Saturday, May 26, 2007

kindred spirits: a visit to the Highlander Center

Recently, I spent four days at the Highlander Center for Research and Education in New Market, TN. Highlander has such an incredible history of supporting movement-building and organizing in the South; there is no way to do it justice here. You can read a lot more about the decades of strengthening labor organizing, civil rights work, fighting environmental degredation in Appalachia, creative youth work, protecting immigrant rights and much, much more in the history section of their website.

This visit to Highlander was a gift in every way. It is inspiring to walk the land of an institution that has been holding down a powerful place of transformation for 3/4 of a century. An organization that continues to reinvent and update their mission and approach as times and conditions shift. A space where people have access to the lessons of the past and the possibilities of a different future. A place that is strongly rooted in the realities of the South and clear about where it fits in the global landscape.

a view from the Hill

Highlander's storied rocking chairs

Highlander will be celebrating their 75th Anniversary this August 31-Sept 2 - a weekend not to be missed for anyone interested in social justice and cultural work in the South. The coordinator, Anasa Troutman, is one of the more spirited and organized people I've met in a long while. And the weekend is shaping up to be a fantastic blend of head and heart, sound and strategy. Really - what better is there to celebrate labor day???

After I got an invitation to facilitate a workshop at Highlander for Guilford College alumni doing social change work, I arrived early to learn more about the work Highlander is doing now and how they continue to convene a range of programs and groups creating a better world.

I got to see old friends like Pam McMichael (far right in the photo), one of my favorite people. Pam is the Executive Director and has dedicated her life to building coalitions across race, class, gender and sexual identity in the South. She introduced me to some very good folks like Charlie Biggs (far left) who is organizing Highlander's capital campaign and managing the website, and Johnny Bailey (in the middle) who has been tending to the land and buildings at Highlander for over 25 years!

I also got to spend some time with long-time Durham activist Manju Rajendran, who is now working at Highlander, co-coordinating their
youth organizing and leadership work. Manju has spent much of her life in Durham organizing against war and oppression and organizing for the rights of young people, people of color, people living in poverty - and all with her deep conviction that another world is possible. Durham's loss is Highlander's gain.

One of the highlights of the weekend retreat for the Guilford College folks was the e
vening w
e spent with Guy and Candie Carawn. Guy and Candie have been at Highlander off and on (mostly on) since 1960 and they are a big part of the history of civil rights movement songs. They adapted "We Shall Overcome" from a gospel song and introduced it to movement organizers in the 1960's. You can learn more about their lives working in Applachia and the Sea Islands on their website; their daughter Heather also made a beautiful film about them - "The Telling Takes Me Home."

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