Reflections on Highlander

By BHB Fellow Karissa Deiter

Waking up

On a foggy Saturday morning in New Market, TN my fellowship cohort and I hiked up from the parking lot toward the Highlander Center Homecoming’s opening plenary. Once atop the green hill and catching our breath, we were rewarded for our efforts with the breathtaking East Tennessee scenery. With my eyes I traced the undulating ridgelines at the horizon splitting the morning’s vibrant blues from greens as the scene brightened with the rising sun. Layers upon layers of hilltop and mountaintop stretched out and surrounded us. The landscape flourished and radiated a sense of cushion and comfort, holding us in a space in which human spirit matched the likes of mountainland in vitality, beauty, and power.

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The Highlander Homecoming welcomed friends new and old of the revered social justice training center to spend time together learning, celebrating, eating, storytelling, and fortifying spirits of resistance. All individuals at Highlander welcomed our BHB cohort, all of us first time visitors, into the delicious community meals, workshop sessions, and invited our voices to join with others. I felt lifted and lucky to be in the midst of a place and people that practiced/practice such radical human love and justice. Ella Baker, Septima Rose Clark, Rosa Parks, Candie Carawan, Scarritt’s own Sue Thrasher, Ash-Lee Woodard (Among many others, “There are no s/heroes in this work” and the skills of ‘ordinary’ people are vital to change, is one of many messages I would carry home): a vibrant human fabric tightly knit by fiery intelligence, passion, and commitment. You can feel the history and strength of the place as thick in the air as the sweet-smelling early autumn mists.

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“This mess cannot be reformed…that’s why we became revolutionaries”

The opening plenary set the tone for the trip: urgent and spirited, but always reinforced with that tender lining of love that drives the whole business. An intergenerational, interracial, multigendered audience tuned eagerly into the wisdom and courage ricocheting from mic to mic. We met people from Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky, Germany, New York, Illinois, all over Tennessee, and more. The plenary consisted of two sessions and the first sessions’ panelists were all wimmin of color: Ash-Lee Woodard, a community organizer who has worked with SNCC and Project South on issues ranging from environmental racism to policy brutality, M. Adams,  co-director of Freedom Inc. where she engages low income communities and focuses on queer justice and intersectionality, Annie Thomas, an activist since the age of 12 who has fought against the School to Prison Pipeline and advocated for Trayvon’s Law, and Highlander Education Team member Elandria Williams who works on the Southern Grassroots Economies Project and the Economics and Governance Curriculum.

So what’s the first step to a homecoming gathering at a historically significant social justice training center? Singing, of course. To make sure we were appropriately fired up, Ash led us in an a cappella rendering of “Which Side Are You On?”, a protest ballad written by Florence Reece in 1931 for Union Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. Afterwards, each panel member spoke a little bit about their work, life history, and what’s been on their minds lately.

Each panelist contributed a unique perspective and arsenal of experience surrounding strategies to decolonize and re-envision a more just America. As the panel dove into discussion through this decolonization of the South framework, the pertinent question became, ‘if we’re going to tear it down, what are we going to build back up?’. Each speaker affirmed their belief that community driven groups such as people’s assemblies, in which every individual’s voice and choice matter, are imperative to guiding and rebuilding our society. Not to be excluded in the least are the youth, Annie argued, who deserve the respect and inclusion merited as future and current leaders of these movements. With youth and elder leadership alike, M. insisted on the need for constant self-critique, ideological clarity, and an overall root cause analysis of what exactly we’re up against. Analysis and critique are the tools that will allow us to outmaneuver and outsmart oppressive structures that adapt accordingly as the world grows and the people resist. Her poignant comparison of oppression in America today to colonization of the 15th and 16th century yielded cheers of resonance from the audience (“Yes! That’s it!”).

The panel discussed intersectionality as a liberation tool several times, perhaps most strikingly in M.’s calling out of the structural patriarchy. M. elaborated on structural patriarchy as a system that deserves just as a much facetime and analysis as structural racism, rather than consignment to the domestic sphere. In terms of how to concretely use analysis and critique to our benefit, Elandria cited education, culture, and envisioning new economies. Flaunting her “Black Nerds Unite Shirt” she toted her belief in the efficacy of education and people’s education in particular. “Culture is the fruit and determinant of history,” she said definitively. History comes from ourselves and, being experts on the consequences of the economies we inhabit now, we possess the might to reconstruct our reality.

As an audience member, it was indescribably beautiful and fulfilling to witness a panel of black wimmin serve as the voices of guidance, wisdom, and expertise to which an eager community opened their ears and minds. I see this as a compelling demonstration of counterculture, seeing as in our American culture, the voices of those who are most consistently the targets of our society’s ugliest and most insidious instances of violence are often the first ones to be silenced and rejected. This is devastating because they are the ones most powerfully imbued with the experience and critical consciousness absolutely necessary to create a more just world. How do we resist if many of us can barely imagine what we’re fighting against or with whom we’re fighting?

