Philly CEO: Power through racism; Don't let anyone deny your dream

Miles Wilson, president and chief executive of EducationWorks, with kindergarten kids in the after school program at Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School.

MILES WILSON:

  • HOME: Mount Airy, with wife Dana, daughter Mekhi, 13.
  • Diplomas: Parkway Northwest High School, Lincoln University, Arcadia, master's in educational leadership.
  • Previously: Leadership posts at the Philadelphia School Partnership, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the People's Emergency Center and Community Education Partners
  • By the way: Loves coffee, porter and of course, coffee porter. Meditates, practices yoga with his wife.
  • EDUCATIONWORKS
  • What: Philadelphia-based provider of after-school, school support services and summer camps in Philadelphia, Camden. Runs youth courts and workforce programs for youth violdence prevention and for teen parents.
  • Revenues: $8.5 million, mostly from government grants.
  • Employees: 275.
  • Big worry: Federal budget cuts to AmeriCorps funding, after-school programming.

Growing up, Miles Wilson, 43, remembers waking up at in the middle of night in the small rowhouse he shared with his single mother and two siblings.

“You'd hear something downstairs, come downstairs and you see your mom crying at the dining room table,” said Wilson, now chief executive of EducationWorks, a nonprofit provider of after-school services.

It’s a story he tells often. His mother -- smart and ambitious with dreams of being a lawyer -- was in one of the first classes in West Philadelphia High School that included African Americans.

There she learned that a smart girl like her would make an excellent bank teller, the lowest position in banking and an example of the limited horizons presented to many inner-city youth.

So, a bank teller Wilson’s mother became, working in a check-cashing place.

Until, Wilson said, “she woke up one day in her 40s, with three kids, by herself, and said, `I have been bamboozled. I deserve better. I’m going back to school.' So, I actually watched my mother, after years of not being in school, go back to college," powering through the struggle.

What lesson did you learn?

That encouraged me to persevere, to show strength and not be denied in certain ways. When you are living in the world we live in, that’s filled with institutional racism, classism, you have to be willing to power through.

Struggling to stay awake, weeping with fatigue sounds like powering through to me.

That’s one way. The other is not being denied. There are certain things you deserve and you have the right to. You’ll be surrounded by individuals who maybe don’t like you. You have to be willing to go through whatever you need to go through to attain that thing. When I went to Lincoln University, they taught us because of these conditions, you may have to be two or three times as good as whoever you’re competing against in this world. It empowered me to push through, to become better at a particular thing or skill set so you cannot be denied.

It’s an emotional effort as well, right? How do you keep from becoming so deeply resentful that you become crippled psychologically? 

It’s a mental toughness. You have to decide that’s what you want. You have to exercise all of that, all of that resiliency. As a human being, you face those things. One thing that I share with young people or with the staff, 'you will never hear me get on you for being angry or be disappointed.' 

The conversation has to be about how you manage those emotions, and then how you persevere and push through. If you get too caught up in the emotional side of this conversation, you’ll constantly be fighting that emotion. I’m not going to fight the emotion. I’m going to do something about it. Strategically, I will set a plan.

EducationWorks is a nonprofit that operates after-school programs in many of the city’s public schools.

The typical education experience for our kids has been greatly stripped down. What’s left now is high-stakes tests, reading and math. If you go to a super-resourced school or a private school, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. is not even a question. They don’t call it out-of-school time. They call it school. For my daughter, as an example, when 3 p.m. hits, there’s debate, there’s swimming, there’s water polo. Our belief is regardless of zip code, kids should have the same opportunities. To be honest, we just look to see what private schools and super-resourced schools are doing. We need to  bring those things here.

You do a lot of work in public schools and your daughter attends private school.

People, regardless of socioeconomic levels, always want to figure out what is the best placement for their children. Period. So when people start pointing fingers at where their kid should go, I take great exception to that. 

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.