Highlander – A Beacon Of Light By Chama St. Louis, Central Illinois Coalition Organizer – Peoria People’s Project

In Early June, my job, the Grassroots Collaborative sent me to attend organizing training at Highlander Research and Education Center, in New Market Tennessee. As listed on their website, “Highlander serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the U.S. South. Through popular education, participatory research, and cultural work, we help to create spaces — at Highlander and in local communities — where people gain knowledge, hope and courage, expanding their ideas of what is possible. Highlander is a place where leaders, networks, and movement strands come together to interact, build friendships, craft joint strategy and develop the tools and mechanisms needed to advance a multi-racial, inter-generational movement for social and economic justice in our region.”

Forty-five minutes from the nearest store and nestled high in the Appalachian Mountains, sat a beautiful training facility, equipped with living spaces for attendees during the duration of their stay. I along with thirty other individuals from across the country found ourselves together, eager to learn from the training and each other.

We attended the workshop entitled: Rage and Hope and spent four days learning at the same facility so many organizers and civil rights leaders before me had graced with their presence; Leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. In fact, it was just six months after Rosa Park’s visit to Highlander, that she and other’s orchestrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

From popular education, education justice, cultural learning, direct action and the fundamentals of organizing communities, we spent almost 12 hours a day soaking up as much information as possible in hopes of leaving with valuable information to take back and improve the communities we loved back home. It was reminiscent of a spiritual revival. I left feeling energized, ready to organize, feeling blessed with a unique opportunity and with a wealth of knowledge I hoped Peorians would be receptive to.

Perhaps what stuck with me the most was the time I had to be self-reflective in nature, with beautiful scenery. Plenty of time for me to clear my mind, check my intentions and remember why the work that so often leaves me exhausted and discouraged was so important to continue. A reminder that there are others around the country, who possess the same passion and determination to improve their surroundings as I do. A reminder that although Dr. MLK, Jr. and Ms. Parks are no longer with us, their energy and spirit lives on in people around the country.

Sometimes organizing and activist work can leave you feeling as if you’re wandering around in darkness. Needless to say, Highlander was the match I needed to light the fire that had seemingly faded into a flicker. I came back ready to continue the journey, ready to continue being the voice of the voiceless, but most importantly, ready to recruit others to join me.