Rising to the moment: Longtime Schenectady activist Jamaica Miles builds playbook for change

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jamaica Miles stands next to the Paige Elementary School sign on Elliott Street in Schenectady Friday

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jamaica Miles stands next to the Paige Elementary School sign on Elliott Street in Schenectady Friday

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Jamaica Miles stood at a downtown intersection on a rainy July night, megaphone in hand.

After days of disobedience training and energizing activists, she’d successfully marshaled her troops, who stood in several rows, arms linked, blocking the street.

Demonstrators earlier blockaded City Hall, resulting in its premature closure.

A van stuffed with armor-clad cops swarmed in after a small clutch of demonstrators briefly gained access to the facility. And after digitally disrupting that night’s City Council meeting, Miles successfully needled a frustrated police chief into issuing a bellicose statement:

“I have shown this community my willingness to discuss reforms @schdypolice, have made efforts to engage [in] conversations and remained patient during a month of peaceful protests,” city Police Chief Eric Clifford wrote on Twitter. “No more disorder in the city.”

Miles cheekily addressed the crowd afterward: “I was told we could not occupy. But here we are.”

Funny thing is, despite organizing hundreds — and at times, thousands — of people at rallies against racial injustice this summer, Miles remains insecure about public speaking.

“I still get nervous every time I speak in front of people,” she said.

The demonstration was light-years away from where Miles got her start as an education activist at Paige Elementary School on Elliott Street. She was simply a mom frustrated over her daughter’s treatment at school and the disparities in education funding.

Miles, 46, said her push for justice initially sprouted from within her family circle.

The mother of four grew up in Hamilton Hill with a white mom and Black dad, a Richmond, Virginia, native who shielded her from the toxicity of racism until he died when she was 13.

“I learned that my father protected me from a great many things,” Miles said.

Her mother, a Hoosick Falls native who was 21 years younger than her father, didn’t have the same understanding. Neither did her side of the family.

“The very first time I was called the n-word was by my uncle in my mom’s kitchen,” Miles said. “Very quickly, I was thrown into a world I didn’t know.”

Yet she was always precocious and fought against injustice.

“If there was ever a moment that something wasn’t fair, I spoke up about it,” Miles said.

Life happened, and the fledgling community organizer wasn’t particularly engaged in activism until her daughter Oriana’s experiences at Paige Elementary spurred her to speak out.

Staff dismissively claimed Miles’ first-born had attention deficit hyperactive disorder (Oriana was “brilliant,” contends her mother, and skipped kindergarten). Another time, a kid belted her in the stomach and denied it, only to have the bully’s sister speak up moments later.

That stuck.

“Everyone has memories of moments,” Miles said. “That was a moment. I started to wonder, ‘How could things look different?’ ”

Organizing kicked into high gear when the city school district wanted to end Central Park Middle School’s magnet-school status, which was briefly retained before reverting back to a neighborhood school.

That spurred Miles to get involved with the PTO and attend board meetings, writing letters and organizing parents.

“I didn’t know it was called organizing,” Miles said.

Meanwhile, Miles was racking up experience in the nonprofit sector, where she has spent the majority of her professional career.

She also attended SUNY Schenectady County Community College.

“I was a voice major at Schenectady County Community College and six credits away from having an associate’s in music that I couldn’t complete because I couldn’t play guitar,” Miles said. (And while she can also carry a tune, “I’m no Mariah Carey.”)

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in education from the University at Albany, she began working for AARP’s legislative office, where she learned the ropes around policymaking and the legislative process while communicating with “hundreds of grandparents.”

‘Concerned parent’

While navigating the halls of the state Capitol in Albany, Miles began to better understand the disparate groups of people seeking to reverse generations of baked-in inequities.

Other gigs included work with Community Builders, SCAP’s Head Start program and Girls Inc.

At the same time, Miles was drawing inspiration from her mentors, including the Black feminist thinker Barbara Smith and Mark Emanatian, the longtime Capital Region-area activist.

“She was a very dynamic, concerned parent who wanted to fight for resources for her kids and other kids in Schenectady,” said Emanatian, who now serves as director of the Capital District Area Labor Federation.

Another school battle over the magnet-school model — this time at Oneida Middle School — linked her with Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) and got her dialed in to a broader statewide fight over public school funding disparities.

