Listening to Black Voices

Shirley Miller on Sex Education and Civil Rights

Miller spent more than 30 years of her career designing and implementing sex education programs in more than 70 countries.

By Heather Dunhill July 11, 2023

This article is part of the series Listening to Diverse Voices, proudly presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Shirley Miller

Shirley Miller

Shirley Miller spent more than 30 years of her career designing and implementing sex education programs in more than 70 countries around the world, coordinating with government and non-government agencies, from Greece to Africa to Thailand to the Philippines (where she trained nuns who supported family planning). The projects were coordinated and funded through the United Nations Funds for Population Activities, USAID, the World Health Organization and the World Bank, and Miller did all of this while also serving as the director of international operations at Planned Parenthood of New York City’s Manhattan health center. To this day, numerous manuals that she authored are still in use around the world and within Planned Parenthood itself.

In 1985, the African American Institute selected Miller—along with Dr. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Dorothy Height and Dr. Betty Shabazz—to be a delegate to the United Nations World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal was to shape policy on women’s rights and comprehensive reproductive health care. Miller also served as a UN delegate in 1994 for the Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and in 1995 for the UN’s World Conference on Women in Beijing.

In 2006, Miller, now 75, retired to Sarasota with her husband of 30 years and quickly became a part of the community. She joined the board of Season of Sculpture, founded a wellness group for Black women and launched a line dancing class. For several years, she also helped coordinate the Gulf Coast Chapter of UN Women’s "Learners to Leaders" program for high school girls. She is a member of Links, Inc., and works with Humanity Working to End Genocide, Doctors Without Borders and the Catholic Relief Society. She’s also a mah jongg enthusiast. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where were you born?

“I was born in Jamaica, New York, not too far from St. Albans, where people like Count Basie and Lena Horne lived. That area attracted Black American greats because they were not welcome in many communities. It became a hub for many Black artists. That’s the kind of environment that I grew up in.

“My mother was an only child, but my father had a large family. When my parents moved to New York, many of his siblings moved over time, too. We had a large family that lived within a 3-mile radius. My father was a decorated World War II solider and worked as a longshoreman, and my mother worked as a nurse until she retired. Neither had degrees.

“I’m the oldest of three, with two younger brothers. My mom and dad were raised in West Virginia, where they met young, and they married in 1946. They moved to New York that same year. My maternal grandparents still lived in West Virginia, and every year after school was out, for half of my formative life, my mother would take the three of us to stay with them from June to September. I was a city girl with a country upbringing. I value that very much. My grandmother had chickens and pigs and an outhouse. She would heat water up on a potbelly stove, then put it in tin tubs for baths."

Who was your role model growing up? 

“My mother was everything to me, but my grandmother was a tremendous role model, too. She helped lay the foundation of my values. She worked as a housekeeper for a white family, so she knew how to do everything from make a proper bed to a delicious pot roast. She was an amazing and kind woman.

“She was also conscious of how clothes should be worn and how to polish shoes. My siblings and I wouldn’t leave the house unless we were impeccably dressed. My grandmother kept a perfectly modest home. She was up every morning 4 a.m. making breakfast and lunch in a tin bucket for my grandfather before he left for the day. I can still smell the bacon frying and hot coffee. She was sure to have dinner made when he got home, and we were washed up clean and had the table set.

"Even though I’m a liberated woman, those little things stuck with me. I see them as strengths. She and my grandfather exemplified a good marriage. They played an important role in my life and now [my husband] Larry and I play that role in our grandchildren’s lives.”

Tell us about your college years.

“After high school, I married at 19, then went to a New York community college and majored in commercial art. I worked as a telephone company business representative, then I went back to school and graduated in 1976 with a four-year degree in anthropology. I also took courses from Cornell University in human sexuality.

“While in college, I came up in the women’s movement. I protested and marched. I was all about Black power. I'm grateful for that time—there was a lot of exciting change. With my fellow students, we took over the college president’s office until he agreed to integrate African American history into the courses offered.

“The 1960s and '70s were exciting years for women’s groups. Our generation was a change agent for the good. I became a Muslim and followed the teachings of Malcom X. I even met him.”

How does it feel living in Florida right now, with the recent policy changes to teaching Black history and restricting diversity, equity and inclusion programs?

“Gov. Ron DeSantis has co-opted the term ‘woke.’ He is using it in a way that it was never meant for. When Blacks would say to each other, ‘Stay woke,’ it meant be aware of your surroundings and be safe—for example, in sundown towns. It’s a tragedy that DeSantis turned that term into something negative. The NAACP has issued a travel advisory for the state of Florida because it is openly hostile toward people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“Our Black friends talk about this all the time. My husband is a 6-foot-4-inch-tall dark Black man, and I’m concerned for his safety. We must now think seriously about doing things that we did here a year ago and wouldn’t give much thought to. For example, if someone asked me to canvass a neighborhood today, like I’ve done for past elections, I would not do it. I’ll have to find other ways to participate."

