Metric Giles: ‘I try to be for something instead of against something’
Here’s a Q&A with St. Paul community activist Metric Giles, who I interviewed recently for the TC Daily Planet.
MN VOICES | Metric Giles: “I try to be for something instead of against something”
BY ANNA PRATT, TC DAILY PLANET
December 30, 2009
St. Paul resident Metric Giles, 55, knew at a young age what it meant to be a Giles. “In Chicago,” where his family is from originally, “being a Giles carries weight,” he said, adding that they’re a proud clan, passing on lessons about responsibility, accountability and self-sufficiency. Those values underlie his community service: “I try to be for something instead of against something,” said Giles.
Giles, who has a day job as a lime plant operator at the St. Paul water treatment plant, also works part-time as a policy organizer at the Community Stabilization Project (CSP), which advocates for renters. Beyond that, he spends much of his time organizing around a variety of civic issues ranging from restorative justice to raised bed gardening. Recently he talked to the TC Daily Planet about what triggered his activism, the lessons he’s learned along the way and his vision for the future.
Tell me about your community involvement? How did it all start?
I’m a policy organizer with the Community Stabilization Project (CSP) in St. Paul, which deals with housing issues, with a specific focus on rent and tenants’ rights. It’s a “full-time” part-time job. When I was in college, I did an internship with the St. Paul Tenants Union. That’s where I got my start in nonprofits. At the same time I began volunteering in the schools because my children were in school, which gave me insight into the educational system. Later I became employed by the tenants union, which led to volunteering with the District 8 Planning Council. It moved me into the whole thing of activism and politics. I started thinking there must be something else I can do, other than just bringing people together when something bad happens. When I got into community gardening, sometime in 1990, it gave me another perspective that was beyond community politics, connected me to the land and increased my networking, which was rewarding. At the Oxford Dayton Community Garden, on the corner of Oxford and Dayton [in St. Paul], I don’t have a title, but I’m known as a facilitator. I work with Afro Eco, a group that focuses on connecting African Americans to the land. I’m also a board member of Jordan Park School, the Saint Paul Almanac, and Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation.
How does gardening relate to community organizing?
When the Oxford Dayton farm got started, I made a point of saying that we’re growing food and growing relationships. It could be seen in the whole design of the garden, with three-foot pathways that helped shape the plots, which are 10 feet by 10 feet. They could’ve been bigger, but we needed enough space to grow relationships. If I had my choice, I would just be an urban farmer. That’s where my passion is. The farming has made so many different inroads and connection. It has brought me all over, from California to the White Earth native communities. I have never thought of myself as an artist, but with flowers and vegetables I’m able to create art.
You’ve got a lot going on. What is your motivation? Do you have some sort of mantra or guiding principle?
I surf PBS quite a bit. I see Michael Pollan on there, talking about living with the Incas. Potatoes were the main crop, but they had 10 different species so if a plague came in, it didn’t hit all of them. He compared that to Ireland, where there was only one kind of potato when the plague hit it [during the potato famine]. The whole system was devastated. Well, that’s just like what we’ve been going through in the U.S. with the economy. There hasn’t been enough of an equitable balance. Classism doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you take care of each class. You have to have a balance so everything isn’t impacted by what happens on top. No matter what level you’re at economically, it shouldn’t have a bearing on your quality of life. That’s the injustice of America, with capitalism. Even if you’re on the low end of the pay scale, you should still have the health and education that a rich man has. That’s what drives me.
I have a visionary perspective. I see the whole picture for what needs to be done in different areas. If you’re working on housing, you’re working on light rail. You have to see them as interconnected systems. Transportation and housing are two of the highest expenses, with a huge impact on people of color and those who are economically marginalized.
The question is how do you bring people together? So much of organizing is against things. If you’re against something, you’re not growing something. You’re left with a void. I try to be for something instead of against something. I’m trying to align myself for positive outcomes.
For example, right now I’m working with others on a community benefits agreement (CBA) for the light rail. Last year we pulled people together to talk about what they wanted from the light rail. I said the community needed to have its own comprehensive statement about what it wanted the light rail to be from a grassroots perspective.
Describe your upbringing. How did moving from Chicago, Ill., to Mason City, Iowa, to St. Paul, Minnesota make a difference?
I learned the value of being a Giles before I knew what it meant to be an African American. We’re a proud clan of people. In Chicago, being a Giles carries weight. It means having self-respect and being responsible for your actions. It’s not about doing things because someone made you do it, but doing the most appropriate thing because that’s the way it is. Your word is the only thing you have. My mother and father taught me values of life, accountability, being sensitive to the environment and people.
Family was the most important thing. My father was a minister. I came up in a system of religion. Because it was shaped by the actions of people, I became disengaged with it. I took a trip to California with a certain purpose in mind and without necessarily understanding, ended up coming into connection with spirituality. Because of the backdrop of religion that I had, I was able to relate to the idea of a god force. The ultimate power could allow you to do anything. All of us [in the family] have a ministry. I’m like a minister of the land.
If I hadn’t lived in Chicago first, I don’t know what kind of person I would be. It’s a scary thought. I don’t remember having European Americans in my life in my early years, except on TV. Mason City was a total 360, with nothing but Europeans. It involved conscious assimilation. I had to overcome assimilation to be who I am, with the understanding that the culture of African Americans came from Africa, not slaves. Africans came here and became enslaved, but they were kings, queens and inventors.
Considering all of your community involvement, any plans to run for office?
I don’t want to run for office. Everything I’ve done has led me to what I am now. I only want to be accountable to my self and God. I’m a private person. If people never knew who I was but knew what I did, I would be OK with that, and that the legacy of something I did five years ago, for instance, is still happening. I look at it from a universal place. I can’t do everything. I have nine children. I can’t always be there for them, but if I put energy into the universe, hopefully it will come back to them.