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Center Uses Appalachian Traditions To Help Youth Work for Change

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NEW MARKET, TENN.--Melia Atwell of Caretta, W.Va., talks about a future that takes her to college, law school, and--eventually--the governor's mansion.

Such ambition seems to suggest endless possibilities for the 14-year-old Melia, but to leave little room for Caretta, a hometown that can offer only itself--a withered economy carved and emptied out by the coal-mining industry and courted chiefly by corporations interested in building a new landfill there.

Yet, the same girl who aspires to be her state's chief executive is today part of a process for finding solutions to improve the daily life of her troubled town and reinforce Appalachian culture.

Betting on the willingness of its participants to fight for the survival of their communities, the Highlander Research and Education Center here is not just about enriching disadvantaged teenagers. As it invests in Melia and the 15 other students who spent part of the summer here, the center relies on students' reinvesting their own skills to fortify towns all across the South.

Building on the dedication and power of young people to better their ailing communities is a premise central to the summer youth workshop. Organizers choose disadvantaged students with a proven record of participation in community projects and development. Hailing from the southern Appalachians or the Southeast, many come from poor, rural backgrounds--places like Dandridge, Tenn., which 17-year-old Chris Wright calls "a you-blink-you-miss-it kind of town.''

During the 10-day summer workshop here in the Smoky Mountains, the students participate in a variety of discussions and exercises aimed at honing their leadership skills, targeting an issue pertinent to their home community, and mapping an action plan to be led by the newly empowered young citizens. A $500 stipend funds a 10-week internship that stretches their efforts into the school year back home.

Yet, the center's task is far from easy.

Educating students to go back to their communities and create opportunities where few exist would seem to be a laudable goal. But it may well be anathema to many rural parents who view a good education as one that lures future community leaders into more prosperous communities. A 1990 Highlander report cites a community survey in which 70 percent of rural parents said a good education would enable their children to leave and get a job somewhere else.

"Our education system is a way of rural communities committing suicide,'' John Gaventa, Highlander's director, notes. "That sets up a contradiction. We want the schools to be ours and to develop the community, yet the economic system is saying that the schools have to teach people how to leave the community, to shut it down.''

Experts in Their Own Lives

Gambling on ordinary people to arrive at extraordinary ideas for change is something Highlander has done for more than 60 years. Founded as the Highlander Folk School in 1932, the center originally was a place for Appalachian people to gather, to learn to value their life experiences, and to seek solutions to community problems through group efforts.

The center's founder, Myles Horton, summed up his philosophy in his autobiography, The Long Haul.

"One of the best ways of educating people is to give them an experience that embodies what you are trying to teach,'' he wrote. "When you believe in a democratic society, you provide a setting that is democratic.''

Using the richness of their own traditions and life stories, Mr. Horton argued, working people had all the tools necessary to effect positive change in their home communities. Insisting that people were experts in their own lives, he saw Highlander as an educational facility that could help people become full, active citizens.

The history of Highlander is displayed on its walls and scattered about its rooms: a black-and-white picture of a soot-streaked coal miner and his family; a fading photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a workshop on the 25th anniversary of Highlander; a memorial wall to the women of Highlander that commemorates, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt and the civil-rights activist Septima Clark.

A launching pad for both the industrial union movement of the 1930's and the civil-rights movement of the 1950's and 60's, Highlander has been a temporary home to many celebrated public figures, such as Rosa Parks, who came to Highlander as a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People two weeks before she made her historic refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

Whether the students that fill Highlander's rooms each summer are on the brink of their own movement, they understand the weight of the social change that has had its roots here.

"This is the Highlander way--everybody has something to bring,'' Aisha Kaneez, the workshop's co-director, says. "You bring what you bring and it works.''

Beyond Churches and Schools

The classroom here consists of high-backed rocking chairs arranged in a circle. Students sit face-to-face. Because there are no second-row students here, the room is rarely quiet. Participatory workshops often become boisterous, argumentative places where students hash out their ideas on everything from gun control to sex education to the public school curriculum.

