is to me the epitome of what Highlander is. It’s a place that brings people together across massive difference in ways that feel really safe for them to be who they are, whatever that is, and then calls them into being something greater for the sake of building a better world for people.
I think it’s a place that you come to and you’re not necessarily sure what it is, and then when you leave, you keep coming back, because it’s home. It’s a place of home for movement.
We’ve been jokingly trying to describe what Highlander does because it’s so massive. But what we have been doing since 1932 is trying to bring people together to figure it out themselves. We said jokingly that on our homecoming t-shirts we might put hashtag #figuringitoutsince1932.
Allyn: Where I’m from is a pretty small town in North Carolina that’s outside of a bustling Wall-Street-of-the-South kind of place, Charlotte. Right now a lot of people are starting to ask, “What are rural people? What are rural Southern people?” I think what Highlander’s done, and I think what’s been most compelling to me, is trying to break open the myth that rural is White people. That it’s actually Black and brown communities that have either been displaced from this place or forcibly brought here or been engaging in long-range struggle.
Ash-Lee: Indigenous folks who were removed.
Allyn: Right. I think it always boils down to the question of people and land and what does it mean to live and be in relationship to each other in an equitable way.
When I was in college I had an opportunity to spend time with folks in the People’s Movement in Northeast Thailand. The process that they used as far as education was very similar to what we do [at Highlander]. It’s popular education work rooted in the struggles of folks. The decision-making and the ways of understanding how things should run is very much rooted in landless people’s movements, anti-dam struggles, folks living in slum communities who had been living in rural communities but they were being urbanized because their land was being stolen from underneath them. So coming back to the States, I was trying to figure out what it meant to do that kind of work where I was from.
The theological stuff for me came out of the question of working with White folks, both myself (laughs) and in my family. But also the neighborhood that I was in was a predominately White, working class, and poor neighborhood where the question that kept coming up for folks was about the meaning that they were trying to make out of the brokenness of their bodies and the brokenness of their communities.
I had women who were using scripture to rationalize domestic violence that they were experiencing. I had men who couldn’t talk to each other or their own children unless they were fully inebriated. You had young people being prostituted out by other folks in the community in houses that were technically abandoned but that were being bought up by these investors, some of whom were part of the local college. You had folks who had been dealing with state repression and corporate repression of their rights for a really long time and they couldn’t name the truth anymore about what their experiences were. I think that organizing at its best is, in part, about helping folk collectively name the truth about what they’re experiencing and about what they want in the world.
Anna: So this next question might be overly broad. But I want to ask you how you would characterize our current political moment, both in terms of what’s happening in government but also in terms of where movement is at.
Ash-Lee: (Laughs.) Small question.
Anna: (Laughs.) Yeah, right?
Allyn: I think it’s one of those things where in the communities I come from, it didn’t feel totally surprising to see this populist upswing to put Trump in office. I see and sense and experience the world a lot of times through a theological lens. And I think that what we’re in is what could be argued to be a real spiritual crisis.
Ash-Lee: Are you about to say we’re in the Last Days? (Laughs.)
Allyn: (Laughs.) I didn’t put that out there. If we wanna talk about it, we can talk about it.
Ash-Lee: I’ll buy you a whiskey.
Allyn: I think people are really just jockeying psychologically, spiritually, in a lot of different ways for understanding where we are. I think there’s a lack of real understanding among a lot of people about what people who are different than them are experiencing. I think there’s also an exploitation of that lack of understanding, and turning it into violence. There’s a lot of gaps that have been created for White supremacists of many stripes and in many formal and informal ways to take advantage of this gap to exact terror on communities of color, trans folk, and the whole range of folks who have historically been in struggle against White supremacy. I feel that in my bones as a deep theological problem.
Reckoning with what it means to talk about morality and purpose is something that the movement’s really grappling with in this moment, because of what it looks like to have ignored people on the ground in places like the South and Appalachia for a really long time. Communities and organizers of color in rural contexts have been naming this kind of stuff for a really long time.
Ash-Lee: I think the work of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) will save us. The Movement for Black Lives is modeling some really exciting opportunities to push transformative demands in a time of crisis. What’s real is right-wing populism is growing, and we need to be growing a left populism even faster, on a greater scale, to turn the ship around. So it’s got to be multi-tactic, that’s clear. We are creating as many entry points to movement as possible. As a multi-racial, multi-sector movement, we are creating more and more and more entry points for folks to come get down with us. That’s also the Black radical tradition. It’s been multi-tactic.
