(The Root) — When actress Alfre Woodard recently traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to announce a cybersummit at Johnson C. Smith University that will coincide with the Democratic National Convention in September, it was just another step in a lifetime of political activism. "I started walking the precincts with my parents when I was 10 years old," she said. Woodard is a native of Tulsa, Okla., a city rich in its history of African-American achievement and infamous for a 1921 racially motivated riot when whites burned the city's wealthy "Negro Wall Street" to the ground.
Woodard chose acting as a lifetime passion and profession when she was 16 years old. But her "real job, the reason we're here together," she said, is "to learn how to love each other — in our households, in our communities" and to make sure all of the Earth's resources stay in balance to benefit all of us. "We do that by working for justice." As a female of color, coming of age in Tulsa, Woodard, now 59, said, "It was impossible not to be involved in politics."
Actor Hill Harper will join the Emmy winner and Academy Award nominee to lead "UFuture: A Summit for Innovative Thinkers" on Sept. 4, the first official day of the convention in Charlotte, with White House officials, educators, business leaders and representatives from more than 20 regional colleges and universities taking part. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Johnson C. Smith, an HBCU, are sponsoring the interactive event. "Our audience will be texting, tweeting and live-streaming in a dialogue about the 21st-century challenges facing them, individually and collectively," she said.
In a conversation at the Johnson C. Smith student union, Woodard told The Root what her parents taught her about being an engaged citizen. She also countered criticism of President Obama and the politically active performers who often support him.
The Root: Do you think continuing involvement in the political process is a lesson that young people — all voters — can learn?
Alfre Woodard: Being an engaged citizen isn't like choosing a team for the Super Bowl. It's ongoing … Freedom ain't free. It has to be fought for and protected every day.
TR: Actors who voice political views and opinions are often criticized for speaking out. What do you think of comments that actors should stick to acting?
AW: Would they say that welders should not be involved, that teachers should not be involved, that mechanics should not be involved? That's absurd.
Acting is a job. We have an entire industry; we have a city like Detroit that suffered when the car industry left to go overseas. The industry in California, believe it or not, has suffered; a lot of that filming has gone out. People in these unions, they have families, they lose their houses. So we have everything at stake that every other American has at stake …
TR: Do actors experience the world and its problems differently?
AW: The one thing I will say about actors who are informed: It is impossible for them not to work for social justice. It is impossible for them because our job is people. We study people; we study cultures. We bring those people to life when we're telling stories. And we live around the world … so we are actually in the trenches with people in a way that most Americans never have the opportunity, to see how people live and the problems that they are struggling under.
So we can't keep our mouths closed about the plight of infant mortality in the Delta, our mouths closed about environmental racism and economic disparity … We would have to be mindless and callous not to be involved.
TR: How have your parents influenced you?
AW: My mama and daddy did not nurture and raise an artiste, a person who sits by a swimming pool. My parents raised a participating citizen, a citizen who feels responsible not only for [her] own family but all the families around [her].
TR: This summit is a nonpartisan event, but you're a strong supporter of President Obama.
AW: Those same two people said if somebody's telling the truth, never let them stand alone. I am standing with the president. I am still fired up about moving forward because this president has made more progress in such a short time than any president in our history, and he's done it with one hand tied behind his back, an openly disloyal opposition and starting out with unprecedented lows in the economy, in education, in manufacturing. You name it and he's done it. He has steadily brought us up step-by-step out of that desperate situation …
Every election, we say this is the most important election of our time, but it is a pivotal moment in the history of the world if America doesn't stay on that climbing course that President Obama has us on, because when we falter, everything around us falters as well. That's what's at stake.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's She the People blog, The Root, NPR, Fox News Charlotte, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog; she was also national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.