Nonprofit Sector

Love Is a Doing Thing

May 3, 2022

Where We Go From Here

Ash-Lee Henderson and Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, Co-Executive Directors, Highlander Research and Education Center

Highlander Research and Education Center started nearly a century ago, working together with people in the South and Appalachia to create just and sustainable solutions to the challenges their communities faced. They have been critical in historic organizing movements, including the labor movements of the 1930s and ‘40s, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, and most recently the Black Lives Matter movement.

In this conversation, co-executive directors Ash-Lee Henderson and Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele share how they came to lead Highlander, how love is at the heart of their practice, and how their strength and success lies in focusing on what we all have in common, not on our differences. Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele recently joined the NFF Board. Joining them is Trella Walker, Interim Chief Executive Officer at NFF.

Ash-Lee Henderson and Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele wish to acknowledge Highlander Research and Education Center is on ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ / Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee) and S’atsoyaha (Yuchi) land.

In this video:

  • How Highlander came to be and how it came to have two mighty and thoughtful executive directors. (0:00)
  • What happens when we define wealth by relationships, not capital. How focusing on what we share in common can help achieve equity. (4:55)
  • What is mutual aid, and how we can work together, right now, to meet each other's needs. (7:23)
  • Why a charity mindset fails to create meaningful change, and how centering our relationships helps us create a better world/future. (8:41)


ALLYN: I tried these new stuffed pretzel nuggets.

ASH-LEE: New, comrade?


ASH-LEE: Allyn has had those for years.


TRELLA: Can y’all talk a little bit about Highlander, the history of Highlander, and then share even more about the beauty of your relationship and how you came to lead the organization?

ALLYN: Highlander is 90 years old in 2022. We've been a school for movement workers, movement organizers, community leaders, grassroots leaders, since 1932. We've always been in East Tennessee. We've been at three different locations in East Tennessee, and this is our longest serving home just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, in an area called New Market, Jefferson County, Tennessee. We're about making what can be new and renewing what ought to be renewed – and doing that through educational work and doing that in accompaniment with people's innate knowledge about what needs to transform in their communities, in their homes, in their states, in their regions in the world.

ASH-LEE: Yeah, me and Allyn ironically shared space for the first time without knowing it at the 75th anniversary homecoming of the Highlander Center. After we served on the board of directors, I was heavily encouraged to consider applying for the position of the Executive Director. I was clear that I would be the first Black woman to serve in that role, and that we were going into being an 85-year-old organization and that there was lots to be done; both in terms of stewarding such a legacy organization, but also recognizing that lots of people have been in interdependent and codependent relationships with this legacy institution. And what I knew is I didn't want to carry all that water by myself, and I wasn't so egotistical to think that I could, right? So, I was thinking about – and you know, in discernment, really praying about – should I do this? And if I was going to do this, who would I want to do it with? And there was nobody that I would have wanted to do it with more than I wanted to do it with Allyn. And so I told them I wouldn't apply without him. And so we applied together to be the Co-Directors of the Highlander Research and Education Center, and Highlander said yes.

TRELLA: When we talk about leadership and we think about the people that we are being charged to lead, there are so many models out there that show disconnected leadership from the heart of the organization, and this whole piece is about where do we go from here. And I feel that is one of the misunderstandings about leadership moving forward. We actually need to be more connected to the people that we're serving, not less connected. And I know that you all work really hard. And you've been some of my inspiration in how I think about, providing services for the people who are doing all the good work, and also holding the burden of not having enough resources all the time to provide what you want to provide. Can you all talk a little bit more about what that experience has been like and how you've determined to reconcile it moving forward?

ASH-LEE: I love this question. I mean, when you were talking, Trella, I just, I kept hearing former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba in my head – I call him Baba Chokwe – saying, “If you if you don't love the people, you'll betray the people.” And I just think it's so, so at the heart of our practice, you know, that we think about love as a practice. Love is a doing thing. What makes us accountable practitioners, frankly, is our commitment to loving our people via accountability. As we've been thinking about the 90th, really thinking about what it means that we all inherited this colonizer story – that wasn't our story, and it centered our difference. It centered, you know, the things that would make us want to run away from each other and other each other. When actually the story that we probably would have written if we had a choice from the start would have been one about our interdependedness, about the things that we have in common, about how those differences actually make us stronger, and about how to share this place that we all love together. And knowing that makes me know that the thing that actually is worth more to us than even the money, Trella, is the relationships. Right? And not relationships as capital, that's not what I mean. But I do mean relationships as wealth. Right? Highlander has been able to sustain itself for 90 years because we have relationship.

TRELLA: You said something about interconnectedness and how we would really focus more on how we're all interdependent. And the thing that I absolutely love about Highlander is my experience, so far, is you've been able to bring people from all walks of life, including people in finance, banking, philanthropy, all to the table. And we all eagerly engage in what you all are trying to accomplish. Can you talk a little bit more about how you all think about that in the programs that you put out to help people understand that it's more about what we have in common than what we have as difference?

