(my column for June…)
“Pilgrimage” probably wouldn’t be quite the right word—but it comes close.
Over Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a training session about “Popular Economics Education”—i.e., using the “popular education” methods pioneered by Paolo Freire to raise awareness of economic issues. This session was organized by the folks at United for a Fair Economy ( faireconomy.org ), and took place at a very special location: the Highlander Research and Education Center, nestled on a scenic hilltop not far from Knoxville.
Chances are you haven’t heard of Highlander. But if you lived in the United States anytime during the last 75 years or so, you have felt the effects of its work. (For a more in-depth retelling of its history, see highlandercenter.org, or read Frank Adams’ excellent 1975 account, “Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander.”)
Highlander was founded as the “Highlander Folk School” in 1932 by labor organizer Myles Horton, educator Don West and Methodist minister James Dombrowski. Horton was inspired by the “folk high schools” found in Europe, which themselves traced their inspirations back to the French Revolution—and the French, of course, had taken their inspiration from the American Revolution So you see, what goes around comes around.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the school concentrated on labor education and the training of labor organizers. Then, as the movements for desegregation and civil rights rose in the 1950s and 1960s, Highlander played a central role. Among the people who attended Highlander trainings in this era were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. So important was its work that the state of Tennessee, as the result of an intensive “Red-baiting” campaign, actually closed down the school in 1961, confiscating its property. But the school reorganized, moved to Knoxville and began to focus on the health and safety of coalminers and other issues of environmental justice in Appalachia.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Highlander moved to its present location, and broadened its environmental focus, including organizing around globalization issues. It also worked on developing grassroots leadership in under-resourced communities, and expanded its social justice focus to include LGBT and immigrant issues. Currently, Highlander programs encompass a wide range of interconnected concerns, from civil, human and workers’ rights to criminal justice reform. They are also active in working with youth to create the next generation of social change leaders.
The history of Highlander’s concerns parallels the logical progression of social change. After the end of blatant institutionalized slavery, workers began to organize and struggle to obtain rights and recognition from the industrial system and end their oppression by that system. Then minorities and women organized and struggled not just to end their oppression but also to obtain actual power within that system. It then became necessary to become more aware of the environmental and social effects of exercising power.
Now our task is not only to gain power within the existing system, not just to exercise that power with awareness and care, but more importantly to imagine new systems that are more economically just and more ecologically sustainable, and then to implement the transition away from the old.
In that process, institutions like Highlander will continue to be in the forefront—and I would like to suggest that we have the beginnings of such institutions here as well.