I first wrote about Michael Miller in 2006. At that time he was raising money to buy back-to-school supplies for children in Charleston County's Title 1 schools. These are the poorest schools in the district, the schools where at least 50 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunches.
With his West Ashley barbershop as his headquarters and his employees as his staff, Miller has raised thousands of dollars over the years in his annual campaign to aid Charleston County's most needy students. He has mentored students in Charleston County Schools, provided coaching and counseling to help them prepare for job interviews, and allowed interested students to "shadow" him and the other barbers and stylists in his shop.
"With some help and support, some of these kids will go to college," Miller told me four years ago. "But they don't have any role models. Nobody in their families has ever been to college before. They will be the first ones, and we want to show them how to get ready. And for those who can't go to college, there are other possibilities. You know, everybody needs a haircut."
Miller grew up in Goose Creek 20 years ago. As a black kid in the Lowcountry, he was fortunate, and he knew it. He came from an intact middle-class family where rules were enforced and expectations were high. But he saw enough of the world to understand what is wrong with so many of Charleston's young people today.
"You know what those kids need more than anything?" he said in 2006. "They want to have a caring adult in their life. They want to have someone to tell them when they've done something right or to tell them when they've done something wrong. They just want somebody who cares."
Today, Miller is as involved as ever in boosting public schools. He has worked with Charleston Youth Leadership Council and the North Charleston High School Improvement Council, and he serves as a business partner to several schools, helping to identify what they need — such as computers and media supplies — and finding ways to obtain them. And at the heart of his efforts lies his annual back-to-school fundraising campaign, which he runs out of his barbershop, Michael & Co.
But there has been an important change in his life since I wrote that column four years ago. He and wife Cassandra have a 2-year-old daughter, Michael Kamielle. What was once a civic exercise for Miller is now personal and immediate. He wants better schools for Charleston County, and he wants them now. That's why he is running for Charleston County School Board, representing West Ashley, James Island, and Johns Island.
Today his barbershop is busier than ever, serving as headquarters for Miller's school board campaign. On a typical day friends and patrons drop in to pick up their yard signs, talk sports and politics, and exchange news and gossip. (Didn't they make a movie about this awhile back?)
Miller's opponent is Mary Ann Taylor, a retired school teacher from North Carolina. Not surprisingly, Taylor is touting her background in education. Just as predictably, Miller finds her background narrow and lacking.
"She is an insider," Miller told me recently as he trimmed my hair. "As a teacher, she sees things from an insider's point of view. But I am not part of that education establishment. I am a parent. I am a volunteer and a mentor in the schools. I have worked with other school business partners. I come at the problems from different points of view, but she can only see things as a teacher."
Miller says his barbershop gives him a street-level view of his community that his opponent does not have. "I serve the community through my business. I see what the community needs are. I meet everyone, from the unemployed to the surgeon."
I have my own problems with Taylor. I wonder if she has what it takes to represent an ethnically diverse constituency. As president of the Charleston County Republican Women's Club, she was co-chair of a recent event in which state Sen. Glenn McConnell showed up in a Confederate uniform, grinning from ear to ear beside a black couple who appeared to be dressed as slaves. In the internet firestorm that ensued, Taylor might have demonstrated a little regret or humility, but she dug in her heels and denounced the criticism as "a big, old nasty slam."
That does not sound like a unifying, conciliatory voice to me. After years of partisan stress and rancor, Charleston County School Board could use the mellow voice of Michael Miller.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.