Ash-Lee Henderson is the first Black woman to serve as the Executive Director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. She identifies as Affrilachian (Black Appalachian) and was born and raised in Southeast Tennessee, attending East Tennessee University. Henderson is an active participant in the Movement for Black Lives and a strong member of the Southern Freedom Movement and resistance of black liberation struggles in the U.S.
“I grew up in a family that believed that part of our requirement for being on this earth is making sure that the other people in our neighborhood and in our communities are taken care of,” declared Henderson with pride.
Even when Henderson’s family had barely anything, they made sure to put others first, and they lived through Black liberation theology. The main idea of this theology is that people are born with the purpose to do good work for others. The Tennessee River Valley is where the Black struggle and liberation struggle have had a long legacy.
“It’s a place where people have been struggling against Capitalism and White supremacy and homophobia and transphobia.”
Henderson’s life changed drastically when she visited a voter registration table at her school and noticed that they were not talking to Black students; instead, they were only talking to the White students.
This was when she realized that she needed to do something about the separation between students at her school. She contacted a man named Johnny Holloway, the Chair of the Rainbow Clutch Coalition, who told her stories about the civil rights movement.
“I was sitting at the feet of some of the greatest activists I’ve ever known.”
Holloway then gave Henderson an opportunity to get involved and take action. She was offered participation in the reenactment of the Freedom Ride of the sixties. He told her that if she organized the Chattanooga stop, she could have a seat on the bus.
Henderson enthusiastically agreed and organized the voter registration drive in Chattanooga. Over the month-long tour, Henderson got to meet inspirational people and developed a stronger passion for activism.
“It changed my life. It started a lifelong commitment in a self-chosen way. I found my calling and have been doing it ever since.”
In May, Holloway got involved in the Mountain Justice organization, which is a grassroots movement that raises awareness of mountaintop removal mining and its effects on the environment and the peoples of Appalachia.
“It was the first time I had participated in an environmental direct action.”
Henderson reflected on the community that the Mountain Justice organization built and how each individual was fully committed to the mission of the movement.
“Do I think it has been easy? No, but do I think it has been worth it? Absolutely.”
The Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee is working on many different programs that make sure there is a physical space that people participating in social movements can go to for whatever they need. This could be for rest, security, conversation, or learning about the methodologies surrounding proper education and place-based organizing.
A few programs that are currently active include a youth fire safety program, a land liberation program, and a program working to build social solidarity economies through a curriculum facilitating a discussion about how the economy could be improved. Henderson is also supporting other organizations, making sure they have access to the resources they need to succeed.
Henderson listed the three main aspects of the organization. The first, transformative justice, is done by transforming communities through educating and supporting individuals in creating change in society. The second, movement accompaniment and support, is done with lifelong support for those doing radical work to transform their society. The third is incubating and innovating radical work.
By fiscally sponsoring organizations, the Highlander Research and Education Center has helped them sustain their work and win in their movement to change society for the better.
“The Movement for Black Lives has been committed to making possible today what was impossible yesterday.”
According to Henderson, what people can do to dismantle White supremacy and anti-Black racism includes everything from signing petitions to marching to spreading awareness, among other things. There is space for everyone to step up and participate in this movement.
Even though everything is online and social distancing has also taken precedence, conversations can still be held on social media. There are still protests in all 50 US states and 18 different countries. It’s just about keeping it up and breaking the boundaries that may get in the way.
“So much of the cultural expression of the U.S., so much of the infrastructure of the U.S., so much of the heart and soul that has built this country is actually a part of the Black tradition.”
Henderson brought attention to the connection between what makes America what it is and the Black experience. The promise of the U.S. is to embody a place where each person is able to work together equally. The role of members of society is to use activism to prevent the state from allowing injustice to occur. She spoke about the consistent failure of the criminal legal system to fix the social harms that have been deemed accountable.
“The call for abolition is one that not only is fiscally smart, is strategically and tactically smart, but is one that we know is possible.”
Henderson urges everyone to join an organization that focuses on what they want to change in the world. Committing to an organization can help support activism not only in your community, but in communities all over the world. Though cultures all over the world differ in many ways, standing up for what you believe in is a way to merge all those cultures together to form a united world.
“My goal is to love Black people, to love women, to love LGBTQ+ folks, to love working-class people with everything I’ve got, and every word and action that I take. That is actually the commitment of building a new world.”
Through her faith and support from her friends and family, Henderson has and will continue to work and fight for the Movement for Black Lives and the Southern Freedom Movement. She is leading the resistance of Black liberation struggles in the US.