The Defenders

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Reverend Allyn Maxfield-Steele

“Young people are rising to meet the moment and looking for ways to engage 21st century realities. We carry a responsibility to join with their righteous anger and continue to identify opportunities for collective long-term strategy building.”

Highlander Research & Education Center in New Market, Tennessee is a social justice leadership training school and cultural center that “serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South.” Highlander provides training and education for emerging and existing movement leaders throughout the American South, Appalachia, and the world. Founded in 1932, Highlander originally focused on organizing unemployed and working people to fight for labor rights and fighting against segregation in the labor movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Center served as an important incubator of the Civil Rights movement. Workshops and training sessions at Highlander helped lay the groundwork for many of the movement’s most important initiatives, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the Citizenship Schools, and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since 2000, the Center’s focus has included issues of democratic participation and economic and environmental justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, LGBT people, and poor white people.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele currently serve as Co-Executive Directors of the Highlander Research & Education Center. Woodard Henderson, an Affrilachian (Black Appalachian) working class woman born and raised in Southeast Tennessee, has been a long-time activist on issues of mountaintop removal mining and environmental racism in central and southern Appalachia. She has served on the National Council of the Student Environmental Action Coalition and is an active participant in the Movement for Black Lives.

Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele has been actively involved in solidarity struggles with Thai people’s movements and worked as an educator and organizer supporting front-line struggles throughout the American South and Appalachia. An ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, Maxfield-Steele has served congregations in Juneau, Alaska and Nashville and Springfield, Tennessee. His focus and interests lie in transforming institutions, dismantling toxic white masculinities, and liberation-driven ministry and movement building, especially in rural and small-town communities. Rev. Maxfield-Steele was raised in Texas, Germany and North Carolina.


Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Many positive social movements have depended on people coming together to demand change. Yet, having the right to organize without knowing how to do so effectively only gets people so far. Activists must understand how to enlist and organize supporters of their cause in order to bring about positive social change.

Part of learning how to organize involves studying the work of our predecessors. Mahatma Gandhi who was instrumental in helping India gain its independence from Britain spoke of being influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s belief that individuals could resist immoral government action by simply refusing to cooperate. In turn, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to nonviolent resistance was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s efforts. Organizations like Highlander help to catalog and teach activism techniques that have been successful in the past while at the same time working to develop new approaches.


  • Read more about the Highlander Center here.
  • Learn about mountaintop removal coal mining and how you can take action to help stop it here.
  • Read about environmental racism and its impacts here.
  • Learn about 10 ways you can engage in activism here.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.