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Women on Top

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by Winnie McCroy
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CNN HLN ’News and Views’ Anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell

Raised in midtown Manhattan (where she still lives) by an advertising executive father and a mother who was a former vaudeville dancer, Jane Velez-Mitchell has show business and media in her blood. Every night, she and her father would go over the daily paper with her father, discussing the news of the day. She credits those experiences as having made current events part of her comfort zone.

After receiving a degree in broadcast journalism from New York University, she worked as a local news reporter for TV stations in Fort Myers, Fla.; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; and, eventually, New York, where she spent eight years at the CBS flagship station. She jumped coasts to work in Los Angeles, in time becoming an on-air reporter for the syndicated program Celebrity Justice, where she covered the Michael Jackson trial. "Every night I did a report for Nancy Grace," Velez-Mitchell recalled. "She asked me my opinions on the case, and that was really fun after years of ’just the facts.’"

Velez-Mitchell now admits that during that time she was deeply closeted. She said she tried to stay in denial by becoming "a practicing alcoholic, drinking down my sexual orientation." She became sober 17 years ago, published a memoir about her experience, and finally came out to her co-workers, her public and herself.

"It was astounding how quickly I came to terms with it after I stopped drinking," Velez-Mitchell said. "The fears I had were mostly self-generated, about what would happen if anyone found out." The catalyst for her decision was covering Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho’s "toe-tapping" airport-bathroom scandal. The Republican’s hypocrisy made her feel like a hypocrite.

"During a commercial break, I called my girlfriend and told her I was coming out," she said. "I got back on and told the audience that I live with a woman. A fascinating thing happened: Nothing. Nobody cared; it was a big yawn to them."

Jane Velez-Mitchell, which replaced conservative TV personality Glenn Beck (who moved to Fox News for a time), airs daily on HLN, CNN’s sibling channel. She is active in the company’s out-employee diversity group and has become a vocal gay rights advocate.

"Without any irony, it’s been fabulous," Velez-Mitchell said. "As for being a woman of color, I’ve always embraced my heritage. I’m thrilled to be Puerto Rican and Irish; it’s a great combination. And it’s great to have a diverse newsroom, because you bring your perspective to the table as a member of the gay community or a Latina, as a vegan and animal rights activist."

Velez-Mitchell is most gratified, however, by opportunities her position affords her to help people, such as an early effort to fly an injured service member’s wife to a reunion with her husband in Germany. "I want to speak for the voiceless, for children, the elderly, those who are challenged or disabled, and animals," she said. "HLN has given me a wonderful opportunity to open my circle of compassion wider, even to farm animals. Of course this connects back to humans. It’s not an either-or. It’s no longer man verses nature; we’re both on the same side."

In a competitive industry, she gives advice with legs: Approach it like your life depends on it. "It’s got to be a mission; it’s not a job, it’s a vocation," Velez-Mitchell said. "You need to be on a mission to survive in this business."


New York City LGBT Community Center Executive Director Glennda Testone

For the past three years, Glennda Testone has been at the helm of New York’s large and vibrant LGBT Community Center, which provides dozens of resources. She previously held posts at the Women’s Media Center and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination.

"I knew that I wanted to help people," Testone told EDGE. "That’s how I was raised, to give back. And when I realized I was a member of the LGBT community, I thought running an LGBT nonprofit and helping people in our community every day was the coolest job ever.

If being out helped her snag her current job, Testone is well-aware that self-doubt is the biggest obstacle for most women. Among her proudest achievements is securing funds to keep a foster care program operating. "Every LGBT young person deserves to have a supportive family," Testone said. "I was very fortunate to have that growing up. Not everyone does, and getting funding to help them have a positive experience is priceless."

Testone approaches physical fitness as avidly as she does social causes. For the past three years, she has completed the Cycle for the Cause, a 350-mile bike ride from Boston to New York that raises funds for the center’s HIV programs. Although she didn’t initially think she could make it, she persevered, and overcame her mental and physical blocks.

She has advice for young women reaching for a high goal: "Do it! Don’t get discouraged. Try not to take things too personally. Just focus on the good that you’re doing and move forward."


Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s Lorri L. Jean

Lorri Jean was a young attorney involved in LGBT activism when she realized that the activism part was a lot more fun than the law part. She wanted to work for the LGBT movement full-time but also didn’t want to starve, so she looked for a job that would put her in a leadership role.

"One day, I got a call saying that there was a job in L.A. with my name all over it," Jean told EDGE. "I thought I would do more national work, but when I came down to check out the center, I was blown away. The plan I had put in motion to get the skills I needed on my résumé worked out, and they offered me the job."

Jean has headed the center since 1993. She’s proud of how she and her staff have developed it into one of the largest LGBT organizations in the world, serving tens of thousands of clients every month. Jean is also working on an LGBT foster care program, thanks in part to a $13 million, five-year government grant. Several years ago, in an effort to fight the epidemic of teen suicides, she said, "I picked up the phone and called the L.A. Unified School District ... and said, ’We can’t do business as usual. We have to create a program in schools that stop kids from thinking about suicide.’"

Jean partnered with the district to change the culture in schools. She worked with a large coalition on an innovative, comprehensive safe-schools program. "There is nothing like it happening anywhere in the country," she said. "I hope other school districts look at it as a model and implement it in their schools."

In the first few years of her tenure at the L.A. center, she oversaw a fundraising campaign in which several of the biggest donations came from women - exploding the myth that women aren’t big in philanthropy.

Such initiatives are necessary in a leader. "It’s about jumping in and doing the hard work, being a team player ... being extremely thoughtful about the suggestions you provide," Jean told EDGE. Treating everyone with respect, maintaining a high level of integrity, admitting mistakes and apologizing sincerely when wrong should guide every woman who wants to be prominent in her field, she said.

Keeping the right company is also key. "Surround yourself with stars in terms of ethics and ability, and never be threatened by someone who is better than you," Jean said. "Finding a mentor is important. It used to be virtually impossible to find lesbian mentors, but now there are a lot more. Look around and see who is doing the work in a way that you admire, connect with them and ask them if they will mentor you."



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