Activism has been a part of Kerry Washington’s life since she was a teenager, and the actress became a prominent political advocate during Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. But it wasn’t until the morning after the 2016 election that Olivia Pope ( the fictional crisis management fixer Washington starred on ABC’s Scandal) started trending in response to Donald Trump’s election as president that she realized her potential for greater impact.
“People wanted this imaginary character to solve their problems, and I felt like this was a moment of real disconnect because we live in a democracy; we are the people who have the power to make the most important change, but we continue to pass that power to characters on television,” Washington explained. “I wanted to use my platform to remind people that they are the fixers in their community. They are the change agents and the problem solvers in their lives, in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their school boards and in their states.”
During the next midterm elections, Washington began attending community events and meetings with local political organizers such as Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, and Art Reyes III, executive director of We the People Michigan. Inspired by their efforts, she formed the Vision Into Power (VIP) Cohort, which provides resources to those groups and eight other grassroots organizations across the country, including One Hood, Florida Rising, and Arizona Coalition for Change. In 2020 she collaborated with the Social Impact Fund (a tax sponsor of non-profit organizations) for the KW Foundationwhich includes both the VIP Cohort and the Influence Change initiative that focuses on educating artists about social issues and organizations they can work with.
“Social Impact Fund has enabled me to do the work in the field without being responsible for receiving donations and grants and all the legal and fiduciary responsibilities that are absolutely necessary,” explains Washington. “My core team can focus on changing the world instead of accounting and tax filing and insurance.”
A challenge over the course of her career, Washington says, was making sure she didn’t give up her voice as she became more famous. “It’s scary when you’re in the public eye to go out and say things and make change because you’re so vulnerable,” she admits. Working with Social Impact Fund, which has a decade of experience managing celebrity philanthropic projects in the entertainment world, has given her one less worry about speaking up and taking action. “A lot of people don’t do this job; they don’t step in any deeper because they are paralyzed with fear. Can I manage a foundation? Do I know everything I need to know to do this? To be led by a fiscal sponsor who has a proven track record in the non-profit sector, I don’t have to give up my entire career in art or production to do this job.”
For Washington, using her voice is exercising the right she is most passionate about mobilizing others to embrace. “We live in a time where people have forgotten how powerful they are,” she says. “There are so many things that matter right now: climate change, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, education, healthcare, poverty, racism. There is so much at stake, but all of those issues can be impacted by building democracy.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.