By: Carole Ann Borges
Margo Miller, the Executive Director of Appalachian Community Fund, is a woman on top of her game.
The path from a tiny farm with an outhouse, to overseeing a large non-profit organization, wasn’t easy. Miller credits her extended family and her rural upbringing for her success.
Recalling her childhood in the Bazel Town community of Harriman, Tennessee, Miller’s eyes grow soft and misty. “Growing up there was amazing. I am very grateful for it. A little house, a garden, pigs and chickens, apple trees, pear trees. We got water from a spring down the street from where we lived. We had an outhouse and didn’t have indoor plumbing [for a long time]. It was a very simple life, but rich. So rich! I didn’t know I was poor until I went to school.
The influence of strong women shaped Miller’s life. “My mother was sixteen, a teen mom, when she had me, and my sister came soon after. Because she had two kids and wasn’t married, she had to travel to Knoxville when she got a job at TVA. I stayed with my Grandma all week and Mom came back on weekends. The beautiful part was I also got to spend time with my great grandmother, a spit-fire of a woman who told me all these stories of her throwing rocks at bullies and chasing a boy who picked on her.”
Miller remembers going to church twice a week. Her family and neighbors walked there together. When she went fishing with her grandmother and an uncle, she hid her shoes in a bush and went barefoot to the river. “There was so much peace,” she says. “I’m so glad I had that.
Eventually Margo’s mother met her stepfather, and the family moved to Knoxville. “I did not like my stepfather growing up. He had all these crazy rules. He made us read and do book reports on what we read. We had to read the newspaper and watch the news, and we’d get a little test at the end of the week. If we didn’t pass we didn’t get to watch cartoons on Saturday. ”
Armed with a strong sense of discipline, Miller excelled in school. She had perfect attendance. “I remember telling Mr. Merritt when I was in middle school: ‘I want to be the first black President.’”
After college she entered the business world. “I got my degree in broadcast communication. I did a lot of radio. I did the Chryons, the little strip at the bottom of the screen for all the baseball games on Channel 10. Then, one of my best friends told me about a workshop. It was with The Carpetbag Theatre. I just fell in love. I felt aligned. I wanted to be with people who were making a difference. My mother about had a fit! She goes, “Oh, no! You’re kidding. You’re going to be a starving artist.”
Acting with The Carpetbag Theatre gave Miller a strong grounding in the social justice movement, and she felt fortunate to be mentored by Linda Parris Bailey, a Knoxville playwright who has gained international success. “She has been very important in my life.”
In the late 90’s, Margo moved to Washington, D.C., but she continued taking jobs in the non-profit sector. “Linda hated to see me go, but it was an opportunity to make me grow. I worked for the YMCA and for the Washington Performing Arts Society. That was a big job dealing with the Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma. One time they had Eartha Kitt and she was a hoot! You know all artists have special requests, and she wanted us to find a young man. Someone she could bring up [out of the audience] and seduce while she was on stage. That was hilarious.”
In 2008, Miller returned home to be close to her family, and she accepted the Development Director position with the Appalachian Community Fund (ACF). Three years later, Miller became the ACF’s Executive Director. Her history with cultural arts and her work “as a community organizer, facilitator, project director and administrator for a number of key social justice organizations,” made her the perfect candidate to help people fulfill their dreams of sustainable community-building or artistic expression.
Her pride in the organization is tangible. She says, “The Appalachian Community Fund was set up to deal with issues impacting poor communities in Central Appalachia…and to support small emerging organizations that weren’t able to get funds from large national groups due to being too new, too small, or too radical.
“Our job is to raise the money and give it away. It’s hard! This is the first year we have taken a break from [general fund] grant-making because there was no money, but I recently deposited a check for $625,000 in the bank [to establish an endowment]. It’s just a matter of letting that money sit there and grow. I am also working on obtaining another $700,000 [that will not be restricted to the endowment], but that might not come until next year. Once that comes it will be a lighter load, but it is just getting there.” Margo laughs. “One good thing is, and I take this back to the country living, I know how to live off of nothing!”
In 2013, Miller was one of four prominent East Tennessee women featured in the documentary East Tennessee MAKERS. The show was created by East Tennessee PBS and it “debuted before the national MAKERS: Women Who Make America.”
Miller can frequently be seen at local social justice gatherings. From mountaintop removal to Black Lives Matter, Miller is outspoken on a variety of issues.
She most recently returned to the entertainment world as host of Mood Music with Margo Miller on WOZO LP 103.9 FM, originating from The Birdhouse, a community center in North Knoxville. In May 2015, a license was granted to the new station and the signees were The Birdhouse, Appalachian Community Fund, and United Mountain Defense. The all volunteer grass-roots group producing the radio programming accepts no advertising. They are currently trying to raise enough money to live stream on the Internet, but for now they are limited to a low power FM station.
Miller’s show airs on Tuesday nights from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. While her play list depends on her changing mood, and she typically features funk, ’60’s-’80’s pop, rhythm and blues, and the occassional show tune.
Margo Miller has a unique voice in everything she does.
Cover photo by: Michelle Morrison Quist.
All other photos courtsey of Margo Miller.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2015.