Leadership InSight: James Miles

In our Leadership InSight series, we ask arts education leaders to share advice and the experiences that have helped them become successful leaders. James Miles was recently appointed executive director of Arts Corps, a social justice-based organization in Seattle, WA. He is an educator and actor and previously was director of education at Urban Arts Partnership in New York City.


I come to this work as a teaching artist with a background as a professional actor. Like many in our field, when I wasn’t acting I turned to teaching and, eventually, I was turning down acting gigs to work in arts education. By 2013, I was working at Urban Arts Partnership (UAP) on a program called Fresh Prep, which trains K-12 teachers to use a hip-hop based curriculum, positioning youth culture at the center of student learning.

This year I had the honor of stepping into the role of executive director at Arts Corps, an organization that works to have a deep impact on the creativity and leadership of young people in our region, but also to reshape our education system to include the arts and a more youth-centered approach to education. There are a number of skills that have allowed me to get to where I am today as a leader and that will help me advance Arts Corps in the coming years. To start, my work has always been rooted in collaboration. UAP’s success was dependent on identifying and developing a variety of partners to support the work (New Victory Theater, Lincoln Center, Disney) and on finding forums through which to share our success (South by Southwest, Google). I’ve also had to maximize the impact of my programs and demonstrate results while working with a relatively small budget. As nonprofit arts funding continues to decrease and our political environment remains uncertain, the ability to build a dedicated, mission-driven, and highly adaptive team will be increasingly critical. Finally, I’ve had experience and training in addressing social justice issues and have an enduring commitment to supporting students of color—central to Arts Corps’ mission and my own core values.

Becoming Embedded in the Community
As the director of a justice-oriented organization, I see future leaders in arts education finding innovative ways to be embedded in the communities that they serve.

True embeddedness requires a leader that is 1) constantly engaged with community members; and 2) providing opportunities for his or her staff to be engaged in a similar way. This means being on the ground as a leader and expanding one’s view about where the arts can play a role. The director of a community arts education organization should understand his or her community’s needs around health and safety, immigration, juvenile justice, and other pressing issues, while also developing relationships with the community members that are involved in these efforts. On a basic level, this may require a director, and, often, staff members, who can communicate with local community members in their native language(s). We have a staff member who is studying Spanish and Arabic (and also happens to be a fantastic emcee). She is an incredible asset to Arts Corp’s effort to build authentic community relationships that meet parents and students where they’re at and help make arts learning part of their everyday lives.

The ability to engage youth leaders in a sincere way is also critical to the future of our field because youth voice and leadership will be what moves our communities forward. We recently had an event that featured a young student sharing her perspective on issues of immigration enforcement. As she was talking, she was breaking down the issue in ways that left everyone in the room stunned. This experience, among many others, reinforces my belief that young people will be the ones holding our feet to the fire and creating change on issues that matter to them. Leaders of arts organizations have to be ready to step aside and make space for young people to hold positions of power. In my view, that’s the only way to ensure that our organizations are not only embedded in the community today, but also for generations to come.

Building a Committed and Innovative Staff
The next generation of leaders will have to be adept at managing a staff that, increasingly, has different expectations about 1) the distribution of power within an arts nonprofit and 2) the funda¬mental mission of arts education. It’s clear to me that the only way to attract and retain talented staff now and in the future is to not think about it as “how can this person plug into our system?” but rather as “how can my organization provide a platform for this person to do what they do best?” This frame changes the accountability structure so that I am, as a leader, responsible for making sure my staff is valued, supported, and given the freedom to constantly try new things.

In terms of mission, I’m confident that, more and more, talented teaching artists and administrators will be drawn to organizations that look beyond just their art form to think about how students can become whole, thriving individuals. The next generation recognizes that we need to be developing holistic young people that are multifaceted and, above all else, inspired. Thinking about my own path as an artist, I was not successful as an actor because I was always the best in the room. I was successful because there was a passion and an energy in my work that the arts had helped cultivate—a passion for trying new things, learning from my mistakes, and creating new opportunities. Sparking that passion in young people, by any means necessary, should be central to all of our work in the coming years.

Published: July 05, 2017