UNC Asheville honors Deborah Miles

Press release from UNC Asheville: 

Supporters and friends of UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education will gather in the Sherrill Center on campus the evening of Thursday, June 14 to celebrate the center’s decades of work in Western North Carolina and to toast Deborah Miles, the center’s founding director who will retire at the end of July. The celebration, which begins with a reception from 6-7 p.m., is free and open to everyone.

Providing workshops in schools, training for teachers, staging exhibitions and more, the Center for Diversity Education has brought learning about inclusion and equity to communities, schools and organizations throughout Western North Carolina, seeking to foster conversation and respect among cultures. Miles created the center 23 years ago as a project of the Asheville Jewish Community Center; the center became part of UNC Asheville in 2013.

“At the start in 1995, the center’s work was mostly in K-12 schools, focusing on how to include different ethnic, racial, and religious voices in the classroom, and the support of the JCC was crucial,” recalled Miles. “As the center’s work continued, so many people in the region got involved and we all have learned as we worked, expanding the center’s programs to include the stories of narratives of underrepresented communities including immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ, the disabled, and more.”

“In this predominantly white region, my whiteness likely made it easier to raise issues of diversity with many people. I have tried to use that privilege to create openings for neighbors whose voices, perspectives and histories have been underrepresented, so that everyone’s children get a broader picture and so the community has a more complete and honest ‘shared narrative.’ Diversity education ultimately is part of what we need to foster the peace of the home, the neighborhood, the nation, and the world. For me, this celebration will be a chance to recognize the many incredible teachers, volunteers, activists and those who have shared their stories and made the hard sacrifices.” said Miles.

As part of the celebration, video interviews will be screened with local Holocaust survivor Rubin Feldstein and members of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality including James Ferguson and Al Whitesides. Poetry will be read by DeWayne Barton, founder and CEO of Hood Huggers International, and remarks will be offered by members of the center’s community partnerships including Everyone’s Environment and the WNC Diversity Engagement Coalition.

“For nearly a quarter century, Deborah Miles has led the Center for Diversity Education in its advocacy for racial understanding, collaboration, and equity,” said UNC Asheville Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo. “Since moving the center to UNC Asheville, Deborah has channeled that advocacy as well towards campus efforts in diversity and inclusion, often challenging us to match our progressive rhetoric with material progress. The center is a national model for university and community cooperation to anticipate the needs of a society undergoing continuous re-evaluation of its past, and re-visioning of an acceptable present and future. Deborah has built strong foundation of opportunity – we are excited to see how her successor will continue the Center’s work.”

One example of the center’s impact has been its role in the growing movement to unearth and present the stories of enslaved Americans through slave deeds and other original documents. In preparing an exhibition on stories of African-Americans in Buncombe County, 1850-1900, Miles learned about existing records, and in the summer of 2000, after securing a grant for this purpose, she was able to hire 20 high school students from A.C. Reynolds, T.C. Roberson and Asheville High to search antebellum ledger books and find records of the people being sold along with corn and cattle.

Many years later, Miles approached Drew Reisinger, then newly elected as Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds, to seek one of the ledger books for another exhibition. Miles’ discussions with Reisinger prompted his decision to digitize all the available slave deeds and create an online exhibition. “UNC Asheville is doing a great job of making (the information) more available,” Reisinger told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “And a new generation of students are learning about first-source documents and the raw details of what slavery looked like in Buncombe County.”

“During my time here at UNC Asheville, I have been proud to collaborate with Deborah Miles and the Center for Diversity Education in its work to ensure that the voices of those historically marginalized in our society are brought to the foreground of our collective local, state, and national narratives,” said UNC Asheville Professor of History Darin Waters, who also serves as special assistant to the chancellor for community outreach. “This work has not only broadened our perspectives, it has changed them as well. As our community, state and nation becomes more diverse, the value of the work that Deborah and her many community partners have done through the center, will only become more palpable. As a member of the university community, I am proud to have been a part of the center’s work and look forward to ensuring that that work continues into the future.”

For more information, email Waters at dwaters@unca.edu.

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