Miranda Millard: Laughter and Mortar

"I just think that there could be a way where we can revitalize the community and revitalize the people in the community, too."

"I just think that there could be a way where we can revitalize the community and revitalize the people in the community, too."

It's a typical afternoon at Union Hall: Creatives are bent over laptops in this corner and that. We're sitting in the kitchen on the second floor and occasionally someone will traipse down one of the mismatched staircases, wondering if the rain has let up. Miranda Millard pushes aside a stack of notebooks and we start chatting. It doesn't take long for her big laugh to fill the room, and we know we're in for a fun one.

Interview by Kiersten Wones. Photography by Jess Summers.


Tell us about yourself.

My name is Miranda Millard. I’m a Pisces. I’m 34 years old. I’m a mother to two children: I have a 13-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old little boy, and I’m raising them on my own, so that’s beautiful and fun and challenging, and all of it is life, right? Life is like this ambiguity of everything.

I’m a development associate for a nonprofit organization called Mortar, and we do entrepreneurship training and development for under-resourced, under-served entrepreneurs. We really look at how you have equitable community redevelopment, because, as you see, Over-the-Rhine, and now areas like Walnut Hills, and I think soon the West End, are redeveloping. You see gentrification happening and our thought process is that there are great business ideas already in those communities from people that already exist in those communities. Not that we’re opposed to gentrification, but I think thoughtful and intentional and inclusive gentrification is really important, so that’s why we do what we do.

How did you get involved with Mortar?

Previous to working at Mortar, I did case management for Beech Acres Parenting Center and we had a contract with Job and Family Services where people who had had their children removed for some reason, or were in jeopardy of having their children removed, would come through our programming to get parent education. It’s really noble work, and I found a lot of value in it, but I just realized it wasn’t the way I wanted to serve.

I’ll say like an addendum to that – I’m so cliché in that all I’ve ever wanted to do is make the world a better place. And I just realized that wasn’t the way to do it for me, and I quit my job. I had money in my savings account, and my family was like what are you doing? I’m like, “I don’t know. I just felt like that was what I was supposed to do, and I trust something’ll work itself out.”

A good friend of mine said, “There’s this conference coming up.” He’s like, “You’re gonna get inspired; you’re gonna rejuvenate that piece of yourself that you felt like was missing, and then you’re gonna meet great people and build your network and find your next job.”

It was called the Neighborhood Economics Conference. It was all about, “How do we change economic opportunity in neighborhoods for people?” so Mortar was like a perfect fit for them. Derrick, our managing director, had done a keynote, and I was really inspired. They were walking past and I said, “I’ve gotta introduce myself to these people,” so I’m like, “HEY! I’m Miranda. You don’t know me, but you should!” And so I was just sharing a little bit about my story: “I’m really inspired by what you all are doing, and I don’t know if there’s any opportunity for me, but I’d love to get involved.” And Allen, one of the other co-founders, is like, “Well, you could volunteer.”

So I started volunteering with them part-time, and that was in December [2015]. Come January, they’re like, “We want to pay you to do this,” and I was like, “Yes!” [Laughing.] “You can pay me to do this! That sounds awesome.” So I got hired on, just part-time at first, and then kind of kept advocating, you know, “I need to work,” and the rest is kinda history.

I’ve seen that thread in so many of the women we’ve spoken with lately. You weren’t content and you just leapt. Do you think it’s important to follow your gut? What would you say to someone who’s on the edge of a decision like that?

Yeah. Well. I don’t advocate for just quitting your job. I think ideally you have another job lined up. Sometimes ideal is not the way the world works. I think for myself, my personal faith has allowed me to leap in a lot of situations. Being in faith allows me to trust where I’m at, even when it’s not pretty or I don’t understand it or it’s difficult. I’ve always gotten through things.

