At its 25th anniversary in 1957, the mission of the Highlander Folk School was clear. Its commitment to ending segregation, which was then still the law of the south, made the school a critically important incubator of the civil rights movement. At a celebration marking the anniversary, Martin Luther King Jr. praised its “dauntless courage and fearless determination” in the struggle for social justice.

Fifty-five years later, as it celebrates its 80th year, the Tennessee school, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, finds its targets much more spread out, though its dedication to grass-roots organizing and movement-building remains steadfast.

“In 1957, it was very clear that dismantling segregation and working for integration needed to be at the core of Highlander, so the conversations were all about that – education and integration, community groups and integration, churches and integration,” says the center’s current director, Pam McMichael.

“Today, we’re focused on so many issues – workers’ rights, juvenile justice issues, environmental degradation – and our challenge is to figure out how to best connect everyday people and make sure that more of us are pushing forward in the same direction.”

McMichael, who will give a talk Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, says Highlander remains committed to addressing the most pressing social, environmental, and economic issues facing the people of the South and Appalachia. Her talk is free and open to the public.

At the center, in New Market, Tenn.,  about 25 miles northwest of Knoxville, people gather in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains to talk, listen, and learn from each other. Highlander’s workshops are based on the conviction that oppressed people with problems can best identify those problems themselves and use their experience to work toward a more democratic and humane society.

Among the many civil rights pioneers who attended sessions at Highlander are King, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy. But although those famous names often get the most attention, McMichael says that “it’s the everyday folks who put one foot in front of the other who are making changes every day.”

“It was very inspiring and sparked a movement when Rosa Parks was in that buffer row on the bus and refused to give up her seat,” McMichael says of Parks’ 1955 act of civil disobedience. But the ensuing bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., was carried out by “tens of thousands of people who walked every day for over a year – enduring weather, enduring threats, enduring being shot at,” McMichael says.

“Maybe we’re not all called to that level of risk, in terms of making change” she says, “but we are all called to assess who this society works for and whether we’re satisfied with who it works for. If we’re not, what can we do about it?”

McMichael’s talk in Blacksburg, part of the Community Voices series, will focus on the how everyday people can effect change in their communities to create a more just society. A conversation between McMichael and the audience will follow her hourlong talk.

The Community Voices speakers are engaged in fostering work that strengthens community.  Their leadership includes the capacity to speak cogently and concisely about their experiences, to tell stories that are revealing of their work, and to present ideas for change, ideas that matter.

Sponsors include the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, the Department of Religion and Culture, the Department of English, the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the Women and Minority Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, and the School of Public and International Affairs.

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