Interview of Elandria Williams,
Education Team member, Highlander Center and Co-editor of Beautiful Solutions
Interviewed by Steve Dubb, Director of Special Projects, The Democracy Collaborative
Elandria Williams is on the Education team at the Highlander Research and Education Center, where she has worked since 2007. Elandria helps co-coordinate the Southern Grassroots Economies Project (SGEP), supports the Economics and Governance program at Highlander and is a co-editor of Beautiful Solutions. Elandria was born and raised in Powell, Tennessee, but her roots and family are in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Elandria also serves on the boards of the Southern Reparations Loan Fund (SRLF), US Solidarity Economy Network, Appalachian Studies Association and the Democracy at Work Institute.
Could you talk about your background and how it led to your passion and career in promoting economic justice?
This comes from family. It is what you’re supposed to do. My grandparents all did community-based work. They were advocates for racial justice. They were union stewards. Everybody did their part. My family ran away from slavery and founded their own towns, farms, and communities. So it has always been instilled, ever since I started going to meetings as a movement kid.
Both of my parents lost their jobs. My mom was the first black principal in Knoxville, Tennessee in the Knox County School System. In 1979, the Superintendent said the reason she couldn't be rehired was because she was pregnant and sexual discrimination. She, however, sued the school system, and with the support of the teachers’ association and unions from the county and state levels, she won her federal case that ensured that women could not lose their jobs or be demoted due to pregnancy.
My dad was at Tuskegee when he met a guy named Lewis Sinclair, who was on the Board of Highlander. Lewis Sinclair was an amazing guy. He became one of the first black economists in the South—actually one of the first black economists, period. He went around to all of these historically black colleges to encourage one or two folks to, instead of studying math, shift over to economics. He argued that if black people don’t know economics, then we can’t control our future. My dad graduated from Tuskegee in 1972. His degree was in Economics and Mathematics.
The only job offer my dad had in the South was from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). That’s how I got to Knoxville. He was hired as an economist. When he got started at TVA it was called the great socialist experiment and even when they did challenging things like flooding a community to build a dam, they would still pay for communities to move their homes and graves.
He lost his job around the same time as my mother and he also sued to get his job back this time aided by two incredible white women that stood by him. He worked at Knoxville College, an historically Black college in Knoxville, while he was involved in the lawsuit. His first job back after winning his lawsuit was with the Minority Economic Development Department and that department, alongside offering technical assistance support, ran a loan and investment fund called the Minority Investment Forum. The forum was capitalized by people of color themselves and helped build more people of color businesses. It helped me understand the power of both financing and technical assistance.
So supporting and building black-led and community led institutions was always a big part of my life and it was instilled through Black Achievers, becoming active with the credit union as a child, and becoming an organizer at a very young age.
How did your family’s activism feed into your own activism?
My parents were big activists. That has always been there. So I started doing organizing work very young around police brutality and zero tolerance policies. I also got into economics. I used to run a black and white photography gallery while I was in college. The business had to move to Houston, so I faced a choice of keeping the job by moving to Houston or going to my college. My mom said I was staying in college. So I stayed in college.
I have also run electoral campaigns. I have worked in Washington, D.C. on the Hill. I have worked a bit in nearly every sector. These experiences helped me understand what I was called to do.
Highlander is my first paid organizing job. Most of the work I did beforehand was not for pay. I did the work because we needed to do the work to make change. I worked with churches, some of which was paid. But Highlander is really different.
The other thing that was really impactful was going to conferences with my parents. They were giant conferences with people of all political spectrums from traditional democrat to socialist. Going with my parents to anti-apartheid meetings. I would attend meetings of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives as a kid. I also remember being a little kid, going to camp in Tuskegee and at Highlander at Children’s camp. My parents’ friends were red diaper babies. They were clear about what was happening—and in a pretty conservative city. Knoxville is not a progressive city.
Are there any key factors that you believe had a high influence on your development as an organizer and educator?
One important choice I made was to go to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to be with my twin brother. If I had not stayed home, I would not have learned how to do organizing the way we did it. You’re getting beat up by the police and I’m getting sexually assaulted. That happens in your home town and your response is very different than if you had just moved there five months ago as a student. It makes student organizing in school seem irrelevant.
