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Building Community with Ken Miles
Ken Miles was born in West Harlem, and today is Program Lead for ARISE youth development program at the West Harlem Development Corporation; he is a member of the Youth, Education & Libraries Committee at Manhattan Community Board 9 and is a Community Scholar at Columbia University where he is developing a community based culturally responsive think tank around population health, civic engagement, education and ethical tech. You can watch the interview here or listen to it here.
How do you move the needle? What do your dreams look like?
Institutions matter, and are often overlooked; I would love to be involved in building or stewarding an institution. We have a lot of great institutions that just need fresh coat of paint and I think that there's a tremendous power and significance to historical legacy, to context. So, the ability to play a role in helping build from a place of context.
You're involved in a lot of work in the community; what are you noticing lately?
What I notice most immediately is one of my neighbors who's no longer with us, who would always sit on the stoop. You notice food bank lines, you note the ways in which the usual traffic patterns of walking in the streets have been disrupted; you note certainly from community board meetings, the increase in drug trafficking in certain areas and opportunities that are emerging because people's habits have been different. I’ve noticed-- having a chance to flyer, promoting the summer program-- the fragmentation, like how different floors in a building can be their own universe.
I think building bridges to allow for our community to feel connected to what's happening to opportunity, to information is important. You recognize that digital helps. It's not the only way-- because people are fatigued for a multitude of reasons. Some people are caught just trying to figure out what the new normal is and adjust to that and find agency in their own lives, in the midst of this pandemic.
Young people need opportunity, need role models, need play, in order to be a fuller version of who we know, and they know they have the possibility to become.
There is a big NYC election coming up on June 22; what message would you want to convey to leaders?
Simply continuing to prioritize those who may historically have been at the margins. Sometimes the folks who really want to show up aren't able to. So we need to speak to the voices that may not always be in the room, and our elected officials should learn to do the same. I think that's an urgent need because their voice matters just as much and their perspective deserves to be heard and considered.
What attributes of a mayor would you hope to see?
I’m a steering committee member for the inclusive growth initiative for New York City, focused on making it accessible for working class families and the city that they want to see. I think that there's a lot to be said for the ways that some of our current structures don't actually afford access to those very communities in a way that maybe they were designed to initially but then fell out of step with that for a variety of reasons. We can't just presume access; we must continue to critique and continue to assess.
Are there any stories of people you've worked with that you'd want to elevate?
During my time on the Youth, Education, and Libraries committee for Community Board 9 in West Harlem, the Teachers College Community School outgrew its space and there was a proposal on the table for a co-location at a local district school that hadn't been co-located before. There was a series of conversations--I can't have the community board take all the credit--there were avenues for facilitating those conversations--but the net result was realizing that the timeline just wasn't ideal and adequate for anyone, and in the process realizing that those district schools had needs. The district school had a need that was being overlooked quite honestly, or not heard, and you ended up having parents carefully consider their options, and effectively, one group of parents come together to advocate on behalf of another. To me it's always been a reminder in my own head--a litmus test is when you can get a parent to care about someone else's kids just as much as they might care about their own, I think that's a powerful reminder of the ways in which we can all utilize our voice to uplift and to get results.
That's not a quick process. It takes patience, it takes coordination. I actually believe that as much as we desire efficiency, inefficiency is a cornerstone of inclusive transformation.
How do you know what a community needs?
Part of that is tied to listening. Not only speaking on behalf of but creating the platforms and reducing the barriers to entry for those who can speak on behalf of themselves. Making space. Having a direction to the end results--not an exercise for exercise sake but an actual on-ramp into a process. Into a resource that helps ensure that we are creating and re-strengthening, re-stitching the social net. We know the ways the multitude of ways in which that social net has been decimated over the years and so when we go through the work of structuring and designing inclusive processes and practices, let those not be in vain. There's a shift: there's a generation out there that's seen broken promises and I think that our ability to continue forward will be contingent on our ability to engage with additional voices. If you continue to not pay attention or be aware of what those voices have to say, and if it becomes an exercise in futility, then folks will walk away from the process. We all suffer when that happens. I think that we need to understand why that needs to be a consideration and a grounding principle almost of how we design going forward.
How do you sustain yourself?
That's a really important question. I’ve had probably my hardest conversations with peers during this pandemic who haven't been able to turn off, haven't been able to look away. I’ve seen a range of healthy approaches, unhealthy approaches, but the reality is there in many instances there isn't a cavalry. We know that we collectively are it.
I’ve pretty much been in the city since the pandemic started. I think the first time I left was late September at the behest of a friend who said ‘come upstate and get away for a couple of days.’ I picked up a cycling, being outdoors, making sure to walk to the water, to Hudson piers park. That's been something I’ve tried to incorporate. And some neighbors started a random text thread at the start of the pandemic ‘hey does anyone need anything?’ and volunteering around efforts to assist community members, working with a friend of mine who formed a non-profit organization for food distribution: Breaking Bread NYC, to help aging jazz musicians who were in need of some produce.
Leaning on our networks, being vocal, therapy as a resource is something I fully encourage for those who are able, and speaking with elders. I’ve kept a regular conversation with my grandmother during this pandemic. No exaggeration, it literally saved her life during one particular instance. I'm mindful that there's a need for us to voice our way through this and sometimes we do that so that others can know it's possible. I think there's power in sharing a journey in the hopes that eases someone else's journey and, try and incorporate some fruits and vegetables. Still working on that one.
Any good books or articles you're reading lately?
I just read Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, a testament to someone who recalls the Middle Passage. It was like a lost transcription of a conversation that happened in the early 20th century, so that was a grounding framework for just the legacy of hard times. I’ve got on my radar a book, about the Caribbean communities in Harlem and the African-American communities at the time in the 1930s and how they navigated the Depression, coming from two sets of cultural distinctive groups but making a way collectively. It was written by a sociologist in the 1990s. I’m continuing to stay abreast of conversations on equity reading about blockchain and the purported digital future and always centering back on what does that mean for community priorities. And being mindful of who shapes the future and how limited that often is. ProPublica released an expose this morning on some of the world's wealthiest, and discrepancies in the tax code.
What's a small scale action that you would suggest people take today?
Come up with a really good analogy for how ranked choice voting works and tell someone. I saw someone lay out a multitude of purses on their bed or their couch, and they were explaining how they would prioritize their bag selection and why that would matter. Whatever the analogy is, just get folks to know that one and done is not it, and that that fifth choice may have as direct an implication if not more than the first choice.
by Tonia Papke
Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?