February 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 2

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Putting the Community First through Public Sociology: The Highlander Research and Education Center

by Chris Baker, Walters State Community College; Frank Adams, SACCO, Inc.; Lee Williams, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; Randy Stoecker, University of Toledo; Glenn S. Johnson, Clark Atlanta University

At more than 75 years old (as of 2007), the Highlander Research and Education Center offers those engaged in public sociology a blueprint for how scholars and activists use social science research methods to address development, social problems, and issues of social justice.

The center promotes a change-based research model controlled and conducted by the community. Located on a farm in rural east Tennessee outside of Knoxville, Highlander engages in social and community movement building by applying the methods of the social sciences to educate adult grassroots leaders who work with grassroots and Community Based Organizations (CBOs). Throughout the 20th century, grassroots groups at Highlander became important catalysts behind the southern labor union movement, the U.S. civil rights movement, the growth and development of Appalachian Studies in higher education, and the rise of participatory research in academia.

Highlander fosters experiential learning by connecting people’s lived experiences with social science perspectives and research methods. What is now called "popular education" emphasizes people’s ability to create knowledge and change as they operationalize social relations using critical discourse and an array of social science research methods through a process of conscientization. Popular educators call this knowledge "people’s knowledge." Groups meeting in the famous rocking chairs at Highlander engage in peer group learning through focus groups, surveys, existing documents, interviews, role playing, and oral histories. Starting with community members facing a problem, grassroots leaders act on sessions of reflexive thinking about their social circumstances, history, and relationships to others. The model is community driven, organized, and carried out. Central to the school’s educational mission is leadership development and empowerment. Implicit in the school’s community development initiatives is the idea of capacity building with disenfranchised groups. Experiential education draws on a community’s cultural identity and vision as central to defining and solving social problems.

A History Lesson

The history of the school reveals a blueprint for applying the tools of the social sciences for social change. Co-founded in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West and overseen by Myles until his death in 1990, the school was integral to the southern labor movement linking the region’s experiences of poverty to empowerment through organizing, songs, plays, print, and rallies. Organizing for the CIO (of the AFL-CIO), Highlander workshops drew on class analysis to look at the system and learn from workers problems in order to organize around common experiences. In the 1950s, Highlander switched from union activities to civil rights. The school played a major role behind the education programs in the Civil Rights Movement. Highlander’s Citizenship School programs laid the foundation of the voting rights acts while the school became better known as the "communist school," which trained integrationists such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Highlander shifted its emphasis to deindustrialization, temporary and contingent workers, and global/local environment issues. The center began formal research training involving both academics and lay persons to sample archival and land ownership data in courthouses to determine land and tax ownership patterns in coalmining areas in central Appalachia. Looking at who owned 5 million acres in the region, The Appalachian Landownership Task Force found vast acreage under-taxed, under-assessed, and absentee-owned. This research led to changes in assessment and empowered community groups around a host of rural development issues. In the 1990s, Highlander began working with unemployed industrial workers and Latino migrants to link organizing efforts around the increasing connections between the rural U.S. communities and Mexico’s maquiladoras low-wage export zone. This work continues as North/South integration transforms communities through mass migration and continued economic restructuring.

Today, groups facing limited options in the global economy come to Highlander to engage in organizational movement building around the following: youth, LGBTQ, labor, prison, immigration, and other issues faced by communities. The center is involved in providing resources to emerging international labor movements. Recent campaigns address racism, driver’s certificates for migrants, union drives in the poultry industry, and human rights rallies in support of immigrants. To meet the practical needs of the region’s growing international community the center has established its Multilingual Capacity Building (MLCB) program. MLCB provides interpreters for movement building by developing a cadre of social justice interpreters in the South and Appalachia.

A Public Sociology for the Public

Today at Highlander, new social movement organizations are emerging in a global economy drawing on these previous networks to forge international alliances to address immigrant’s economic, labor, and human rights. Many scholars have participated in workshops at the Center to make research methods relevant for community solutions. Historically, some of the scholars working closest to Highlander and those doing other types of community work sacrifice academic careers to struggle with communities, organize workers, and fight powerful actors.

Increasingly, the practices of Highlander have been taken up by academics in universities and colleges, and sometimes even by the institutions themselves. As higher education institutions create offices of community-based research or change their tenure and promotion criteria to include community engagement, they create space for the specialized form of organic public sociology that emphasizes community-academic collaboration. This is different from the dominant form of traditional public sociology that privileges academic discourse in the construction of issues and solutions. Thus, it is also more political, less likely to produce books and articles, and more difficult for higher education institutions to officially endorse.

Nonetheless, institution-based scholars have engaged in Highlander-style organic public sociology in many ways. They have been involved in supporting neighborhood-based reconstruction of the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast region. They have conducted research on corporations in support of labor organizing efforts. They have performed "evaluations" of community organizing efforts that have engaged organizers and community residents in the research process to support community reflection and education in order to maximize organizing success. And they continue to find new ways to implement the spirit of Highlander in creating research and education practices led by the people, so that the people may rule. logo_small

Suggested Reading

Adams, Frank. 1975. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. Winston Salem, NC:

John Blair. Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force. 1982. Who Owns Appalachia: Land Ownership and Its Impact. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press.

Gaventa, John. 1991. "Toward a Knowledge Democracy: Viewpoints on Participatory Research in North America." In Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research, edited by O. Fals-Borda and M.A. Rahman. New York: Apex.

Horton, Myles and Paulo Friere. 1990. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, edited by B. Bell, J. Gaventa, and J. Peters. Philadelphia PA: Temple University Press. Stoecker, Randy. 2005. Research Methods for Community Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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