Black Student Union co-founder urges students to organize

By SARAH Y. KIM | April 19, 2018

Courtesy of Sarah Y. Kim Miles urged Hopkins students to engage with the Baltimore community.

Bishop Douglas Miles, a native Baltimorean and one of the original founders of the Black Student Union (BSU), gave a presentation in the course Lectures on Public Health and Wellbeing in Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon. 

The course instructor, Professor Philip Leaf, introduced Miles and encouraged his students to look up to Miles as a leader.

“There’s probably nobody in this City who’s been as successful in overcoming impediments... as Bishop Miles,” Leaf said. 

Miles, Class of 1970, was a BSU organizer during the height of the civil rights movement. Organizing shortly after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Miles said that the BSU had to garner support from African-American students at other campuses in Baltimore because of the lack of African-American representation at Hopkins. 

“We had maybe 30 African Americans on campus,” he said.

For a long time, Miles was not proud to be a Hopkins alumnus. He said that the University failed to meaningfully engage with the Baltimore community during this time. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, he said that the University has improved its relationship with the City in recent years. However, Miles emphasized that there is room for improvement. 

“Hopkins has so much to offer, not just in terms of its instructors but in terms of the diversity of talents within the student body that could be better utilized in Baltimore,” he said. 

In his talk, Miles discussed the current political climate in the U.S., which, according to him, is more polarized than it ever was during the civil rights movement. 

“I have never seen this country so viciously divided and so morally bankrupt as it is now,” he said.

Miles also addressed the divisions across races, classes, ethnicities, political parties and within political parties. He pointed to divisions within Baltimore — namely between East and West Baltimore — which he said have become more pronounced over the past 20 years. 

Miles called for students and their generation to organize and build a new, diverse coalition that bridges such divisions. He rejected the notion of “making America great again” as a solution. 

“It was never great,” Miles said. “When was again — slavery? When was again — legalized segregation? When was again — when we couldn’t vote? When was again — when there was virtually no middle class? So what are we going back to make great again?” 

He said that when it comes to pushing for social change, there is a widespread sense of impotence in the American population. According to Miles, many Americans express rage and apathy, which is merely “anger turned inward.”

“People feel powerless,” Miles said. “We have politicians who have no answers. The citizenry is angry.”

Miles believes that today people are usually unable to look beyond stereotypes and recognize what they have in common. According to him, this stems from people’s failure to communicate with each other.

“Everybody has a story,” Miles said. “For the most part, we never get to share our story... very few people talk to each other. We spend a whole lot of time talking past each other.” 

Miles is co-chairman of the advocacy group Baltimoreans United in Leadership (BUILD). He said that BUILD is an example of an ethnically, racially and religiously diverse group organizing around a common agenda. 

“When we start knowing each other stories, we can start building a common agenda and we can start organizing for the power necessary to create change,” Miles said. 

Miles asked the audience to build relationships that can help people believe in their own power to initiate meaningful change. He encouraged people from different backgrounds to organize around a common agenda. 

Miles said that organizers, unlike advocates, do not speak for those who can speak for themselves. He called this the “Iron Rule” for organizers. 

“You never seek to speak for somebody else,” he said. “You will speak with them. But never for them.” 

To him, this makes organizing a more effective tool than advocacy. According to Miles, the activist’s objective is to express an idea, whereas the organizer’s objective is to develop the power to create change. 

In his interview, Miles said that the current BSU’s work aligns more with activism than organizing. 

He said that in order for BSU to be effective organizers, they would have to recruit more people and form closer connections with the larger African-American community of Baltimore and engage more rigorously with local issues. 

Miles also said that over the years, BSU has become less radical than it was upon its founding. 

“It needs to have more of an edge to it and take a more direct approach to the issues facing African-American students,” he said. 

Students like junior Andy Ramirez said that the presentation was a unique approach to discussing public health in Baltimore City. 

Miles, Ramirez said, encouraged him to see public health as something that he could tackle as a member of the Baltimore community, rather than just as a student.

“I enjoyed that humanizing aspect,” he said. “It was very refreshing and different.” 

Ramirez also enjoyed the way Miles avoided reinforcing political divisions. 

“He did a really good job of staying neutral throughout the talk,” he said. 

Sophomore Andrew Hellinger felt that the talk offered valuable insight into today’s political climate, but he wished that Miles had talked more specifically about BUILD. Hellinger said they had read about BUILD extensively in class. 

“I would have liked more discussion on the organization,” he said. 

However, Hellinger enjoyed the interactive part of the presentation and appreciated its goal in helping students find commonalities with one another.

Sophomore Nancy Wang also enjoyed the interactive part of the presentation. 

“It was really nice that he brought us together,” Wang said. 

Overall, she felt that Miles’ talk was an insightful addition to the course. 

“It’s very eye-opening to see different angles that people take to try to solve the same kinds of problems,” Wang said. “It shows how every issue is very intersectional and could be tackled very differently.” 

Miles will be receiving an honorary degree at commencement this year. 

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