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What Viola Davis Can Teach Us


It is fitting that Viola Davis, who made history on Sunday night as the first African American woman to win the Emmy for outstanding actress in a drama series is originally from Central Falls, Rhode Island. In her captivating acceptance speech at the Emmys Sunday night, she speaks of the importance of opportunity and how without it, people are held back and kept separate.


In my mind, I see a line. And over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line… Let me tell you something: the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.


Davis’ home town of Central Falls, recently nicknamed by residents and leaders as #thecomebackcity, is channelling her wisdom by working tirelessly to bring more opportunity to its citizens. A slate of leaders, youth sports leagues, job fairs, district-charter partnerships, and a nationally recognized interscholastic chess team are all part of the transformation of this troubled city and embedded in all of that work is a commitment to empowering people of color.   


Not only do her words resonate in Hollywood, but they apply perfectly to what ails America’s educational system as well. So much of what holds our students back is a lack of opportunity. Kids can’t compete for scholarships if the courses needed to qualify aren’t available. They can’t compete for spots at our top colleges and universities if there are no AP classes at their school or if their high school profile is weak. Even a valedictorian fails to get a second look if their transcript lacks everything that colleges want them to have.


Opportunity can also come in the form of top tier teachers, innovative programs, and courageous school leaders. It can look like English programs for parents, targeted academic intervention, and unique enrichment programs. Maybe it’s an extended school day or extra help on Saturdays. Maybe it’s a partnership with a local college or classes on coding or STEM. Maybe it’s a robust community service initiative.


Viola Davis provides us with an invaluable lens that will keep us honest and hopefully force us to consistently reflect on whether or not we are working hard enough to provide all kids with the opportunities they need to cross that line and show what they can do. They may not win go on to win an Emmy but true knowledge, skills, pride, and a meaningful diploma have the makings of a really special prize.
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