Building a better future for the Southern LGBT community

By Karen Shih

North Carolina native James Miller, MBA/MPP’11, always knew he would return to his home state.

“When you’re younger and in the South and you’ve just come out, you don’t necessarily have the resources or connections that other groups, especially in urban areas, might have,” he says. He was determined to give other queer youth—and the larger LGBTQ population—a community through the public policy and nonprofit management skills he’d learned at Heller.

That’s what he’s built as the Executive Director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh over the last seven years. He took over the role immediately after graduating from Heller—a daunting task. His first thought when he was encouraged to apply was, “Nobody wants a 26-year-old director.” 

But the board placed its trust in him, and under his leadership, the center has grown to serve more than 30,000 constituents across the state and beyond. From creating one of the largest LGBT lending libraries in the South to funding a transgender initiative that offers emotional support and medical resource information, Miller has connected with every segment of the community. 

He’s particularly proud of the youth advisory board he helped form and the expansion of the ASPYRE self-advocacy camp that brings about 100 high school students together for a weekend each year.

“They’re leaders in their schools, creating youth-based presentations for adults on gender-neutral bathrooms and more,” he says. “It warms my heart to know that they’re learning the skill sets to fight for us.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, he’s also established a chapter of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders)—one of the first in the South—for older members of the queer community.

“There’s something sweet and humbling about a lot of that work,” he says.

Miller believes a major reason for his success with the LGBT Center is his Heller experience.  

“Heller stepped up with a way I could conduct my own education and research that was relevant to the queer rights movement and HIV policy,” he says. The MBA program, for example, gave him the ability to speak to return on investment and present funding pitches, while his thorough policy education has fueled the relationships he’s developed with key stakeholders throughout the state. “Leveraging the knowledge of how and why policy is created and maintained gives you a unique perspective for changing it in the future.”

MBA Program Director Carole Carlson was his “biggest champion,” he says, and encouraged him to be one of the first students to combine the two degrees.

“I’ll be honest: the dual MPP and MBA was extremely difficult but so rewarding, because I learned more than I ever thought I could have,” he says. “How can we fundamentally change policy using the capitalist system as it exists currently? That was super powerful for me.”