Kerry Washington was an activist long before she became a star. She’s best known for her roles onscreen—particularly D.C. fixer Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which ran from 2012 to 2018—but after the 2016 election, Washington threw herself into political activism. She spoke at the Los Angeles Women’s March in 2017, stumped for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020, and worked with local activists and Stacey Abrams to get out the vote in the 2021 Georgia runoff.
These days, Washington prefers to use her star power to lend the spotlight to others, offering up funding, her Hollywood connections, and her storytelling expertise to 10 local organizations that are part of the Vision Into Power Cohort, a program she set up in partnership with an arm of the Movement Voter Project to support grassroots organizations that empower marginalized groups.
She has invested in several women-led startups, like the health company Solv and the sustainable jewelry brand Aurate. And she runs a production company, Simpson Street, named after the street where her mother grew up in the Bronx. Washington cites her mother and four aunts, raised on that street, as the inspiration for the stories she tells. “They were the matriarchy of my childhood,” she says. Simpson Street focuses on bringing the stories of women of color to life with projects like the 2016 movie Confirmation, the 2019 film adaptation of the play American Son, and the 2020 series Little Fires Everywhere.
Washington is clear-eyed about the ways in which her work in Hollywood itself can be viewed as political. “In a world that marginalizes people of color and women, to center a Black woman and make her fully human became perceived as a political act,” she says. She spoke to TIME about her journey from actor to producer, investor, and activist.
When Scandal debuted, you were the first Black woman to star in a network TV drama in 38 years. What has been Olivia Pope’s impact on you?
Olivia Pope is one of the reasons I’ve stepped into activism in this way. I woke up the morning after the election in 2016, and Olivia Pope was trending. I was confronted with all these people saying, “Olivia Pope, you have to fix this.” “Olivia Pope, save the day.” And while I’m honored at the cultural impact she’s had, we don’t fix our democracy by believing in a fictional character. We take care of our country by showing up and participating in democracy.
I thought, How do I highlight the real Olivia Popes? I’m talking about the Stacey Abrams of the world or Tram Nguyen, who is a community-based organizer who runs New Virginia Majority.
Olivia Pope wasn’t necessarily a hero.
Olivia Pope stole an election! When I read the script for that episode, I cried like a baby.
But the show was historic. It was the first network series to show a woman having an abortion.
I was so surprised that had never been done before. Years later, one of our main characters on Little Fires Everywhere, a teenager, had an abortion. And I remember this question came up among the producers of should we alter that storyline [from the book], and it was like, No. It’s so important to normalize in storytelling. The more we create the opportunity for shame and secrecy, the more we carry a legacy that there’s something wrong with a woman having total agency over her body and her life.
Is it true that one of your first acting gigs was performing skits about reproductive health?
Yes. It was the early ’90s during the AIDS epidemic. All the actors were trained as peer educators at the Adolescent Health Center, and we would develop and perform these shows at schools and community centers about safe sex, abortion, homosexuality, losing your virginity, drug abuse, depression all those issues teens grapple with. After the show, we would stay in character to talk to the audience and do some role-playing. It was some of the best acting training of my life.
We also had to do a lot of advocacy work. There were certain school districts that would say, You can do this show as long as you don’t use the word “condom.” And we would say, That’s impossible. You can’t ask us to perpetuate a culture of shame.
You produced and starred in the 2016 Anita Hill biopic Confirmation. What do you remember from watching her testimony?
I remember my parents arguing about the hearings. My dad is a staunch feminist, and he has evolved. But at the time, he was very upset that this public humiliation was happening for this successful Black man, and my mother was very much on the side of believing Anita Hill. It was, in many ways, my introduction to intersectionality.
You stumped for Biden and Harris, but people sometimes chafe at celebrities telling them how to vote. What does effective advocacy look like for you?
After 2016, I spent two years asking on-the-ground activists, How do people in my position best serve you? We partnered with national organizations like When We All Vote and Black Voters Matter and local organizations like We the People Michigan and New Virginia Majority. The most effective use of my microphone is handing it to women and marginalized people, instead of the old model of a surrogate dropping into an organization, costing them a lot of time and money, and not really serving the real heroes.
