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Advocating diversity

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By Rob Neufeld

Sensing the country’s drift toward re-segregation and gated communities, Deborah Miles, director of the Center for Diversity Education in Asheville, N.C., has been tirelessly promoting pluralism through school education.In recognition of this, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Winston-Salem-based foundation with a mission to assist the disenfranchised, has chosen Miles for its 2005 Nancy Susan Reynolds Award.

Miles is one of five who received the annual award, which recognizes “unsung heroes” whose vision and success inspire a sense of moral purpose.

The award brings with it a $25,000 gift, of which $5,000 goes to her personally and $20,000 to non-profits of her choosing.

She has chosen to designate the Asheville Jewish Community Center, Stephens-Lee Alumni Association of Asheville’s former African-American high school, and the Center as recipients of those funds.

Miles started her career in diversity education on a small scale, but with a clear sense of mission.

Working with Asheville’s Jewish Community Center, where she was the Preschool Director, and with the Isaac Dickson Elementary School, on whose PTA she served, she searched for ways to affect the public school curriculum.

“We don’t have time to teach about diversity,” Miles recalls school administrators telling her and the members of the Jewish Community Center.  “Our teachers are so bombarded with curriculum issues, diversity just isn’t part of that.”

Subsequently, Miles recounts, “I ordered a copy of the N.C. Standard Course of Study and took a golden marker to the objectives and found all these places where diversity is a natural part of literature, social studies, science, and the arts curricula.”

Miles sought out models for diversity education, such as “Facing History and Ourselves,” a Brookline, Massachusetts program, and developed a public history component to aid teachers in the classroom.

In 1998, the center acquired its own nonprofit status and moved into Pack Pace, Asheville’s museum complex.

In August, 2003, the Center moved to offices at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.

Last year, Miles hired a staff to allow her more time for fundraising and organizational development.

Deborah Ann Miles

Job: Executive director, Center for Diversity Education, University of North Carolina, Asheville

Education: B.A., Hendrix College, Conway, Ark.

Born: 1953, Dallas, “but I’m an Arkansas girl through and through.”

Family: Husband, Marc Rudow; children, Josh, Caleb and David

Hobbies: Visiting, hiking, and gardening

Currently reading: “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman

Heroes: Her father, John Miles, a Methodist minister, and mother, JoAnn, who actively sought a loving society and developed relationships with the African-American community.

“I just about killed this organization because I tried not to increase staff and thus the budget,” Miles admits.  But she hired a consultant and took the leap, becoming a master, she indicates, in one of the key elements of corporate development: networking. “At work, I try to walk to work along different routes,” Miles says.  “I’ll park my car in different places because I run into different people.”

The Center now reaches out into ten counties, maintains a mailing list that includes 2,000 contacts, and has sixteen community members on its board. One-third of the organization‘s $125,000 budget comes from about 200 donors, half comes from grants, and one-sixth from fees.

Miles says she wants to reverse the donation and grant percentages.The Center’s programs have grown to include oral history projects, traveling exhibits, lesson plans, public performances, bus tours (including to houses of worship in Atlanta), and loans of books, audio-visual materials, and artifacts, she says.

The staff now includes, in addition to a full-time director, a full-time program director, a 25-hour per week administrative manager, interns, and an exhibit organizer.

New challenges for the center include educating people about the rapidly growing Latino population, for Miles believes that exposure to other cultures defeats stereotypes and prejudices.

“The incident that changed my life was the bombing of the little girls at the church in Birmingham in 1963,” she recalls about her pre-integration Southern childhood.

“I couldn’t understand that someone would hate so much that they’d blow up a church and girls my age,” she says.  “I remember the next Sunday being at church and walking down the Sunday school corridors and wondering, ‘Is this what those girls were doing?’”

Miles’ passion matches the tenor of the times and, she reveals, it is a strong element in generating support.

“People who are our donors,” Miles notes, “believe that our nation is at a turning point in terms of pluralism.”

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