“We are obliged to review and change our mission and our approach and we must recalibrate for a new era; our very existence depends on our ability to do this and do it very well,” LeMoyne-Owen President Dr. Andrea L. Miller told the Rotary Club in June 2016. (Photo: Daphe Thomas)

by Canisha Robertson

I am a senior at The LeMoyne-Owen College. This semester I am doing a journalism internship with The New Tri-State Defender. This takes on added significance this year as TSD devotes a segment of its coverage to MLK50, marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

TSD is viewing MLK50 through the lens of the 38126 ZIP code, including a conversation with LeMoyne-Owen president Dr. Andrea Miller. Memphis’ only HBCU is located within 38126 and the future of the college and of the ZIP code are interwoven, perhaps inextricably.

Canisha Robertson: Thank you for taking the time to interview with us. Where were you when the news broke of the passing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Dr.  Andrea Miller: I was at home as a matter of fact. I remember that my parents were watching … . It was just devastating, but I was at home.

C.R.: Where were you in your life journey when that happened? How old were you?

Dr. Miller: I was a kid. I was in elementary school. I understood how important he was, because he was on TV a lot and we got a chance to watch some of that ….

C.R.: What, if any, specific impact did that horrific and historic event have on your personal goals and aspirations?

Dr. Miller: Dr. King was such an inspiration to so many people, both black and white. He was particularly someone that we all admired, those of us who are from the African-American community. … It just made me, as a young girl, more determined to do something with my life. I grew up in a home where neither of my parents went to college. My mother didn’t finish high school but my father did. Being around during the civil rights movement, even though I was a young child, I was old enough to understand the importance of what Dr. King was doing, and because I understood the importance of what he did, it had a huge impact on my commitment to stick with whatever it is, or whatever it was that I wanted to do and go forward and forge a way with all the confidence that I could possibly have.

My parents always explained to my brother and me … what his role was and why he was in Memphis and why he was doing what he was doing. … To realize that he had been assassinated was devastating. But it sparked in me, as a young child, the determination to know that I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I would do it because I didn’t want all of his hard work and sacrifices to be in vain.

C.R.: The TSD is focusing on MLK50 through the lens of ZIP code 38126. When you were a student at LOC, were you aware of it being in 38126? If so, what was your sense/feel and/or understanding of the quality of life there at the time?

Dr. Miller: Now, when I was a student here I wasn’t aware that it was one of the poorest (Zip) codes. I’m not sure that it was when I was a student. … Since I’ve been back as president I’m fully aware that we have LeMoyne-Owen in one of the poorest neighborhoods, so it becomes very important for LeMoyne-Owen to be a beacon of hope for the community. And I think that we still have a ways to go in doing more with connecting with the community.

The community knows that we are here, but I don’t think that we have developed to the point where our outreach is what it should be. … In the two years that I’ve been here we’ve given a lot of thought and time to what do we need to do, not just for our students who are attending here, but what do we need to do for the community. We’re … (beginning) to work with the community leaders in this area to decide what is it that LeMoyne-Owen should be doing and can do to support the community and bring the community up.

We have to do that; it’s our responsibility. … I’m committed to that.

C.R.: How does LeMoyne interact with the community? How have you attempted as president to reach out to the community?

Dr. Miller: Rebecca Hutchinson has been a leader in this community. She is married to our Rev. Dr. Noel Hutchinson. … I’ve begun to reach out to her to have her submit to me things, issues, programming that the community might need. Take a survey and ask people, ‘What are your needs?’

… Now, the issue has been the staffing here at LeMoyne-Owen. Typically, colleges will have a person with a staff whose job it is just to do community outreach. So … we just created last year a community outreach person. … What we want to do is have some forums and have meetings, town hall meetings, and ask individuals in the community, ‘What is it that LeMoyne-Owen can do’ and provide for them.

C.R.: Do you see the connection between Dr. King’s assertion about the Promised Land and redirecting the way that 38126 is going?