“And that’s when I got really involved in advocacy and education,” Miles said. “Not just Schenectady, but in the Capital District and across New York state.”

Billy Easton, former executive director at the Alliance, recalled Miles as a formidable advocate.

“Really, she mobilized a lot of students, parents and community members to put pressure on the state to deliver, and it produced more funding in Schenectady as a result,” Easton said. “She was very effective.”

Miles, Easton said, was also vocal in seeking to change school policies she viewed as racially unjust, including those governing suspensions for students and teacher diversity.

Racial issues increasingly bled through, and while education funding continued to burn bright — an issue that increased in importance after the state implemented the Gap Elimination Adjustment amid the Great Recession, a measure advocates contend shortchanged public schools — Miles started thinking more about things like the school-to-prison pipeline and how to further broaden systemic and institutional change.

Emanatian encouraged Miles, then a parent volunteer at AQE, to apply for his outgoing position as Capital Region organizer with Citizen Action of New York, the influential progressive network.

“You’re already doing the work,” Miles recalled Emanatian telling her, pointing at phone banking and organizing press conferences. “You’re the lead organizer.”

Miles landed the gig, where she was tasked with recruiting volunteers and leaders, and organizing those impacted and marginalized by harmful policies.

“We decided what changes were needed based on the voices of the people,” Miles said.

Citizen Action was also on the front lines for boosting the state’s minimum wage, mopping up a scandal-plagued state government and fighting to remove the empty oil tankers stored in Albany’s South End, among other progressive issues.

Mobilizing people, Emanatian said, requires a certain disposition.

“Jamaica inspires people to get involved in stuff,” Emanatian said. “She shows the ability to bring people in, which is the mark of a good organizer.”

Shifting focus

Over time, Miles rose to statewide organizing director at Citizen Action, counting the creation of the Capital District Women of Color Committee as among her successes.

Everything changed last winter.

By then, Miles had left Citizen Action after a five-year stint and started her own community activist group, All of Us, with Shawn Young.

Their initial focus was to be housing rights. But then came the fatal shooting of Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery by several white men in February.

The nascent group planned a series of runs to draw attention to his slaying, as well to the deaths of other Black people following police encounters — particularly those locally, folks like Darryl Mount Jr., who was found unconscious after being chased by police in Saratoga Springs in 2013 and later died, and Andrew Kearse, who died in the back of a Schenectady police cruiser in 2017 after suffering a cardiac event.

“How are we running for people in other states and not running for people right here?” Miles said.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer immediately lit the fuse on a summer of activism, and a national reckoning on racism and police brutality.

“If you’re good at organizing, you’re prepared for a crisis,” Miles said. “You know a crisis is going to happen. But there’s only so much preparation you can have … there’s no way of knowing which singular event will unite the nation and the globe.”

By now, the events of this summer are well known.

A peaceful demonstration gathered thousands in Albany (and rioters later that night left a trail of destruction across the city). The following day, crowds marched in Schenectady, and tense moments outside of the city Police Department resulted in Clifford and officers taking a knee and marching hand-in-hand with protesters. Both sides pledged to cooperate. More than 11,000 later marched in Troy, and demonstrations continued for weeks, some more incendiary than others.

All of Us has played a leading role in all of them, whether the occupation of City Hall to first publicize, and later continually draw attention to, the altercation between a city police officer and suspect that reignited racial tensions.

Among the highlights of the summer of activism, Miles acknowledged, was the Clifton Park event attended by a mostly white crowd that organizers put at 2,000. The young crowd marched for three miles under sweltering skies before arriving at a state police barracks, where they laid on the sizzling pavement as activists read the names of Black people killed by police. Then they got up and simply walked away.

That demonstration, organized in conjunction with Shenendehowa Central School District students, was designed to bring the fight directly into a bedroom community that’s home to police from around the region, Miles said.

“It was inspiring and it was historic because you never saw that happen in Clifton Park before, and it gives people hope that there are individuals in places you may not think likely who believe in humanity for people,” Miles said.

Protests had an impact: The massive outpouring quickly resulted in reforms both statewide and in the city.

An executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June repealed 50-a, a statute long used to shield police disciplinary records from disclosure; banned chokeholds; and ordered local police departments to reform themselves with community feedback.

