It was almost two in the morning by the time the taxi turned the corner into the Highlander Center. The fact that it was so dark and quiet combined with long travel added a certain aura of mystique as we drove up the hill and saw the lights inside the famous, circular retreat center. As we got out of the car and was greeted by their chef Thomas, it felt like I could taste the history and legacy that hung in the air.
I had been wanting to come here for years. As a nonviolence trainer, as someone who appreciates history and legacy, as someone who understands how deeply we are indebted to those who came before us, and as a movement geek, there are few places anywhere in this country that holds as much meaning.
The Highlander Research and Education Center, formerly known as the Highlander Folks School, is a training center that has trained generations of social change agents. Perhaps most famous for having trained Rosa Parks before the arrest that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they have hosted countless thousands of individuals working to create Beloved Community. Celebrating over eighty years of history, they helped to train activists who would go on to play leading roles in the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and countless others.
Coming here truly was on my bucket list. As a trainer, the fact that I got to offer a training here is a huge badge of honor. The fact that I got to do it for a group as amazing as the Dream Defenders, and the fact that I got to collaborate on that with two of my sisters from The Gathering for Justice made the experience that much more special.
That first night, even though it was already late, Thomas was kind enough to sit with us until the early hours of the morning to share some of the history of the place and his involvement there. His official role may be head chef, but it’s clear that he is so invested in the place and feels a part of the family and its legacy. The food that is produced, and the way in which it is brought to our plate is every bit a part of the mission and programs of Highlander. Him and his staff’s warmth and hospitality were not simply a logistical task; it was part of what made our experience this weekend so powerful.
As I was exploring the space over the next couple of days, I was constantly running into history. Pictures of Rosa Parks during her time here, newspaper articles about Dr. King’s appearance (he was accused of coming to a “Communist Traning Center”), images of founder Myles Horton, T-Shirts celebrating their 80th anniversary, stories of how they ended up in New Market, TN after the state revoked their charter and confiscated its land for its participation in the Civil Rights Movement, looking through their archives and seeing countless training manuals and images of groups who have come through here….
I remember sitting at lunch one day watching Highlander’s Executive Director Pam explain some of the history of the place to a young Dream Defender from Miami. I remember thinking how much of a privilege it is for me to sit there and watch the passing down of a legacy.
The Dream Defenders
If you don’t already know about the Dream Defenders, get to know their name.
I, like many, first heard their name last year when they took over the Florida Governor’s office following the Zimmerman Verdict. They occupied the building for a month, demanding to meet with the Governor to discuss what they called “Trayvon’s Law.”
Having been an admirer of their work from a far, I had some mutual friends put me in touch with them earlier this year. Despite a few earlier attempts at meeting up and collaborating, it didn’t work out until now. But I’m so glad we kept at it, as this group is every bit as amazing and inspiring as I had hoped.
After driving 24 hours from Miami and arriving at 5 in the morning, they were ready to go with abundant energy on Friday morning. As we opened in circle and ceremony, it became clear quickly what kind of weekend this was going to be. Right away, members of the group opened up and showed the courage they had by going deep.
As physically tired as they must have been, their energy never waned. It didn’t seem like there was one person who engaged in the discussions about nonviolence with an uncritical mind, yet each of them genuinely allowed themselves to struggle and grapple with them.
On the evening of the first night, we lit a fire and held ceremony, creating a space for people to let go of the things in their lives that do not serve them. Pain, fear, doubt, guilt, shame. We did this because we know that change has to start from within. We can change all the laws and policies we want, but if we are not letting go of internal violence and transforming our own lives, all we are doing is pointing the finger and ignoring how we also contribute to perpetuating systems of violence.
Grounded in ceremony and the principles of nonviolence, the last day and a half was spent on organizing strategy. The Dream Defenders understands the true depth of the struggle that we are engaged in, and that “organizing” means so much more than getting out the vote or passing a single piece of legislation. Elandria, who led the organizing training, reminded them that they are not just organizing to “get out the vote,” but they are organizing to “get out the community.” That at the heart of voter engagement work is about building power and building community.
She also reminded us that it’s not enough to tear down existing systems, but we need to begin to build our own institutions. What Gandhi and his movement called “constructive program” is a critical component of any successful movement, one that often times gets overlooked. When we look at the Civil Rights Movement, we know about the legislation that was passed, but we are not taught about the economic empowerment programs that were happening. Black communities controlling their own institutions, owning their own banks, building coops, and building real power. Once we tear down the current systems, we need to have the skills and expertise to replace those systems, and we cannot wait until the current system is gone to figure it out.
The legacy of struggle that we were surrounded in, as well as the Dream Defenders themselves were two of the key ingredients in the success of the weekend. The other was the training team. While I led the nonviolence aspects of the workshop, Carmen from The Gathering brought in the ceremony, and Elandria from Highlander led the organizing training.
Because we need all three. Policy change can happen just with organizing. Personal transformation and growth can happen with ceremony. And nonviolence can guide conflict reconciliation. But when you bring in all three elements, then you can change the world and affect generations to come.
All three of us were on the Executive Committee of The Gathering for Justice, brought together by our elder Harry Belafonte. All three of us were committed to that process, but while Carmen has served as it’s Executive Director for sometime, Elandria and I have not been involved since the last Executive Committee meeting was held in 2010.
During our closing ceremony, Elandria whispered in my ear that it had been three years since we saw each other. “We can never let that happen again,” she said.
After the success of this weekend, I have a feeling it will not be long before we’re together again.