So I’m seeing really exciting things both in building alternative structures to the systems that exist, like people’s movement assemblies, harm-free zones, the development of co-ops and collective practices. I’m also seeing really innovative work happening in areas that some of us would have conceded. Like, we would have ceded territory around electoral politics, some people, in previous incarnations. And now I think we’re in a place where we can’t afford to do that. We can’t not throw down. So I’m excited to see mayoral campaigns like Tishaura Jones in St. Louis, Yvette Simpson in Cincinnati, and Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi. Those examples show why we can’t cede that territory.
I think it’s really critical that as tactics are being identified and as strategies are being built nationally, it’s Southern-led, because we have been living this. It’s no surprise that Jeff Sessions has come into power. What keeps me from being hopeless about it is that I know the people in Alabama who have beat him back before. It’s no shock that Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, the evil people that they are, are in leadership in the 45 administration. And I know people in Tennessee who have been fighting them tooth and nail and not just losing. So what are the lessons from those people?
I think people are about to get a real dose the Neo-Confederacy in this political moment. What better way to learn about how to win than to talk to us, because we’ve been beating back Neo-Confederates for a really long time.
Anna: Ash-Lee, you mentioned that it can be hard to describe what Highlander does. I’ve heard it described as building “movement infrastructure,” so I want to ask about that term. It’s sort of abstract. I’m curious how y’all would define it.
Allyn: Yeah. We’ve gone back and forth talking about infrastructure and ecology. I think it can get real clear when you talk about folks who are trying to impose an unjust way of being. They’re organized. They have their own infrastructure. They have their own tools and technologies that they put into use that fragments people, and narrows what democratic practice is. So when I think about movement infrastructure or ecology, it’s about ‘Where is that democratic practice expansive?’ It’s spaces where people are mingling and interacting. It’s about figuring out where frontline struggles are in need of mutual support and helping them come together. It’s not always physical. But sometimes it is. Sometimes it is physical infrastructure. Sometimes it is financial infrastructure.
Ash-Lee: Yeah, and I mean, in my lived experience and in my political assessment of reality, it is capitalism and White supremacy and all of those ugly, nasty, harmful systems of oppression that have taught us that we are under-resourced. Now, there are material evidences of capital not flowing to the South. I think it’s something like less than four percent of all philanthropic dollars goes to social justice, and then like pennies on the dollar of that goes to the South. Which is absurd considering since W.E.B. DuBois we’ve been talking about, “As goes the South, so goes the nation.” So if social change and transformation for the betterment of humanity is actually what you want, that is cognitive dissonance at best.
But I would push back against any narrative that says that we don't have infrastructure. That we don’t have resources. Because it’s not a full and holistic articulation of what the South really is.
How can you tell me that I don’t have resources, infrastructure, whatever, and I live in the most biodiverse hardwood temperate forest in the world, right? I don’t think it’s just folklore that the Appalachian Mountains are so old that when the Ice Age hit, they were still tall enough that the tops didn’t freeze. And so when the ice melted, it was these seedbeds that repopulated the biodiversity that you see across the United States of America and arguably this hemisphere. So it’s like, how can I live in a place like that, with that history with all these resources, and then be told that I have no wealth? How can I come from a place where Bessie Smith was born, right? Where something like a Highlander could be birthed, and you tell me I don’t have infrastructure? Blues came from here. Old time bluegrass came from up the street. We are the birthers of wealth. Here. So to me it’s only capitalism and White supremacy that would tell me that I don’t have infrastructure and resources.
Because of how capitalism and White supremacy have kept financial resources from being able to be in the region, we have learned that we can do it without it. But we need to push back against that narrative too, because what’s real is that we can do more with less than a lot of people, but we can do more with more. And like I said, if we win here, we can win anywhere.
To me there’s no separating being a movement person and just being Black, poor, and good in the world. I think there’s an Audre Lorde quote that’s like, “Even just waking up and breathing is resistance for some of us.” Any system of oppression dismembers us from our ways, our people, our land, our families, our communities, our spiritual practices. So to me, having those folks be in remembering is what builds infrastructure. Getting them in relationship with each other. Getting them reconnected to their cultural ways, their spiritual practices, their collective practices, remembering their communities. To me that’s what infrastructure looks like. That’s what Highlander’s been doing for 85 years.