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Schenectady's Jamaica Miles takes her activism full-time

Schenectady's Jamaica Miles takes her activism full-time

Schenectady's Jamaica Miles takes her activism full-time
Jamaica Miles speaks during a community meeting in 2016.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY — Jamaica Miles lives for the "oh, wait," and "oh, snap!" moments.

Growing up in Hamilton Hill, the longtime activist and lead organizer for Citizen Action New York was recently appointed to the city's Civilian Police Review board, where she hopes to build trust between police and communities of color by helping people challenge long-held beliefs. 

Before she took her activism full-time at Citizen Action, Miles recalled, she was doing the same work as a parent-teacher organization volunteer with the Schenectady City School District, unaware it would become a career path. 

"I was launching letter-writing campaigns and organizing parents to go to the school board meetings, not knowing that was called organizing — I didn't know it had a word — I just was mad and wanted everybody to know who else was mad and believed the same things to come together," Miles said. "Now I get to do this kind of work 80 hours a week and get paid for it." 

Throughout her career -- and even her early childhood -- Miles' push for justice has always stemmed from her family circle, orbiting outward with each phone call, knock on the door, and rally. 

Miles said she was relatively protected from racism in her youth, until her father passed away when she was 13. Her father, who was black, served as a guide and guard for his daughter through the troublesome encounters that arose in their Hamilton Hill neighborhood. 

Miles' mother, who was white, did not have the same understanding when it came to race. 

That led to some vulnerable and difficult teenage years, Miles said, before she gave birth to her own daughter at age 21. 

The treatment of her daughter at Paige Elementary School, in particular, served as the catalyst behind her joining the PTO. 

After going back to school in 2004 at the University at Albany, where she got a bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in education, Miles began working for AARP's legislative office in Albany. Being up close to the action of the Assembly and Senate, Miles said she immediately began to see the opportunities that arose in bringing disparate constituencies together for a common cause. 

"Looking at things from a justice perspective, and also an opportunity to engage people of color, I said:' What are we doing with the black and Puerto Rican caucus?'" Miles said. "And David [McNally] gave me the latitude to just run with it and have us have a presence there and engage people. And after that, I could only work for a non-profit or someone that was part of that kind of justice and making a difference."

Through Citizen Action, Miles has taken on the role of lead organizer to push for legislation and reform efforts. As much as the job has required Miles to dedicate her efforts toward goals that have yet to be achieved, much of her work also comes down to meeting people and educating them about the resources and realities already in place. 

"When I often say there aren't resources available for people, I get pushback from people who say there's this program and that program and these resources. I respond with: If you don't know they're there, then they might as well not exist," Miles said. 

That's what brings Miles back to the joy she derives from educating people -- the payoff of eliciting an "oh, snap!" or "oh, really?" response. 

One example she gave was Steve Bannon's assertion that candidates who run on identity politics and social justice platforms are bound to ensure another Trump victory.  

"Change is uncomfortable," Miles said. "Right? Like you know what you know, and someone is saying to you that what you know is wrong or that it's somehow hurting other people, and you're not intentionally doing so. I say to them, don't think of this as a personal attack on you, but as an attack on the systemic and institutional issues that we have."

For Miles, there are no zero-sum outcomes in her work. Instead, she said, no individual group loses out on something just because progress is made for another.

"There are far more people, including white people, who actually agree with the conversations we're having, and they're showing up," she said. "So, the silver lining to Trump is: More white people are angry at the injustice to black people, and they are standing up and having those conversations, too," Miles said. "And working-class poor -- working-class poor whites -- we're having conversations with them to say we agree with you. This is the struggle that we have had as people of color, and we're just asking you stand with us because, if we win, you instantly win."

Always armed with a bluetooth headset to take calls on a moment's notice, Miles was off to the next challenge, the next knock on the door, and the next reconsideration.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Jake Lahut at jlahut@dailygazette.net or @JakeLahut on Twitter.

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