A Weekend at Highlander

By BHB Fellows Krysten Cherkaski, Monica McDougal, and Tieranny Woods

Recently, we had the opportunity to attend the Highlander Research and Education Center’s 84th Anniversary Homecoming event. After spending some time learning about the history and legacy of Highlander, we were excited to head out to East Tennessee to experience it for ourselves. We spent our weekend listening, learning, singing, dancing and talking with inspirational people who are working to create beautiful (and messy) solutions.

The theme for 2016’s Homecoming was “Collective Courage: Standing Up, Fighting Back, and Building Self-Determined Beautiful Solutions.” We explored the theme of collective courage through panel discussions and workshops. We covered topics like educational justice, the school to prison pipeline, cultural organizing, solidarity, and more.


Here are some more detailed reflections we each had about our experience at Highlander:

Q. What moment(s) were the most impactful about Homecoming?

Krysten Cherkaski: “Two moments stuck out. The cultural organizing workshop was important to me because I’ve always been someone who is artistically inclined and longed to be able to blend my creative inclinations with social change and activism, but I never knew how. That’s exactly what that workshop was about. Also, the final panel about next steps because it brought up an incredibly vital aspect of organizing: unification, which is something that left organizing has classically struggled with.”

Monica McDougal: “I loved the panel on the Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Platform because it was a conversation with women who were directly involved in the platform’s creation. They were honest about both the uplifting and the painful parts of the process. They started a much needed dialogue about creating spaces for folks to be a part of the process.”

Tieranny Woods: “During the last panel, we discussed the need to move from being defensive to being offensive. One of the panelists said that the left needed to begin imagining a world where nonprofits weren’t needed. That stuck out to me because I think if the left were to become more offensive then we could develop strategies to tackle problems so that nonprofits wouldn’t have to be created in the first place.”

Q. Were there any moments that challenged you or your way of thinking about activism?

K: “Chimère Diaw, one of the panelists from the opening international panel, said, ‘Liberation does not equal class ascension.’ That struck a chord with me because I think a lot of activists, myself included, have been fed the idea that liberation is directly tied to access to material resources. While no one can deny that that is important and is certainly a priority, his statement forced me to reevaluate what liberation is and what it can be.”

M: “I attended a panel on educational justice and the school to prison pipeline. It was led by youth and young adults who shared their own experiences with the educational systems in their communities. It was powerful to hear how little control these students had over their own educations. It made me take a step back and consider more thoughtfully how giving students power over their educations can make a massive differences in their lives.”

T: “I was challenged to think more about the overall idea of land justice. Specifically, the way we go about thinking about earth’s resources—water, air, land—and how everything that’s supposed to be a shared, natural resource has become commodified, limiting the access that certain groups of people have to those things.”

Q. How will you take what you experienced and learned at Highlander and apply that to your activism?

K: “I think what Highlander gave me is a better focus on what my own purpose is. Part of that focus will hopefully manifest in me continuing to learn how to mend fracture where possible.”

M: “I left Highlander thinking a lot about the power of listening. In order to be an effective activist, you have to be able and willing to listen to the stories, experiences, thoughts and opinions of others. So, I want to listen more and use what I hear and learn to give my activism more purpose and direction.”

T: “I’m still reflecting on everything that I learned, but I’m especially thinking about the concept of how we can become liberated without becoming oppressors ourselves. I’m also planning to learn how to become one of the midwives that births a new America.”



Krysten Cherkaski, Monica McDougal, and Tieranny Woods are currently working as Belle H. Bennett fellows at Scarritt Bennett Center where they are exploring social justice at local non-profits, discerning vocations with mentors, and engaging spiritual practices as self-care for activists.