Trillium News

Highlander Research and Education Center: Fostering Democracy for Generations to Come

By Pam McMichael, Executive Director, Highlander Center
Highlander has been an anchor for almost every major social justice movement in this country. From labor rights to civil rights, from environmental justice to immigrant justice, Highlander has been at the forefront of social justice work for 75 years.” The Honorable John Lewis, United States Representative
HighlanderThe Highlander Research and Education Center serves as a beacon for progressive community organizing and grassroots leadership development — across race and generations. We work with communities in the South and across the nation to connect people, and develop skills and organizing strategies to increase the movement for justice, equality and sustainability.
Founded in 1932 in Monteagle, TN, Highlander seeks to address the systemic problems of poverty and injustice in the South, using the philosophy that those affected most by an injustice can and should lead efforts to solve it. It is a philosophy that guides our work to this day.
Noted civil rights activist Septima Clark came to Highlander in 1954; first as a participant in an integration workshop and later becoming Highlander’s Director of Education. “Knowledge,” she said, “could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.”
Among the first places in the south that brought people together, crossing historical racial divides, Highlander has inspired, connected and trained generations of leaders. From its founding — to the movements of the present day — Highlander is an indispensable resource for the social justice community, a vital center for incubating strategies, best practices, research and movement building.
Highlander is now engaged in a capital campaign to ensure our capacity to provide these critical resources for the next century of leaders in the movement for social, economic and environmental justice. Through our Generations to Come Capital Campaign we are also improving our facilities to become models of equitable sustainability and accessibility. We are working to ensure that Highlander’s work on the intersection of labor, immigration, race, land and food justice, regionally, nationally and internationally, will continue for decades. To date, we have raised half of the campaign’s $3.2 million goal.
We believe that Socially Responsible Investing is a critical part of our work and our board was eager to work with an investment firm that integrates Environment, Social and Governance factors, as well as active shareholder engagement, into their investment process.
Extreme right-wing strategies count on holding the Southern electoral bloc by repressing civic participation and deepening economic and racial divides. Ecosystems from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast have been ravaged by extraction, while climate change and pollution of natural resources threaten communities regionally and across the globe. Efforts to disenfranchise voters are sweeping the South, and the rights of people of color, women, immigrants, workers, the poor and LGBTQ people are still under attack. The current political map reinforces the pivotal role of the South, and if the political landscape of the South is not changed substantially, it is questionable whether national progressive gains can be sustained, the country governed effectively, or democracy thrive.
Yet, there are herculean efforts to exercise democratic rights, strong efforts for just immigration, and worker organizing is moving into more expansive kinds of community partnerships. Communities across the South are working to improve education, decriminalize youth, hold government accountable, fight corporate interference in democracy, and develop alternative economic systems that sustain people instead of exploit them. Highlander makes key contributions to each of these efforts and brings its legacy, vision, credibility, methods, skills, creativity, resources, political education and analysis to effect lasting impact.
This is the work we believe crucial to achieving a socially just, sustainable economy and a national progressive movement—the work, as Septima Clark said, of “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.”


Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Trillium’s newsletter, Investing For a Better World. To learn more about or engage with the work of the Highlander Research & Education Center visit