Michael Gilliland

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Michael Gilliland

Michael Gilliland is a Tennessee activist. He has guided Chattanooga Organized for Action's transition from a small group of activists to a fully-fledged nonprofit. Michael has specialized in community and labor partnerships and is a co-founder of Chattanooga for Workers.

Michael has worked in nearly every Chattanooga Organized for Action initiative since joining the organization in 2012, and has worked to bring the power of anti-oppression frameworks and analysis to our day-to-day operations. He was also one of the principle authors of the COA Principles of Unity.

He is a member of the Orchard Knob Neighborhood Association.[1]

Community Organizer at CALEB - Chattanooga in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence

He is the brother of Mark Gilliland and Joey Gilliland. Married to Keely Shepard Gilliland.


  • Studied Spanish language at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Went to Red Bank High School


Michael Gilliland is an anarchist, restaurant manager/ coffee roaster in Chattanooga, TN. He is Board Chair of Chattanooga Organized for Action, a locally-focused nonprofit dedicated to community organizing towards social (racial, economic, gender, environmental, housing) justice.

Well, I’ve lived my whole life in Chattanooga, TN. I grew up, like many folks in the South, in a very conservative Christian household. My father was a Pentecostal pastor for a large part of my youth, and my mom was typically working in service or retail jobs. She worked for Kmart when I was a small kid, then Wal-Mart for about seven years. Needless to say, we were poor. I have two brothers, and one of us slept on the couch for as far back as I can remember.
I originally went to college at Lee University, a hyper-conservative Church of God school, to pursue studies for missionary work. After the first year there were two things that turned my world upside down. One was traveling out of the country. I was doing a study-abroad stint in Ecuador for about a month and a half, and the amount of culture shock I experienced really did a number on me. The country at that time had agreed to structural adjustment programs and changing its currency to American dollars, and had gone through four presidents in a year. There were some pretty desperate conditions for so many people, but the way folks related to each other– their sense of culture and joy in relationships—forced me to question American society in a way I never had before. It left me a little shaken in my heretofore unquestioned belief in America as the center of the universe.
When I got back to the States, I had a conversation with a few friends and some international students about the state of Israel. Some people outside of a religious background may not understand this, but for fundamentalist evangelicals Christian Zionism plays a huge part in the religious worldview. I thought I was well-informed on the topic, but when the international students started bringing up events like Deir Yassin, the Sabra and Shatila massacres during the Lebanon War, and the conditions in the occupied territories, I was astounded that I’d never heard of them. My friend loaned me a book he’d been assigned in class–Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle. I read it cover to cover in about three weeks, and then went through another three weeks of pure anger and depression. I felt I had been lied to my whole life, and that everything had just been pulled out from under me. I began to really ask myself: if I was so wrong about something I believed in wholeheartedly, what else could I be wrong about? This crisis of faith started the next few years of study on my part. I poured through books by Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, then onto classics like Goldman, Marx or C.L.R. James…really getting introduced to leftist thought. I got sucked into radical history; something most of us aren’t exposed to at all around here in Tennessee. It fundamentally changed my life, and the way I see myself in the world.
I divide my time now between working in a restaurant as a manager, wine educator, and coffee roaster on the one hand, and political and social activism on the other. I work with two groups currently: Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA) and Chattanooga for Workers. COA is a social justice nonprofit that focuses on community organizing to build working-class power. We look to initiate, support, and connect grassroots popular organizations so that we can win a better future. Chattanooga for Workers is a loose affiliation of activists and workers that looks to build up and support the labor movement in the city.
I believe wholeheartedly in the motto of the World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.” It’s inevitable, actually. But tyranny takes many forms. If we want it to be a world that reflects our values, we have to engineer it, foster it, and plan ahead. The only thing that is guaranteed is struggle.
Not to say there aren’t plenty of examples of institution-building. I’m heartened to see the creative work going on around community land trusts for affordable housing, worker cooperatives, workers’ centers, mass protests in the South like the Moral Mondays in North Carolina and Georgia and “Put the People First” in Tennessee, and the recent activity around InsureTN. There is a group in Birmingham called the Magic City Agriculture Project that is working to address racial inequalities through the development of a cooperatively-based food system. Rad stuff. We just need to develop the skills necessary to bring more people into building and supporting these efforts. I’m saying this as a person trying to develop these skills for myself.
I’d point out the awesome folks doing the everyday work on the frontlines of the class war in the South. People should be aware that the South isn’t just some monolithic caricature of “Dixie.” It never has been. In Nashville, Dignidad Obrera is a worker center bringing the fight against wage theft and exploitation to the city’s largest hotels. And they’re consistently winning. In Memphis, people should just check out the Vance Ave. Collaborative and their amazing efforts to protect the last remaining public housing community. MidSouth Peace and Justice Center in Memphis is one of the strongest social justice organizations in Tennessee. SONG (Southerners On New Ground) is working to redefine LGBT action in the region. In Chattanooga, Mercy Junction’s Justice and Peace Center opened at the beginning of this year, and their presence creates much-needed space for activists in the city. Concerned Citizens for Justice is organizing to combat our city’s legacy of white supremacy and police brutality. A new group, SAFE (Student Activists for Equality), is organizing on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s campus to support the groundswell of activism for the school’s neglect in abuse cases. [2]

