14-year-old Raven Tillmen wants to be a lawyer one day and knows how important it is to be able to speak in front of people.

While she’s not afraid to speak in front of classmates at school, Tillmen knows she could be better at it.

It was for this reason that Tillmen, a freshman at Lincoln Park High School on the North Side, came to a workshop Saturday at Malcolm X College offered by the Westside NAACP’s ACT-SO program.

Founded by journalist the late Vernon Jarrett in 1978, the ACT-SO program offers youth a chance to compete in an “Olympic-style” competitions in the arts, academic and science fields taking place at local NAACP chapters across the country. Winners from the local events go on to compete in the national competition.

ACT-SO, which is a year-long program, also provides adult mentors who serve as coaches for youth during the competition.

The Westside branch hosted a pre-competition workshop at MXC, 1900 W. Van Buren. The local ACT-SO competition will take place April 28 at Malcolm X College.

“I was searching on the Internet for a program that would allow me to get mentoring and coaching in public speaking,” said Tillmen, who wants to pursue her law career at either Harvard or Northwestern University.

Many of the competition’s 25 categories that youth compete in involve performances and speaking in front of others.

Tillmen said the pressure of giving a speech in front of a crowd of students, teachers and judges really doesn’t bother her.

“I think I handle pressure well,” she said. “I’ve spoken in front of the class at school and felt comfortable. I know I have to get better though if I want to become a district attorney.”

Walter Washington, ACT-SO chairperson for the Westside Branch NAACP, said Saturday’s pre-competition workshop was the first ever offered by the program.

Washington said the workshop was meant to prepare youth for the competition and also to build up their personal skills. But in recent years, the program has not attracted as many students as they would like, said Washington. The workshop, he suggested, could help in recruitment.

18-year-old participant Mittie Cowen, a senior at Lincoln Park High School, has been in the program for about a year and competed in last year’s competition.

She was one of two who won a Gold medal in 2006, hers in the classical singing category, which catapulted her to the national competition. Gold medal winners will compete in the national competition taking place this year from July 5-8 in Detroit.

This year, Cowen looks to compete, along with her younger sister Paulette Cowen, in the singing and dramatics category.

“I really enjoyed the experience last year and wanted to take part in it again,” said Cowen, who joined the program through her school.

Cowen, who competed with 29 other youth last year, is interested in pursuing a career in music therapy.

Steve Page, Illinois’ ACT-SO coordinator, said it was time to launch a more “hands-on campaign” to reach youth. Flyers were handed out by ACT-SO volunteers, who also spoke to teachers. Volunteers also sent e-mails to faculty.

“No one is getting paid to participate,” said Page. “It’s really a labor of love.”

ACT-SO stands for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics. For more information, call the WSNAACP at 773/261-5890.

Terry Dean contributed to this article