Latina panelist Mary Jose Espinosa echoed this thought in the intergenerational and interracial second section of the plenary. When the discussion centered on Black/Brown solidarity, she acknowledged the great loss forged by neglect of other disenfranchised communities, namely the formerly incarcerated and undocumented immigrants, which are highly saturated with creativity. These groups construct impressive informal economies when forced to survive via their own wit and adaptability, and yet this creativity goes on unharnessed by movement building communities and the larger American community alike. Instead, dehumanization and invisibilization relegate these groups to the powerless and unvalued sidelines, leaving all sides lacking in opportunities to contribute and to learn.

“Media is an arm of capitalism…”

The next day, I found myself in a magical room full of cozy rocking chairs for a working session on media justice. A small group of us deliberated on how to champion these disregarded reservoirs of experience and knowledge mentioned in the opening plenaries. Representatives from different media justiceorganizations facilitated our group’s attempts to grasp the definition of media justice and familiarize ourselves with its implications in our respective communities. I learned that media injustice is extremely dense. Injustices entail lack of access to technology and the media’s prolific use of racial stereotypes, but also more obscured injustices like the high prices prisoners must pay to make phone calls and the potentials for economic discrimination had net neutrality failed to pass.

Our facilitators broke media injustice down with their model of “The Triple Diss”—Discrimination, Dehumanization, Disconnection—as a satirical bite to mass media’s “Triple Play” cable and internet packages. We broke out into subgroups to discuss obstacles and strategies related to media justice in our specific workplaces. In my own group, I explained this year’s task of rediscovering Scarritt Bennett’s history. I contemplated the asset of knowing one’s past when treading into an intentional future, of dialoguing with the old voices while inviting in the new.

When we reconvened to share, the list of obstacles grew much longer than the list of combative tactics. Though figuring out how to increase LGBQTI leadership in media or engage productively in social media battles are sticky problems, the facilitators urged the group to use the journalistic rights social media affords us and explore potentials for self-created media. Though I felt disheartened by our inability to think up viable solutions, the facilitators shared stories of success that broadened my sense of how investigating and revealing the inner-workings of exclusionary industries, the small decisions made by few powerful people, can incite campaigns by those who perceive themselves as targets. Beyond wins specific to media justice (like the prevention of large media mergers), every movement should use an outlet for dissemination of self-determined information. The media efforts of groups like the Oaxacan Zapatistas, Black Lives Matter, Syrian resistance groups, SNCC and SSOC, or the Cherokee Nation liberate silenced stories, offer alternative perspectives to conglomerate-run news, and entice constituencies of supporters. These examples also demonstrate how media justice is deeply entwined with broader movements. As one facilitator put it,  “We wouldn’t be talking about police brutality without net neutrality.”

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Everything is rooted in everyone being liberated

As an artist, I’m always rummaging in my environment for truly fresh ideas, but they’re not as easy to come by when ‘creativity’ is defined tightly and monopolized by particular types of work. The prompt to welcome into movement-work undervalued stories and creativity, however, is a powerful idea that stuck with me after visiting Highlander. Similar to the words “diversity”, “progressive”, and “innovation”, “creativity” as an idea often frustrates me in its ambiguity and superfluous use in elite artistic and academic circles. For this reason, I love the idea of reclaiming the language of creativity for the purposes of infusing colorful energy into justice movements. We live in a society in which children are often encouraged to “use their imagination” on a regular basis, but in which adults are rarely supported in doing the same.  At Highlander, however, the community vocabulary incorporates words such as “envision” and “re-imagine” as necessary tasks to really get stuff done.

I feel extremely grateful to Highlander, not just for the material I took away, but for existing as a restorative space in which social justice work doesn’t have to mean burnout. Along with asking difficult questions, social justice meant watching a rainbow dance across the sky as a community, painting with 20-somethings from all over, sitting around a bonfire with strangers, dancing to 60’s music with people who were around when it was made, and learning about the importance of music in Appalachian culture. The entire weekend felt like one long simultaneous inhale and exhale. Inhale your surroundings, and exhale as you cherish that which restores you. Appropriately, the last note I wrote down from the weekend was, “Everything is rooted in everyone being liberated.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 11.31.27 AMKarissa Deiter is a 2015 graduate of Vanderbilt University who majored in Anthropology. She is currently a Belle H. Bennett fellow at the Scarritt Bennett Center where she is exploring food justice at Community Food Advocates. She is exploring vocational paths through which art, sustainability, and social justice intersect.