So I would just encourage people to be able to trust themselves, too. It’s about trusting you and knowing that you have the potential and the resources to create what you want to create for yourself. And that’s easier said than done. I mean, I’m still a fallible human being, right? I don’t have all of this worked out. Like you say, “Life is a beautiful mess.” There you go; here I am.

"Happiness is not like this 'over here' thing. I think we get so, 'Oh, I’ll be happy when… I’ll be happy when…' But happiness is really right now."

"Happiness is not like this 'over here' thing. I think we get so, 'Oh, I’ll be happy when… I’ll be happy when…' But happiness is really right now."

I don’t know those greater answers and mysteries of life, but we’re here now, so we might as well find joy in whatever it is we’re doing. Happiness is not like this “over here” thing. I think we get so, “Oh, I’ll be happy when… I’ll be happy when…” But happiness is really right now.

I think self-love is really important for people. I think people that can do those types of things are grounded. It’s rooted in something you know, and for me, it’s self-love and self-awareness. I don’t know; I just happen to be that kind of person. I’m just not gonna do something that I don’t wanna do, that doesn’t bring me joy. [Laughs.]

Tell us a little bit more about Mortar.

The bare bones of it is we have the 12-week entrepreneurship training and development program. We do that in four different neighborhoods [Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, the West End, and Uptown] right now, and we’re intentional about having it be in communities that are redeveloping or that are on the verge of redeveloping.

After the 12-week course we do a pitch night and a graduation. We typically get 200, 250 people that’ll come. They’re amazing. We say “our eyes sweat” in the office ’cause you get all emotional.

After that, they’re launched into our alumni program. We have a staff person that’s entirely dedicated to helping them with continued resource coordination, business development, ad hoc learning opportunities that we can provide for them. We’ve done financial literacy training classes. We had a master storyteller who contacted us to do a free class.

We want to continue to enrich the entrepreneur. I think that’s what is different about us. There’s different accelerators and incubators but for us, one, the demographic of people that we serve, but two, the sense of building community is really, really important to us, so it’s not like, “All right, you did your 12 weeks. Good luck. See ya later!” No, you’re the family of Mortar now. When you think about entrepreneurship, typically your friends and family is who supports you. Well, if you don’t have a great support network, who do you have? That’s our whole goal, is to become the friends and family of the entrepreneurs that we serve.

Can you share a few specific success stories?

We had an entrepreneur and when she came to us, she was homeless. Now she’s in the pop-up shop downtown and she’s getting ready to launch her juices.

Another of our graduates, he was incarcerated for drug trafficking, and while he was in jail there’d be times his kids wouldn’t have bookbags or couldn’t get new shoes. They didn’t have the resources that they needed, so while he was incarcerated he’s like, “I wanna turn over a new leaf.” So he got out, and he said his grandma would always tell him just pray until something happens. Pray Until Something Happens, which is P.U.S.H. – he started a clothing line and originally just the proceeds were gonna go to families of children that had incarcerated parents, but he ended up doing a nonprofit, also, to serve children whose parents are incarcerated.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

My original title was Chaos Coordinator, and that was, oh my gosh, so real. Chaos coordination. I was their first hire, and at the time, it was only Allen and Derrick. So it was the three of us doing everything. Then I got wind of a program called New Faces of Fundraising. It’s a program through the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the whole aim of it is to diversify fundraisers in Cincinnati. It was like a fast-track Fundraising 101, and that led me on a trajectory to work in development.

At the time, we didn’t think about development. Derrick has always been out there, I mean, his hustle is to spread the word and get Mortar money and get partnerships, but I don’t think we had ever had it be this intentional thing. And slowly but surely I just found a love for development. I think for me, getting to share your passion about an organization, that’s what fundraising is. You’re telling people why you love an organization and why they should feel compelled to give, and so that was something came very easily because I believe in what we do so much.