Fundraiser for VW workers

On April 18, 2014, Chattanooga for Workers hosted a potluck fundraiser to help send some Volkswagen workers to Washington DC for a national speak out on the truth about working at Volkswagen, their experiences at the plant and the situations that lead up to their injuries. Also their experiences in the UAW organizing drive, and where they are now --unemployed because of their injuries. The fundraiser was held at St. Marks United Methodist Church, in North Chattanooga.

SEIU local 205 organizer Kate Sheets opened up for the event, and introduced the speakers. Guest speakers included two former employees who were fired after both men were injured on the job, labor journalist Mike Elk, Brian Merrit of Mercy Junction, Jared Story of Concerned Citizens for Justice and United Campus Workers, and Michael Gilliland of Chattanooga Organized for Action.

As part of this event, attendees broke out into groups to brainstorm on ways to advance their communities and work forces. After everyone got back together, Chris Brooks of Chattanooga for Workers and a Tennessee Education Association organizer collected and put into shape the ideas for further discussion and action.

A.J. Sorenson reported the event for the People's World.[3]

Insure Tennessee protest

Chris Brooks February 11, 2015 ·


With Kate Sheets Hodge, Damien Crisp, Michael Gilliland, Todd Gardenhire and Tara Rose.

Chattanooga Organized for Action

Chattanooga Organized for Action Board of Directors as of 2015;[4]

Now What? Defying Trump and the Left's Way Forward


Now What? Defying Trump and the Left's Way Forward was a phone in webinar organized by Freedom Road Socialist Organization in the wake of the 2016 election.

Now what? We’re all asking ourselves that question in the wake of Trump’s victory. We’ve got urgent strategizing and work to do, together. Join Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of the Movement for Black Lives and Freedom Road, Calvin Cheung-Miaw, Jodeen Olguin-Taylor of Mijente and WFP, Joe Schwartz of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Sendolo Diaminah of Freedom Road for a discussion of what happened, and what we should be doing to build mass defiance. And above all, how do we build the Left in this, which we know is the only solution to the crises we face?

This event will take place Tuesday November 15, 2016 at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central/6pm Pacific.

Those invited, on Facebook included Michael Gilliland.[5]

Chattanooga For Workers


Brian Merritt March 1, 2014, Nashville Labor organizers with Chattanooga For Workers. — with Katie Cowley, Julio Fernandez, Chris Brooks, Sher Leon Marquis Foster, Michael Gilliland, Shannon Garth-Rhodes, Brenda Perez and Jack Willey.

DSA Chattanooga Closed Facebook Group

Chattanooga Democratic Socialists of America Closed Facebook Group members, as of June 2 2017 included Michael Gilliland .[6]