Alumni Profiles Series: Micah Gilmer
Micah Gilmer received his B.A. in African American Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill and his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Duke. After graduating with his doctorate in 2009, he served as Adjunct Assistant Professor of the Practice in Public Policy at UNC. He is currently a Senior Partner at Frontline Solutions, which he co-founded, as well as interim CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.
Tell me about your current positions. What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is juggling between my two current roles as Senior Partner at Frontline Solutions and as interim CEO at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.
My role at Frontline has evolved over the last fifteen years. I began with Frontline as one of the co-founders and I now mostly focus my time on supporting our team and facilitating the work that we do as an organization. This work is primarily partnering with nonprofit organizations and foundations who have a strong mission focus on deepening their commitments and outcomes around equity, specifically in understanding how both race and gender impact societies, systems, organizations, and places. Frontline Solutions spans three different categories of work: helping organizations in their strategic planning, implantation and innovation, and then evaluation and learning with regards to impact.
The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a foundation that works on moving people and places out of poverty by supporting communities that traditionally have been shut out of power. We have a focus on racial equity and power-building, and fund organizations throughout the Southeast and Appalachia. I took on the role of interim CEO in March (2021) after serving on their board. I lead an incredible management team as we try to facilitate the racial equity transformation the organization has been undergoing for the last few years. We also help build an internal culture where staff are able to collaborate with each other more effectively.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current work?
I gravitate towards work that focuses on creating new systems, processes, and cultures that are aligned with values around equity. This country was founded and built upon systems that were designed to foster inequality between folks of different gender expressions and between different racial groups. These things are deeply ingrained and embedded in every system and organization. I am especially interested in how individuals change beliefs and understandings around issues of equity. At the organizational level I want to improve how we relate to each other so as to better collaborate and achieve our best thinking.
One thing I appreciate is the way that we can have honest and vulnerable conversations where folks can admit where they’ve missed the mark or where they’re learning in order to not repeat the same mistakes over time. In the academic context there is a tendency to want to have all the right answers and a deep shame in those moments when you do not, so I really enjoy the openness of this work.
What led you to pursue work outside academia?
In some ways, I was lucky and stumbled into doing this work at a pivotal time in my time as a graduate student. Marcus Littles, the founder of Frontline Solutions, and I have been friends for a long time, and when he began this journey there were a couple of projects that were right up my alley. I really enjoyed the work and was using the same set of skills I had honed as a graduate student, but the projects had a pretty immediate impact in terms of tangible, visible change. One reason I was so open and invested was because, as an undergraduate student at UNC, I had had the opportunity of learning from incredible Black scholars doing important work that I cared deeply about and brought into my graduate studies.
What was your research focus for your Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, and how did your graduate education prepare you for your current roles?
I came into the department doing work on South African hip-hop but then switched topics to look at Black masculinity here in the United States. I worked with a group of high school football coaches to learn how they were teaching Blackness and masculinity to the kids in their program.
That experience helped cement many of the hard and soft skills I still use today. For example, the huge volume of information you consume as a graduate student and learning how to sort and consume data efficiently and effectively continues to be really important in my current work. You don’t need to be an expert but conversant in a body of literature or a debate or conversation. When we’re working with an organization and trying to determine the best way to support them, I think about our plan as a process that contains learning objectives (i.e., what are the things that we need to learn and to know to be able to be helpful). This sort of thinking came out of my graduate education.
What advice do you have for graduate students in the social sciences or humanities who are considering a career outside academia?
If possible, try to gain some experience working or collaborating outside academia even while you are still a graduate student. So much of success is about using the relationships you already have to connect with the kind of sectors you are interested in. Try to do a small research project with an organization you’re interested in. It’s also useful to learn how to write for different audiences, including public ones. If you want to be doing the kind of work that I do, you really have to find your way in through relationships. Finding conferences—especially non-academic ones, or conferences with both academic and non-academic components—that focus on the issue or sector you are interested in can help expand your relational network. Once you complete a Ph.D. you have such deep knowledge about a subject—well beyond what is typically needed in most sectors outside academia—that you have to learn how to communicate that knowledge and collaborate with folks who have their own unique vantage point.
Recent Ph.D. graduate, Cultural Anthropology
Matthew Sebastian, Ph.D. completed his degree in Cultural Anthropology from Duke in April 2021. He studies youth, security, humanitarianism, and post-conflict transformation. He is also the founder and director of Rationale, an education and collaborative research initiative in northern Uganda.