Seeds of Fire: What can we learn from the Highlander Research and Education Centre?

Updated: Apr 21, 2019


In the Appalachian mountains near Knoxville, Tennessee, stands the Highlander Research and Education Centre. One of the buildings now only rubble left on the ground. On March 29th 2019, white supremacists set fire to the main office building, burning decades of the archive, threatening this place which over the last 87 years has nurtured the fight for justice, equality and sustainability across the South, the USA and beyond. This is a devastating loss of historical record, of the stories of the people who came to this place, the photographs, the songs. “Highlander has survived despite arson, arrests, and eviction. And it adjusted, in a changing political climate, to new sets of students and problems” (Adams, 1972: 502). It will survive again. But it feels timely to take stock of the lessons that can be learned from this incredible project in the Deep South of the United States.

What is Highlander?

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) outside the library at Highlander.

"Highlander serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. We work with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny. Through popular education, language justice, participatory research, cultural work, and intergenerational organizing, we help create spaces — at Highlander and in local communities — where people gain knowledge, hope and courage, expanding their ideas of what is possible. We develop leadership and help create and support strong, democratic organizations that work for justice, equality and sustainability in their own communities and that join with others to build broad movements for social, economic and restorative environmental change." (Highlander Website)

Founded in 1932, the long history of Highlander provides many useful lessons for those wishing to establish social movement infrastructure. I will outline six that I have drawn from reading about this extraordinary place.

Learning from the challenges

In the early years, Highlander struggled in a number of ways - to get students, to engage the students who showed up, to get funds. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Myles Horton - one of the founders of Highlander - said:

“We did make a terrible lot of mistakes the first year because of what we had learned that we thought you could apply. So we fell flat on our face. We weren’t getting through to the people. So we had a little self-criticism and we said what we know, the solutions we have are for problems that people don’t have and we are trying to solve their problems by saying that they have problems that we have solutions for - that’s academia. So it won’t work. We have to unlearn much of what we have learned and then learn how to learn from the people...We have to learn to relate to their experiences...They didn’t want to talk about democracy and brotherhood, they wanted something in their bellies.”

Through making mistakes, reflecting on them and then adapting their approach, Highlander has built a model for political education that has lasted decades.

Aligning with the oppressed

A young woman teaches a class on labor organizing at Highlander Folk School. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society.

While those at Highlander have been able to adapt to a range of challenges and changing political circumstances, one thing has been constant. Highlander was set up to work with the oppressed, to build their strength that they might overcome adversity. From mine workers to African Americans to Latinx migrants, Highlander has aligned itself with those on the margins to change the society towards liberation.

Moving with movements

Some people looking at this history of Highlander might see it as a number of different schools that have, over time, developed to support different social struggles. Horton, however, has strongly argued that “Highlander’s been one school all the way through. We just doing the same thing with different groups of people."

  • In the early years, the centre worked mainly with labour organisations building the capacity of trade union organisers, supporting local strike action and developing workshops where black and white workers could learn alongside each other - long before it was legal to do so.

  • In the 1950s and 1960s, Highlander threw its support behind the Civil Rights Movement and the Citizenship Schools program developed to enable African Americans to pass so-called 'literacy tests' required to get the vote.

  • In the 1970s and 1980s the focus of Highlander shifts to the Appalachian Peoples Movements, fighting industrial pollution, strip mining and toxic waste.

  • In the 1990s and 2000s Highlander supported the emerging anti-globalisation movement by sponsoring workshops on economic human rights and trade and globalisation issues and by forging connections with international activists and organisers

  • And in more recent years, Highlander has been working with migrants rights organisers especially among the Latinx community.

Paying attention to geography

While Highlander has worked with movements all over the world, it is rooted in the geography of the South, of Appalachia and Tennessee. By building strong, connected foundations to land and place, Highlander has served the people and struggles closest to home. The students who have come here have often been local, the causes and struggles have been local too. There is something about the rootedness of this place that gives it strength. And having a physical place has also been significant.

Education and research

Participatory education and participatory action research have been woven together at Highlander to centre the lived experience of the people who attend the workshops, to draw out the knowledge that exists in the room, to develop an analysis based on that knowledge and then to plan for action, reflect on actions that have been taken and move forward. This model is quite innovative as it is one of the rare places where learning and research are integrated in a non-university context. “Groups meeting in the famous rocking chairs at Highlander engage in peer group learning through focus groups surveys, existing documents, interviews, role playing and oral histories” (Baker et al. 2008: 198). Integrating participatory action research and popular education methods ground the learning of participants in ways that seem to make long term change.

Weaving in cultural approaches

Zilphia Horton teaches 'We Shall Overcome' at Highlander

Alongside the more explicit political work, song, dance, art and drama have always played a vital role. "People and their communities have cultural practices that help them move forward, work together with others, build bridges, celebrate and inspire action." (Highlander Website) Horton spoke of wanting to cultivate the spirit and the soul - that this will galvanise individuals to act far more than the learning of facts and figures.


This inspiring place with a long rich history provides many lessons and insights for trainers, educators and organisers in the UK and elsewhere on how to create lasting movement infrastructure.

If you can send some love and support to Highlander at this difficult time send them here:

© 2018 by Simran Bola created with