Deborah Miles, founder and director of the Center for Diversity Education at UNCA, was recently awarded the 2007 Evan Mahaney Champion of Civil Liberties Award from the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We are honoring Debbie for conceiving and operating this decade-old program, which has won many awards and wide recognition,” the organization said in granting the award.
The CDE engages in a wide range of projects and exhibitions aimed at encouraging education about acceptance across racial, ethnic, gender, gender-preference and class lines. During the past year, for example, the center hosted “Love Makes a Family,” a traveling photography exhibit portraying the families of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people, and compiled oral histories of witnesses and victims of bullying.
Xpress asked Miles, who was also recently named honorary chair of the WNC AIDS Project, how she came to do this work. “I got into it because it was part of my life growing up in south Arkansas,” she says. “Both of my parents were involved in social-justice issues, so it came naturally to me.”
Here in Asheville, Miles was part of the legendary Stone Soup eatery, which functioned as something of a local progressive touchstone in the 1980s. There, she says, “I began to realize I was connected to a lot of networks.” Then, when her children began to attend schools that had only recently integrated, she found that “while there had been some changes in who was sitting in the seats, there was very little change in how those schools ran.” So she decided to do something about it.
“My work reminds me continually that we are all works-in-progress,” Miles says. “Eighty-five percent of teachers are white, middle-class women, and we all bring our cultural experiences to the classroom.” Whatever our backgrounds, she advises, “We need to work throughout WNC to be sure that our kids are ready for 21st century jobs. Even if kids go to schools where everyone looks like they do, that’s not the world they will work in. If they are xenophobic about Latin Americans, if they hate gays or women, they won’t be able to get jobs.”