A collage of photos on top of a map of Alabama

Community organizer Sav Miles is working to facilitate collective action among local Christians in their hometown of Gadsden, Alabama.

Photos courtesy of Sav Miles and from iStock

Nation & World

Miles home

4 min read

“There’s so much potential in the young people not only in my hometown, but in little bitty towns and rural communities all over the country.”

For Sav Miles, A.B. ’18, Gadsden is home.

“This community showed me the world,” Miles says about the small Alabama city. “It took care of me. It showed me everything there is to love about life, from the food, to the people, to the music, to the beauty, the trails and rivers and mountains — all of it.”

After finishing high school in Gadsden, Miles left Alabama for Harvard College, but upon graduating faced a difficult choice. Like many young people, they struggled with the decision of whether to move back home, a place they loved, but which might not share the same views on equity, diversity, and justice.

Miles, who is gender non-conforming and queer, thought back on their Harvard College senior thesis, a model for bringing together diverse populations in places like Gadsden, and realized they knew the answer all along.

What their thesis found was unexpected and hopeful: People in small communities tended to welcome diversity. “Maybe they expressed some racial fears, like stereotypes,” Miles explained, “but in the same breath, they would tell me how ready they were for progress. … That showed me that there is hope and space for progress.”

That hope, combined with their love for the place where they grew up, was the deciding factor.

“No one is coming to rural Alabama to save our community,” Miles said. “We have to do it ourselves. That’s what brought me back.”

After returning, they spent months searching for a job, eventually earning a public service fellowship from the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) that funded their work with Hometown Action, a rural community organization focused on building multi-racial coalitions. Miles went on to work as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Gadsden and Etowah County, where they built community programming for local youth with a focus on helping them build positive relationships in the community. Miles also organizes with Gadsden’s Black Lives Matter chapter, Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY), and the Youth Council of Alabama Sustainable Agricultural Network (ASAN).

A group of people holding a sign that says "We are all human"

William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus, advised Miles’ thesis and research on bringing together racially divided communities, which Miles is actively exploring, including in 2019, when they organized a group to travel to the nearby town of Carbon Hill to demand an anti-LGBTQ community leader step down.

Photos courtesy of Sav Miles

Recently, they got an opportunity to test the findings from their senior thesis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Miles $100,000 to provide education and training for diverse faith communities, in an effort to help bridge racial divides that have existed for decades. The grant works towards the goal of promoting collective action among local Christians and making small towns more inclusive for all people.

“This project is working to reclaim Christianity for a progressive generation, for a generation that cares about equity and justice and acting collectively to achieve those true Christian values in our communities. We can’t do that without one another, without white and Black and young and old working together,” Miles says about the work.

The work focuses on churches because of their long standing role as pillars of communities across Alabama. If a true change in racial attitudes and acceptance takes place, Miles believes that it would begin in houses of worship across Etowah County. By helping those communities of faith see their interdependence, Miles hopes their city can come together under the common goal of overcoming poverty and racial divides.

“[This] is critical work we — particularly the privileged elders in our faith communities and white people in our larger society — must do before coming together, to avoid replicating the violence that has turned so many away from the Christian faith and the rural South.”

Miles hopes that Gadsden can serve as a template that other communities across the South can use to create more inclusive communities where people can live and thrive for generations to come.

“It’s all about supporting young people. It is breaking a cycle where young folks have to move elsewhere or leave to live a good life,” says Miles. “Imagine what change they could create if they felt like they could come back. … That’s the goal of [this work] — allowing our young folks to grow into themselves and all of the talent and skill and power that comes with it.”

This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.