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Gina Reiss-Wilchins

Girls’ Rights Advocate

Washington, DC

That experience became my template – finding new ways to help disadvantaged youth, women and girls, and to jumpstart organizations and campaigns.

I was born in one of those no-name, mid-Pennsylvania towns with a handful of traffic lights end-to-end. My sisters and I were raised over the bowling alley my parents owned and ran. Balls crashed into pins and stacks of quarters clinked all night. Mostly we raised ourselves, much like a pack of wolves.

My mother, aunts and grandmothers were smart, creative women supporting husbands who treated them badly, exploited or abused them. More than a few had been sexually assaulted by family members or stepfathers. They bore children, raised them largely alone, and had few professional horizons other than surviving day-to-day.

I knew back then I wanted to improve the lives of women and girls, I just didn’t know how. No one in our family had ever attended college, and many, like my father, had dropped out before high school. But I knew intuitively I would need a real education. So my twin and I enrolled in UCLA. Los Angeles was warm, full of possibility and as far away from home as possible.

In women’s studies courses, books by Virginia Woolf and George Elliot inspired me. I studied under pioneering educators like author Lillian Faderman, who helped me come out as a lesbian. By the time I graduated I was ready to start my life’s work, but there were no schools to teach me feminist nonprofit advocacy. So I joined the only graduate school for feminist advocacy I knew – the National Organization for Women. Working at NOW was my advanced degree in all the basics: organizing, media, advocacy and fundraising.

Through my role as Action Vice President, I volunteered for the board of the statewide LGBT organization. Gay rights were still new and controversial. There was no membership base, little media attention and zero funding. In short, it was definitely not the basis for a professional career.

But a National Education Association (NEA) teacher came up to me after a board meeting, put her hand on my shoulder, and quietly said, “I think you should run for Chair.”  She was the first person to see talents and skills I didn’t yet know myself. She was also the first person to encourage me to lean in, be an entrepreneur and risk doing something new.

I was young, but not only was I elected as Chair, I later become the organization’s first Executive Director. The LGBT rights wave had begun to break in earnest and just three years later we had a real organization with a budget, office, staff and more media than we needed.

That experience became my template and helped me to discover new ways to help disadvantaged youth, women and girls, and to jumpstart organizations and campaigns. In the two decades since, I’ve worked on everything from gender rights, to campaigns against child marriage and sex trafficking. Now when I look at my smart, courageous six-year-old daughter Dylan, it rekindles my passion for finding new ways to serve and reminds me of my gratitude for that wise woman whose simple gesture unknowingly put me on a path that has lasted over two decades.