man smiling.

Changing policy to promote justice

“I’m a history nerd,” J. Miles Gresham ’11 acknowledges cheerfully. “One of my heroes growing up was Thurgood Marshall; I remember watching his funeral on television with my parents. I learned that the way Black people in this country have advanced has been through successful movement of public sentiment and of law and policy, and I wanted to contribute to that.”

That sense of the arc of history, which he studied at Howard University before coming to UB Law, informs Gresham’s thinking about how justice can move forward. And it animates his work as campaign director for Neighbor 2 Neighbor Massachusetts, a grass-roots advocacy organization that works in both electoral politics and issue-based campaigns. Gresham works with local chapters, coaching them and advising on strategies, and represents the organization in relations with its coalition partners.

Community organizing is labor-intensive, but the fruits of justice are real. Gresham joined Neighbor 2 Neighbor toward the end of last year, and already is celebrating some big wins for the organization. They helped convinced the City of Lynn to allocate $10.6 million from its American Rescue Plan grant to affordable housing; they won a major increase in the non-police public safety budget in Holyoke; and statewide, Massachusetts voters approved a law that raises taxes on its wealthiest residents, generating $2 billion in revenue for education and transportation, and stalled the passing of a law that would have denied driving privileges to undocumented people. “We were able to rally our base to get that done,” Gresham says.   

Now in Worcester, Mass., he still retains ties to Buffalo, where for many years he worked as a policy fellow with Partnership for the Public Good, a progressive think tank. At the Partnership, Gresham researched and wrote about policing, and how law enforcement can be made more transparent and more equitable. 

For example, in 2020 he worked to end the practice of employing off-duty police officers to provide security in the Buffalo Public Schools. The problem, Gresham says, was that the officers weren’t accountable to the department’s chain of command in this work, and there were reports of abuse. The better choice, the Partnership argued, was school resource officers and private security guards.  

In a similar victory, the Erie County Legislature adopted recommendations by the Police Reform Citizen Task Force, of which Gresham was a part. The task force recommended better diversity recruitment and more citizen oversight over complaint investigations in the county Sheriff’s Department. And in a major policy brief, Gresham argued that the City of Buffalo should take full advantage of its legal power to discipline police officers beyond its contract with the police union. 

“I have no problem with good police, but bad police are a serious threat to civil liberties” Gresham says. “I’ve tried to frame my advocacy as helping good police, because if you remove the bad apples, people will trust you and they’ll talk to you.”  

After law school, Gresham worked in private practice and for three years as a public defender with the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo. But “I got tired of fighting on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “Working on policy represents an opportunity to change things at a higher level so people don’t fall through the cracks. If you get the policy right, there’s less of a chance of that happening. 

“And one thing I’ve been cognizant of for a long time is that the African-American struggle for our constitutional rights has shaped the way constitutional rights look for everyone in this country. If I advance the rights of my people, I’m helping everybody.”