Advertisement

COVID-19 silenced this singing activist, but not her spirit

 Activist Albia Miller sits  under a canopy of shade trees at the Menifee Valley campus of Mt. San Jacinto College
Activist Albia Miller sits under a canopy of shade trees at the Menifee Valley campus of Mt. San Jacinto College.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The tiny woman with the big straw hat has spent the last 30 years doing a nearly impossible task: Fighting against any development that threatens the few small swaths of rural land that remain in the fast-growing Inland Empire.

Albia Miller — frail, 71 and barely 5 feet tall — has attended every city council meeting she could possibly get to in Murrieta, Menifee, Temecula, Lake Elsinore and other small, burgeoning towns in Riverside County.

In the process, she has wedded her passion for politics with a love for lyrics, serenading local officials about municipal agenda items with songs.

She’s the singing gadfly of Riverside County. And government meetings were her stage. Not only city council meetings but also board of supervisors meetings, planning commission meetings.

Advertisement

Miller would create videos highlighting the environment, filing lawsuits against developers, or going door to door to gather signatures on petitions she spearheaded.

Mondays were dedicated to polishing her public comment presentation. Tuesdays and Thursdays were spent mapping out which meetings she would attend. She would prepare a three-minute speech, many times accompanied with song, and take a “group limousine” otherwise known as the Route 61 RTA bus to various council chambers.

“The look of open space is in your eyes, the look that bulldozing and grazing cannot replace,” she often sang at council meetings.

She moved her arms with precision to gesticulate and signal anger or disbelief, looking directly at each council member — many of whom looked down or avoided eye contact.

Advertisement

Before the pandemic started shutting things down, Miller would rehearse at grocery stores. On Sunday mornings, she’d perform songs about environmentalism accompanied by an electric keyboard outside Trader Joe’s and Organic Roots Natural Food Store. In between sets she’d strike up a conversation with people and sell CDs of her songs, some of which had been performed in local meetings.

Since then, she stopped performing in front of Trader Joe’s in fear of catching the virus, which limited her income to government assistance. And with most libraries closed, she no longer has a reliable place to spread her piles of environmental impact reports and locate city council agendas.

On a recent day, her voice rang out in an empty corridor of Mt. San Jacinto College — a regular stage for her in normal times, but now locked up because of COVID-19.

“If we love as much as angels,” she sang, holding the last note until chuckling over the hilarity of singing with a mask on.

Advertisement

“These songs are my therapy,” Miller said as she shuffled through piles of papers and compact discs on a grassy square outside her unofficial “office” in Menifee. “But recently, my life has been very hard, and I haven’t had the heart to sing.”

The coronavirus has taken a much larger toll on Miller than she could have imagined. In March, city council meetings began closing their doors in an effort to keep the public safe from the virus.

The pandemic also cost her her home with her partner, who needed the spare room for a relative. Miller was cast out with nothing more than an old car, a small storage unit and an unrelenting desire to protect Earth.

She since moved into a bus she helped retrofit into a film editing space, but on some nights she can be found in a tent outside the college’s future $40-million stadium site — as an act of defiance.

Advertisement

COVID-19 threw a wrench into a schedule she perfected over the last 30 years. Her activism “runs through her blood” as her grandmother inspired her to take action against developers. After attending a Sierra Club meeting in San Diego three decades ago, Miller was hooked. She then started an unofficial nonprofit Global Harmony Network and created an email list of 150 people to send updates about her work.

Her pre-COVID weekly routine was determined by council agendas. On Friday, she began combing through agendas, researching development projects and, if needed, drafting 20-page letters. Each day, she works five to eight hours, she said.

Now Miller’s days are filled with restlessness and a constant search for access to electricity.

“Now I’m totally lost. I only have a few hours of access a day, and I don’t know if my letters are even read at the meetings,” she said. “I didn’t realize the meetings were still going on, and they’re still voting on major developments. How can our voice get out there when we cannot attend meetings?”

Advertisement

Meetings can be viewed online, but Miller said she has a hard time viewing them because of her limited Wi-Fi access. As a result, she has not been able to follow council meetings as diligently and can send in comments only with the hope that they will be received.

Activist Albia Miller is reflected in the glass at the Mt. San Jacinto College library
Activist Albia Miller is reflected in the glass of the Mt. San Jacinto College library, now closed because of COVID-19.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

She peered into the glass windows of the Mt. San Jacinto College library, clutching a dead laptop by the arm and began to worry.

“If you look at my arms, they’re so frail. The air quality, the developments, the work. It’s taken a toll on me,” she said, wringing her hands.

Advertisement

Before the virus stifled public discourse, the tiny woman was a larger-than-life presence at the legislative lectern. Her meticulous supporting research, gesticulations and songs captivated council members — some of whom struggled not to crack a smile during Miller’s unconventional public comment.

Most comments started the same: a lengthy diatribe concerning the California Environmental Quality Act and the local effects of these projects followed by a brief pause and a 15-second rendition of either a song on the spot or one she’s memorized and reused.

As swiftly as she approached the stand, she’d slam the lectern, whisk her head at the sound of the three-minute buzzer and proudly head back to her seat.

Though on occasion, Miller has been carried out of council chambers by force, Menifee Mayor Bill Zimmerman said.

Advertisement

“I’m convinced Ms. Miller has a musical theater background. She has the energy of a 16-year-old,” said Murrieta Councilman Jonathan Ingram. “Sometimes meetings can be mundane, but she brings a lot to them.”

Wildomar Councilman Joseph Morabito met Miller at council meetings before he was elected.

Morabito ran a blog he used to post meeting videos and recaps. Many times, he captured Miller, dressed as a sunflower, “playing to the camera.” Despite his not-so-kind comments on his blog, he still described her as “well-intentioned and fiery.”

Miller sang to the council at an October meeting endorsing Morabito for a council seat. In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, she went door to door to get Morabito elected.

Advertisement

Miller still prioritizes her advocacy work and has found a way to continue her letter-writing campaigns. Instead of plotting out her bus route, she spends her Tuesday nights frantically submitting her comments to be read aloud at the council meetings — comments devoid of her personal flair and theatrics.

“All of my passions are squeezed out. You can’t read parts of anyone’s statement and it won’t have the same meaning. The inflection isn’t right,” Miller said mimicking a robot.

Although many of Miller’s public comments in the past have targeted council members, some still missed hearing from her.

“She has a love for our Earth and I think she brings a unique perspective to the table,” Ingram said. “I miss her, the public meetings and those interactions. You never forget a meeting she’s been to.”

Advertisement

Her original dream of traveling across the country in an electric van with a large “invest in sustainable living” banner has been put on pause, but Miller is still waging legal war against new developments in Menifee. She plans to spend the remainder of the week preparing for a court hearing.

“COVID tore me to bits. But it won’t stop my work,” she said.


Advertisement