During the 15th annual Diversity & Leadership Conference, actress and activist America Ferrera came to talk about inclusion. The event was a Most Powerful & Influential Women Breakfast on Thursday morning, toward the end of the conference that would later feature former President Barack Obama.
The Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning Ugly Betty and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants star is now a mother and is producing and starring in the hit TV sitcom Superstore. She has also been politically active for years now, speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and being the opening speaker for the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. The book she wrote and released last year, American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures, has reached The New York Times Best Seller list.
Ferrera's experiences as a mother in the entertainment industry were front and center during her talk. “I became a mom back in May,” she said. “I like it. I am going to keep him. He’s very, very cute.” She recalled that she often brought her infant to the set, breastfeeding him in between filming. It's important for people to “know and understand that mommies and women have the right to claim their power in the world,” she said.
Ferrera also spoke about her experience being the daughter of immigrants from Honduras and her struggles with diversity in the entertainment industry. “What I had to learn was that who I am was not something to be overcome," she said. "That my identity, the color of my skin, the shape of my body, my gender, my age, my lived experiences, were not something that I wanted to shed or to disappear. Those were the things that gave me power when I walked into a room.”
No one could doubt Ferrera’s passion on the subject and how firmly she believed that diversity was power. “While it felt terrible to be rejected or to be told constantly that there wasn’t space for someone like me in the room, it only underlined how important it was that somebody like me got in the room. And when I did get in the room, it wasn’t in spite of what I was. It was accepting of all the things that make me, me,” she said.
The power in Ferrera’s words came from how personal she made this issue. It wasn’t about statistics and inclusion for the sake of “checking a box,” as she put it. It all came down to how we see ourselves and how we see others around us.
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“I think diversity is impactful only when we can show up in spaces as who we are. If we have to show up in spaces and conform to what’s traditional to a room … then there’s no power in my presence in the room," Ferrera argued. "My power comes from existing as authentically and as fully as myself.”
Looking out into the crowd of leaders at the conference, Ferrera challenged her audience’s standards of diversity. She ventured to raise the bar. “And I think this is the next dimension in our conversation about diversity. We’ve been having a conversation about how do we get people in the room, and yes, we can do that, but how will we make spaces where people can get in the room and be in the room as everything they authentically and fully are?”
The Q&A moderator ended the talk with pulling up a picture of Ferrera as a young child, asking what she would tell herself at that age. Ferrera answered by saying that today, as an adult, she’s constantly working on “getting back to what she already knew” as a child. “She could see her whole life in front of her and what she loved and what was possible for her," Ferrera said of her younger self. "And it was in along the way that other peoples' baggage got in the way of what she already knew. That she was awesome. That she had so much to give. … She knew it.”
And it is with that innocence and that personal connection that every word Ferrera spoke said volumes. No longer the young girl we saw as Ugly Betty, the actress is continuously proving herself in the powerful stories she tells.