How did coming from a family of educators shape your perspective on education?
I grew up in Baltimore, a town that was just coming out of segregated schools. Education was about progress and community and love. My mother taught really poor kids. Even though we were all, at the time, Negroes, there was a clarity for me about my situation and the situation of the children she taught.
In Notes From the Field, you tackle the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, through which many poor kids end up in the criminal-justice system instead of in school.
Two hundred and fifty interviews later, I think it’s not right to call it the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s more broadly a problem of poverty. There are lots of things pulling against the possibility that a kid could have rich intellectual development. I don’t think it’s fair to blame teachers. If we want schools to be an effective intervention, they have to have all kinds of supports that aren’t there now.
And what about the devastating instances of young black men being killed by police?
A play that put my work on the map, Twilight: Los Angeles, was about a black man [Rodney King] being beaten by black officers. Once Ferguson happened, it expanded my idea of what I’m doing. Notes From the Field is really a trumpet blaring for people to get on board with what I think is a new civil rights movement.
More than 20 years after Twilight, does the violence today feel like déjà vu?
The project about L.A. broadened my idea of race relations beyond black and white. My grandfather said, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” I’ve been trying to become America, word for word, as an antidote [to being] told, “Don’t have anything to do with those people and they will not have anything to do with you.” It’s about insisting that I can be fully American and fully human by opening my heart to people who are very different from me.
Do you see yourself as a voice for people?
I am not a voice for anybody. I want to hear from people because they know what I don’t. They’re giving me voice. A lot of people wear clothes to look hip or thinner or more important. I wear these words, and they’re a gift that I hope makes me look better.
Is there art that has inspired you to act?
Inspiration is transformative in a way that makes you feel your own potential to make your contribution. I have found my students inspirational. Music of the ’60s–King Curtis and the Kingpins. The horn and the organ have given me the courage to come to New York, walk in the lion’s mouth. I’ll never forget having a chance to go to a Picasso retrospective. It changed my life–gave me courage. Went all the way to see Guernica in Spain–gave me courage.
What would Nancy McNally, your character from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, make of this election?
I think she would just be appalled, at the ideas but also the ways in which language is being rendered by Trump. She’d have a sense of how to yell at Hillary Clinton the way somebody yells in the corner at a boxer, “Keep your hands up!”
What have you learned from talking to thousands of Americans?
Cornel West taught me that hope and optimism are different. Hope has to do not with thinking everything’s going to be O.K., but seeing that it’s not and then you move anyway. I keep seeing this willingness to move anyway, whether it’s a bull rider in Idaho or the chief judge in the Yurok tribe. I’ve been interested in people who see the dignity in struggle, and sometimes that struggle is toward something beautiful.
This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.