We were the first public school to have a union in the South. Right now, the union is a Communication Workers of America (CWA) local. My sophomore year of college we started the campaign. What it meant to have that happen, along with what was happening with the WTO and what it meant for us to all go to Seattle and at the same time the Black Radical Congress was moving…All of those things happening at the same time gave us a sense of what it meant to be part of a movement. Study groups and a radical politic really shaped me, and what it meant to do work on a campus that was not centered around students only was key. We of course had to take down some fraternities that were really racist and sit in to protest student fees. I also helped run a campus political party that helped us build support for the union and other efforts.
I was also influenced by the environmental work I was doing. This included opposing nuclear and coal, and the mountain-top removal that was starting to happen at that point. It made me ask myself: What does this mean? We really had to get to intersectionality, seeing how things fit together.
I’m also influenced by what happened to me as a person, as a human being. I got really sick as a youth. I had to stop traditional school. What do you do when something happens to your body? I was working to only pay medical bills. I didn’t get into it because it was just a political or cute thing to do, it was essential for our survival. So many of the people in my family made it through the military just like every family in the South. That has affected me. For example, my uncle is a veteran and has schizophrenia and he is one of the smartest people ever. It makes you both critical of the system and clear about the hegemony, while not putting everyone in a box which includes my nephews and other youth that I love dearly.
International travel has also affected me. Going to Italy last year was so intense. I was able to visit community and social cooperatives. I realized that there is another way for people with disabilities and schizophrenia to live that is not how my uncle lives. It was such a different way of looking at humanity.
At the beginning of the currently defined Black Lives Matter movement, I went to Scotland to support their work around the community empowerment bill. I land and we go to dinner, where I was told, Elandria, we need you to get on the radio on the BBC to talk about what is happening with the shootings. It was powerful to realize that the whole time that I was there, I had seen no shootings. There is a difference. It is possible to do things differently.
How long have you been at Highlander? What is your role at the Center? Who do you work with?
I have been at Highlander since 2007. I have worked with a lot of organizations at Highlander, including the Southern Grassroots Economies Project, the US Solidarity Economy Network, and the Southern Reparations Loan Fund. I’m also on the board of the Democracy at Work Institute, am an editor of Beautiful Solutions, and work with the Movement for Black Lives policy table.
I got to Highlander through the Seeds of Fire program, which supports youth and inter-generational organizing and leadership developed. That is how I got to Highlander, so I have also worked a lot on immigrant rights, education, criminalization and every other thing that affects young people. That is how I got started and I still maintain those relationships.
Broadly, Highlander exists to do movement infrastructure building and support work in the South. When all of the crazy migration laws hit, I did a lot of work around immigrant rights until immigrant leaders themselves could run their own movements and organizations. We are in a different time again, including DAPA and DACA being nulled, and we have so much work to do especially since more people have been deported under Obama than any other president.
I also did a lot around energy and climate change, such as working on environmental justice especially in Appalachia. When I got to Highlander, we interviewed over 400 people to see what Highlander should be doing with its strategic plan. It was important to folks that all of us work together, not just do single-issue work. So we put together a program called Threads so people would talk to each other, such as immigrant rights activists and economic justice activists.
How did the Great Recession affect Highlander?
After the crash, we made a decision to shift our program direction to focus on economic justice and solidarity economics. One example of this is in the Threads program where we brought traditional economic justice folks together with solidarity economy folks in the same community. We also did more economics education.
At the Social Forum in 2007 the US Solidarity Economy Network (US SEN) was formed and some members of our board convinced a couple of us to attend some of the sessions in the track. We were asked to join the board a little while later and I ended up on one of the first boards of US SEN. I then worked with a small group of people to help put on the US Solidarity Economy Forum. We at Highlander had started doing education work around economics especially with the Center for Popular Economics and United for a Fair Economy. We started hosting workshops for folks in the South as well as take delegations to various conferences and workshops. I met Ed [Whitfield] and Marnie [Thompson] of the Fund for Democratic Communities (F4DC) and others doing economic organizing through Threads. F4DC sponsored a group at Threads. Then they came to Highlander. Later I saw Ed at a wedding, then at the social forum in Detroit. So SGEP built up like that, over time and with building connections.
