In Appalachia, Margo Miller Leads From a ‘Place of Courageous Joy’

“Transforming Spaces” is a new series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.

Margo Miller, the executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund, describes herself as a “proud Black mountain woman” in a region not widely known for being home to generations of Black people.

In her day-to-day work, Ms. Miller, 53, is in charge of financially supporting regional organizations, individuals and groups working to advance social, economic, racial and environmental justice across Appalachia. The largely economically depressed region is a vast swath of land that encompasses some or all of 13 states, including parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Maryland and all of West Virginia.

Support from the fund is sometimes a couple hundred dollars and other times $5,000 or more, depending on the year and the causes.

In 2021, the organization gave out more than $600,000 to organizations, individuals and groups in Appalachia, where the often stunning landscape consists of family farms, twisting back roads, steep mountain passes and fairly secluded communities, some with newly revitalized downtowns. Since its inception in 1987, the fund has given away more than $6 million. Ms. Miller said that lately it had been getting a lot more support from a diverse array of donors.

“Our range is 50 cents to $50,000,” she said. “We have a donor who would tape quarters inside of an envelope and send it to us.” One year, she added, another regular donor sent a gift of $50,000, “saying, ‘I know the region can really use this gift this year.’”

Ms. Miller, who lives in East Knoxville, has become one of the most powerful people in philanthropy in a rapidly evolving region that has long been marred by stereotypes, misunderstanding and, for Black people, erasure, according to academics and leaders of nonprofit groups. Many Black people, including Ms. Miller’s family, have lived in Southern Appalachia and Central Appalachia for at least three generations (she had relatives who worked in Kentucky’s coal mines), but their stories are not often told.

Margo Miller, at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens in East Knoxville, a historically Black neighborhood where she has lived since 2008.Credit…Jessica Tezak for The New York Times
Ms. Miller said she relished having access to the natural beauty that she strives to celebrate as an artist and activist.Credit…Jessica Tezak for The New York Times

Instead, the Appalachia portrayed in popular culture tends to be largely associated with stories of white coal miners and their families, a narrative that several scholars, sociologists, artists and residents, Ms. Miller among them, have been working hard to shift.

Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin, an assistant professor of sociology at West Virginia University, doesn’t remember exactly when or how she met Ms. Miller, but she does recall hearing about her since her earliest days of living in Knoxville in 2013.

“Margo’s name was one of those names that you just knew,” said Dr. El-Amin, whose academic work focuses on how “racial practices shape Black places and how Black people are, in turn, involved in practices that define, contest and reimagine places.” Ms. Miller, she said, “is sort of like an O.G.” She added, “Her name was always there, which tells you a lot.”

Ms. Miller, in fact, has always been a natural leader, whether she realized it or not.

As a child growing up among the mountains and hollows, or hollers as the valleys are colloquially called, of Roane County, Tenn., and later in North Knoxville, she said, she was “the bossy one who wanted to play the teacher.” In her mostly white elementary school, she was student of the year (the first Black student to receive the title), and in high school she was class president (the first Black student to hold the position). She is a self-professed nerd.

“Being a nerd is kind of trendy now, but back then it wasn’t the case,” she said in a recent interview from her office, surrounded by crafting supplies. She’s a big crafter too. “I definitely was a kid who had my nose buried in a book.

Standing nearly 5 feet 10 inches, Ms. Miller today knows how to command a room, whether she is speaking or not. But she recalled that the earliest days of her career as an administrator were more challenging, in part, because she is a Black woman. She talks of going on job interviews in the 1990s and white men being surprised when she entered the room. Some would start to say, “I wasn’t expecting you. … ” and she would have a ready comeback.

Ms. Miller in 2014, with Rev. Keith Caldwell, left, then the vice president of the N.A.A.C.P. in Tennessee, presented a social justice plan at the Highlander Research and Education Center, which nurtures movements for social, economic and restorative environmental change in disenfranchised communities in Appalachia. Credit…Ebony Blevins

“Back then, I would laugh and say: ‘I know. You weren’t expecting me to be so tall,” she said. “I would really try to make them feel more comfortable and they’d look at me like, ‘Who are you? I’m waiting for a white Margo Miller.’” Those experiences were demoralizing, but she found joy, support and opportunities to grow in Knoxville’s theater community, where she was surrounded by other Black people. She had immersed herself in theater while in college there and became a performer and stage manager.

Ms. Miller said her experiences with racism were not the same today. “I’m currently surrounded by a community of social justice folks who are all about equity and inclusion and anti-racist practice,” she said. “I’m fortunate and do not have the same experience of other sisters who work for mostly white boards and trustees. Many of them have uphill battles.”

