When Matthew Jordan Miller was a child, his grandmother took him and his siblings along when she picked up his grandfather from his janitorial job at Stanford University and told him that he was going to attend the Ivy League school one day.
“[Matt] applied to Harvard, U.C. Berkeley and Stanford and all of these different schools,” Miller’s mother, Debra Miller, said by phone from California. “When he got the news that he got into Stanford, we were sitting in the driveway and he just fell to the ground.”
With that, Miller became the first in his family to go to college.
And that was just one of a series of firsts for the 28-year-old.
He is among the first African-American men to obtain a doctorate in urban planning from the University of Southern California, and among the first Black men to become a postdoctoral fellow in the City and Regional Planning Department at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.
“We have a lot of strength in housing, community and economic development in our department,” said Lisa Servon, professor and chair in the department, in an article about Miller on UPenn’s website. “Matt’s work in creative placemaking gives us even greater depth in this area. And his focus on race and intersectionality fits perfectly with our focus on equity.”
Vincent Reina, assistant professor of city and regional planning and Miller’s postdoctoral adviser, also said Miller’s varied methodology is a good fit for an interdisciplinary program like PennDesign.
In the spring, Miller will teach a course at UPenn called “Place, Taste and Urban Change.”
“It looks at really trying to interrogate the ways in which artistic excellence and artistic merit is being defined on built environments,” Miller said. “It’s particularly thinking about who has the power to define what is good design and good livable standards for people.”
Miller’s appointment to UPenn was made possible through the Penn Postdoctoral Fellowships for Academic Diversity, a competitive program to increase the diversity of the community of scholars devoted to academic research. His postdoctoral fellowship could last up to three years.
“I think it’s important to raise visibility to the fact that [African Americans and millennials] belong here, too,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of sea tide change of leadership in this country right now and I think it’s time for us to step up and to be seen.”
Miller is one of seven siblings and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. His father is an electrician and his mother was a hairdresser-turned-homemaker and actress.
Debra Miller credits her son with helping her obtain her associate’s degree. She said her son has “been intelligent since he was a little boy. He excelled even in elementary school.”
Miller grew up singing in the gospel choir at his church and is also a self-proclaimed sketch artist, comic book nerd and photographer.
As he got older and saw how things worked — or didn’t — in his community, Miller became interested in economic injustice. That led to interests in economic development, urban planning, zoning and land usage.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Stanford in 2012, a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 and a doctorate degree from USC this past summer.
Miller’s dissertation, “The Geography of Black Commerce and Culture: Los Angeles and Beyond,” focused on mapping the spatial practices of Black business owners.
Annette M. Kim, associate professor at USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the director of the Spatial Analysis Lab, was Miller’s professor at MIT, and said she’s happy for him.
“It’s a great school. I have a number of colleagues there and they love him,” she said. “It’s also a great opportunity for him to convert his dissertation into a book, which it should be. I’m really excited to see what his trajectory is. I think he has a bright future ahead and I think he has so much to contribute.”
Miller said Kim helped keep his artistic side alive.
“[Kim] is also an artist, but a planner by training,” Miller said. “I knew that I wanted to tell stories and that’s how I became interested in economic development.”
Despite his success so far, there were some bumps along the road, Miller said.
While at MIT, when Miller was preparing to defend his master’s thesis, “Did ‘Pookie’ Get a Green-Collar Job?”, professors joked they would dress up as “Pookie,” which felt like a blackface joke to Miller.
“It was a very tough position to be in because you can’t push back, but you also know that that’s not right,” Miller said. “I was glad to leave that environment. USC was much more supportive overall, but even there, there were some comments.”
A professor at USC told him he wrote well for an African American and tended to speak better than they write.
“It was discouraging at times. You start to see where the need is for faculty diversity, but you also don’t want to subject yourself to being disrespected,” said Miller, who now lives in North Philadelphia. “I’m still pushing forward. I haven’t felt any of that at Penn. I think they’ve been amazing.”