In 2008, we did a mapping of solidarity based enterprises in the South and then hyper-focused on ones led by youth, people of color, or Appalachian residents. That really helped us in thinking through what was next and how we'd bring together people who were doing different things.
We also made sure that all of our programs from Seeds of Fire to our Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing program and conferences that we would attend would also have an economic lens on them. That really shifted our work in Appalachia as well as in the Deep South.
Could you talk a bit about how you have worked with youth at Highlander?
We realized there was very little infrastructure in Appalachia and that young people were not engaged at all. People from the outside were being brought in to be trained up but very few young people were being trained up in local organization or state ones. We did a lot of work starting in 2007 to shift how people thought about themselves and thought about each other. That's one of the things I’m proudest of.
In 2008, Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project was started in response to a lack of coordinated effort for young people from Appalachia itself to say what we want. People outside the region would say what they want. But the younger people had no coordinated means to say here’s what we want. It is youth-driven, youth-run, and once you’re 35 years-old, you’re out of STAY.
Then we realized that unless we shifted the institutions, it doesn’t matter, because the adults also have to shift. So we started the Appalachian Emerging Leaders Network, which became SEAL (Supporting Emerging Appalachian Leaders) network. It was philanthropy, businesses, universities, organizing groups, and government. All of these came together to figure out how to support young Appalachians in becoming leaders in their own communities. Out of that, a program called Appalachian Transition Fellowship Program was born. It was researched and done in partnership with Rural Support Partners. We worked with 15 fellows and community partners that either did work locally, statewide or regionally around just economic transition (See http://www.appfellows.org).
Highlander, of course, is famed for its historical role in the labor movement and the civil rights movement. How does Highlander see its role today?
We see our role as providing movement infrastructure. It is about helping people come together to develop strategy, build deep relationships and develop a spiritual and cultural rootedness. We see that role as really the foundational pieces of our work. If our goal is to shift culture, what does that mean? If our goal is to build the movement and create the shift toward transformation, how do we help support and build the actual grassroots, with folks who haven’t gone to college and don’t do organizing as a job?
Yes, we are blessed to be in a region and be tied to a legacy of movement history and relationships. But a lot of the folks that we work with are new, and say, “I don’t know what is happening.” We try to place things that are currently happening in a context. We saw the need to move around economics, when most groups, except the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and a few others, weren’t doing that. So we pushed the envelope and engaged people not just around migration, but around globalization. And we did curriculum development.
Another change is around our labor organizing work. We still do work with labor, but our work looks different now. How do we do women’s labor school? With labor education how do we do support in a way that is not about, “here is what we are going to do” but rather what is actually helpful?
The youth program is one of the most beautiful things. It is about youth leading their own organizing and capacity building work across the South and supporting folks across the country. From the Living Legacy Tour to the Advisory Committee to the Seeds of Fire fund, which is a participatory budgeting initiative that involves youth across the South. Here is where our methodologies, processes, and the collective groups that have come to Highlander come together: it’s about people defining how we see change happening.
How does Highlander’s history inform your work?
What it means to be an 84-year-old institution is you’re able to have some historical perspective that a lot of folks don’t have. You have the papers and the library. There are the papers from the meeting from 1964. Or the books from 1906 that are in the library. Here are the things that are digital. Most people don’t have this kind of access. When you have the historical frame, you can look at it and think, "how do we want to move into the future with an eye to what legacy we stem from."
Whether we’re in Charleston, South Carolina or Jackson, Mississippi or Edinburgh, Scotland or Chicago, having that historical foundation is helpful and it is a beautiful thing. Facilitation, process, and programs based off of love and the belief in everybody. How do we bring people together – yes, we’ll get the folks who are at Harvard, but also the folks who haven’t gone to college, the guy who was homeless yesterday or trans. That is something that we bring that you don’t see in a lot of the organizing work, especially with intermediaries.
How is Highlander financially supported?
We have a retreat center, which people rent out for a day long meeting or host their gatherings. We have an amazing crew that maintains the grounds and cooks the meals and gets paid over $15 an hour. Highlander was started by a letter that went out to donors in 1931. That method is how we still go today. People really respond, as in, "Wow, this is wonderful." We have a massive donor base. That has been really helpful.
