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03/08/2017 07:18 AM

New Organization Strives to Empower Women’s Voices

From left, Lorrie Milton, Stacia Libby, and Emily Wrann, co-founders of new local nonprofit She’s Speaking, brought together 30 women at the group’s inaugural meeting to discuss the problems facing young women today, such as the gender gap, and how they could come together to start addressing them. Photo by Michelle Anjirbag

On March 2, a new nonprofit organization, She’s Speaking, held its inaugural meeting at the Copper Beech Inn. About 30 women attended the open discussion rooted in the organization’s mission statement as conceived by co-founders Stacia Libby, Lorrie Milton, and Emily Wrann: “to educate, empower, support, and inspire young women to have a voice in our society through the resources of powerful women leaders of yesterday and today.”

While the group was formed out of post-election frustration, which drew the three women together, the frustration was less political, and more directed at how women are talked about in society. They also bonded over moments in their own lives and careers where they felt unheard or un-empowered.

“We thought, ‘How do we change this, how do we make a difference for our girls?’” said Milton. “We want to specifically target girls, and how to increase leadership and encourage them to use their voices through mentorship by other women. We looked at other organizations aimed at empowering women, but most of what is out there is more aimed at keeping girls in trouble in school.”

The organizers felt that some challenges women face are more universal.

“We want to open a conversation about gender inequality and what that means for our society,” Milton continued. “What are our experiences as a woman in the workplace? We want to change the conversation and the way we talk to, inspire, and empower girls.”

“Gender inequality is an economic issue, not a partisan issue,” stressed Libby. “A 2015 survey of U.S. women found that 72 percent of girls think that society limits them, and 7 out of 10 girls think they don’t measure up in some way.

“Confidence drops at puberty, which is around 10 to 12 years old,” Libby continued. “Girls stop talking about themselves and what they love—it becomes about conforming.”

The kick-off meeting was attended by a cross-section of women from the tri-town and larger community, including educators, mothers, Rotary members, millenials, and elected officials. After some general discussion over cocktails, Wrann, Milton, and Libby gave a presentation outlining their goals, using the viral Always #Likeagirl campaign video as a focal point for the discussion about how and where to start a push for change.

The open conversation started from there, with attendees identifying stereotypes applied to women, including “loud,” “bossy,” and “over-emotional.” A number of women also brought up hearing “that’s a man’s job” across their careers.

The conversation then moved to the topic of how to reach young women, whether it be through workshops or lectures, and what other women can do to start fostering mentoring connections with younger women.

Disagreements arose over whether or not to direct programming at both boys and girls, or just girls. While the need for specific, focused programming was recognized, the point was also raised that young boys also have to be educated differently to make a real change, and that “separate is not equal.”

There was also a discussion over whether programming and efforts should be directed toward children, or toward educators as intermediaries. But overarchingly, discussion circled back to questions of how do women model different behaviors, and what sort of life choices are validated or invalidated through how women treat women.

This last point seemed to strike the deepest chord, as women spoke about their experiences as working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, or childless,and how each of these choices is perceived.

Chester First Selectman Lauren Gister said, as a mother of all daughters, she was very excited about this new group.

“As parents it is something we all struggle with: how to give them confidence to be successful. The world is different now, but there is still baggage to be put away. It is a constant improvement cycle,” she said.

Patty Marshall of Old Saybrook is a 6th grade teacher and mother of four girls. She came because the topic interested her as both a mother and a teacher.

“We’re constantly changing how we look at these things, and constantly evolving,” she said. “I’d like to bring my experience.”

“Women going into the workforce, and college should be taught negotiation and leadership skills,” said Katlyn Catubig, a recent college graduate just entering the workforce. “There is also not a lot of education of men in the workplace on how to make a more equal and fair workplace.’

“One of my main missions in my work with kids as a teaching artist is for them to find their voices,” said Amy Forbes of Chester. “If I could facilitate helping girls find their voices and hold on to them through their teenage years, and develop them, I want to be a part of that.

“The challenge is to gather these girls together—how do we do that?” continued Forbes.

Gina Sopneski of Deep River saw the event on Facebook.

“This struck a chord with me to learn more and get involved in helping,” said Sopneski. “The mentoring piece is great; though I feel strongly that it should be both directed at males and females. We want to empower young women, but it starts with education.”

“Girls are more or less confident in different groups, whether just girls or a mixture of boys and girls,” added Gister. “If they are afraid to be embarrassed, they shut down.”

The next steps will be to take the input from the first meeting to determine where the group should focus its efforts.

“I liked the idea of involving kids from different towns,” said Gister. “It reminded me of my kids’ experience with camp, where they can be a little more free to be themselves. I’m not sure about the logistics, but it is a good idea.”

Kelly Sterner of Essex came to support what she sees as an important cause.

“Looking back through history, I am amazed by some of the roles of women,” said Sterner. “We have a ways to go, but we have come a long way, too, and now have an opportunity to make an impact. But it is not going to change unless we start.”

For more information about She’s Speaking or to get involved, email