Rural Assembly Everywhere Conversations
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Allyn Maxfield-Steele are co-directors at the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social change organization based in New Market, Tennessee. The Center was established more than 90 years ago and it became a learning community for advancing labor movements in the 1930s and 1940s, the Civil Rights Movement and other environmental, economic, and racial justice work. Ash-Lee and Allyn talk with Whitney Kimball Coe about the historic and current ways Highlander approaches social change in the South.
About a false rural-urban divide
Ash-Lee: We’ve really got to reckon with two things that I think make us the most unsafe, if I’m being honest. One is alienation. The idea of extinction and this lack of belonging across identities in rural America is what’s going to kill us. There is a significant population of white people in rural and urban communities who feel like they are literally fighting to exist, and they are being told by people on the right that if they don’t center supremacy, they will cease to exist. And we know that to be a lie from the pits of the hell that I do not believe in. That is a lie.
About finding commonalities between rural and urban
This kind of explosion of this false rural-urban divide has been something I think that Highlander has been uniquely positioned to do from a rural base working in contexts that are both rural and urban or city and country, and bringing folks together to say, “What is common about our struggle? What is particular about our struggle? What is common about our struggle and how do we work this out so that we’re talking about the new thing that we want to create and invest in rather than the old thing that we inherited and that’s killing us.”
Watch the full interview and find the transcript below to learn more.
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Whitney Kimball Coe:
Highlander Research and Education Center is a social change organization known for its rich history as a learning community for advancing labor movements, the Civil Rights Movement, and other environmental, economic, and racial justice work. Currently, Highlander is focused on supporting youth leadership development, LGBTQ+, and Black and Brown organizers. The Rural Assembly reached out to Highlander co-directors, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Allyn Maxfield-Steele to mine their wisdom about how we overcome barriers to safety and how we build connection and how we still love and claim our hometowns even in the face of some of those barriers. This was a full and rich conversation and we’ll share the full version of it later this year on Everywhere Radio, but please enjoy this shorter segment here.
I think watching what has slowly and intentionally happened in rural contexts in the US South, and I’m sure in a lot of other parts of the country, and I think is a global phenomenon, is a divestment of resources and a divestment of intentional resourcing and attention and narrative work and all the different kinds of things that y’all are up to at Rural Assembly and that I think as ally organizations and friends, Highlander’s been up to for a long time as well around really trusting rural people to know what it is that they need and also helping folks understand the bigger forces that are impacting the way that rural people in rural communities can survive and thrive. And I think that that matters or what that ends up looking like for me around safety and healthy and all the different positive things, generative, thriving. It means that those divestments don’t get to happen anymore. It has to be investments.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson:
I think it’s sometimes easier for us to talk about what keeps us from safety than it is to talk about what the presence of safety feels like in a rural community, and I just want to be super clear that as oppressive as it is to be a black lesbian that came up in the working class, that grew up in rural contexts, as much oppression, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, all this stuff that I experienced, I still find home when I am in rural places, and I just think it’s important to say that out loud so that folks don’t think that just because we have an assessment of the problem that we’re saying that rural communities in and of themselves are the reason that this country is facing fascist threats.
I just need to say that out loud. I love being country. I’ll also say just part of what makes me unsafe is that a lot of the resources that should be coming to support me and my family and the families like mine and like yours, is that national, state, and local organizations keep talking about having rural programs and platforms, but not actually doing any work with people who are most directly impacted by what it means to be rural.
Can I talk about it? Can I just tell the truth? How many of y’all have heard big organizations, whether it’s national level or state tables or local orgs that are based in cities be like, “Yes, we need a rural strategy and so we’re going to fundraise to make sure that that happens. We need to be building coalitions across the urban, rural divide, yada, yada, yada.” And then you never see the impact of that work from those orgs, and maybe it’s just me. We’ve really got to reckon with two things that I think make us the most unsafe, if I’m being honest. One is alienation. The idea of extinction and this lack of belonging across identities in rural America is what’s going to kill us. There is a significant population of white people in rural and urban communities who feel like they are literally fighting to exist, and they are being told by people on the right that if they don’t center supremacy, they will cease to exist. And we know that to be a lie from the pits of the hell that I do not believe in. That is a lie.
This kind of explosion of this false rural urban divide has been something I think that Highlander has been uniquely positioned to do from a rural base working in contexts that are both rural and urban or city and country, and bringing folks together to say, “What is common about our struggle? What is particular about our struggle? What is common about our struggle and how do we work this out so that we’re talking about the new thing that we want to create and invest in rather than the old thing that we inherited and that’s killing us.”
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson:
We’ve been bringing people together across difference to figure shit out since 1932. That’s the secret of this all. That’s it. It’s what we do. If I was going to add a semicolon add a little bit more to that sentence, I would say that through the prioritization of movement, accompaniment, and support. We’re collecting movement stories and histories and archiving them, as Allyn said, we’re developing and sharpening methodological approaches, which is basically just how you do what you do. And that sort of equation is like if I do this, this, and this, if I know this, this, and this, if I develop new knowledge with people that I’m different from, but who are also trying to save the world and improve their living conditions, if we together create new knowledge and if we know how to do this, this, and this, then maybe we will successfully continue to improve the way that we live. That’s it. That’s all it is. That’s all we do. We do that over and over and over again for over 90 years. That’s it.
This is the work of what it means to be human, is to consistently lean into transformation for fully realizing who we are and what we’re capable of, which is more than what we’re up against right now. You know what I mean? What we’re fully capable of and what we’re able to do in terms of as people is more than what we’re seeing right now in some of our communities in the rural south and beyond. I think we’re capable of more, and I think we ought to give ourselves the credit that we can be not only kinder, but more creative because our imaginations are profound, so we can’t let people tell us that they aren’t capable of so much more.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson:
I do feel called to it because of my faith practice. I do believe that it is all of our work to not wait for a great by and by, but to build heaven right here where we are, and that that’s our cost for getting to be in this world. That the great practice of being the most in my faith requires me to be the best, kindest, most loving person I can, which doesn’t mean that I don’t hold people accountable for their shit, just also means that I can do that with grace because I get grace and our people deserve grace.
So I feel called because of that. I feel called because my people have always struggled for liberation and freedom and justice for all in a multitude of forms. Some folks did that through being members of revolutionary organizations like the Black Panther Party, like my mother. Other folks did it through military service because they thought that that was the way, and then they realized that militarism didn’t get them any freer. It didn’t make them any safer.
So it’s been across the political spectrum of interventions, but my people have always done it, and that makes it also my responsibility to make sure that future generations in my family don’t have to do it, as little as possible. That’s my call. That’s my responsibility. But I also think there’s just… And I think there’s all sorts of flowery things that I can say to preach you up about it, around the benefit of collective engagement in lowercase d democracy, that we all live better when any… I can tell you the Fannie Lou Hamer quote that, “None of us are free until all of us are free.” And all that, and I believe it, but I also just want to be free. Me, Ash-Lee.
I like winning. I like winning justice and freedom and liberation for myself. I would love to never have to do this again. I would love to not have to be an expert about how people suffer in rural communities. I would love that because I would love if suffering didn’t exist anymore for us. The benefit of what you will get out of saying yes to a call to build a better world, I promise you will be worth all the bull. I promise you. I promise you.