Interview with Annette Miller
Outreach and collaboration through the lens of diversity and inclusion
by A. David Dahmer
“I really want to make sure that our community is strong. I feel like my strength is getting people to invest in our community and particularly around communities of color,” says Annette Miller. “I really want to keep building on that and to make sure that we are investing deep and long because we know that the issues are systemic and we also know that they are generational. This isn’t a two-year plan. This is a multi-generational plan. I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve already been in it for the long haul. I’ve been in this community for 27 years and I plan on being here for a while.”
Annette Miller has spent most of her career helping to give a voice to the voiceless. She is very well-known in the Madison community yet one of the more humble people you will ever meet. But, really, how hard is it to stay humble when you are set to receive three prestigious local awards in one week?
This past Monday, she was honored as one of Sustain Dane’s three 2014 Badger Bioneers honorees for actively working to lead the Madison region to a more sustainable future. This Friday, Centro Hispano of Dane County will honor her with the Robert G. Sanchez Award at the Centro Hispano 25th Annual Celebration at Monona Terrace. On Saturday, she will receive the Muriel Pipkins award at the Mentoring Positives 10th anniversary Party at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW campus.
“Each of these awards mean something very special to me,” Miller tells The Madison Times in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s south side. “I just feel like they are affirming who I am in that I really believe in community and making sure that our community and all the people in it — Latino, African-American, mixed-raced, multicultural — have a real place and space here. I’ve been doing this work for over 15 years and have had some wonderful mentors myself. I feel like everybody in this community has been very gracious in giving me their knowledge and sharing their resources and giving me a hand up … to really do this work.
“When you lose good people who have been doing the work before you, and now you’re on the front line having to carry it on, it can be really hard,” says Miller, who lost her mother-in-law in 2009, close personal friend and mentor LaMarr Billups in 2011, and her best friend’s mom 2013. “So when I sit here with you and think about these awards, I feel like this is because of those people who came before me. I didn’t do it myself. I really mean that. It’s so nice to be recognized and paid attention to in this way. Honestly, I feel really well loved.”
Previous to this exceptional week of accolades, Miller has been the recipient of the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Distinguished Service Award and Community Leadership Award, and a nominee for the Athena Young Professional Award.
As Emerging Markets and Community Development Manager at Madison Gas and Electric, Miller has an important jobs identifying ways that MGE can invest in the community. She specifically works with communities of color, low-income, fixed-income, and other vulnerable populations to help them connect to resources the company has available as it relates to energy, weatherization, and bill payment. She also acts as a bridge for these groups and connects them to employment and business-related opportunities of the company.
“We really do build community. MGE has been in the community for over 150 years. A company that old needs to figure out how to be relevant and I feel like that is one of the jobs I have been given,” Miller says. “Part of that relevancy has been that the demographics have changed and drifted dramatically. So what I do is build bridges between MGE and the community to make sure that customers feel comfortable and that they understand what we do as your community energy company … while also helping the company understand what they need to do to help these customers feel like they are recognized as an important customer.
“I consider myself a scout. I get to see what’s out there and then come back and then advise and say, ‘Here’s where I think we should be. Here’s how I think we should use our resources,’” she adds. “The people in the company have really come a long way in understanding that need and allowing me to do that.”
Miller has thoroughly enjoyed her work with MGE’s pioneering program the New Green Challenge which works with African-American and Latino families to provide hands-on education in sustainable living.
“We’ve been a part of a movement that was already there which were [around] food deserts. We’ve given some lift to that in terms of letting Latinos and African Americans really see that they have a voice around the issues of how they can take care of themselves and be independent and thinking of themselves as being sustainable,” Miller says.
Among its many partners in the New Green Challenge (El Desafio de Vivir Verde), MGE works with Centro Hispano providing information to Latinos on gardening, composting, energy conservation, sustainability, and more.
Miller has been involved with Centro Hispano since she was working in the mayor’s office as the community liaison for former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. “It was really about what we can do to help Centro be a strong beacon for Latinos in this community have what they need through community services and community development … making sure that they have the financial support that they need,” Miller says. “Moving to MGE, we’ve been investing in Centro continuously and doing a lot of programming around youth and adults. We actually try to ask Centro, ‘What do you need?’ and then go from there. We let Centro determine where they need to invest and provide resources to make sure they can do it well.
“I am so thrilled that Karen [Menendez Coller] is the new executive director [at Centro] because she has such a holistic perspective about what the community needs and she is so bright,” Miller adds. “I know it’s overwhelming to her, but she is really on point with where she is putting her time and attention. She really thinks about the roots and the trunk of Centro and has been really good and strategic about staying focused on what it’s going to take to make Centro a long-standing resource for the community. I really enjoy supporting the work that she and the board [of directors] are doing.”
