Viola Davis on race and democracy in ASU lecture

Emmy-winning actress, the 2016 Delivering Democracy Distinguished Lecturer, touches on the Oscars, obstacles and the power of significance

Viola Davis speaks in Phoenix


On the eve of an Academy Awards marked by the #OscarsSoWhiteThe 2016 Academy Awards' top categories — best director, picture and all four acting categories — have nearly all-white nominees. protest, actress Viola Davis — whose impassioned speech about opportunity for women of color at the 2015 Emmys stirred many reactions — spoke about obstacles, racism and significance Saturday as part of an Arizona State University lecture.

“I am living breathing proof of what can happen when you believe in the possibilities within you,” she began, after host Kim Covington, former 12 News anchor, introduced her to a roar of applause at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix that left Davis visibly moved.

Davis — the 2016 Delivering Democracy Distinguished Lecturer, a program of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at ASU — went on to reflect on her tough childhood and the obstacles she was able to overcome with the help of such philanthropic programs as Upward BoundUpward Bound is a U.S. Department of Education program that provides fundamental support to participants in their preparation for college entrance..

“That’s the beauty of living in America, because anywhere else, I would have remained a child of poverty,” she said.

On racism specifically, Davis offered, “People put up so many barriers to your potential, but that’s not the worst part. The worst part is when you start believing them.”

ASU's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy was founded in 2011 by associate professor of history Matthew Whitaker with the goal of raising awareness around issues related to race and democracy as a way to solve social-justice issues. When choosing a speaker — past speakers include journalist Anderson Cooper and actor Forest Whitaker — the center looks at what's happening in the world, and the criticisms over the 2016 Academy Awards' lack of diversity in its top categories made Davis' appearance especially timely.

Davis took the audience Saturday back to her 2015 Emmy Award acceptance speech, saying, “I knew there was a chance I could win, so I was absolutely hyper-focused on the fact that this was about more than just me.” In that speech, Davis made a remark that resonated with many: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

When the topic of the Oscars came up, Davis told Covington she would not be attending but that it had nothing to do with the boycott. “The Oscars are not the problem,” Davis said. Rather, it’s a lack of good scripts for people of color in Hollywood. She is actively trying to change that with her production company JuVee Productions, which puts an emphasis on narratives from a diverse range of emerging and established voices to tell dynamic stories that span the spectrum of humanity.

“I am a person who is always trying to reach for my significance. That's what democracy means, finding the significance of every human being.”
— Viola Davis, actress and ASU Delivering Democracy Distinguished Lecturer

The crowd that gathered Saturday afternoon to hear Davis speak numbered roughly 1,500, with an additional 500-plus in an adjacent building where the lecture was being livestreamed. Before she took the stage, things kicked off with a rousing rendition of gospel songs performed by the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Choir, followed by the ASU Gospel Choir.

Among the event's speakers was ASU President Michael Crow, who used the example of the artist Michelangelo and how many models he went through before “achieving the beauty of his dream” to illustrate how we are doing the same thing today with democracy.

“Viola Davis is a tremendous artist. She is a tremendous advocate for democracy. She knows it’s time to throw out our current model and move on to the next,” he said, citing several ways in which ASU has done so as an institution of higher learning, including increased retention rates and diversity, and the fact that thousands now attend the university for free.

“We have to reconceptualize democracy, reconceptualize education to drive down barriers and defeat ignorance. ASU has reconceptualized the institution of higher education and driven it toward the objective of an institution driven by inclusion and the success of its students,” Crow said. “So we’re proud of this center, and we’re proud to present Viola Davis and all that she stands for.”

Sarah Herrera, program manager for the center, said the Delivering Democracy lecture is more than just an event; it’s one of several programs the center offers that connect members of the community with volunteer organizations throughout the Valley. At Saturday’s lecture, the center facilitated community engagement by passing out volunteer cards to members of the audience, who could fill them out with their interests and then be connected to organizations based on that information.

The event concluded with ASU Gammage executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack presenting Davis with the first-ever ASU Gammage Courage Award.

“Ms. Davis is being honored for her tireless work and commitment in championing diversity and inclusion in the arts,” said Jennings-Roggensack. “She has been an incredible role model for people from all walks of life because of her profound courage to not accept the status quo and to let her talent and grace shine.”

“I am a person who is always trying to reach for my significance,” said Davis. “That's what democracy means, finding the significance of every human being.”

Top photo: Viola Davis speaks at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix on Feb. 27. Photo by Ashley Lowery

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