Dr. Miller: Absolutely. It’s going to take all of us working together, understanding this huge vision that Dr. King had for minorities all over the country. … and so if, I think, we studied his dream and his convictions and what he talked about and truly understood it and brought it forth to apply to today, I think that we all would be a lot better off … So the fact that we have LeMoyne-Owen College right in the midst of 38126 and all the local churches that we have in the midst of 38126, why should there be so much poverty?

… I think in some instances the work that we were designed to do, to have students come in and get degrees and leave, sometimes that work is so much in terms of our capacity, that we are leaving behind our brothers and sisters who may not, right now, need to be enrolled in a college. But they need the support that the college could provide, in terms of other programs and activities that would be very helpful; the same thing with the church. I think that we could do a better job.

As an institution and as a people in this community we have Soulsville, we have Stax (Museum of American Soul Music) … we’re making an impact. But the impacts that we’re making are on the individuals that belong to, or are enrolled in, our various institutions. We are making an impact on the lives of the students here at LeMoyne. Soulsville is making an impact on the lives of the students, and the churches are making an impact on the lives of the people that they serve. But is it changing the community like it should? I don’t think so. … It’s our responsibility to figure out how we can change and make an impact on the community as Dr. King would expect us to do.

… There are a lot of good people in this community that are doing a lot of good things for 38126, but I just think we could probably do better.

C.R. To what degree does the college and/or you as the president address and/or nurture student activism?

Dr. Miller: … I encourage students to be active about what they believe in, but I don’t know that I’ve encouraged them specifically to be active with the injustices, the social injustices that are still very much present today, as they were almost during the civil rights era. I have not been an advocate of having our students to be involved in those causes, but we have faculty members and staff members who have.

We have a faculty member who has a center of urban leadership and social justice within his area … . We are having our students be involved in the MLK50 activities that we’re having on campus. We need to get to the point where this kind of activism isn’t just occurring during an MLK50 celebration, that this is the way of life for students here at LeMoyne-Owen College

C.R. So are you on course with your plan and timetable for the changes regarding the college?

Dr. Miller: Yes, we’re on course. We’re a little bit behind schedule. We’ve had to make some adjustments and push things back, and that’s because we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the resources. We don’t want to implement anything and not have the resources to see it through, so we have slowed down a little bit. When I first got here we had a destination 2021, and now it’s destination 2023.

C.R.: What are some of your challenges, setbacks, disappointments, surprises and positives?

Dr. Miller: The positive is that I know that being here is a blessing.  It’s a blessing to me. That’s a positive. I am always amazed at the talent that our students bring to this college and the talent that they take away when the graduate. … We have amazing students, have amazing faculty and amazing staff. The disappointment is we haven’t yet developed the appropriate strategy to get that message out to the community, and the region. People know that we’re here, they’ve heard of LeMoyne-Owen, but they don’t know about the work that we do.

We need to use more communications … we just need to do better with branding, marketing and communications.

… The challenge that I experience is that we’re in a time of change. Change is very difficult. We need to be a different kind of institution in order to remain and stay competitive, and so some of the changes that I would like to implement as part of the vision of the college is very difficult for some of the faculty and staff to embrace. I understand that, so that’s a challenge.

… The surprises … I shouldn’t be surprised but they’re (students are) so much smarter and so much brighter and so much intuitive and so much more mature than I think we ever were when I was in college, and the students that I taught ever were when they were in college. …

C.R. Did you have anything you wanted to add?

Dr. Miller: At the end of the day, we should be the leader in helping to develop 38126. I don’t think that we’ve taken our rightful place as a leader in helping to bring about a renaissance in the community. … Before LeMoyne-Owen can bring about a renaissance in the community, LeMoyne-Owen has to go through a renaissance itself.

We have to become stronger. We have to make sure our vision is clear. We have to build capacity, in terms of our organizational structure. We have to build capacity, in terms of our technology infrastructure. We have to build capacity, in terms of skills and making sure that our employees, both faculty and staff, have everything that they need to do an excellent job before we can impact the community. We’re going through stages now where we’re undergoing a renaissance. Then we’ll be in a better position to provide what we need to the community.