Art and accountability: A conversation with James Miles

James Miles, the executive director of the nationally recognized youth arts organization Arts Corps, is adamant that everyone needs to EAT – in other words, they need education, arts, and technology. Art has played a role in everything from Instagram posts as a form of personal expression, to revolutions that have changed the course of history.

“Out of the Great Depression, you have the Harlem Renaissance where you have this explosion of Black excellence out of this dearth of culture,” Miles said. “If you’re going to have an explosion of anything that’s revolutionary, it generally starts with artists.”

Art can also create opportunities for conversation. For example, when Miles sees a student that may not be excited about school, he starts by checking in and mentions a piece of art, which becomes a tool for conversation.

“How do you connect to it? [They might say,] ‘I hate it’ [or] ‘I love it.’” Miles said. “People have emotions and opinions, so I encourage them] to share them freely. Everyone’s got an opinion, just like everyone has a heartbeat.”

Teaching critical thinking and creativity

Arts Corps uses a social justice framework, and its members believe that creating art can be an act of liberation that ignites creativity of young people. The organization also focuses on creating more equitable classrooms by bringing in instuructors who are people of color, womxn, non-binary or transgender.

“We’re bringing critical thinking skills to students who haven’t had access of them, or have been told not to think critically,” Miles said. “I think it’s revolutionary when a teacher goes into a classroom and asks a student, ‘why?’”

Enabling students to see themselves represented in their instructors can be transformational, One program that addresses this is Learning Immersive Technology (LIT), a program that works with low-income students of color from Seattle and South King County and supports them in learning about STEM through an arts education.

“One of the most profound things I’ve heard [a] student say is, ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’ Once they say, ‘I can do that,’ you’re opening up those doors,” Miles said. “A woman [or] a young girl saying, ‘I didn’t know I could be working computer science’ meant that she has based her entire 17 years of existence thinking that her role can only be as a mother, spouse, [or] caregiver and not as someone who is actually is an engineer [or] technician, just based on the identity he, she, or they grew up with.”

Reimagining the future of Seattle

When asked to imagine the future of Seattle, Miles would want to make the city more accessible for people to live and work.

“I would add mass transit to all areas of Seattle, [and] I would add an income tax, especially on those big companies,” Miles said. “I would try to create tax incentives for these big businesses to hire locally. I would also increase incentives for people to shoot films, TV series commercials, music, videos, [and] music creation locally.”

Miles also called for greater accountability of tech companies and employees who have a lot of wealth and control, but haven’t used their resources to support the health, happiness, and safety of communities around them.

“Will [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos let go of his greed to create change? What are Bezos, [Bill] Gates, and the high earning folks do to not just change the way they work, but change the system and how that their wealth was created?” Miles said. “It’s one thing when an individual gives their money. When are they going to change the system so that non-profits no longer have to exist?”

Miles believes that supporting communities and combatting displacement and wealth inequity will ultimately benefit larger corporations because they can broaden their customer base and partners. It also pays to have your brand reflect the values of your end users. Take Beyoncé, who turned down a deal with Reebok because there were no people of color on the pitch team.

“You create more customers by making sure everyone has an income where they want to and can afford to purchase products,” Miles said. “By investing communities are definitely investing in more customer reliability [and] customer dedication. At some point, it will flip the power dynamic.”

As for the future of Seattle and its arts organizations, Miles believes that there needs to be more partnerships, collaboration, and community across organizations and sectors.

“We as sectors have to start working collectively together on everything, and it can’t just be about our fundraising potential, Miles said.

Miles believes that there are opportunities for non-profits and large corporations to learn from each other.

“Acknowledging that we do live in a capitalist society, how do we make a better social society? What is our civic duty as human beings?” Miles said. “What we can learn from them is how to position ourselves to be where they are. Acknowledging that we live in a capitalist society, how do people gain resources that they may not have access to or even knowledge of?”

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