What happens when 22 students—various racial, gender, class, and national backgrounds—from four liberal arts institutions gather to share experiences of wanting to make a difference? With that query in mind, nine Hamilton students and Professor Margo Okazawa-Rey attended a four-day student activist leadership retreat at the Highlander Research and Education Center, an 85-year-old venerable organization committed to creating change for the most vulnerable, during the second week of spring break. Highlander, located in New Market, Tenn., has been working with grassroots organizers across the South and Appalachia since the Great Depression to promote racial, social, and economic justice and sustainability.
This year, Levitt Leadership Institute (LLI) students had the option of attending leadership training in Washington, D.C., or pursuing the Highlander track. Prior to the trip, LLI participants going to Highlander took a class called Student Activist Leadership with Okazawa-Rey, aimed at promoting an intersectional understanding of campus climates and developing organizing strategies to create diverse, safe, and just campuses.
Students were joined by others from Colgate University, Clark University, and Pitzer College. In hearing about campus experiences that differed from those at Hamilton College, conversations were broadened. In a documentary about the Civil Rights movement shown at the beginning of the program, the group watched Hamilton alumnus Bob Moses ’56 in action as a central leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the early-60s.
Students also visited the Green McAdoo Cultural Center and Museum in Clinton, Tenn. The Center honors the 12 black high-school students who braved threats of violence to attend Clinton High School in 1956, the first desegregated public high school in the South. The story also demonstrates the role of white student allies in the struggle for racial justice, reminding visitors of the crucial ways students have been part of creating positive social change in this country.
Workshops were given by Highlander staff on the methodologies of activist organizing, including popular education, intergenerational learning, and participatory action research. The students taught and learned from each other, having difficult conversations about race and white privilege in the brave space that they created.
Reflecting on the retreat, Paula Weiman ’18 said, “It was really amazing to be learning concepts and techniques and put them into practice as we learned them. We had discussions in a way that functioned as research and learned how listening to people’s stories can be a radical act.”
On their last night, the students shared in the culture of the local Appalachian region by engaging in square dancing and then gathered around a fire to reflect on their growth and gratitude.
Lilly Yangchen ’20 added, “At Highlander, we explored various research methods that we can skillfully use for community organizing. I enjoyed learning about language justice, which I feel I can easily apply in my day to day activities as well as in my academic and activism work.”
By the end of the trip, the Hamilton students decided to bring the meaningful conversations from Highlander back to campus by organizing a dinner to acknowledge and celebrate the work of the college’s student activists, as well as share advice for building and sustaining activism at Hamilton.