What I do every day is just thinking about all the different ways that Mortar can bring in money. So development is very multi-pronged: There’s grants. There’s thinking through giving strategy. Last year, we launched a campaign which is called 100 for 100. It was an individual giving campaign where we raised money for what’s called the Iron Chest Fund. When we look at our entrepreneurs, access to capital is one of the things that’s a constant barrier. Especially when you’re under-resourced, you’re low-income, you’re a minority, you may not have good credit, you’re not gonna get a bank loan. But if we have a fund for them, we can determine the underwriting, we can determine who gets the loans, how the loans are dispersed. We raised over $100,000 on the campaign in December.

Then it’s like, once you get donors, how do you keep them engaged? It’s not just about their money, you know, it’s about their support in other ways, whether it’s mentorship or other connections they have in the community. It’s really making sure it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, ’cause it’s important when you have people giving money to your organization that they feel like they’re not just giving you money. It’s not just a transactional thing, it’s a relational thing. It’s thinking about, “How do we make sure that we’re here for a really long time?”

You seem fearless. How do you think you've come to be the person you are today?

I think my life could be this beautiful patchwork quilt or something like that. I mean, whose journey is straight and linear? No one’s. So I mean, I’ve gone through incredible hardship. I was in an abusive relationship. I’ve had someone beat me down to a point that I had no self-love and no self-respect and no self-esteem, and you know, I thank God that I had family and friends that cared about me that were like, “Oh hell no, we’re not letting this happen.”

I’ve just been through so much. My mom used to laugh at me. She’s like, “You like the school of hard knocks,” and I guess it’s kind of always been true. You know growing up that you don’t stick your tongue to a frozen pole, right? ’Cause it gets stuck… No, I have to find out for myself. So I stick my tongue and it gets frozen, of course, ’cause that’s what happens, and I rip it off and it’s bleeding and I can’t eat for two days. I have really been a learn-by-experience kind of person, so some of it is that, honestly, just doing dumb stuff and making bad decisions and learning.

I feel like I know what rock bottom is, I know, and I’m still here. I’m still surviving. I’m alive and I’m happy and I still have hope. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to just bounce back again and again and I think it’s made things like fear not so scary. I do get scared, but I think I’m able to push through the fear, you know? It doesn’t stop me. I just say, “Oh, I’m afraid. Let’s go!” [Laughing.] “Here we go. I’m terrified!” It’s just kind of always been that way for me.

You mentioned gentrification earlier and how it can be good and it can be bad. It’s such a loaded word. Can you talk more about that balance here in Cincinnati?

Well, I think a lot of times, development is good, right? It’s good to have buildings and streets restored and beautified and to take a city that was maybe once in disarray and have it be thriving. I’ll just speak for me, but those communities have people that live in them, and a lot of times what happens when you look at gentrification is the people that historically lived in those communities are uprooted, and they may have been there for generations. I just think that there could be a way where we can revitalize the community and revitalize the people in the community, too. I mean, Over-the-Rhine is beautiful, but a lot of people almost call it Disneyland ’cause it’s just so curated. I mean, I love The Eagle – I have to be careful what I say here [laughing] – but there may be someone that cooks better fried chicken that’s lived on 14th street their whole lives, and did he or she have the opportunity to pursue and build a business?

I think we’re seeing it in Walnut Hills right now. You know, people don’t want to be displaced. It’s their home. I’m for making places better; I just think it should be inclusive and it should be equitable and it should be diverse. A community like Walnut Hills, historically it was a black business community, and so as they are in the beginning stages of redeveloping that community – I think we’re still 5, 10 years away where it’ll look like Over-the-Rhine, and it may, but hopefully it’s more diverse. There are a lot of people of African descent there, and the idea of Mortar is that there probably are some that have business ideas, but they may not have the same access to capital. I don’t know the answers. The only answer we have is Mortar, which is like, “Hey, we’re gonna support these entrepreneurs.”

You were a founding member of Elementz youth hip-hop center. Tell us about the beginnings of that movement.

