Tell me a little about your career path and what led you to Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.
I’m the first employee with the foundation. I spent most of my career working for a nonprofit that acted like a cross between a community action program and a community development corporation in Perry County, KY, a small county in the heart of the Appalachian Kentucky coalfields. We did a lot of work on issues that impacted the community: childcare, housing, and access to healthcare were the three priorities. I spent about 18 years helping lead the community in addressing those issues. We started a community health center to help people with no health insurance have primary care. We started a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) that would help people into home ownership. We were the first rural homeless shelter to receive emergency shelter grant funding on a regular basis. And we developed some of the highest quality child care in rural Kentucky.
But we found ourselves always struggling for the resources we needed to do the work that needed to be done and we never got at the cause of the issues, like our overall health and wellbeing, not just access to housing but ability to build assets as families, and to have jobs that were meaningful and paid a living wage. We spent a lot of time in the community talking about what we really want our community to look like and what has to change to get there. Somebody said “we should start a community foundation” and that way we could put together enough resources to have some permanent funds for our community to use in ways we wanted. So that’s how we started the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. We started in Perry County and decided that if it was going to work and have meaning and move the dial on things we really cared about, we had to do it around the region and not just Perry County, so we expanded our board to include all the counties surrounding us. We evolved from the ground up from the nonprofit sector.Read more
How did you come to work in community development?
I grew up in the Appalachian area of Pennsylvania, in an area that was very rural and mountainous. I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, PA, and I became fascinated with how other types of cities work. I focused my undergraduate studies in that direction and then went to graduate school for community and regional planning in Vancouver, BC. I was exposed to the Cascadia mindset, which was more environmentally and international development planning focused. That’s where my real passion for community development took root. The biggest trajectory of my career was when I was awarded a research fellowship and lived in Vietnam for 2 years. At that time, Vietnam was the 13th poorest country in the world. My research focused on a project about slum settlement relocation and another on marketplaces and women’s role in the household economy. Looking back, it was specifically relevant to Appalachia and the importance of “place” in our lives because in a communist country like Vietnam, they can literally relocate people, but the people inevitably gravitate back to these places where they feel they want to live. I truly loved poverty alleviation work because it allowed me to see the compelling and entrepreneurial subcultures of people that exist in places like slum settlements.
"It’s going to take all of us working together to create just, equitable, and healthy communities in Appalachia." - Margo Miller
Your career path has led you through many experiences with social justice and arts advocacy. How do these experiences inform your work in philanthropy?
My entry into the world of social justice came from working with the Carpetbag Theatre, a professional, multigenerational ensemble company whose mission is to give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Through them, I was also introduced to Alternate Roots, a regional group of artists who use art and culture as a tool for social change and social justice. Ever since then, I have been committed. I loved using artistic expression and working collaboratively with other artists and community members to make positive change.Read more
How did you get involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?
blue moon fund was an early partner of AFN. As my role at bmf expanded to include our domestic portfolio, I was excited to participate at the Gathering and sharing between the working groups. Having previously lived in Webster County, WV I was excited to reconnect and expand my professional network to include leaders and innovators from across the region.Read more
What first sparked your interest in philanthropy and specifically in the field of environmental grantmaking?
My interest in environmental grantmaking and specifically, in being a program officer, was first sparked in my second year at Stanford Law School. At a lunch event, I heard a Hewlett Foundation program officer talk about his work, which I found to be incredibly appealing. After working in the nonprofit sector, federal government, state government, and the United Nations on a wide range of environmental issues, my dream of working in philanthropy finally came true when I joined the New York Community Trust in January 2014. I never thought that I could find a position that brought together all of my environmental policy interests, but serving as The Trust’s environmental program officer does exactly that. I love being able to think so deeply and strategically about so many issues, and to learn from the brilliant people working in these areas. My passion for protecting the environment was instilled in me by my Puerto Rican grandfather. As a biologist working for the Federal Government, he introduced me to the wonders of the natural world whenever I visited the island. He taught me how fragile and precious these wonders were, and how important it was to conserve these natural resources for future generations.Read more
How did you get involved with the Appalachia Funders Network?
The Blue Grass Community Foundation has fund holders in 19 Eastern Kentucky counties and five Community Endowments with local advisory boards in Appalachia Kentucky. It is through this work that we became involved in the Appalachia Funders Network.Read more
How did you get involved with community development?
Upon graduating from college I moved back to Virginia and took a job at a nonprofit organization funded mostly by the Job Training and Partnership Act. When this funding was replaced by the Workforce Investment Act, the nonprofit I worked for decided to dissolve. I had the unfortunate opportunity of being charged with closing down a program that had been serving the community for 18 years. During this time, I became very familiar with the opportunities and challenges of the nonprofit sector, particularly how fragile they are and how much the ebb and flow of fundraising can impact communities. From there I went to the West Virginia development office and worked in their Community and Economic Development department. Eventually, I was recruited by BB& T to lead Community Development activities in West Virginia and Kentucky. These transitions have been fortunate because I can draw upon experience and knowledge from the Nonprofit, Government, and Private Sectors to my work in community and economic development.Read more
How did you get involved in community development?
When I was president of the agribusiness club at the University of Tennessee, we attended a workshop at USDA RD. Afterwards, they told me that there was an interview with students for an internship with USDA RD. That was in 1992 and I’ve been with Rural Development ever since. It goes to show you how important it is to get involved and build relationships with professors and people you meet when you’re in school. We try to keep that cycle going and open those doors for promising students interested in business, economics & community development to connect to RD. We see the internships as great opportunities for students to start careers with RD or community development. I have maintained my relationships with faculty at University of Tennessee in the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department. It affords me the opportunity to return every year to present to juniors and seniors about working for RD and starting this type of career.Read more
How did you get involved in philanthropy and specifically in the field of health-focused philanthropy?
For nearly 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of working in health philanthropy focused on collaboration, partnership and measurable and sustainable improvements. While the Foundation structure has been in existence since the early 1960’s, owning and operating a hospital system, it was the 1998 hospital-system-asset sale that prompted the transition to a private Foundation with a mission to improve health and quality of life in central and southeastern Ohio.
Prior to the asset sale, my responsibilities included fundraising and development activities to support the hospital’s community outreach and services. I then transitioned to focus on the development and implementation of the Foundation’s proactive grantmaking strategy and processes. Over the past decade, the field of philanthropy has evolved, including the advent of formal education programs, such as the Indiana University School of Philanthropy. These programs provide opportunities for professional development and training that are preparing the next generation of philanthropic and nonprofit leaders.Read more