Uzo Aduba radiates a level of calm and warmth you might not expect from the breakout star of one of Netflix’s best series. The Orange Is The New Black actress is so serene, in fact, she is completely nonplussed by a frazzled journalist showing up 15 minutes late to interview after she went to the wrong outpost of a trendy Brooklyn coffee franchise. Instead, Aduba greets the panicked writer with the honest advice to “not worry about it” and asks get-to-know-you questions with a rare, genuine interest. That’s also why, as Aduba leaves that coffee shop (the right coffee shop), her mere presence leads to the formation of a circle of polite fans. By the end of their conversation, Aduba holds one of the women’s hands, and they find such camaraderie with each other that they exchange Instagram handles before parting.
After spending a mere hour with her, it’s clear that Uzo Aduba cares about people. That explains why nonprofit Heifer International, a charity dedicated to ending poverty around the globe, has tapped Aduba as its first-ever ambassador to Africa, a title Refinery29 can exclusively announce. The news of Aduba’s newly-announced ambassadorship follows a trip the Emmy-winner took to Uganda this past March, which you can get a peek at in the video below, where the Netflix star surveyed the work that Heifer is doing with in-need communities.
“It’s important because, instead of giving a handout, you’re giving someone a hand up,” Aduba told Refinery29 of the organization at a Bedford-Stuyvesant coffee shop earlier this June. Heifer gives that hand “up” by teaching its members sustainable farming, and then gives them livestock including cows — hence, the name — helping them begin their own enterprises. However, there is a rule: recipients must pass on their first-born calf to a new, deserving family, continuing the growth around them. Aduba described the process as “a non-traditional microloan.”
She added, “We’ll give you the opportunity to provide for yourself, and that is what will actually be a key piece to ending poverty around the globe.“
As economic chatter has suggested for years, microloans like the ones Heifer is doling out are especially important for women facing poverty. “What I think is remarkable about Heifer is a lot of the people who sign up for it are women,” Aduba continued. “They’re going to protect and care for [their family] — make sure it not only survives, but thrives to the best of their ability … Women aren’t scared of it. Women aren’t scared, period. Never have been and never will be. They hear about they program. They sign up. They’re the first to enlist.”
One of those “mama bear” women, to use Aduba’s words, is a Ugandan mother of three named Grace, who the actress first met during her inaugural Heifer trip in 2016. Back then, Grace, who was jobless and recently widowed, had received 20 cows through the program. Now, Grace has 40. The Ugandan mother has also started a savings co-op with the other women in her community and is saving up to buy a truck, which will further allow her business to flourish.
“She is maybe the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met. Ever. In my life,” Aduba said, stressing she feels this way despite a language barrier. “You can feel her fight. You can feel her power. All of it. It’s like, ‘Man, I wonder who this woman would be born into a different circumstance.’ … Running this world. Running Uganda.”
Women aren’t scared, period. Never have been and never will be.
Although Grace has yet to ascend into the halls of power in her own nation, the image of Uzo Aduba, a dark-skinned Black woman with unapologetically beautiful natural hair, leading a conversation about international poverty does suggest some progress is being made over which types of voices are heard. This makes sense, as Black celebrities and power players of late are finally starting to receive the recognition they’ve long deserved. Last year’s breakout summer movie was Girls Trip. This year, Black Panther changed the cinematic landscape forever. When Roseanne Barr hurled racially-charged Twitter bile at former President Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, it was a Black woman, ABC president Channing Dungey, who canceled the sitcom star’s eponymous series.
Is the next stage of the progress throwing all of that cultural capital behind work that moves Black people around the world forward? “Yes, I think so,” Aduba, whose Nigerian-born parents immigrated to America in the 1960s, mused. “I say this all the time, my action needn't be your action, so long as we’re both active.” While everyone has their own ambitions and passions, the actress reminds everyone there is power and strength in numbers.
“We have now had enough people rise to the status of billionaire, multi-millionaire, studio head, executive, decision-maker, tastemaker,” she added. “Where we can take that power, real actual power, and we can bring that back to our own communities.”
Right now, Aduba, who returns to Netflix as fan-favorite Suzanne Warren on July 27 when Orange Is The New Black premieres its sixth season, is focused on using her own power to bring as much “excitement” and involvement as possible to Heifer through her ambassadorship. After all, she says, “[In] times like these, where we are more divided than we’ve ever been, it’s really important for us to realize what we are at the end of the day is a global family.
“Without linking on to one another, standing beside our brothers and sisters of the human race — the human family — we’re nothing.”