We also receive grants. Some project-specific, some general foundations like the Marguerite Casey, and Novo Foundations. Of course, we get bequests. We’re old. When you get old make sure people know that what you give matters, you get bequests. And we have an endowment.
Could you talk a bit about the role of popular education in creating the foundations for communities to engage in cooperative development and other forms of community wealth building?
To me, popular education is a process that helps people believe in themselves and believe in what they bring to the table, to know they have knowledge and experience that is relevant. And they have role in creating something together that we couldn't create off in our own silos. An amazing woman, Mama Nayo Watkins, said that, “everything we need is in our bones.” We have built things from our bones. You build it yourself. You have that knowledge in your bones. You just need to bring it out. I have what I need in my body, bones, and spirit.
One of the things that we have had to come to recognize is that a lot of folks have lost the ability to do participatory research. They now just call the university. The university will help, but it is limiting. We all know that your grandmother will tell you way more than someone she doesn’t know. What is actually happening in my community? Have people started unions before or co-ops before? Maybe someone started a co-op twenty years ago. It may not be operating now, but the person involved likely has things to teach us.
And popular education is a process. It is not fast. It involves constant reflection. Do we have who we need in the room? Is it culturally rooted and based? Is it based in practice? Are we trying things out and changing as we go? It is not five steps. It is a give and take, which is also what cooperative development is. It is not a hard science. It is an art.
Co-op development has become very professionalized and technocratic and there is a certain way to do it. Historically, it has always taken a long time. It is business development. We are helping people who have never had business in their family. We know that the number one success factor in business development is having someone in the family having had a business before. So if that is not in your family’s history, you need to build on the thing that you have done. Maybe somebody has been in the drug game. Sold CDs out of their car. Sold cigarettes. Someone who has done any hustle. That is, itself, a form of business development. What are the things that you have done that you don’t even consider in the same vein as business development that you can use? That has been really important. The process of learning has been important.
The Southern Grassroots Economies Project has been useful in terms of cooperative education in that way. We try to do our gatherings in a way that is very not like a conference. We do clinics, labs, intensives. Deep dives for several hours. We may have a plenary session, but then we break it down into a conversation—what are you doing in your community? People can wrestle with the material and figure out how it sits with them. That has all been helpful and useful.
Could you discuss the history of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project (SGEP)? When was it formed? How has it evolved? Where would you say the project stands today?
So there is the technical beginning of the Southern Grassroots Economies Project and then the lineage answer. The lineage answer is that the base of SGEP are the co-ops and credit unions in the South have been formed in the context of oppression that has lasted 400 years. The Federation of Southern Co-ops started out of the civil rights movement. The Brown Berets started credit unions and co-ops in Texas. There are the credit unions, cooperatives and communities that started in Appalachia. Highlander help start co-ops in the ‘30s. Our movement started out of that.
As for SGEP itself, one factor was the Detroit Social Forum, which happened in June 2011. We'd already had a couple of gatherings around economics at Highlander. Ed [Whitfield] and Marnie [Thompson] from the Fund for Democratic Communities said that they were interested in doing something. They called Project South and Highlander. The first gathering was in 2011 at Highlander. It was much smaller. At that point, there was no decision to have a project go on. Then, it was decided, let’s do a larger co-op economics conference, which was called “Co-op Econ.” Of course, other projects were going on, but out of the Co-op Econ came discussion of the need for finance, the need for policy shifting, the need for massive technical assistance, and the need for education. And that is how we eventually got the working groups. It then got way more finalized with membership. Right now, SGEP is made up of seven or eight organizations that are doing incredible work in their own right as well as together. We’re moving mostly on doing cooperative education, statewide policy work, and working with the Southern Reparations Loan Fund.
One other thing, with Co-op Econ, last year we did four regional conferences instead of a national one. They were in North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Texas. We got many more people that way. The Nashville conference alone had over 100 people, while the previous all-South conferences had attracted between 200 and 300.
I feel that SGEP has grown. We have groups engaged who weren’t engaged before. There has been a shift in the South and people now want to do co-ops. We focused initially on worker co-ops, but we are now focusing on all types of co-ops. And we also understand and place ourselves in a broader umbrella of a solidarity economy, because there are folks working on complementary initiatives that are not co-ops.