At the same time, the city banned knee-to-neck holds and pledged to boost deescalating techniques.

More changes are forthcoming, including reforms as part of the state-mandated panels, a process that All of Us has largely dismissed in favor of more urgent action.

Instead, the activists have relentlessly pushed the city to adopt its 13 demands for reform, and All of Us will continue to push to ensure that localities and police unions comply with 50-a (several police unions in the state, including those representing city police officers, have filed lawsuits to block the release of unsubstantiated claims).

All of Us, Miles said, will keep the pressure on.

“This is a marathon — not a sprint,” Miles said. “Corny adages ring true for a reason.”

Does she ever reflect on her successes and get a sense of validation?

“There are some moments,” Miles said, noting it wasn’t easy to lead a movement amid a global health pandemic and a president intent on fanning racial flames. “This was harder than any campaign that I’ve ever worked on.”

More voices

All of Us is now incorporated as an LLC, Miles said, and a leading goal is to unite activists from the Capital Region and cultivate a new generation of leadership.

The grassroots group now has an active Saratoga Springs chapter, where demonstrations are often more urgent and turbocharged than they are in the Electric City.

Lexis Figuereo was inspired after listening to Miles speak at Riverfront Park in Troy in June.

Events evolved organically in Saratoga Springs. When an early demonstration was jeopardized after the organizer got sick, Figuereo reached out to several organizations for guidance.

All of Us was the only one that responded, and offered emotional and organizational support.

“I hopped into it, got on the bullhorn and here we are six months later,” said Figuereo, who now leads the Saratoga Springs chapter.

“We became a family instantly out of nowhere. And we’ve been putting our lives on the line every day.”

Miles has offered invaluable support in setting up meetings with officials, he said, as well as giving Spa City activists guidance as they push authorities to open an independent investigation into Mount’s death.

The group is also a LGBTQIA organization — or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual — and seeks to bring those voices into the fray.

But with summer gone and the arrival of winter, is sagging momentum a concern?

“All people show up for individual reasons,” Miles said. “There needs to be that educational part for people to have meaningful, deeper understanding for why we do this work.”

At the same time, being engaged is a personal choice that requires commitment.

“It takes work for people to stay together,” Miles said. “We all have lives, theoretically. It’s a struggle to find that for myself.”

Miles has flirted with the idea of public office, having served briefly on the city’s Civilian Police Review Board before resigning.

“I don’t want to be on the inside,” Miles said. “I would like to be on the outside of the system.”

Yet she said she’s now fielding monthly inquiries about her future ambitions.

“I don’t have any plans at this particular moment,” Miles said. “I’ve decided to not definitively shut that door, but to be mindful of the best place for me to best create change for people in the community.”

Fellow activists say her work is indispensable.

“Black women as a whole are coming to the forefront of leadership and change,” said community activist and Schenectady native William Rivas, who got to know Miles during their work with Alliance for Quality Education and his run for school board.

“We may not always agree on everything, but we agree on the fact we want to see better for people in the community.”

Damonni Farley has worked with Miles for years on not only education funding fights but also voting engagement and combating food insecurity.

“We’re both very passionate and both strong-willed, which results in some interesting conversations,” Farley said. “I know I can always count on her to say how she feels. There’s no guesswork. I love that about her. I trust her to tell me the truth.”

Their motto?

“If we can’t help each other, we sure won’t hurt each other,” Farley laughed.

Miles can come across as a different person on TV, said Emanatian, and people fail to see the “kind, wonderful human being with lots of heart” underneath.

“She’s a dynamic leader and kind person,” Emanatian said. “And sometimes the persona on television when you see her, maybe that part doesn’t come across.”

He worries about his friend sometimes.

“I want her to have a wonderful and good and full life, and I know that she’s been under enormous amounts of pressure over the past few months trying to lead this stuff.”

Miles acknowledged the strain, and while she lives in the city, she declined to discuss the exact location, citing death threats.

But as she plows ahead with 80-hour weeks, she wouldn’t swap it for anything.

“I truly believe I’m where I’m supposed to be and doing the work I should be doing,” Miles said.

One Comment

William Marincic

You’re going to give this criminal activist a platform? Ask her how she happened to team up with a convicted bank robber accused of a home invasion where a gun was put to the head of an eight-year-old child to create All Of Us.

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