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To help empower a new generation, Lorrie Milton founded She’s Speaking, an advocacy group that supports local high school and middle school girls as they learn from women in leadership roles. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Lorrie Miller wants to get the word out to young women: You can speak up; you can make a difference; don’t buy into a lesser opinion of yourself. That’s what she hopes the new organization she heads, She’s Speaking, will do: Challenge the barriers that can define women’s professional and personal lives.
“There are so many fine barriers girls and women face in our world, so fine that we hardly notice they are there anymore,” she points out, noting a disparity that often manifests itself in employment. “Women are hired on their accomplishments. Men are hired on their potential. That is quite a subtle difference that we accept.”
To encourage a young woman who has already shown leadership potential, She’s Speaking will award its second annual scholarship to a high school senior at Valley Regional or Old Saybrook high schools this spring. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, May 15 and applications can be downloaded at the organizations website, shesspeaking.org.
Starting in 2020, She’s Speaking will also give another scholarship, one for a middle-school-aged girl to attend one of the week-long camps in the Northeast given by different organizations that focus on leadership for young women. Applications for that program will be available in the fall.
Lorrie, who lives in Deep River, sees increasing the awareness of middle school girls as the key piece for instilling an appreciation of individual potential. She says studies repeatedly show that gender differences matter less in younger children, but by middle school, girls begin to conform more readily to traditional stereotypes.
“Social conditioning makes that happen,” she says. “We want to talk to moms and dads as well as girls about the potential of their daughters.”
The idea for She’s Speaking grew out of a conversation between Lorrie and her good friend Stacia Rice-Libby, who serves on the Essex Board of Selectmen. Lorrie was president of Deep River Rotary in 2016; Rice-Libby had preceded her as president of the organization. Now Lorrie is the president of She’s speaking and Rice-Libby is the vice-president.
Lorrie sees the last presidential election as providing the stimulus for the formation of She’s Speaking.
“Things seemed very volatile and it seemed that we were in a time warp that opened conversations to things that had not been said, things that were once more commonplace,” Lorrie explains. “We asked ourselves what we could do about that and how we could do it.”
The answer for the co-founders was to stimulate awareness in younger students, both of women’s accomplishments and of the obstacles that they faced in achieving these goals.
“College already has women’s studies; we were looking at a younger group,” Lorrie says.
They held working sessions with both young women and their parents to hear their ideas on how to make positive leadership a reality rather than simply a discussion. At one session, they invited female speakers from fields not traditionally labeled women’s work, among them a police officer, an FBI agent, a chef, and an architect.
“It’s hard to be inspired if you don’t see many female leaders. When I was in school, every leader, every person I wanted to be was male,” Lorrie says.
After one such program, Lorrie met a woman who had attended with her daughter and the woman told her that the message of empowerment had had a profound effect on her as well as her child. She went home and wrote a letter resigning from her job, citing how she thought she had been systematically overlooked and undervalued at her workplace. To her surprise, rather than accept the resignation, her boss agreed with her and gave her the raise she asked for.
At first, She’s Speaking organizers thought about running their own week-long camp for middle school girls, but decided it would be a better use of their resources to serve as a clearing house, with detailed listings of events and programs for empowering young girls on their website and Facebook page. In addition, they also plan to continue the kinds of programs they have already sponsored featuring women leaders in different fields talking about professional obstacles and successes.
They also want to arrange both mentoring opportunities and internships for young women.
“I think there’s less fear of failure when you are working with amazing women,” Lorrie says.
She’s Speaking is now working with local guidance counselors and youth service organizations to publicize and coordinate their work. They have already held fundraisers to finance their programs; contributions can be made through the Community Foundation of Middlesex County, She’s Speaking’s financial sponsor.
To explain why the foundation decided to sponsor She’s Speaking, Cynthia Clegg, president of the organization, pointed to the words of philanthropist Melinda Gates,who has said if you want to lift a society up, invest in women.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still must reach young girls as they are growing. They are our hope,” Clegg noted.
Lorrie grew up in Uncasville and graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University. Rather than journalism, however, she wanted a position with a more regular daily routine than chasing the latest stories. She worked for a trade association in Washington, D.C. and had positions that where she could use her writing and research skills
For the past 20 years, Lorrie has been in real estate; for 15 of them she and her husband Craig have owned RE/MAX Valley Shore in Old Saybrook. Though the couple are partners in the business, Lorrie says that many callers assume, when they hear a female voice, that she is an assistant and ask to speak to the person in charge.
And in the empowerment spirit of She’s Speaking, Lorrie adds, “Why is that necessary?”
One of the things Lorrie does most days is run five miles—except when she is running longer distances. She used to go to a gym to workout, but found running much more convenient.
“All you have to do is lace on a pair of sneakers,” she says.
She has done several marathons, including the New York marathon.
“It is absolutely the best marathon in the entire world with people cheering you all along the streets,” she says.
The marathon was not just exercise, it was exercise for a good cause. Lorrie raised more than $3,000 for Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the summer program for seriously ill children founded by the late actor Paul Newman.
Lorrie has been encouraged by the community support she has received from people who have already attended events put on by She’s Speaking. She notes that while the focus is on young women, that fact should not exclude men and boys.
“This is not about boy bashing. Boys should be supportive of their sisters; it’s collaborative, “ she says.
Teaching young women to speak up for themselves, Lorrie admits, walks a fine line.
“You don’t have to be vocally offensive to make a point. Part of the message is learning to make change without being a bully, but by being persistent,” she says.
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