ALLYN: When talking about helping people come together across commonality, it's also about really grounding people in their radical differences, the radical pluralities, right? It's like wizards of finance talking to people who can envision wildly different systems working together means that we have a system that might be really interesting and creative and still be able to pay for itself – or still be able to understand itself. And what's real is that people just understand different languages, right? I think that one of the methodologies that Highlander has been known for and has been an incubator for is language justice, which on one hand is a matter of bringing people together across different spoken languages like Spanish or English. But at its core, language justice is about valuing people's lived experiences and brilliance in their own known ways of communicating and not privileging one over the other, and not enabling one to have dominance over the other in a particular space, and not performing equality, but actually designing equity into a space, and into a way that we grow together. We come at this question of how do you bring people together across commonality with an assumption that everybody has a right to human dignity, and everybody has a right to the basic – at the very least – the basic necessities for living with dignity, which requires so many different kinds of things and very, very different material conditions than we've inherited. And then there's going to be a lot of different hands and a lot of different hearts and minds that need to help to shape that.

TRELLA: I'm obsessed with mutual aid and the concept of helping each other and understanding what that really means. So, I just want to talk a little bit about why mutual aid is so helpful and how it plays a part in everything that we've just talked about; about being able to access resources and understand how you can support each other and be a part of community.

ASH-LEE: You don't start the definition of mutual aid by aid, you start the definition of mutual aid by mutual, right? It's interdependedness. That's why I keep using that word, right? If I was going to define mutual aid by a synonym, a word that means a similar thing, I wouldn't use charity. I would use solidarity. It's solidarity. It's like you recognizing that your liberation is bound with mine. Right? And that means we have to figure out how to move together. I get something and you get something. We all get something together. And so, you know, in this 21st century context, mutual aid literally saved human lives. There's no question. And every time I think about the failures of the state, it is those folks that are doing grassroots movement building and mutual aid that are saving the day, every single time.

TRELLA: I do find that where people get lost is when they feel that they are coming to the table with a ton of resources that are not available and cannot see where the mutuality sits, we end up falling back into this charity space. So can you speak to sharing how we can switch that narrative and help people understand that no matter what situation, as long as we are in a common space, we are all mutually taking from each other and giving to each other?

ASH-LEE: I don't know that I believe that mutual benefit just happens innately. I think that's the difference between the charity stuff, like charity is just robotic, right? And the question at the end of the road for charity is, “Do I feel better?” The question at the end of the day with mutual aid is, “Are the people that are most directly impacted more powerful than when I found them?” The benefit isn't that you feel good and they have money. The benefit is that they win, are more powerful – or they lose, but they've learned something. They're more powerful. They're more self-determining and self-sufficient, not codependent with you and are able to salvage democracy and build a beloved community, and sustain it, and live long enough to enjoy it, and be safe enough to not feel threatened because they did it. And you get to experience what it is when they've won, is the mutual benefit.

ALLYN: Mutual aid to me means that people are doing for themselves and one another what some people are refusing to allow people to do. Like, survive with dignity and thrive with dignity. I think that's at its core. So, the way the capital and financialization and philanthropy can operate in that is – maybe taking a lesson from that. It’s like what do we enable to happen if we allow resources to move within that philosophy where people are able to use those resources for what they understand in a self-determined way they need it to happen for. What it makes possible by trusting that if I'm giving you these resources, if I'm giving you this different kind of – what would have historically or traditionally been called a service – that it's not a service, it's a basic point of connection to living a life with fuller dignity.

ASH-LEE: It's what you deserve.

ALLYN: It’s what you deserve.

ASH-LEE: It’s what you actually deserve. You deserve me to show up and make sure you're good when you're struggling.

ALLYN: Totally.

ASH-LEE: I can feel the people who are listening that are like, “This is just semantics,” right? It's all the same: charity, and mutual aid, solidarity; it's all the same stuff. To Allyn's point, in this form of late-stage capitalism, where necro-capitalism is the name of the game, where some people get to decide who lives and who dies in this economy, it's not benign. The word really matters, because the practice does. And the word means what the practice is, right? So, as you feel your skepticism climbing, what I would offer is, it is not benign who you fund or not. It is not benign who has access to financial literacy and who doesn't. It's not by accident that people of color, people in working class communities, people in rural communities, people who are disabled, have different levels of access to clarity about both the economy – I mean, they know the economy because they live in it, right? But they but they have challenges of accessing the wealth within their economy – to pull themselves up by their bootstraps – because it was designed that way. Right? So, I think it's easy for some of us of privilege, particularly those of us in finance, banking, philanthropy to be like, “Oh, that's the state that's doing that bad stuff in the economy.” But what is real is every grant cycle, who you are picking to fund and who you are not is impacting who lives and who dies. That's just true. We all are a part of that. And so it is not benign to choose charity instead of mutual aid. It has a direct impact on real people with names, and families and friends. Right? And if we don't take that seriously, then, again, we’ll always be centering ourselves in the narrative versus centering each other, this community, which is where our real wealth and power lies.


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.