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VOL. 43 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 11, 2019

A lifetime of changing lives

Miller helps Appalachian fund move – and save – mountains

By Nancy Henderson

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Margo Miller was writing for the University of Tennessee’s Black Cultural Center newspaper when a friend was tragically struck and killed by a car on campus.

“The Daily Beacon (the main student publication) ended up printing a photograph of her dead in the middle of the road before her family was even notified, and the portrayal of her in the article made her a victim all over again,” Miller recalls. “They described her as ‘a black.’ They were talking about what she was wearing, not even talking about the speed of the car.”

Miller and her peers organized a march and protested against The Daily Beacon after editors there refused to fire the student who wrote the insensitive story.

“From then on,” Miller says, “I gravitated toward using my voice to protest and speak up for people and also against things that I thought were wrong. That’s where I found my voice.”

These days, Miller, 50, gives others a voice as executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund, which awards grants to grassroots organizations working for social, economic, racial and environmental justice in east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and West Virginia.

Since its inception in 1987, ACF has supported causes ranging from accessible health care and benefits for miners with disabilities to policies against hate crimes and homophobia. Miller is also a community activist who often uses her artistic background to help others express themselves. She recently marked her tenth anniversary with ACF.

“Margo’s vision toward leveraging resources for those workers on the ground in the community is unique in our region,” says William Isom II, director of community outreach for East Tennessee PBS. “Without her, as an individual, working for those working for change, communities would be left at the mercy of outside foundations who may not necessarily understand or care about the priorities of affected people.

“There’s not another Margo Miller in central Appalachia. Without her, our region would be a much harder place to stay for workers for change and justice.”

Born in Harriman, Miller grew up on her great-grandmother’s self-sustaining farm surrounded by pigs, chickens and garden plots. “We even had an outhouse that was horrible,” she remembers.

Despite her love of solitary play time and learning through books, she was often scolded for walking up to people she didn’t know and striking up a conversation. “I even got that speech – “Don’t talk to strangers” – when I moved away to D.C., and I was 30-some-odd years old,” she says, laughing. “I was very jovial, very happy-go-lucky [as a child]. But my feelings did get hurt as a young person because in my heart I was always wanting to do good. If I ever hurt someone’s feelings or if I was ever fussed at for something that I was doing, my feelings would get hurt easily.”

Miller’s family moved to Knoxville when she was in first grade, and her creativity blossomed. She created curtains and beds to go in her dollhouse and, in elementary school, wrote stories to read to the younger students in the library. She also crafted puppets and assigned roles to her classmates. “It wasn’t until later on that I really looked back and said, ‘I’ve been doing this since elementary school, writing stories and doing stage productions.’”

Rather than pursue a career in art, Miller, who was the first in her family to attend a four-year college, heeded her high school guidance counselor’s advice and opted to major in business at UT.

“But then I got into a couple of accounting classes where you had to put this in a certain ledger, and then you had to enter this in another ledger,” she says. “You had to do all this crazy stuff that didn’t really fit with how my brain worked.”

So she switched to broadcast communications. But the impact of her fellow student’s death and the way the student newspaper handled it opened her eyes to a world of indifference she wanted to do something about. As soon as she graduated in 1992, she reconnected with Carpetbag Theatre, a nonprofit social justice ensemble group from whom she’d taken a workshop in college.

Margo Miller, executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund, sits at a poker table at Downtown Grill & Brewery. Miller applies fundamentals from poker, one of her favorite pasttimes, to her work life. When she sees a good opportunity for ACF investment in, she goes all in. She explains further in this video.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“It was sort of like a sounding board, really,” Miller explains. “It was my introduction to using art and culture as a tool for social change and social justice.”

At Carpetbag, she led story circles, listening to residents talk about what mattered to them and funneling their issues into stage productions and written pieces. An accomplished poet, Miller often took notes and echoed the voices of the people in verse.

“That whole thing of having people listen to you when you’re oftentimes not listened to – that was very empowering for communities, and you could see that when we were doing the work. And when you put it on a stage and perform it for other people, there’s power in that.”

Through her work at Carpetbag, Miller connected with other arts organizations across the U.S., including Alternate Roots, Highlander Research and Education Center, Southern Partnership Fund, Project Change, Southern Rural Development Initiative, Amnesty International and the Kellogg Foundation.

“And then before long, just because of my little Brainiac introverted skills of being able to organize and do administrative stuff, oftentimes I was invited to serve on boards of directors for these organizations,” she says. “So, it rooted me very strongly and very intensely in a lot of different ways to a lot of the organizations that were using art as a tool.”

To pay the bills, Miller became a temp worker in the corporate communications department at TVA, where her mom was employed. Gradually, as her involvement with Carpetbag grew, she phased out her clerical job to work fulltime with the theater company and other social justice groups.

In 1997, Miller performed on Broadway, in a play called, “Dark Cowgirls and Prairie Queens.’’ Two years later, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as communications director for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a nonprofit arts organization that brings dance to people of all ages and backgrounds. “I’ve never been a dancer,” she admits. “I’m rhythmically challenged.”