How do you hand over the microphone?
Sometimes they’ll say, We need you in this Instagram Live. Or, We don’t need you, but can you help us by finding this celebrity who is from Georgia and really resonates here? Or they might say, I’ve been trying to get this elected official on the phone for three months and haven’t been able to—can you and three other people in the public eye tweet about it? And guess what? That public official gets on the phone. But we’re data driven. We’re not assuming that because I’m Kerry Washington that if I retweet you there’s value there—let’s look at the numbers and see how we can elevate the conversation in a way that’s useful.
How did you choose the organizations you support through your Vision Into Power Cohort?
It’s a two-year program. We pick groups who are democracy building, like Action St. Louis, which empowers Black people and especially Black women, and Advance Native Political Leadership, a women-led organization that works to expand representation and equity for Native people. All 10 organizations have women, particularly BIPOC women, in major leadership positions.
We provide them with direct funding. As an artist, I do have this super-power of being able to tell stories effectively. So we provide storytelling and digital strategy workshops and also fully produce video content. And then we help build out the organization, including with mentorship opportunities.
What are the most important issues to you as the midterms approach this year?
For me, it is really about democracy building. I believe that whatever the issue is that you care about, whether it is education, whether it is healthcare, whether it is the environment, your right to vote is central to having a voice. If we don’t protect our right to vote, we silence our ability to have opinions.
I also believe in supporting community actors. I am co-chair of a fund, Black Voices for Black Justice, that supports Black leaders and Black-led organizations, and 70% of the grantees are Black women or non-binary folks—incredible leaders like Tamieka Atkins, who runs [voter advocacy group] ProGeorgia. Another great leader from Newark, New Jersey, is A’Dorian Murray-Thomas. She is the youngest person elected to the Newark Board of Education, and she supports girls in Newark who have been affected by violence.
You were a founding member of Time’s Up, which faced criticism last year when members of leadership consulted with former New York governor Andrew Cuomo during his sexual harassment scandal—those leaders then had to step down. The board you sat on has been dissolved. What lessons do you take from that experience?
For many of us, Time’s Up was the first time that the silos were removed. So often we were the only woman on a set, the only woman in a meeting, the only woman on a team in a production. We were pitted against each other. Time’s Up was a real turning point where we learned to build together. It’s important we continue to show up for other women. We still have so much work to do to support survivors of harassment, abuse, and assault.
Sexism isn’t over.
This stuff takes time. When you talk about the legacy of racism in this country, it’s been this way for hundreds of years—we’re not going to shift it over one woke summer. Misogyny has been at the root of how we’ve operated for so many centuries. It’s not going to shift with one election. We have to stay at it.
What’s the difference between being the only woman on set vs. one of many?
It’s everything. As much as I worked for Shonda Rhimes on Scandal—she was very much my boss, and one of the best bosses I’ve ever had—I was also invited into the process with Shonda, including becoming a producer toward the end of the show. Shonda gave birth to Olivia Pope, but we raised her together. And I still FaceTime my Scandal sisters four or five times a year.
Now, at my production company, that partnership between women is really the special sauce of what we do—with Eva Longoria and Octavia Spencer and Tracy McMillan and Raamla Mohamed, who was an early researcher on Scandal and then a writer on Little Fires and now a showrunner on Reasonable Doubt, an upcoming show I directed the pilot for. You have to hold hands with those people and walk through life with them.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Styling by Law Roach
Correction, March 3
The previous version of this story misstated one of the organizations with which Washington partnered. It was Black Voters Matter, not Black Lives Matter.
- Employers Take Note: Young Workers Are Seeking Jobs with a Higher Purpose
- Signs Are Pointing to a Slowdown in the Housing Market—At Last
- Welcome to the Era of Unapologetic Bad Taste
- As the Virus Evolves, COVID-19 Reinfections Are Going to Keep Happening
- A New York Mosque Becomes a Refuge for Afghan Teens Who Fled Without Their Families
- High Gas Prices are Oil Companies' Fault says Ro Khanna, and Democrats Should Go After Them
- Two Million Cases: COVID-19 May Finally Force North Korea to Open Up