From poetry to police, Michelle Milam’s creative vision helps Richmond
on November 22, 2017
Michelle Milam spends her free time dreaming up superheroes. Her latest creation: Golden Earth.
Golden Earth has the power to change different kinds of matter. The character unknowingly inherited this gift from her mother, and with it she must protect her people from alien invaders.
“That’s the whole allure of a superhero story … even though these are almost demi-gods, they have some part of humanity that they reflect, that everybody can kind of relate to,” Milam said.
Golden Earth was likely inspired by Milam’s day job: She’s the crime prevention manager at the Richmond Police Department.
Her task is to reduce violence in her hometown. Milam brings a sense of relatability to the force, and she wants Richmond to know that police aren’t just the crew-cut, uniformed officers you see on the street. The police department also looks like Milam: There are creative types, complete with shimmery blue lipstick, who also fight for justice and what’s right.
But while she’s rocking that stunning shade on her lips and some killer black boots, Milam’s work on this particular night is anything but glamorous. “On paper, I’m a civil servant,” she says. In some ways, she is like her character, Golden Earth. It’s just that Milam’s role fighting crime is less screenplay-ready. It’s just her job.
And the part that makes her human — how she connects with the community — that’s Milam’s superpower.
An inspired career
In her ten years with the Richmond Police Department, Milam has made an impact with innovative crime prevention measures and community-police relations. Her efforts include new ways to address mental health issues and connect victims of violent crimes with healing circles and police chaplain services.
Of course, these novel approaches to law enforcement are not Milam’s doing alone. She’s insistent on bringing attention to the fact that she just oversees many of these efforts: It’s beat cops and other community organizations that bring them to fruition.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Milam’s decade-long tenure at the department didn’t precipitate the integration of community development, communication, and healing into Richmond’s law enforcement practices.
The city is changing, in some ways for the better. The violence that plagued Milam’s Richmond childhood is on the decline. And now, she is channeling the magic of Golden Earth: Milam shepherds in the future of law enforcement and the community with the power of her mind.
Milam says she “couldn’t imagine something more rewarding” than working in her hometown as a civil servant, first for then-Mayor Irma Anderson, and now with the police department. Still, she is driven by memories of Richmond’s darker side.
“I remember being at the BART station one time and seeing one of my classmates actually get shot,” Milam said. “There was a shooting at the BART station … and having to duck down and listening to bullets whizzing by.”
Usually, Milam is practiced. She’s not inauthentic, just poised, and it’s obvious she’s had a lot of experience speaking to crowds, press, and others in high-stakes situations. Her description of this incident is one of the rare moments where you might catch a little unmanaged emotion in her voice, a phrasing that isn’t in line with the UC Berkeley English lit grad’s normally precise oration.
But she pivots quickly to how violence in Richmond has inspired her career trajectory. “We became kind of immune to it in some ways,” she said.
“I was the kind of person where I was like, ‘Well, why is this happening? It shouldn’t be happening.’”
Politics, with a ‘little P’
In her youth, Milam read poetry at peace walks organized by a local group called Increase the Peace. She was later hired by the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership, a collaboration of local governments, nonprofits and leaders, which was founded in response to the high gun violence in Richmond in the summer of 1993.
But it was Milam’s background at the Corridor Partnership that taught her to build broad professional bridges to make effective policy. She used those community development skills in her next job as a field representative for then-Assemblymember Loni Hancock, according to Terri Waller, who served as Hancock’s district director.
Once Milam moved onto the Assembly, most of her work was representing Hancock in Richmond and the surrounding area. That catapulted her to her next position, as a staffer in the mayor’s office, her last political job before she came to the police department. There, Milam cultivated skills as a bridge-builder at City Hall, using her connections with Hancock’s office to connect policy makers at the municipal and state levels.
“It was a good way to strengthen the Assemblywoman’s partnership with the city of Richmond,” Waller said. “We were very happy that the Mayor recruited [Milam] to support the work she was doing to really look at violence prevention programs in her own city.”
Just as Golden Earth protects her planet, Milam brings community stakeholders together to fight crime in the streets. Milam sees violence in Richmond as something malleable that she can change, not fixed matter.
Those connections she made in Hancock’s office remain an asset. Today, Milam still works with Waller, now at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, to coordinate internships for students interested in law enforcement.
When Hancock’s office first recruited her, Milam was hesitant to leave the Corridor Partnership, she said. She had wanted since her adolescence to work for Richmond, making her hometown safer. Moving onto a position in the state Legislature felt like a move away from that.
But Henry Gardner, a former Oakland city manager and one of Milam’s mentors at the partnership, told her that she needed to take the job, even just part-time, as she initially did. That was when Milam learned the difference between politics “with a ‘big P’” and politics “with a ‘little P’”
“What I find is I can get more done with the ‘little P’ than I can with the ‘big P,’ because with the ‘big P,’ you get all the gridlock, you get the campaign stuff and all the stuff you have to do,” she said. “With the ‘little P,’ you can maneuver around a lot more, so I kind of like being able to have those connections but not necessarily have to have the seat.”
Now, politics with a “little P,” is just another power in her superhero’s arsenal.
According to Waller, it’s Milam’s ability to build those bridges, with policymakers, law enforcement and every other part of the community, that make her such an asset to Richmond police.
“She’s not what you would typically kind of expect in a local law enforcement agency except, she just happens to be the perfect person for all of those reasons,” Waller said.
Milam keeps a newspaper clipping in her office at police headquarters. The headline reads “Teen’s death brings casualties to 21,” and pictured is the face of a boy, who would have been a DeAnza High School sophomore that early ’90s fall. That weekend, the death toll crept to 26, Milam said, which is why she’s held onto the clipping. In Sharpie pen on the paper backing below it, she’s written the years: “1991*1992*1993.” Above the clipping, she’s written: “Never Forget.”
It’s hard to imagine that Milam would. She’s committed most of her life and career to preventing that from ever happening again. But she holds on to the clipping to remind her of the progress that’s been made since her days at the Corridor Partnership. It keeps her going.
“Any death we have in the city is one too many, but we’re not here anymore,” she said, while pointing to the headline.
“When look at this picture, I don’t feel bummed. I feel hopeful.”
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.