Ron Davis, the workshop director, believes that young people's voices need to be heard.

"And they need to be provided some opportunities to gain some valuable experiences in trying to impact some of those problems that are so very much devastating their communities,'' he adds.

"The schools will only push them so far, and then it becomes too risky,'' he says. "The churches will only take them so far. So there is a need for another kind of institution that gives them more room to stretch out and work toward finding solutions.''

Past projects have pointed up shortcomings in local political, educational, and cultural institutions. Students from Lexington, Miss., who saw a school curriculum devoid of their own culture gathered oral histories from local residents and successfully lobbied for inclusion of the social history into local schools.

Another student created and published a newspaper at a school that offered no outlet for student journalism. A South Carolina teenager produced plays in the Gullah dialect to teach young children about the rich, Creole heritage of the Sea Islands.

As the students at the center this summer begin to plan their own projects, they learn the marketing tactics businesses use to garner local support. Mid-morning one Saturday, for example, the students huddle in small groups, plotting public-relations campaigns to gain community approval of an unwanted recycling plant.

Wearing a Nigerian batik dress and sporting a full head of dreadlocks, 17-year-old Bolanile Ajanaku of Knoxville, Tenn., becomes a reluctant "capitalist pig.''

"I think I'm going to have to be the one who stands up and says, 'This just isn't right, ya'll,''' she proclaims. "I'm going to have to do some whistle-blowing.''

But in only a matter of minutes, Bolanile pools the talents of her fellow students to choreograph a sales pitch, a dance step, and musical accompaniment into a presentation for "K-9 Recycling,'' a ruthless company that converts puppies into spray fertilizer.

Despite the levity--they offer the slogan "Let your dogs rest in peace, while your crops increase''--the exercise provides a serious lesson. Rural and Southern communities often are identified as prime targets for landfills and undesirable development because they are open to promises of jobs and economic benefits. Several of these students live in towns that are earmarked for such development.

"You're learning for keeps,'' Mr. Horton emphasized in his book. "You're not taking a lesson for the fun of it, you're taking a lesson for your life.''

Friends of the Highlander center say it continues to stress that sense of urgency through the community education it offers.

"People trade off the environment; people sell off their health for jobs,'' Helen Lewis, an Appalachian scholar, says. "Communities can do some pretty terrible things to people when they sell their workers and land off cheap.''

A Break From Hardships

Nestled on a 104-acre farm in the mountains of east Tennessee, the center seems too tranquil a place for people to confront the hardships of rural Southern life. But the history of Appalachia is inescapably about a disrupted beauty; the landscape of the South is always pocked with reminders of its poverty.

Reaching the center from scenic state highway 25W requires spotting a landmark--a field filled with old sedans and junked, rusted Coca-Cola trucks. On this hilltop, students who often feel out of touch with their teachers and schools confront local economic, educational, and environmental problems.

Here, students who face long odds say they cultivate pride in their backgrounds, viewing their roots as a treasure rather than a hindrance.

Melia Atwell boasts of her grandfather,a man with a 4th-grade education who began working 16-hour days in the coalmines at age 12. She calls him "a genius.''

Recalling Caretta, her hometown, she speaks of local coal miners, many now unemployed. "Those brave men gave me my house, my education, and my future,'' she says.

The program's organizers trust that the teenagers who spend their summers here will leave dedicated to fight for their communities. They know, however, that the obstacles are many once students leave this supportive getaway.

"There's an excitement, but a sorrow, too,'' one staff member says of these young people's prospects. "These people are up against a wall here, you know.''

Mr. Davis, the workshop director, concurs.

"If they don't get support back in their community, they may fade rather quickly,'' he says. "But as young as some of these kids are, there seems to be a mental quickness greater than in other groups that have been through here. If they can take some of this energy back, it makes me think they'll really be committed.''

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