We also have a third of the participants, who are Spanish speaking and Latino. That has been helpful with the demographic changes in the South. We are looking at who else needs to be here. We want to make sure that the right folks are in the room and are getting the support they need.
Could you describe Southern Reparations Loan Fund. What has been Highlander’s role in its development and where does the Fund stand today?
The Southern Reparations Loan fund is designed to provide non-extractive finance and support for co-ops in the South. We want it to be led by people of color and low-income whites. It is designed to do radical technical assistance and really build people up—for example, working with the business to develop its business plan and not getting paid back until the business is profitable [i.e., building royalties into the payback mechanism rather than collecting regular interest]. The loan fund is still in its baby stages. So we are doing a lot of work on research and development. There is a board. We have had our first board meetings. We hired our first staff person, Nicole Marin Beana, who previously worked at Cooperation Texas. It is supported by Fund for Democratic Communities and The Working World, who have raised the initial capital investment.
Could you talk about your work on the Beautiful Solutions project?
Beautiful Solutions is a project of Beautiful Trouble, in partnership with Highlander, the New Economy Coalition, and This Changes Everything. The Beautiful Trouble book came out around the time of Occupy Wall Street and talks about creative nonviolent direct action, creative strategies for resisting oppression. Beautiful Solutions is about what we want to building the place of our existing system and how to do it. With our partner project Beautiful Rising (the global version of the original creative resistance toolkit) because it is global, folks are thinking about how do we shift out of our current economy and build an alternative: how do we do both at the same time. Beautiful Solutions is a global toolkit that focuses on people building democracy and community control to meet their needs, in every sector of the economy and at every scale.
I got involved in November 2015. I had met Rachel [Plattus] and Eli [Feghali] at Jackson Rising. They had talked to me about this project they were working on. I asked to be a part of the team because of my work with the Movement for Black Lives, SGEP, the Appalachian Transition Fellowship Program and other work happening across the country. What I found is that people I was working with didn’t have a wealth of ideas of what might be possible. What we want is for there to be 58,000 ways, pick the one that suits your context. People were being offered narrow ideas and solutions and the stories were the same.
Sometimes the examples aren’t contextualized in a way that is usable. Rather than describe each organization or campaign as the only way to do a given solution, it is more useful to say: “Here are a lot of things that are possible with the form of the community development corporation; PUSH Buffalo is one example.” People haven't been framing it that way. We need to get to values, organizing principles, and deep-dive discussions. We need to identify what are the big debates, big ideas, big questions, and where we could go from here—from reparations to what true community control looks like, to building networks and ecosystems that support solidarity economies at scale. That’s what we’re doing with this project.
Beautiful Solutions has an online solutions gallery and lab (solutions.thischangeseverything.org), and will be released as a book in early 2017 along with an updated website. It will also have a training program that connects to Highlander’s Economics and Governance curriculum. And there will be short videos and other resources. It is all intended to help people on the ground do their work and give people in general the sense of what is possible. How do these policies relate to these solutions? We are trying to get a story from every country, at least on the website. How do we lift up things happening in every country and every part of the world, so people can see their own country and identify their own experience? We want to write it so that most people can read it, not just academics, but communities and all kinds of classrooms. It’s about shifting who has access to our collective knowledge about solutions.
Could you talk about how you see your work on dismantling white supremacy intersecting with economic justice work?
The simplest way to put the connection is that capitalism was built off slavery, so dismantling white supremacy and working for economic justice are to me the same thing. More fundamentally, we have a problem with empire building. To me, the real question is how do we dismantle empire. How do we build trans-local solutions that then go up and scale? It is trans-local with an eye to dismantling.
Local economies by themselves are not progressive. A plantation is a local economy. So the question cannot be avoided of who controls the economy. If it is the cousins of the people who have always owned everything that is not the empowerment we're talking about.
There is no way to separate race from economy. Look at the state of West Virginia. It was in debt to the state of Virginia for years for choosing to break away from the state around slavery. West Virginia wasn't a slave state and never accumulated the kind of wealth Virginia did because of the mountains. The economic situation of West Virginia is not just about its problems now; it is the legacy of debt.