So I’m a beat girl. I’m a break dancer and I love hip-hop and hip-hop culture. And when I say “hip-hop culture” I don’t mean like money, hoes, and clothes, but that’s what you hear on the radio. My boyfriend at the time and I, we were bubbling with all these ideas, and there was a store called True Blue. It was on the corner of Short Vine. It was probably one of the first urban lifestyle apparel shops in Cincinnati and it was run by this woman named Tammy. She was this wonderful supporter and just a beautiful spirit, and she called us in and she said, “There’s these people here and they’re talking about doing this idea and you guys should meet with them.” So somehow we got connected to a guy named Gavin Leonard. He was telling us, “We’re thinking about doing this hip-hop youth arts center,” and of course Jason and I were like, “Oh my gosh! We’ve been talking about doing this!” It was just one of those things, like I don’t know if you have defining things that happen in your life, but that forever changed my trajectory.

"I do get scared, but I think I’m able to push through the fear, you know? It doesn’t stop me. I just say, 'Oh, I’m afraid. Let’s go!'”

"I do get scared, but I think I’m able to push through the fear, you know? It doesn’t stop me. I just say, 'Oh, I’m afraid. Let’s go!'”

A couple weeks later the first meeting happened and there were like 35 of us in this studio apartment – we couldn’t even fit in it. It was neat because it was just all these people that loved hip-hop. It brought together a lot of different people that would not probably have ever come together, which is what I think is really cool about hip-hop: It’s interracial and intergenerational. It’s for everybody.

I’m not really involved anymore, but Elementz is still doing really awesome stuff. They have break dancing classes, hip-hop choreography classes, DJ lessons. They have people that come in and do graffiti workshops. They have a music production studio. It’s just all the elements of what hip-hop is. People took hip-hop and abused it in many different ways, and a lot of the stuff we hear on the radio nowadays isn’t powerful or empowering, but a lot of what came out of like the late ’70s was very much about empowering black and brown people. It was a really special time.

I’d love to hear you really rant about this sometime. Do you still break dance?

I tell people I’m retired. But in the beat-boy, beat-girl culture, it’s kinda like once a beat girl, always a beat girl, so I do get that respect. I was just in Puerto Rico for this event called Puerto Rock Steady and yeah, I don’t know if I hit the ground. I definitely still toprock – when you dance up top it’s called toprock. You go to these jams, and it’s just good vibes. People just love you. Everybody just loves each other.

My son, he’s showing some budding promise as a little b-boy, so I have a ballerina and a b-boy. I may have to just up my ante ’cause he has so much potential, and I could not imagine sending him somewhere to take b-boy lessons when I could just teach him myself. Wouldn’t that be so cute if we were like the mom-son crew? We’d go out and like, battle.

And your daughter – tell us about those teenage years.

You know, she has a really good head on her shoulders. Sometimes I’m like, “Really? She came from me? ’Cause I probably would’ve not made that good decision,” but maybe that’s why, ’cause I’m like “You gotta make good decisions!”

I feel like I have found a lot of beauty in being real with them. I mean, I lose my temper. I’m not perfect. But I think teaching them to apologize like, “Hey, I’m sorry.” You’re teaching them that they can make mistakes. You’re teaching them the humility to apologize. And then you’re teaching them that you can make choices next time, too.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

My mom was a single mom, and she raised me and my brother, and there were just things that I always respected about her growing up. One thing that’s really stuck with me, and I’ve chosen to do this myself with my children, is she didn’t bring around men all the time. If she was in a relationship, it was because she was in a committed relationship.

She’s certainly always believed in me, you know, even when maybe I didn’t believe in myself. Even to this day, I mean I think I’ve done a lot of great stuff and have a lot great stuff still to do, but sometimes I do feel bad, like, “Oh, well I could be here if I wouldn’t have done this.” I beat myself up about stuff and she’s always like, “No. I’m proud of you.” And for me, that means a lot to hear that from my mom.