Homesick, she returned to Knoxville, but a year later her best friend in D.C. talked her into coming back to help start a production company. Money was scarce, so she took a full-time job as executive assistant to the development director at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington and later managed one of the local branches before joining the Washington Performing Arts Society as executive assistant to the president.

In 2008, Miller realized something was missing. She yearned to advocate for social justice in one way or another, and she was ready to move back home. A job search turned up a post for a development director at the Knoxville-based ACF, and the event planning and fundraising duties seemed like a good fit.

“It didn’t dawn on me until I was a couple months in the job and I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve taken a job as development director during the biggest recession that I’ve seen in my lifetime.’ I was just like, ‘What have you done?’”

To Miller’s surprise, many ACF donors didn’t cut back. Instead, they doubled their usual gifts.

“So, even though it was a recession, a lot of the people that were really committed to the world of social justice and social change increased their individual giving because they knew that nonprofits were really going to suffer,” she says. “I’m not trying to gloss it over that we didn’t have some hard times, but it was really amazing to me the power of the individual giver.”

Appalachian Community Fund staff

In 2011, she became executive director of ACF, succeeding Gaye Evans, who had spearheaded the organization for 14 years. As sometimes happens when a nonprofit staffer steps into a vacant leadership role, Miller is still responsible for her original fundraising duties while working with her board of directors, networking with larger alliances, and helping grantees.

“I wear so many hats right now,” she says. “And I’m not that big of a hat lady.”

Sandra Mikush, co-founder of the national Just Transition Fund, which helps communities that once relied on coal shift to “new energy economies,” refers to Miller as “deeply committed and grounded in values of equity and inclusion, [someone who] understands the importance of culture in social change, an excellent listener and a good relationship-builder and fundraiser.

“Margo has ensured that the people most directly affected by issues affecting central Appalachia – the holders of the culture – receive financial and moral support to do their important work, sustain them as leaders and grow new leadership in local communities,” Mikush adds.

“Margo always has a smile on her face and light in her eyes. She’s always looking for ways to celebrate the people and culture of Appalachia. She exudes energy and she’s always ready with a story, a poem, a song.”

Says Isom from PBS, “Despite the life and death issues our people face day-to-day, Margo manages to contribute a well-timed sense of humor. Her personality is one of dedication, thrift, practicality and being strategic enough to know when to take a chance on an underdog.”

One of Miller’s favorite David and Goliath examples stems from the actions of a small group led by “a hell-raising hillbilly” who came to ACF asking for $800 to help train other volunteers to protest and stop the United Bank of Switzerland from funding mountaintop removal, generally known as strip-mining, in Appalachia.

The man returned later, requesting another $2,000 in travel and marketing funds to disseminate what his volunteers had learned and recruit more supporters. “Through the action of that hell-raising hillbilly … they were able to get the United Bank of Switzerland to divest their investment in mountaintop removal,” Miller recounts.

“With all the organizing, all of the protests, all of the door-to-door [visits] that they did, they were able to make that happen. There are many, many success stories, but that one still to this day sticks out in my head because they took a little bit of money and they were able to get one of the biggest banks to remove their funding for mountaintop removal. It’s just amazing to me.”

“That alone,” Isom says of the strip mining victory, “means drinking water is a little bit better for folks, air is just a little bit cleaner and a few more families get to keep their land.”

Listening may be Miller’s strong suit, but perseverance comes in a close second. “I’m someone who doesn’t give up. There were times when it was really dark,” she says, noting the recession and a few close calls with meeting payroll. “I’m very thankful to my roots and how I grew up and where I’m from, a scrappy nature of being frugal and cutting things from the budget.”

Miller calls herself a “big kid at heart” who loves to have fun. “I’m here living to make a change and make sure I have a good time as well while I’m doing it,” she says.

Despite her self-proclaimed two left feet, Miller loves music and for a while hosted a weekly show, “Mood Music with Margo Miller” on ACF’s community radio station. She still loves to sew and has recently become obsessed with making dreamcatchers. Her home features a dedicated craft room with one wall of beads, another of fabric.

But her No. 1 hobby is playing Texas Hold ’Em with a weekly poker group at the Downtown Grill and Brewery. “I’m getting much better too,” she says, noting the competitive streak that surfaces when she plays.

About 10 years ago, Miller helped form the Appalachia Funders Network, which builds relationships among funders in the region. She now serves on three AFN working groups.

She still serves on the boards of the Carpetbag Theatre, Alternate Roots and other organizations.

The new year brings an increased focus on two ACF projects: Out in the South Central Appalachia Project, which serves the area’s LGBTQ community, and the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium, which supports a growing movement to support that population through grantmaking and other resources.

The best part of her job, she says, is twofold as well. She is most happy when signing checks to grantees and thank-you letters to donors.

“What makes us different than other foundations is that ACF invests in grassroots organizations that are on the ground working to undo the underlying systems of poverty and oppression in their region,” Miller says.

“We believe in change, not charity.”

ACF is distinctive in several more ways—for example, providing daily operational costs, not just individual project funding; continuing support year after year when needed; and shaping a board of directors that represents the people who receive the grants. Often, ACF supplies most of the money a grantee receives in a given year. “We invest in [groups] that are often too small, too progressive or too new to receive funding,” Miller says.

“We often invest in those grassroots organizations that others won’t touch.”

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