On Thursday night, Issa Rae and America Ferrera participated in Marriott International's EmpowerME fireside conversation in Philadelphia, led by Good Morning America correspondent T.J. Holmes.
The talk was a cornerstone event of the 2017 National Black MBA Association and Prospanica Conference in Philadelphia (the first joint convention for the professional organizations), and the actresses and directors spoke to the audience about political activism, advocating for underrepresented groups, financial literacy, and the power of education inside and out of classrooms.
Ferrera and Rae both spoke to Refinery29 before the talk. Ferrera told Refinery29 that as the daughter of two Honduran immigrants who primarily came to the U.S. to give her and her siblings access to education and to a better life, she has a keen appreciation for the power of education. She added, though, that the quality of one's education also matters, as does the support that educators are given do their work.
"First and foremost, it starts with how we treat teachers in our culture. Treating educators with respect but also with resources. Paying them salaries that they deserve. Making it a job where the best and brightest want to go into that work," Ferrera explained. "They're the ones who are teaching our future generations, and so respecting education I think starts with respecting educators, and resourcing them to do the best job they can do with educating young people."
Ferrera also says that learning beyond the confines of school can't be discounted, either. As she sees it, those experiences inform what people learn, how they learn it, and how they apply it to their own lives.
"I would also say that there's always an opportunity to learn more about people and about issues," she continued. "The most I've ever learned about any given issue was by talking to people. By sitting down face-to-face with someone and saying, how does this issue impact you? How does environmental justice impact you? How does the wage gap impact you? How does your immigration status impact you? You can't read those things in books — you can't really even get a lot of that stuff in the news — but there is always an opportunity to sit down and listen to people. There's no community in which there isn't access to learning more about other human beings."
For Rae, one of the most pressing matters is affordable education — particularly, free college education. "Obviously, you still have to maintain a certain grade point average, and you have to show that you want it, but it should be a public resource," she said. "It should be a right, especially since careers demand it."
Beyond that, she says that offering basic financial literacy in schools can make a difference in people’s lives. “I think that that’s so important in our communities, and it’s just not taught. Financial literacy is a resource I know I didn’t have. I learned from my friends — and my friends didn’t know what they were talking about,” says Rae.
Onstage, she joked about learning the hard way about credit cards in college, not knowing that “you weren’t supposed to open three credit cards,” even when they came in the mail with your name on them, and promised free t-shirts.
"It feels like common sense now, but for me, it was like, free money? Just make the minimum payments?" she said. "By the time I was out of college, I was like, why are they allowed to charge me money? Why didn’t anybody tell me? That hindered me for sure. Our apartment was robbed, and I had invested in camera equipment. In a sense, I was investing in myself through these credit cards, and being able to use that [equipment] to create material. But when I was robbed and lost all of that, it was obviously devastating. My credit cards were maxed out, and now I had no film equipment. That education would have served me better had I known."
As for what she did learn in school, Rae says that discovering how she learned best helped her to determine the best use of her time and money. Going to school can be an exercise in rote learning — being instructed on how to pass one test after another, as Rae did (the PSATs, SATs, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT). For others, including a former classmate who she says went to graduate school and later wrote the hit movie Girls Trip, formal schooling provides time, resources, and a network that helps them discover their best path.
The common thread in success, as Rae and Ferrera saw it, was community. Having people who shared knowledge, provided emotional and intellectual support, and created work that moved society forward.
“We don’t all come from the same backgrounds, and the same kind of families and homes where our parents have the time or the resources to focus on our education,” Ferrera said. “So, I think it starts really early, and acknowledging that as a society, and trying to level the playing field for young people who have zero say in what their circumstances. I think that’s paramount to becoming the country that we try to be.”