“No work talk” was the five Miller sisters’ motto for their beach getaway this summer. Sticking to this motto proved difficult for the youngest and the eldest sisters, Amber ’23 and Dr. Lisa R. Miller ’08, because they have so much in common despite the 15 years between them. For one, they’re both Bereans with strong commitments to social justice.
Just like Lisa before her, Amber is pursuing a double major in sociology and women’s and gender studies at Berea College while also fulfilling her labor program requirements in the Women’s and Gender Studies department. Both sisters aim to make the world a better place for women, the LGBTQPIA+ community and people of color.
This noble goal took root in the Miller sisters at a very young age, partly in response to the daily gender bias they faced back home in Tazewell, Va., a small town near the Kentucky border. Like in many places around the country, patriarchal (or male-centered) social traditions were the norm in their hometown.
“We have five brothers, too, so it started at home,” Lisa said. “Like a lot of families, the expectations placed on my sisters and me were stricter than what the boys could get away with.”
Unequal treatment of women was also a feature of everyday life outside the home, including work, church and school.
“I love Tazewell, and I love my teachers, but at the schools I went to, let’s just say that if a boy and I raised our hands at the same time, I wasn’t the one they’d call on,” Amber recalled. “Girls had to work extra hard to stand out.”
Blazing the path
Though Lisa had similar experiences, her academic diligence and social conscience caught the attention of her favorite high school English teacher, Mrs. Gail Webb, who introduced her to Berea College, where Lisa got the welcome she deserved. Along with a world-class education without the burden of tuition, Lisa found the supportive community she needed and also benefitted from the company of classmates who were navigating the same challenges she faced as the first in her family to attend college.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel like an outsider in higher education until I left Berea for grad school,” Lisa said. “I was profoundly lucky to have professors at Berea who understood the lives of first-generation students. I later learned I needed to serve as a mentor for my younger siblings and countless others. My parents didn’t go to college, which means I had to become a cultural translator about college for my siblings.”
And Lisa is doing just that. As she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology at Indiana University, she conducted groundbreaking research on gender, discrimination against LGBTQPIA+ people and aging while also volunteering countless hours to inclusive reform committees across campus. Her ongoing research is featured in top scholarly journals as well as major media outlets like The Chicago Tribune, U.S. News and World Report and Salon Magazine. Now, as assistant professor of sociology at Eckerd College in Florida, Lisa leads numerous institutional efforts to give first-generation students the support they deserve.
“A lot of their needs get overlooked in higher education, but at Berea I saw how it could be for first-gen students,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to bring to Eckerd. When it works, it’s a very rewarding feeling.”
Equally rewarding is the example and firsthand knowledge Lisa offers her siblings. Before Amber attended Berea College, two other Miller sisters followed Lisa’s path to college and into their dream careers as nurses. Then, as Amber’s high school graduation approached, higher education felt almost inevitable, in part, because Lisa had already blazed the path.
“Our parents are awesome,” Amber said. “They pushed us to do great in school, but it’s just different when you’ve got [an older] sibling who’s been there. Lisa’s a big inspiration for why I’m here at Berea, but I’m putting my own spin on it.”
Pursuing her own path
Amber is aiming for law school after graduation, in the hopes of becoming a sex crimes prosecutor or joining a non-profit that serves victims of sexual violence. On its face, Amber’s goal may be quite a different direction from Lisa’s career as a first-rate academic, but they’d both agree achieving gender equity must take many forms.
“Sexism and homophobia have real effects in the world, like sexual violence and human trafficking,” Amber said. “Almost all of the victims are women and girls. Stopping it long-term will take education, and in the short term, I want to be there to get justice for victims.”
With such heavy yet necessary work to be done together, it’s no wonder the Miller sisters agreed to “no work talk” on their summer getaway.
“It’ll always be there,” Lisa said. “In the meantime, we have to make room for the parts of life that fill us with joy. This summer, that was spending time with my sisters. They’re the best company I could ever ask for.” •