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Reflections on the Belle H Bennett Fellows Trip to Highlander Research and Education Center

By Marie Campbell

This mural reads, “Without action, there is no knowledge. Sin accion, no hay conocimiento.” Highlander believes that that education for social change must be tied to concrete lived experience, not just to theories and abstractions.

In September, the BHB House fellows and I traveled to New Market, Tennessee for a weekend at Highlander Research and Education Center. The weekend was titled: “The Spirit of Freedom Summer: Today’s Radical Movements for Community, Democracy, and Education.” We spent time with Bob Moses – prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement who helped lead the Council of Federated Organizations into the Mississippi Summer Project – Bettie Mae Fikes of the SNCC (Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers – Helen Lewis, Mother of Appalachian Studies – Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs With Justice – among others! Informed by Highlander’s legacy and present, we engaged questions such as: “How do we move toward a more just society? How do we end exploitation based on race, class, and gender? Who decides what such a utopian project will look like? What is the place of education in changing the fabric of society, in remaking the world so that the concept of citizen is reinvested with meaning? What does it mean to link education to ‘struggles in the larger theater of social and political life’? What does it mean to educate, to change society from the bottom up?” (The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change, ed. Dale Jacobs, Knoxville: U of TN Press, xxvii.)

We were inspired by the stories we heard about the good work of good people all over the South and around the world. We were heartened by the spirit of radical hospitality, friendship, and solidarity. Our histories, hearts, minds, and feet join our sisters and brothers in struggles toward collective liberation!

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BHB House Fellows participating in Highlander’s September 21 solidarity action with People’s Climate March taking place in New York, http://peoplesclimate.org/.

Scarritt-Bennett and Highlander share a common heart, and some common history. In its college days (1892-1988), Scarritt educated young women, and eventually women and men, to be advocates for social justice. Scarritt faculty embraced “learning by doing,” integrating field work into all aspects of the curriculum. Students were placed in social service agencies and churches, “places where practice accompanied theory,” in both urban and rural settings, to learn how to work with people directly experiencing injustice and oppression. Though Scarritt always hosted international students, the college became first white private college in Tennessee to be desegregated in 1952. Scarritt was a leader in the civil rights movements and empowered its students to join movement work in solidarity with poor and marginalized people in the South and all over the world. Sue Thrasher and Archie Allen, Scarritt students, formed the Christian Action Fellowship, and were among the founders of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, with the support of Bob Moses and others. Alice Cobb, Scarritt faculty, took a two-year leave of absence from her position as director of rural fieldwork at Scarritt College in Nashville to supervise Highlander’s special projects and publicity in 1959.

Highlander was founded in 1932 in Tennessee as Highlander Folk School by a community of social justice seekers, notably Myles Horton. Having experienced Southern poverty and worked in poor communities himself, Horton believed that the people who experience exploitation and marginalization must be the ones to empower the way forward. He wanted to create an environment for blacks and whites to meet, dialogue, and improve their lives together. Highlander played a critical role in both the industrial union movement and the civil rights movement. Highlander trained civil rights leader Rosa Parks prior to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as providing training for many other movement activists including the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Septima Clark, Anne Braden, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel, Hollis Watkins, Bernard Lafayette, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis in the mid- and-late 1950s. Today, Highlander continues to create space for movement building and radical social justice work.

About the BHB House: The Belle H. Bennett House fellowship program ignites the Scarritt learning environment by making space for the empowerment of today’s young women. Through experiential learning at site placements, communal living, and leadership formation, BHB House fellows engage praxis: reflection and action in the world in order to transform it. BHB House is a comprehensive, ten-month fellowship program for a cohort of five post-undergraduate women, which provides housing, utilities, medical insurance, an earned stipend, and a supportive staff and program to provide encouragement, reflection, and growth throughout the year. Fellows live together in a house on Scarritt-Bennett’s campus, meet together each Tuesday for professional development and formation workshops, and work with a spiritual director for one-on-one vocational discernment.

From Highlander’s website: “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, participatory research, and cultural work, 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.”

About Marie Marie Campbell is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center.  In her current position, Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, liberatory education, and bold, intersectional feminism.