Have you experienced racism in Florida? 

“When I first moved here in 2006, I went to a discount clothing store, filled up my cart and took it into the dressing room with me, because I had so many items that I couldn’t hold it all. A white female salesperson began banging on the door and went into a nasty tirade, talking down to me and saying, ‘You can’t take a shopping cart into the dressing room.’ It was so intense that I was undone. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. I got dressed, put everything in the shopping cart and left the dressing room.

“I could not believe that she took it to that level. She tried to provoke me but she didn’t succeed. I’m an educated woman, so I got her name and asked her to show me where it was stated that I couldn’t take a cart into the dressing room. She went into the back room and pulled out a sign, so I asked, ‘How am I supposed to know the store policy if it’s not on display?’ Afterward, I wrote the manager a letter. [The employee] is no longer at that store. Some people have a bad day, but this was more than that.”

How do you get beyond those experiences? 

“My family loves this country. My father fought in World War II. My parents raised us to be good citizens and to see the good in people, despite the hate. I thank them for instilling in my brothers and me the goodness of human beings. Because of them, I didn’t grow up hating anyone. Hate is ignorance and lies that are told to oppress.

“I want my grandchildren to know that I’m an optimist. I still believe in humanity and in the goodness of people. Otherwise, my ancestors would have given up a long time ago. They preserved faith in God and in the goodness of people despite all the things that happened to them, and I have drawn strength from that. As bad as things are, we’ve come a long way."

Let’s talk about your work with Planned Parenthood.

“First, it’s important to note that the Planned Parenthood organization has many different aspects to it beyond the clinical services of contraceptives and abortions. It also has an educational arm, which I directed from its New York offices. 

“For example, some of the educational programs I worked on around the world dealt with family life, parenting, anatomy, sex and sexuality, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes and AIDS. I created manuals to support a holistic approach to education. To give the curriculum a better chance of success, each was specifically designed to address sexual education needs with a sensitivity to cultural nuances. For instance, some countries had a patriarchal society that feared women becoming better educated than the men. So we involved the men in the training. That way, the men could see the benefits of an educated wife and mother. Once you are educated, you can’t take that away."

Tell us more.

“We did a lot of capacity building, from Antigua to Thailand and most of the continent of Africa. If we were working with a tribe, we would train chiefs, so they understood us and we understood them, which made them our primary advocates. Some of my foreign projects lasted up to four years. It was tedious work, but it was good work, and I was fortunate to do work that I loved."

When it comes to women’s health, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

“Women are far more empowered about their bodies, and I think that scares the hell out of men. We like sex and are not afraid to say we enjoy sex. When I was coming up, that wasn’t the case. There’s been a whole revolution, and it’s evident.

“However, I don’t think we really get how much has been taken away with the repeal of Roe v. Wade."

What is your response to the recent Supreme Court ruling that repealed affirmative action?

"It’s outrageous. There’s a misperception that affirmative action gives Black people a free ride, or that we didn’t or don’t have the right qualifications either educationally or in the workplace. Affirmative action levels the playing field for qualified people of color.

"Consider that, when it comes to educational institutions, it’s been an accepted tradition for descendants of wealthy alums to either be accepted based on [legacy] or through a ‘buy in’ donation. That’s OK?

"Joy Reid, a MSNBC host, shared that she got into Harvard because of affirmative action. The recruiter went to her hometown and looked at Black students with good grades, like her, interviewed her and encouraged her to attend Harvard because the school was looking for talented people of color who may not have had access. That’s what the Supreme Court has stopped."

What would you like your white friends or acquaintances to be doing right now?

“It’s a tall order, but we need you to be on the front lines with us. See our humanity. Stand with us on the issues and have an appreciation for racial history by virtue of the privileges you may have enjoyed that have not been afforded to me. When you see the difference between right and wrong, call it what it is.

“When people say they hate me because of the color of my skin, I feel sorry for them because they have been victimized. They’ve been told these racist things and believe them. I have an example that’s close to home. When my father was in France during the war, he was asked by white people if they could see his tail. They were told that Black people grew monkey tails.

“It’s a terrible way to live, if you’re told that your white skin is more valuable than mine. As a Black person, I don’t want injustice to happen to any human being, no matter what color.”

Listening to Black Voices is a series created by Heather Dunhill

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