Q&A with Monica Miles, PAEA’s New Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer

Monica Miles, PhD, joined the staff on January 19, becoming the Association’s first chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. Networker staff sat down with her virtually to learn more about her background and her plans for enhancing PAEA’s work in this critical area.  

Q. You have a background in science and as a science teacher. What caused you to make the transition to working in diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

Yes, I have both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology, which qualified me to teach science even though I had no formal training in education. I went to a teacher recruitment event for the Charlotte, NC, school district, which was looking for science teachers, and got a job. I noticed pretty soon that the student body looked to be economically and racially diverse in the hallways, but the classes seemed to be segregated — mostly all white or all black. I began to ask how that happened; who made these decisions? I learned that it boiled down to how well students did on assessments, and that there seemed to be a lower expectation of students of color — especially in science courses. I would hear that students of color did not test well or were not perceived to behave well. I did not have the language then to articulate these issues like I can now, but it felt weird to me as a Black educator — these were kids that looked like me, and it just didn’t feel right that there would be this lower expectation of them. 

How did you approach this in the classroom? 

I started out by telling the students, “I believe all of you can pass this test.” I found that it was not really a content issue, but more often came down to basic literacy and test-taking strategies. I knew the students had a history of not doing well on the state assessments. I began to cultivate relationships with them and to try and give them the belief they could pass the exam. I taught them about breathing to calm themselves down. I told them that their brains were brilliant machines. As a teacher, I would try to connect things to things I knew they had experienced. We used peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to learn about fractures and faults, to show that the rock layers had to be in place first before the fractures. (Note: More than 90% of the students passed the end-of-grade test that year.) 

What was the next step in your career? 

After one year of teaching in Charlotte, I moved back to Buffalo to be near my family. My daughter was young, I was a single mom, I knew I needed more support. I moved across the street from my parents, who were a tremendous help with my daughter. Then I called the University of Buffalo education department about wanting to complete my qualifications to be a schoolteacher. A woman named Monica Washington, who later became a friend, answered the phone. She said, “I don’t think you are calling for the teacher certification program; I think you are calling about the doctoral program. We need students like you.” She personally walked over my application to the associate dean, and I was soon enrolled in the doctoral program in science education. 

What was that experience like for you? 

I was able to really explore the world of equity in education. I was not familiar with the decades of research around equity and inclusion in the education literature. It helped me make connections with own childhood. I realized I was underprepared for my geology courses back in my bachelor’s and master’s days. I had never taken any calculus or physics. So I was choking on a fire hose, learning STEM content very quickly, as I was again in the doctoral program. 

At this point I also became director of a high school dropout prevention program. I was a high school dropout myself, and through the UB education program and my work in the dropout prevention program, I started to learn that I had dropped out not because I was a quitter or not intelligent — the schools were just not meeting my needs.  

I was a full-time mom, a full-time student, and working full-time. What pushed me through the doctoral program was that I wanted to learn how to do research so I could share what I know in terms of academic studies. No one wanted to listen when it was just Monica saying it. I realized the academic credentials would influence people to listen.  

Your CV shows an impressive record of scholarship — tell us about your research interests. 

I identify as a social justice–oriented scholar but also as a practitioner. When I am writing, I always think about how to write in an accessible way that can be adapted to a real environment. I want to be a bridge between researchers and practitioners. It’s not that easy to just roll something out that some academic recommends in a paper. We need to think about the nexus between research and practice, how can we move forward together. Research is just a tool that I use to validate and share what is needed in the trenches.  

I plan to look at what the equity landscape has looked like in PA education. What do we have and what do we need and what direction can we move in together? There’s no need to start from square one. And it is important to get everyone involved. We are missing opportunities to learn from each other and challenge the system together. In one paper, I wrote with a Chicana and indigenous co-author; we stressed that everyone needs to have a positive racial identity. You are no help if you are stuck in a place of guilt. We need everyone to think about what it means to just show up for people how they would like you to.

How do you plan to approach this work as you get to know the PA education community? 

I’ve been doing equity work for more than 10 years, and I have found that it’s all about getting to know people and building relationships. I appreciated meeting many of the senior staff and seeing that they are people willing to share. I will be getting to know members on the DIMAC, who already have the experience and knowledge. Relationships are the only way this gets done. There is no silver bullet.  

Learning about people is very important to me. I want to know their stories about when they first became aware of their race or their gender. For me, when I was about 10 years old, I was taken from a housing project and bussed across the city to a magnet school. I learned about people in a different way there; I was exposed to different economic groups and classes. This is where the passion comes from: thinking about those who we have deemed as “less than.” Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the US, because of redlining and other policies. The problem with this kind of segregation is it cuts people off from economic opportunity. The Black part of Buffalo has older infrastructure, higher rates of lead. 

I want members to get to know me as a person. I believe that through being open and approachable, beautiful things will happen. How can we create and construct together? I know you have held town hall meetings to talk about racial justice issues after George Floyd. This was one of things that made this job so attractive. I could see you all are already doing this work. It’s not like you want me to come in and be the magical diversity fairy. 

How do you see equity work being most successful in the higher education environment? 

It’s important to show people how the sausage is made. We need to be transparent about the process. We need to share the ugliness of diversity and equity work. You can’t just have one workshop and say “now go forth and be equitable.” Being honest about the process helps others deal with challenges when they arise. We need to not just share the successful, “cherry narratives” — the nice, sweet stories that we share while hiding the real descriptions.   

We need to ask questions like, How does this show up in how you manage your classroom? How do students feel? What does equity look like where I am and how can I help? Maybe you need a place for students to come together over tea or coffee. We don’t always need to come up with a grandiose plan; sometimes we can just take small steps, but they have a big impact. Remember, according to the management literature, only a small number of people can shift the culture in an entire organization, just about 10%. 

Sometimes clarity about language is an issue, too. What do we mean by diversity? The word “diversity” has become clichéd, “equity” has become clichéd. These words can have different meanings to different people. So we often have an ambiguous understanding because we don’t know what we are talking about any more.  

The pandemic has highlighted the inequities we have known about in our health care system for a long time – how does this affect our work in this space? 

The iron is hot right now for equity practitioners, not just with COVID but also with the social justice movements from this summer, and what has been going on in DC these past weeks. These are complex issues that show up in health care and everywhere in society. White supremacy has been brought to national attention. COVID has made us ask, what is really going on and how can we address things as equitably as possible? Some people have just been inconvenienced; some people have lost family members. I’ve gone to five funerals during COVID. We don’t need to argue any more about racial health care disparities. 

A lot has happened that I have not had a chance to unpack yet. I think we all need to pause sometimes and ask ourselves and others: How are you doing and feeling today? We have normalized not having conversations about our feelings, to think about holistic aspects of people and check in with everyone. We need to remain hopeful as best we can. Once we lose sight of hope it makes the work seem impossible. Remain positive and take care of yourself. 

Outside of your work, how do you like to spend your time? 

Mostly, I’m a busy mom and wife. My oldest daughter dances competitively. My son plays football and does African drumming. My youngest daughter is 17 months and she is into ballet and gymnastics, so I do lot of running around. And I’m always involved in my community. I was very involved in my church when that was open. I thrive on collaboration and relationships with people.