Visiting Highlander and Thinking about Power and the Powerless in Memphis

New Market     highlander I couldn’t remember my last visit to the Highlander Center, but it had to have been in the last century.  Little had really changed.  The same bunk beds, rocking chairs, and great views of the Cumberland Mountains were still there.  Finally thanks to towers popping up like weeds on the hillsides there was cell phone coverage; though surprisingly no wireless (I lost a bet on that!).  Fantastic, home cooked meals and a great library that sat virtually unused.  I donated a copy of my books and a few issues of Social Policy magazine, but was surprised that they not only were not currently subscribing, but had about 10 issues from the mid-90’s on the “free” giveaway table, which became something for our archives.  Highlander remains a great historical touchstone and a meeting place people don’t forget and cherish, but also don’t really want to return to quickly to due to the 7 hour drive from Memphis and an expensive flight to Knoxville with a rental car to boot.  The staff explained the program but it was hard to really follow and seemed basically to be advocacy for cultural attachments to programs for social change.  There annual report described a robust funding stream from foundations and a healthy commitment from pages of individual donors of sentiment and substance adding to more than a million dollars a year, so they seemed hale and healthy.

Nonetheless this was all background and scenery for very important discussion and hard work for a diverse and exciting group of activists, academics, and seekers from Memphis who had come together at the call of Professor Ken Reardon of Memphis University and Professor Katherine Lambert-Pennington of Rhodes College to discuss as the agenda signaled:  “Building a More Just and Democratic Memphis through Grassroots Organizing.”  I had been honored and overjoyed when Ken had reached out for me some months ago and asked if I would be willing to help “facilitate” the discussion of this group trying to struggle with the how’s and why’s of whether or not it made sense to support building a community organization in Memphis.  All I could think of was what a great opportunity for a great city!

The group included a mixture of professional and academic urban planners from the universities as well as from multi-county agencies around Memphis and design centers.  There were also community leaders and activists from the Vance Avenue, savvy and sharp young men and women with a group called BRIDGES that works with various youth cohorts pushing the limits of the schools.  There were other groups of  community based organizers and advocates from the 30 year old Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, along with a collection of other activists from the music scene, housing projects, and community.

The “meat and potatoes” for the first day were two sessions, one on the “role of power in producing and maintaining uneven patterns of development” and the other on “how poor people and their allies get power.”  This was a razor sharp, wicked smart crew so they kept me on my feet and dancing.  Outside of the academics it was still somewhat surprising to an old cynical organizing hand, how the analysis of many of the others was so deeply alienated.  If these were the youth that jumped behind the “hope” of Obama, they had climbed to the roof and then walked back down to the basement to find their perspectives on the future.  Several of them pitched a couple of tents to enjoy the last of an Indian summer in the mountains, which I couldn’t help dubbing “Occupy Highlander.” The challenge in organizing south Memphis where so much of the conversation centered will be to build an organization that both has the potential to build and wield real power and can actually be fierce, feisty, and focused enough to convince its actual base that its work is crucial and matters.  It was an education for me, because I could read the time and the clock for the poor and powerless had somehow turned back to the anger I remembered in the streets in the 60’s and 70’s.  This recession is putting steel beams in the ceilings above people blocking any view of the future.

The other surprise I found during the day in listening to what drove the academics and others into the circle at Highlander were tales of almost unmatched arrogance from public and private interests around Memphis development that are almost unheard of in the framed and packaged programs of the 21st century.  Painstaking processes of creating plans with community engagement that were insultingly dismissed by city planning agencies with announcements that stated flatly that it was the essentially the city’s job to plan and the citizens job to like it.  These were stories of a government unaccountable, anti-transparency, and out of control.  All cities play footsy with their citizens and pretend that input is the same as influence or impact on their decisions, but few of them take the time and trouble to then rub the people’s noses in it.  Not Memphis!  One true story after another seemed to carry the theme, “stop us if can, and to hell with you if you can’t.”

That may be a dare that is going to be called in Memphis.  I sure hope so.

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