Locked Up, then Homeless; Now He’s at the American Express Emerging Social Justice Leadership Academy

    Baltimore – Almost 10 years ago Joel Miller was fresh out of prison, living in his car, showering at the gym, jobless and needed money, when an old friend approached him with a tempting proposition that tested what little faith he could muster.

    “He had a robbery he wanted me to assist him with,” Miller said. “I went through all my thought processes and after thinking about it I told him no. He did it, he got caught and he got 20 years for it.”

    The next week, five days after his friend’s arrest, Miller received a call from the Virginia Department of Corrections for a job opportunity.

    “I always think that could have been me. When I say I can relate, I can relate,” Miller said. “I became the first person who was ever in Virginia as an inmate and came back as a state employee. They’re definitely more open to hiring more felons since me.”

    Miller went from living a reckless life to helping Baltimore youth make better decisions about their futures. He served six years in prison for armed robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery and use of a firearm to commit a felony. Today Miller serves as YAP’s Program Director of Baltimore’s Group Violence Reduction Strategy (GVRS). YAP was awarded a grant by the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE) to provide GVRS, which seeks to help reduce violence, decrease recidivism, and strengthen police and community relations.

    Miller said having lived a reckless life when he was younger strengthens his ability to help Baltimore youth make better decisions about their futures.

    Miller was chosen among one of 26 leaders selected to take part in the American Express 2021 Converge Social Justice Leadership Academy, which recognizes emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector. Participants will have access to training and support from the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of leadership development.

    Miller first came to YAP in 2019 as assistant director/program coordinator of the Credible Messenger Program in Washington, D.C. YAP is a national nonprofit that provides services to young people and families as alternatives to youth incarceration, out-of-home placements, and neighborhood violence. YAP is in 31 states and in the District of Columbia. YAP is also one of Baltimore’s Safe Streets nonprofit partners.

    Craig Jernigan, YAP’s Regional Director for Maryland and Washington, D.C., nominated Miller.

    “I nominated Joel to the Leadership Academy because he is a hard worker,” Jernigan said. “I recognized something in him that I see in so many young men who excel and do great once provided with that push and opportunity to make a difference.”

    In July, about the time he attended his first Leadership Academy virtual session, Miller was promoted to his new position. He said these successes marked a major turnaround. Life wasn’t always easy for Miller who was born in Georgia and moved to Virginia when he was 13. Miller served six years in the military before returning home and receiving the six year robbery sentence.

    “I was dibbling and dabbling in the streets, and I understand criminal logic and understand rationalizing,” Miller said. “Understanding the mindset of a person who is going to commit a crime definitely helps.  But most importantly, what definitely helps is that I made that change.”

    Miller said it’s important to have people who can talk the talk and walk the walk.

    “I enjoy helping people with shared life experiences,” Miller said. “It’s awesome to be able to be a position where I am meeting people who are in the position that I was in and be able to give them things that I didn’t have when I was in their position.”

    Miller is participating in the academy’s virtual sessions through mid-October. An in-person session in November has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

    “People respond to people they can relate to,” Miller added. “That’s why I love YAP. I worked for a lot of nonprofits and organizations. YAP is one of the few places that has the services that they say they have. Everything they advertise that they have and the help that they say they can give, they actually have it and to me that’s rare.”