Viola Davis sends message of perseverance as keynote speaker at Women’s Empowerment Expo

Helen Rogalski, Managing Editor

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On Saturday, April 16, the 11th Women’s Empowerment and Networking Expo was hosted at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

PNC Arena was filled with more than 10,000 excited, predominately female attendees, all gathered to hear a wide selection of pastors, performers and speakers for the expo.

The highlight of the expo came in the form of keynote speaker Viola Davis, who spoke about her life leading up to the successful acting career she has currently and how important perseverance in the face of adversity is to her.

Saturday’s schedule included performances from national recording artists Tina Campbell, Charles Jenkins and Pastor Shirley Caesar. While these performances were mainly religious and spoke of finding strength in Jesus Christ, the event was not advertised as a religious one. Each singer aimed to involve and empower the crowd through their music.

Following Ceasar’s performance, keynote speaker Davis was welcomed on stage to an extremely excited crowd. Davis is best known for her roles in “The Help,” “How To Get Away With Murder” and the upcoming film “Suicide Squad.” She has gained recognition worldwide, including four Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Tony Awards, two Critics’ Choice Awards and was the first-ever woman of color to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

While millions are aware of Davis’ work, her poverty-stricken childhood in Central Falls, R.I. is unknown to many. Given to them by the city, the house in which Davis and her parents lived was a condemned building without plumbing, heating, running water or a phone line, with an impressive rat infestation.

Davis survived mainly off of school lunches, and she did not meet her brother and sister until the age of 5. They had been living with their grandparents, for their parents could not afford to support them.

For Davis, the idea of another life hadn’t existed until talking with her sister.

“I remember she [Davis’ sister, Diane] said she saw an indoor toilet for the first time when she was about 8, and it changed her life. The pristine toilet. The tub. There was something about it that made her want to have more,” said Davis in her speech. “This is the call to adventure: she [Diane] looked at all the plaster coming off the walls, she saw the rats, the smell of poverty… and she said, ‘The only way you’re not going to have this life is you have to know exactly what you want to do to get out.'”

Though Davis was only 5 at the time, this sentiment stayed with her for years to come.

“In every speaking gig I get, I always start with saying, ‘My name is Viola Davis and I am a hero. And I’m not a hero because I’m like Wonder Woman…I’m a hero because I was born into an ordinary life that I did not fit into.’” As she said this, the crowd gave a warm response.

“My mom has an eighth grade education. My dad had a fifth grade education,” said Davis. Davis spoke fondly of her parents, but was clear that she had higher goals for her own future. “I loved my mom and dad. I loved them to death, but I didn’t want to be them… I said I want to be better. I want to be bigger.”

While she knew she wanted a better life, young Davis wasn’t sure of how to do this, or when her very own “call to action” would come. That is, until she found the novel “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

“I saw craft. And I said, ‘that’s it!’ I no longer heard the rats in the ceiling eating the pigeons… I saw a clear-cut vision of what I wanted my life to be. And I thought, ‘this could be good,’” said Davis.

And so, she worked. She practiced. She performed. She graduated from Central Falls High School, then Rhode Island College and then studied at The Juilliard School for four years.

In addition to being proud of her upbringing and subsequent success, Davis appeared equally proud of her mistakes along the way. Davis said the biggest preparation for her time as a celebrity has been “my life, my failures, my pain, the depths of despair and pain and joy and love and life. Life prepared me.”

By sharing her difficult beginning, her mistakes and her successes, Davis brought chills, tears and applause from the audience. In her closing remarks, she stated, “I recognize that my only power in owning my story is telling it. Without shame.”

While her life may be drastically different now, Davis says her history as a poor girl “is as much a part of my life as winning an Emmy and understanding fully the phrase ‘what a caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly.’”