Thaddeus Miles is the soul of an organization you might not suspect of possessing one.
By title, he is director of public safety for MassHousing, a state agency that finances affordable housing programs. His true vocation, however, is serving as a mentor, advocate, and fund-raiser for many of the neediest young people in the state, especially in Boston.
Though his name might not be familiar to you, Miles is one of the most engaged activists in the city. He has organized summer camps, winter camps, after-school programs, and internships for kids. Through a partnership with SpeakEasy Stage, he has arranged for 2,000 kids to go to plays. He has rented buses so residents could watch star athletes from their neighborhoods compete in college sports. He has organized program after program. And he has done all this with little fanfare, within an agency that would be expected to take on none of this.
“All MassHousing was doing was locking folks up,” he said of his early days in the agency. “I realized I needed to have a bigger vision of what the residents wanted and what kind of change they wanted to see in their communities.”
Miles spends as little time in his lovely downtown office as possible. His work is mostly conducted in housing developments like Canfield Gardens, the former Bromley-Heath, and Academy Homes. Their residents are his constituency, and he spends as much time with them as he can manage.
His many fans include the folks at Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, which presented him an award last week for his service to the city’s children.
Miles, 53, has transformed what was originally meant to be a traditional public safety job. In the 1990s, as gang violence was exploding, he began supervising security officers in federally owned public housing developments. That led him to MassHousing in 1995, supervising its police force. But he was never much interested in the enforcement part of law enforcement. He viewed the developments as communities to be embraced rather than policed.
“I don’t believe in just doing suppression techniques,” Miles said. “I went out and listened to residents, and asked them what they wanted. They wanted opportunities for their young people. They wanted opportunities to be safe. They didn’t want to just lock up everybody that looks like them because everybody that looks like them is not bad.”
Miles speaks with the leisurely cadence of his native Virginia Beach, Va. He came to Massachusetts as a member of the US Air Force, stationed at Fort Devens. After his discharge in 1985, he decided to stay in Massachusetts. He landed a job at Wackenhut before moving on to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. That work led him to MassHousing, at a time when many of the properties it owned were beset with crime.
Like Miles, the officers who work under him have circumscribed police authority. They carry weapons but can only make arrests within the development they are policing. They are primarily an adjunct to local law enforcement agencies. Miles says he stopped carrying his weapon years ago, seeing no need for it.
Miles’s biggest admirers are people in the trenches. People like Jackie Cummings-Furtado, who has worked on projects with him for 20 years, many of them during her time as a tenant coordinator at Bromley-Heath (which was renamed last week for longtime resident/activist Mildred Hailey).
“He’s done a lot of amazing and wonderful things,” Cummings-Furtado said. “Probably 75 percent of the things we’ve done we wouldn’t have been able to do without the assistance of Thaddeus and people like him — and there are only one or two people like him.”
Miles’s true passion is teaching young people that they can alter their environment. “They become their own leaders,” he says. “They’re doing for their community and working hard for their community every day to effect significant change.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.