Coffee With Ericka Miller
A long-time Alexandrian recalls her activist parents and describes her perspective on the city.
Ericka Miller, a successful business executive, is a member of an Alexandria family with a tradition of extensive activism and community service. Miller was born in the District of Columbia because her mother’s African-American obstetrician was not allowed to deliver babies in an Alexandria hospital. She has always lived in Alexandria, except for a 7-year period when she obtained a doctorate in English Literature at Stanford University and was on the faculty of Mills College in Oakland.
Miller’s work experience includes eight years with The Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization for high achievement for all students with a focus on those of color or living in poverty. During the Obama Administration she served as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education and was nominated for Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education.
Today, Miller is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Isaacson, Miller, an executive recruiting firm that places leaders in higher education institutions and nonprofit organizations. She said, “I do love leading the firm. We help organizations find leaders who can advance powerful missions. I truly feel that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Alexandria still feels to me in some ways like a small town, but then in five minutes I’m in the District of Columbia downtown,” Miller said, “But, for me, there is a lot of history here, a lot of personal history, because my parents were so involved in the city.”
Miller’s mother, Eula, was head of early childhood development at Northern Virginia Community College for nearly 30 years and was a consultant to the Campagna Center.
Her father, Melvin, a lawyer in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was a member of the School Board from 1986 to 1993 and Chairman from 1990-1992. He also chaired the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority from 1970 to 1977 and from 2001-2012. He ran a strong race for Mayor in 1976.
She said, “It wasn’t until my father died that I realized I would never want to live anywhere else. Part of it was the overwhelming familiarity I experienced when my father died. The outpouring of grief from so many people was truly astounding. Then, what I noticed was for the next year, and still to this day, is that I’m constantly bumping into someone who says, ‘Aren’t you Melvin Miller’s [or Eula Miller’s] daughter?’” Invariably, a story followed about how her father or mother had helped that person.
“He loved the minutiae of policy—he could watch a School Board meeting for hours,” she said, “He loved people and connecting to people socially.” Miller said that her father loved the city and, “always believed it could do more to fulfill its potential.”
Miller said that because housing and development are such central issues now, “A lot of people reach out to me and say ‘We really miss your Dad’ because he would be fighting for affordable housing.”
‘He was always the eternal optimist” she said, “He started by seeing the best in people and you had to prove him wrong.”
Miller worked on Capitol Hill and a number of people have tried to get her to run for the School Board. She said, “I’m not saying never; I’m saying not right now because of the kind of job I have” she said, “I don’t know if I have the natural inclination to do it and I’m not dying to do it but my love for the city makes me think about it.”
Miller attributes the presence of new members on the City Council to Alexandria’s reputation as a city with an active and engaged population. She believes that the four million square foot development at the Landmark mall site will make the West End a more attractive place to live. She hopes that there will continue to be affordable housing options there.
“People ask me what it was like growing up and I say it felt like a small town, almost like Mayberry” she said, “As a kid, I remember my Dad was constantly meeting with people of all different backgrounds, races, and political affiliations to advance policies that would help people who didn’t have a lot of financial or political capital. He was meeting with people like Ferdinand Day, who was my godfather, Kerry Donley, Vola Lawson, David Speck, and Lynwood Campbell.”
Miller learned how truly segregated Alexandria was through her father’s accounts of the activities of the Secret Seven, the group of African-American leaders who advocated for better treatment and increased opportunities for Black residents at a time when school segregation and substandard housing were pervasive. She concluded that, “Mayberry was more complicated than I realized.”
Miller graduated from Alexandria City High School (then T.C. Williams High School) in 1982.
After finishing 8th grade, she asked her parents to let her leave the private school where she had been the only African-American student for eight years and attend public school. She said, “By the time I got to 9th grade I thought there was a whole part of Alexandria that I was missing.” She went from a class of 40 girls to a class of 700 with “all different races from different countries.”
She said the decision, which she called “almost whimsical,” was one of the most important decisions of her life because, “I had to figure out who I was in this tapestry. It was not easy to figure that out but the struggle to figure it out instilled in me a sense of self that has guided my life to this day.”
Miller found out who T.C. Williams was, and what he stood for, from her father. She said that when she understood who T.C. Williams as a segregationist, “I looked at the school and I said, ‘There is such a disconnect here.”
She said of her high school experience, “I’m so glad that my lens has been complicated because it forces me to get beyond appearance and try to understand either ‘Is this person right for the job?’ or ‘What kind of support might this person need to be better at the job?’”
Miller said that “As we see memorials being taken down, not just in Alexandria, but also in other parts of the country, the motivation for doing that is coming from the right place because I think that what is behind that is that we want to signal that we are inclusive.” She said, “The thing that potentially gets lost is the opportunity to have a conversation about the past. If we’re not having a conversation about the struggles of the past there is always the chance we will commit the same errors.” Miller said, “As we take down memorials, I hope we will replace them with something that will spark that conversation.”
“If you give something a name, you have the opportunity to spark a conversation and create learning. It doesn’t have to be a segregationist or nothing” she said, “We can replace it with the name of someone who fought for equality and opportunity. I do hope that we do not try to make everything nameless.”
Miller said that it was through her father’s stories that she really came to understand the complexity of the city. She recalls her father, who could not swim, teaching her to swim at the old YMCA. She said that for many African-Americans, “learning to swim was a political act.”
Miller said that her parents “would get a kick out of knowing” that she is a CEO of a national firm. She said, “I feel my parents every day and I’m glad I’m back where I started. This place is home for me.”