Viola Davis: 'Heroes are everyday people. They just stay 5 minutes longer.'

March 21, 2019 Erin Miller

Viola Davis

Not only is Viola Davis an award-winning actor that commands a stage, she’s also a powerful force when it comes to challenging us to do more to help others.

During the closing keynote at Workhuman 2019, Viola was interviewed by Workhuman CHRO Steve Pemberton. She shared that she grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Her mother married her father at 15 and they had 6 children. Her father had a second-grade education and struggled with alcoholism and violence. Her mother had an eighth grade education and dropped out of school because her teacher beat her, sometimes to the point of bleeding. Growing up as “the little chocolate girl” in a predominantly white area left Viola feeling ostracized.

Viola described what it felt like growing up in abject poverty: “You have nothing. There’s no food, electricity comes and goes because you can’t pay the bills. I dreamed of being able to just flush the toilet instead of filling a bucket of water and having to dump it in the toilet. I wet my bed until I was 14. My siblings and I were all bed wetters. That’s what happens when you grow up with trauma.”

What she craved most growing up was a sense of belonging. “All the things you want, we want the same things. What happens is you become a product of your circumstances. My whole life, I waited for people to see me,” she said.

Now Viola focuses on the example she is setting for her daughter. She asks her daughter all of the time, “What are the best parts of you?” And she hears her daughter say, “My head and my heart.”

The one person who saw potential in Viola was her Upward Bound counselor, a man named Jeff. When she was having an anxiety attack in science class one day, Jeff came to pull her out of class so they could talk. “Heroes are ordinary people,” she said. “They just stay 5 minutes longer.”

Illustrating the power of words and recognition, she said, “You either have a good label or a bad label. Isn’t it wonderful when people stamp the best label on you?” 

When Viola talks about everyday heroes, she’s talking about people who recognize the value and the potential of every human being. A hero not only fights for that kid who needs to believe she can change the world, but also has the courage to challenge those around her to care more too.

Now she’s doing her part in giving emerging artists a chance through a new production company, Juvee Productions, which she created with her husband. “We can’t mention movies like Black Panther and Hidden Figures and claim [the industry is] already changed, it’s done. It has to become a norm … Until we get exactly what our Caucasian counter parts get, we are not on an even playing field.”

Steve’s last question for Viola was, “If you could go back and talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you tell her?”

Viola said she always knew the answer to that question. “I would tell her she’s beautiful. She’s great just the way she is.” But recently someone asked her if she would allow her six-year-old self to sit with her now and give your 53-year-old self a hug?

Viola laughed and said she’d tell her six-year-old self, “Just you wait and see the house you’re going to live in. You wait and see your beautiful husband, your beautiful baby, and your beautiful heart.”

About the Author

Erin Miller

Erin Miller is the Vice President of Human Resources at PrecisionHawk, a drone technology company based in Raleigh, NC. She is a progressive people leader with a passion for driving innovative human resource and people-first practices within organizations looking to scale.

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