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‘What Does a Person Have to Do: ‘A Different World’ Star Dawnn Lewis Says She Feels Compelled to Help Up and Coming Black Actresses as Only A ‘Handful’ Make It

Many people remember actress Dawnn Lewis as the mature student Jalessa Vinson Taylor on the hit NBC sitcom “A Different World.” On the show, she was the big sister— helping students on the show navigate their way through Hillman College in the late ’80s and mid-’90s.

Dawnn Lewis.
Dawnn Lewis. (Photo: @dawnn_lewis/Instagram.)

The show, which sparked the careers of Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy, and Jada Pinkett Smith, also smashed stereotypes about Black life, a fact that Lewis is very proud of.

“When ‘A Different World’ came along, they were adding people of color, various shades of brown and financial elevation, social awareness or unawareness,” she stated during an interview with People magazine.

Lewis told the outlet, “Anything that we did, anything that our characters did to raise awareness or elevate the various facets of who we are in this fabric of this country and in our culture, I think that’s what still resonates today because we’re all striving to be our best selves and just looking for a reflection of what does that look like in my world?”

The 61-year-old has applied this same outlook to her work with younger actresses and actors in 2023. The songwriter and vocalist created the theme song for the HBCU-based sitcom. She also started an organization called A New Day Foundation, where she works to provide financial and programmatic support toward the empowerment and education of underserved youth; provide capacity-building pro bono services to assist small/ grassroots nonprofits, and to provide general support services in underserved communities.

“I’ve learned that [phrase] ‘pay it forward.’ I did not know what the term ‘mentor’ was or ‘motivational speaker,’ but ever since I was in elementary school … I was bullied as a young child,” said Lewis. “So my teachers and the people in my village really put a lot of effort and energy into me to help me see the light and the positivity of myself and my abilities.”

She started this work to help create opportunities for new talent. Through her foundation, she started mentorship programs for teen girls and teen boys and offers scholarships.

Lewis shared why she is so passionate about working with younger people, saying, “I became committed to helping young people, underserved communities who don’t normally have access to people of my celebrity, for lack of a better word, to encourage them, to say someone sees them.”

Because Lewis is rooted in so much service work does not mean she is not booked and busy. She recently finished playing Zelma Bullock, Tina Turner’s mother in the Tony Award-winning musical “Tina” on Broadway. Lewis is also a voiceover actor on “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” “Star Trek: Discovery Logs,” and a recent “The Simpsons” episode and the 2022 holiday show, “Blackjack Christmas.”

Despite successfully finding work, she says there is still work to do.

“I believe we’ve taken several steps forward, that cannot be denied, but I also recognize that there is a ceiling that only a handful of us are allowed to press through,” Lewis said. “You can be the exception. We still feel limited. We’re grateful for the variety of platforms now on which we can have opportunities. Because of the variety, one person can’t be everywhere, so they’ve got to spread it out somewhat. But then, depending on the platform, you get either a nod or you don’t from the industry.”

“So, yes,” Lewis continued, “there are more opportunities, but at the same time they just raised the ceiling just a little bit higher, so you still feel like you’re bumping your head.”

“You look at the Oscar nominations,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Seriously? Seriously?’ Really, what does a person have to do? What does a person have to do? Viola Davis — nothing for ‘The Woman King?’ What does a person have to do? Do you know what I’m saying?”

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