We see the same dynamic with former incarcerated people or formerly colonized countries. So what you find, time and again, is that the people who are most oppressed are still paying debt regardless of place. There is no way to build anything if you can’t get out of the debt and shackles. You owe me the debt I paid you to get my liberation. If I have to worry about my brother being murdered and shot, my ability is different than someone who is not and who can borrow $200,000 from a grandfather.
A lot of cooperative and business development is happening as if we all have the same access to financial resources and security. There is a lack of understanding about how we re-create white supremacist structures. As Audre Lorde said, you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Every master’s tool is encoded with the master’s culture. In 1906, DuBois asked, which way are we going? We’re asking the same question in 2016.
Do you ever use the master’s tools? Could the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court be seen as an example of subverting the master by using the master’s tools?
I’m not saying legal strategies are not important as I talked about earlier in this interview about my parents. But it won’t work if the process isn’t community grounded. Even with Brown v. Board, people think it was a standard legal strategy. but Thurgood Marshall went around and had meetings at Highlander and in churches throughout the South. They did use the master’s tools, to an extent, but they altered them and enacted a secret, community-based organizing process that was highly effective. It is what you add on to the tools and how you acculturate them that makes them into effective tools of resistance.
What do you see as the potential for cooperatives and solidarity economy enterprises in communities of color and low-income communities in the South going forward? How do you see co-ops linking in to broader movements for systemic transformation?
I think that there is a level of helplessness that people feel. It is slightly overwhelming. There is a level of complete control by a few families in many southern rural areas where the same people who have been in charge forever are still in charge. Our governor is the richest man in the state of Tennessee. We have one of the worst state legislatures. Every day there is a new attack. It sometimes seems that you can’t win.
Who would have thought the Voting Rights Act would be rolled back? A Republican got everyone in Tennessee access to health care and another Republican rolled it back. The state is no longer the state, as we know it. It is fluid. With solidarity enterprises and co-ops, you can provide for yourself as long as you have enough leeway to develop something that is yours. Even when the times are hard, there is a feeling of democracy in that. If you never get to feel democracy, you can never contest anything bigger than you. You need that to go on and continue.
Social movements have always included an economic driver. What we have learned form Syriza and Podemos and even in Jackson and Madison and places that want to make this shift, is that it doesn’t matter who you get in government. If you don’t have something on the ground, it can’t last. The reason that in Chiapas the Zapatistas have lasted is that they built their own ways of thriving and surviving. What do we need to build so this work can survive and thrive? What do we need to keep imagining what could be, learning from each other, and growing a more extensive network? Scaling up is not going to be about massive car plants, but rather will be based on us trading with each other. At our first Co-op Econ conference, we had goat farmers connect with grocery stores and so on. At every single stop in the value chain, people were connecting with each other, even though no one was using the language of value chains. That is what has to happen in a massive, connected way. People are seeing that and are seeing that it might be possible.
Southern states are also seeing a lot of global migration. You can’t separate the US South and the Global South. The states with the largest percentage increase in immigration are in the Southern US. Black people in the United States have always had a Diaspora existence. We have developed ways of being and boosting each other up. That is where we are at right now. And there is a lot to do. The other piece is that most communities have very little institutional support. There is lots of space for work in communities themselves. There is a lack of oversaturation. There is a lot that people can do, without stepping on each other’s toes. That is a really beautiful thing. That is one of the things that can make a hell of difference.
It is literally impossible for me to work around cooperative development without stopping the systemic violence and repression in my community. There will be no one left to be in the cooperative if everyone is jailed or murdered. That is why to me we have to begin to develop solutions to our biggest threats. That is main reason why I knelt on the grass and cried outside of the facility in which my uncle lived after vising a place that was supposed to serve the same purpose in Italy. How can we meet our needs and how do we not just survive but thrive as entire communities not just black but everyone? Liberation is about everyone and being able to show up as one’s full self. I believe that the cooperative and solidarity economy movement will thrive when that is possible and when leadership is coming from everyone not just the few that happen to be able to attend conferences and know what books to read. That was the social movement of the 30s and 50-60s and that is what is being built today.