Hailing from the Bronx, NY, Kerry Washington was born on this day to Earl and Valerie Washington, a real-estate agent and college professor respectively.
The four-time Emmy nominee burst onto the scene in 1994 with a role on an episode of ABC Afterschool Specials, quickly became a breakout star with her role in Save the Last Dance and cemented her imprint on our hearts when she played Olivia Pope in Scandal. With Shonda Rhimes’ hit show, Washington became “the first Black woman to star in a network TV drama in over 38 years.”
While many know Kerry as a dynamic actress, style icon, and mother, “Kerry’s acting career is just one side of her: She uses her platform to give voice to the most forgotten, to shine a light on the darkest of places. She has fought violence against women, raised money to protect the civil liberties of minorities, and advocated for the arts, among other things.”
The fiercest of allies for social justice, Washington is perennially fighting to help shape the world into a place where “we all know in our hearts that we’re 100 percent worthy.” Fo her Jan. 31 birthday, ESSENCE celebrates Washington by highlighting her political prowess.
Washington was raised in a civically-minded and engaged family. For her 18th birthday celebration, Washington’s parents took her out to dinner as a celebration of not only her birthday, but the fact that her age now made her eligible to vote. She considered this “a real rite of passage,” a responsibility and a privilege.
Washington received training as a peer educator at the Adolescent Health Center, and she told TIME “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.”
Washington has said, “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.”
In 2008, Washington was an extremely vocal supporter of the campaign for then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign; in 2012, she spoke at her first Democratic conference speech; to “stumping for the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign for months.”
Her longtime work in this space has taken her to the White House where she spoke at the United State of Women Summit, helming PSAs, speaking out against financial abuse, and imparting the impactful message of “There is a way out” for those feeling trapped in a relationship that is abusive.
Providing a message of empowerment to engage in conversations with those waiting to get the vaccine, Washington stated, “In the midst of a global health crisis, it is important that we are there for the ones we love and are committed to keeping them safe. I know that the person most effective in creating change in a family or community is someone in that family or community. That’s why I’ve joined The Costs of Waiting, to help us all figure out how to have better conversations about vaccination.”
Having never forgotten the first time she was able to qualify for that “sweet Screen Actors Guild” health insurance, Washington used her time as a guest host on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to discuss the issue.
Inadequate access to health insurance can lead to inequities in care. To receive SAG healthcare, you have to meet a certain threshold with earnings each year, so Washington invited the actors on stage so they could deliver one more line of dialogue to receive coverage. “One was just $40.87 away from getting insurance, with the other, dressed as a mailman, $400.87 away from qualifying.”