Actress Alfre Woodard, whose movies include the Louisiana-shot “Passion Fish” and “12 Years a Slave,” has a shelf full of awards attesting to her talent. She has been nominated once for an Academy Award and Grammy Award, 18 times for an Emmy Award (winning four), and has also won a Golden Globe Award and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.
But acting isn’t the only place where Woodard lends her talent.
Woodard became passionate about South Africa as a student at Boston University in the 1970s. After graduation, Woodard moved to Los Angeles, where she met fellow actors Danny Glover and Mary Steenburgen. In 1989 they helped found a nonprofit called Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA; ansafrica.org) and used their platform to lobby for sanctions against the South African government and its apartheid system of racial segregation.
When apartheid finally fell in 1994, it soon became clear that a new scourge was threatening the country: HIV/AIDS. According to a global AIDS charity, South Africa had one of the fastest-growing rates of infection in the world up to 1998, and by 2001 nearly 25% of pregnant women in the country had the disease. So ANSA altered its mission and in 2005 created It Takes a Village, a program to address the needs of the more than 1 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
“You learn as a young black person that you’re part of a continuum,” says Woodard of her passion for the people of South Africa. “People who came before me did things that made it possible for me to have the life I have now. So you do the right thing and you might not see it at the end of the day, but you’re paying it forward.”
When asked about how she became so passionate about both activism and acting, Woodard said she simply got it from people around her: her teachers, extended family members, and most of all her parents.
“You hear people talk about the effect of arts in their lives, no matter what their profession is,” she said. “At some point, there was an arts class, a music class, a dance class. It wasn’t that they became artists, but it opened their minds up to possibilities, and it opened their world up.”
“I had great parents,” she said. “I had an upbringing with all the creature comforts, and I had a strong community around me, but it was full of people who recognized me and said, ‘Hey, I expect something of you.’ Nobody let you fall through the cracks. … We owe that to all of our children.”