Growing up, actress/activist Tracee Ellis Ross, star of TV’s “blackish,” didn’t find many female role models embodying “the black experience” on television. Her favorite shows were “Cagney & Lacey,” “The Bionic Woman,” “Wonder Woman” and “Kate & Allie.”
“Now, none of them looked like me — that’s a whole other conversation that needs to be addressed. I think in the industry and across our world, we are doing a better job but we are not there yet,” she told a crowd of nearly 800 women (and a few men) assembled at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich for the Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls annual luncheon on April 4. Ross plays Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, an anesthesiologist, wife and mother, on the show, going into its sixth year. “But I had the imagination to leap beyond that and I also had the benefit of a mother that was showing me right in my home what was possible when you take your gift, your life, your joy into your hands and then you can stand there and be a woman in her full glory and be more than one thing and that is something I keep trying to bring to ‘blackish’ and to Bow is that I am not just a doctor, I’m not just a wife, I’m not just a mom, I’m all of those things and I think so many of us in our lives are all of those things.”
As a child, she didn’t have far to look to be inspired by strong black women. Her mother is Diana Ross, after all, and her aunt was a renowned doctor.
“I grew up in a tribe of women, it was my mom and her three girls,” she said. “We were a little tribe so this myth in the world of where women are in competition with each other, which by the way, it’s not a myth. It’s because this systemic environment has been there is only place for one of us and that we are supposed to compete with each other.”
Women working on behalf of other women, not in competition with each other, is something Ross has long worked for. “Your win is my win. I really believe that,” she said. “Every time a woman laughs out loud, lives out loud, loves out loud, I get more permission to do the same. That’s how, to me, the human spirit is supported is in that energy of community and connection.”
Ross’ comments perfectly echoed the theme of the luncheon: “Brave. Bold. You.” and during it, foundation CEO and president Juanita James told Ross she personally inspired the event’s theme. Over the years, the fund has invested more than $6.5 million in support of women and girls in Fairfield County from giving them skills to be financially secure as well as addressing their health and safety needs.
Rebecca and Rich DelValle of Ansonia were also featured speakers at the luncheon. After marrying and combining their blended families, they are parents of six children. Both Rebecca and Rich had a challenging childhood, overcoming many obstacles. The fund’s Family Economic Security Program (FESP) at Housatonic Community College has helped both navigate college and put them on a solid path to success. “Drive and determination describes both of us,” Rich said, saying they have balanced their respective college studies with work and taking care of the kids. “It was the bravest and boldest thing to go back to school.”
Ross talked about her own journey from being uncomfortable in her skin from her hair to her lips to self-acceptance. “I thought everything I was was all wrong…I taught myself how to smile so my top lip would go away so that my lips would be thinner and tried to beat my hair into submission and get it to be bouncin’ and behaving but clearly it wants to do what it wants to do, it’s its own star,” she said. “I can chronicle my journey toward self love and self acceptance with my journey with my hair.”
Ross is well known for her keen sense of fashion, which she noted has played an important role in her life. “For me, fashion, growing up, was my armor. And it still exists as that but it also has another facility for me now, which is it that it’s one of the ways I wear my insides on my outside. It’s one of the ways I get to express myself creatively and I get to wear my heart on my body on the outside. Sometimes I feel strong and powerful, sometimes I feel sexy, sometimes I feel very feminine, sometimes I actually need the protection… Clothing for me is a form of expression.”
Asked what advice she would give her younger self, she said, “I would say hang in there and all the things that you think are not great about you are actually going to be aces in your deck.” Ross says sometimes at the end of the day when she wants to fine tooth comb her experience and rehash all the things she should have done better or differently, she has to remind herself not to. “All of those things are a part of the day and I think that’s what I would share with her. All of this stuff you are experiencing, if you can just wear the clothes of life a little more loosely and be a little softer and gentler with yourself, you are exactly where you are supposed to be and just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you will get there wherever it is you need to go.”
She said she used to be quite challenged by what she perceived as where she should be versus where she was. “The tendency for me was for it to terrify me and to debilitate me. It was sort of like either ‘what’s the point’ or ‘I could never’ or ‘I can’t make it there’ and then how to get there is a whole other thing like when you see a goal over there…that seems insurmountable and what I discovered is the fastest way to where I want to go is through where I am,” she said.