The Highlander Center: Can there really be only one?

Astute readers may remember our last visit to the Highlander Research and Education Center in October of 2013. At the time, we only stopped briefly for a tour and chats with staff on hand. Folks assured us the landscape was amazing and the history rich, but on that particular day fall fog and tight schedules cut off our view. Even so, we vowed to come back, struck in just a few hours by a center rooted “in place”, organizing its community through decades of ebbing and flowing social movements in the South. Legacy and place, some of Highlander’s core methodologies, really shined through for us.

Federica is just wrapping up a yearlong class at Evergreen called “Making Change Happen”, and a culminating visit to Highlander sold her on signing up for the class.  While it seemed a bit touch and go at first, we ended up making a whole family vacation out of the class trip over the long memorial day weekend.

Federica's class from the Evergreen State College

Federica’s class from the Evergreen State College

Another of Highlander’s core methodologies is intergenerational organizing, demonstrated as elders from the center’s history (like a co-creator of the song  “We Shall Overcome“) and even older folks in Fede’s class shared time with our 8-month old son babbling on the floor. Our last visit came just after our inspiring summer on the farm and something about revisiting this place as our final move to Italy draws closer, almost two years later, is powerful. One of our biggest life changes recently is obviously parenthood.  Suddenly being responsible for a child, shifting from abstract thoughts about education, heritage and family life to immediate, sleep deprived decisions about teaching skills or family names or parenting styles is humbling.  We saw amazing examples of generations of activism held there.

The Green McAdoo Center commemorates 12 African American students, trained at the Highlander Center, who challenged segregation at the first school in the South to integrate in 1956 in Clinton, Tennessee.

The Green McAdoo Cultural Center commemorates 12 African American students, trained at the Highlander Center, who challenged segregation at the first school in the South to integrate in Clinton, Tennessee in 1956.

We were touched on a visit to the Green McAdoo Cultural Center by the resolve of young people fighting for their right to an equal education. 12 young black students worked with Rosa Parks and other activists at the Highlander Center prior to registering for classes at the all white Clinton High School in the Fall of 1956, just a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education. A white former student of that high school took us around the museum, sharing very personal stories about how the town grew in its own understanding of racial inequality as the integration discussion provoked national attention (and incitement).  At Highlander they talk about the methodology of community educationas many times a community needs to grow and change more from knowledge and action within than from experts without.

One of the highlights of this dance was folks bringing their own moves, from breakdance to Bengali, to the promenades.

One of the highlights of this dance were the moves, from breakdance to Bengali, that folks brought to solo moments.

We also heard some great music, visited museums, listened and shared stories and even danced all together.  Highlander talks about the importance of cultural organizing to bring vitality and creativity to the movement.  While we were on the trip, 2 young black men were shot by an Olympia Police Officer and the class struggled with the realization that not everyone was on the same page about interpreting this event or what could be done to address it. I was struck by a song a storyteller brought about the death of a son in war, and how the world keeps up “business as usual” all around a mother’s grief. A lot of care and discussion went into discussing folks’ stories: when and how to share what, what stories mean for our identities. As the storyteller wrapped up, what followed around the fire as folks shared their own stories was powerful and challenging.

highlander center farm

The most exciting part about all this is that we’re still gathering information, nuggets and inspiration for our own project as we do this exploration.  We’ve continued to meet with our core of fellow dreamers in Italy and use this experience and others to help feed our discussion of UpUpA, our working project name.  Highlander also uses participatory research as a way to build knowledge and recipes for action.  How can we know how something will work just by studying it?  There’s a mural on the outside of the center with the phrase “Without Action, there is no Knowledge.”  This felt like a big action step towards educating ourselves.