Miller has lived in Madison since the late 80s having come here to attend the UW-Madison. She graduated in 1992. Previous to her work at MG&E, Miller worked for 11 years for state government working providing policy, budget, and project management skills on topics such as new program development, workforce issues, and operational best practices.
When I mention to her that she is really likable she tells me that she is “Pollyanna” about all things referring to the heroine of Eleanor H. Porter's famous 1913 novel "Pollyanna" whose outlook on life was one of optimism.
“My philosophy is to use honey to get the work done and there is a space and place for that,” she says. “There are people who need to use more of a stick and I think that’s important, too. But I had to realize that for me, I had to own up that that didn’t work for me. I just don’t operate that way.”
Part of it stems from the fact that as a bi-racial child of an African-American serviceman and a German-American mom, she struggled to fit in growing up all over the place — Germany, Panama, North Carolina, and in the south. “I couldn’t get by carrying a stick,” Miller remembers. “I had to fit in to so many different environments. But as uncomfortable as it was growing up for me, it made me who I am today.”
Despite her “Pollyanna” attitude, Miller has no problem calling things as she sees them. Since most of her time and energy has been directed towards issues related to low-income, fixed income, communities of color and other vulnerable populations, there can be a tremendous disconnect with the rest of white well-to-do Madison. The tremendous racial disparities in Madison that most Madisonians read about every day is something that she sees every day.
“A lot of times when we’re talking about inclusion, people don’t realize that they are talking about me … it is personal. And you’re also talking about a whole lot of other people who can relate to me and I can relate to them in terms of feeling like an outsider,” Miller says.
Some of her discussions with the majority communities can be uncomfortable. “As cool as [what I do] may look like to some people — it can be very tough. It can be painful. It’s hard work,” she says. “You end up disagreeing with people who are supposed to be your allies and your friends. You get in heated conversations about what the overall best direction for this community. It can be frustrating.
“But at the same time, I feel I must have been put on this earth and in these roles and in these spaces and places for a reason. I honestly suck it up and put a smile on it,” Miller adds. “Sometimes it’s important to keep the big picture in mind and how you’re going to make things happen.”
Miller says that despite being a minority and despite the trials and tribulations she has faced, she considers herself to be a person of privilege and she never takes that for granted.
“I go home and I know that I live a good, blessed life. The reason I’m so committed to the community is because I did grow up in a low-income neighborhood. I did grow up in a single-parent household knowing what it was like to not fit in; to always be uncomfortable,” Miller says. “So, for me, I feel like it’s my duty to be really passionate about building bridges in the community and I want other people to feel good. People helped me so I really want to turn around and help back.”
Miller is one of the founders of the Madison Network of Black Professionals, whose purpose is to network, socialize, and create a sense of community in the greater Madison area with the overall goal of reducing the number of African Americans who leave to more diverse communities. She knows all about making outsiders feel welcome in this community, but she admits that she still has much to learn.
“I do really try to think [about] inclusively intentionally and really try to respect where other people are coming from. I’ve learned a lot from the Hmong community … because I really thought I was the shiznit in terms of doing cultural inclusion and cultural competency and they humbled me so much when I learned that I still have work to do and they really have been so patient in helping me understand that there are so many ways in which we talk about diversity and what it looks like,” Miller says. “It’s not just language, it’s not just cultural beliefs and practices. It’s also time. It’s how you approach building community. There are some things that are really, really important. Family is important. Our children are important. How you approach people is important and the way in which you do it.
“The community constantly pushes me to not just do the easy way — send a quick e-mail — but to really be present and in-person and thoughtful,” she adds.
As Miller looks to the future, she says she wants to keep on leading in ways that she can and in ways that the community allows her to. She doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself or follow a certain path.
“I’m always looking at all doors… all options. It’s been very successful for me in the past and I suspect it will be for me in the future,” Miller says. “I don’t ever want to be very definitive about my future because that might then close a door for me that I didn’t think about.”
Could that future possibly involve a run for political office?
“You bring up politics …. Maybe… who knows?,” she says. “I could also see myself running something. I’d love the opportunity to manage more resources and direct more treasure into our community. All of those things are possibilities. I just want to be ready.”
In the meantime, she’s currently pursuing her master’s degree in sustainability and leadership at Edgewood College.
“School really pushes me — it pushes against what I thought I knew about myself and what I thought I knew about different concepts about community, about sustainability, about well-being, and what it means to be inclusive and what it means to address race and class and other –isms,” Miller says. “There is just always more to learn. I am a lifelong learner … that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”