African Americans make up about 10 percent of Appalachia’s population while those identifying as Hispanic or Latino account for 5.6 percent of the population, a number that is growing, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. Still, sociologists and historians said, Black and Latino people with roots in Appalachia have a deep connection to the area and their rich history should be studied and appreciated. People like Ms. Miller, who are connected to the region’s history, help with this effort, they said.

“You get coal mining stories or you’ll hear of good race relations here because there weren’t many Black folks here, but those stories distort,” Dr. El-Amin, of West Virginia University, said. “Black folks have always been in the region. From slavery on up.”

The fund that Ms. Miller heads supports all Appalachians, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or other identities, but under her leadership, which started in 2011, minority Appalachians say they have felt more included. For them, merely seeing a Black woman who is committed to the growth and development of the area is a comfort and source of encouragement.

Richard Graves, an artist in Abingdon, Va, a 2021 recipient of $5,000 from the community fund’s fellowship program said that the money made it possible for him to find stability during the first year he worked as an artist full-time. The foundation gave a total of $80,000 to fellows like Mr. Graves. But even more valuable than the financial support, he said, was the community support that came with being in the fund’s network.

“Because of how sectioned and pocketed off these rural communities are, doing community work together can be hard,” he said. “It gave me faces and names of people across the region. We met on Zoom every two weeks and continue to keep in touch.”

Strengthening community and bringing people together is one of Ms. Miller’s strongest qualities, according to several organizers and beneficiaries of the organization’s fund.

“Margo has been a field builder making space for nonwhite voices, nonwhite leadership in the region, in central Appalachia,” Lora Smith, the chief strategy officer for the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, said. “She is as unapologetically Appalachian as she is unapologetically a Black woman leading a community fund.”

Ms. Miller in the craft room at her home in Knoxville. She retreats there to create and play, finding inspiration in thriftiness and working with various fibers, particularly patchwork.Credit…Jessica Tezak for The New York Times
Ms. Miller’s fabric shelves in her craft room at her home. She has learned through Appalachian, Japanese, Indian and African methods of mending that great beauty can come out of frugality and being resourceful.Credit…Jessica Tezak for The New York Times

Ms. Smith, who took over Ms. Miller’s seat as the co-chair of the Appalachian Funders Network, a nonprofit, said that beyond her professional qualifications, Ms. Miller leads with care, openness and vulnerability. She recalled a meeting in which Ms. Miller unexpectedly took words participants had written and combined them into a powerful poem and read it aloud. Ms. Miller has been writing poetry and been an avid crafter since childhood. She’s also a D.J.

“It was amazing to then see how people responded to that in a very humanistic way and the vulnerability and openness that her openness brings out in others,” Ms. Smith said. “She leads from a place of courageous joy. The Appalachian Community Fund resources some of the most forward-thinking and radical work in Appalachia and has done so for decades. That takes a courageous leader who is rooted in her values and can take critique and blowback when it comes.”

Ms. Miller’s generosity extends beyond the workplace, according to stories from Black activists, organizers and scholars. Dr. El-Amin recalled sharing in early 2021 that she was concerned about whether The Bottom, a space she had created for Black people to gather, study and experience culture together, would survive amid the gentrification of East Knoxville. She was worried that they would not be able to afford to keep the space.

“Margo said, ‘I will take the equity out of my house for you all to buy the building,’” Dr. El-Amin recalled. “This is something I will forever remember and she did it.” To Dr. El-Amin, this was yet another example of Ms. Miller’s commitment to fostering Black history, voices and safety in the community.

“I’m grateful that I was in a position to make the purchase happen,” Ms. Miller said, adding that the line of equity loan was repaid in less than a year, and that she then signed a deed to remove herself from ownership of the building.

Ms. Smith said she judges how good executive directors are by how well-received they are by their younger employees and collaborators. The best leaders, she said, engage with young people who may have different ways of thinking and may push them beyond their comfort zones. Ms. Miller, she said, is one of these leaders.

“She embraces next-generation leadership and is actively standing with and supporting younger people,” Ms. Smith said, “especially Black, Brown and queer folks, in stepping into their power and leading the region forward.”

For her part, Ms. Miller said she anticipated that she would stay in her role for another year or so, but felt that she was ready to seek out new challenges.

“I want to figure out who I want to be when I grow up,” she said. “I think in order to serve in the next leg of whatever I do, I need to take the time to rest and welcome the next generation of philanthropic leaders.”

Ms. Miller, a self-proclaimed proud Black mountain woman, centers herself while overlooking the LeConte Meadow at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens.Credit…Jessica Tezak for The New York Times

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