Kathy Najimy, Actor & Activist
Kathy Najimy talks about her childhood in San Diego, her acting career, and her life of activism.
America Ferrera, Actress and Activist
Maya Lin, Artist, Architect & Memorial Designer
Margaret Cho, Comedian
AMERICA FERRERA: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My parents are immigrants from Honduras and they split up when I was quite young. My mother raised six children on her own. Watching her do whatever it took to provide the life that she came here to give us was a real testament of what we're capable of.
I grew up feeling, first and foremost, American. Very aware of the fact that I didn't speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me for not speaking Spanish. The very first audition I ever went to wasn't specified Latina. The casting director asked me if I could do it again, but please try to sound more Latina this time. And I was really confused.
I thought, do you want me to speak in Spanish? No, I want you to speak in English. I just want you to try and sound more Latina. And what she was asking me to do was to speak broken English. It became very clear, very quickly that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person, and that there was a specific box for that.
I was playing a young girl whose parents didn't understand her dreams for herself. The fact that it was this 17-year-old chubby Mexican-American girl, who no one would ever imagine would get to be the star of her own movie, I think that really opened up people's ideas of what was possible in terms of storytelling and who got to be the center of their own life.
I went to a professor of mine and started crying and saying, you know, what do I do? It was what I felt completely passionate and drawn to, and then there was go to school, get a really important job, and try and change the world. He said to me that he'd been mentoring a young girl. She was a young Latina girl. He'd been mentoring her for years and he couldn't really break her shell. She came to him and said, "Come watch this movie with me, it's called "Real Women Have Curves."
And so he took some of her friends to see the movie and she was actually going through a very similar thing with her own parents. And so it gave her the opportunity to start that conversation. And they did ultimately support her in her dream to go to college. I had no idea that he knew I was an actress. And he said to me, "She would have never been able to do that if she hadn't seen a reflection of herself." What I realized was that being an actress, it had already become something bigger than me.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women. So as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around. And that made me realize that there was just work to do.
So what I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices. So often the narratives about social issues leave out the very people who are most impacted by them. There were people on the front lines living these issues and fighting for their communities. And they know much better than those of us who just got woke yesterday.
I gain strength and encouragement from those around me who are being courageous, and brave, and stepping out. I need them to keep doing that, because it's what keeps me going.
- You do a lot of research. You put all that research aside, and you wake up with a moment's inspiration.
- My parents immigrated from China. My mother, she always said in your generation you should do whatever you feel like doing.
- My senior year at Yale, someone saw a poster for a competition for the Vietnam Memorial. And we said, well what a great way to end the class, we'll all design Vietnam memorials for the class, which is what I did. And I saw the site having researched for about six weeks to eight weeks. And the next morning, I thought let's cut open the earth and open it up. That's all it was.
- Some of the highest priced architecture firms in the country did enter this competition, and they all lost.
- I thought that the most insulting and demeaning memorial to our Vietnam experience that was possible. One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is, a black scar.
- You know, I will never know how much my age, my gender, my race, played into the controversy. We'll never know.
- I knew I was right. It wasn't just about the aesthetics. It was about I knew that if that project was built it would help people. I cannot answer why I knew that. I'd never known anyone who died. All I knew is if we could face death, face it honestly, only then can we get over it.
- One of the things I did learn from my parents was you should be involved in your community, you should care about what's going on around you, in the world, and, if you see something that troubles you, you should get involved in it.
- My parents were Chinese immigrants. They came as young, recent college graduates from China in 1949. My dad didn't have any sons, but he poured all of the ambition and all of his hopes and dreams into his two daughters. And, my sister and I, I think, grew up really wanting to meet those aspirations. My mother was trained as a chemist, but became a stay at home mom, as so many moms did in the '50 and '60s. When they had kids, she got really involved in trying to make the community that we lived in a better place. And, I think, watching her do that made me want to do the same. It's a value that, I think, is pretty deeply embedded in me.
- I became an officer in the National Organization for Women. We organized marches, we were doing phone banking. I really learned how to do political organizing. I liked being a litigator. I loved being able to help people with their problems. Probably liked it because I like to argue. One of the things I was lucky enough to do throughout my career was what I used to call extracurriculars. I was always involved in women's politics, and a lot of not for profit organizations, which, along the way, I happened to meet a guy who was an up and coming organizer, and his name was Barack Obama.
- Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
- So help you God?
- So help me God.
- Congratulations, Mr. President.
- First of all, if the President of the United States asks you to come serve, you go serve, because it doesn't happen very often, and it is a really rare opportunity to come to Washington and do things on a scale that will affect the entire country. And, really be part of history. So, I was thrilled to be able to do it. We created a council that involved all of the federal agencies to really make sure that, not only are we addressing the issues that affect women and girls in a central way, on key issues, like violence against women, and women's economic security, and STEM education for girls, but that each individual agency always bears in mind that whatever they do may affect women and girls, and to pay special attention to that.
- To be able to promote the First Lady's agenda, and really bring some national awareness to caring for our kids has been an amazing opportunity to bring a lot of my personal history to bear to the passion I've had for women's issues throughout my career. I think that women are able to see all sides, and we're able to bring those perspectives to a decision-making process in a way that, I think, is collaborative and creative.
ANDREA JUNG: I'm a daughter of two immigrants. So I grew up in a very authentic Chinese household with a lot of traditional values. But they were ahead of their time. I mean, if you got to back to a traditional Chinese heritage or Asian heritage, you know, one might think that this concept, of kind, of women walking a step behind men or not taking important roles. I had grandmother and a mother who used to tell me from when I was extremely young that girls can do anything boys could do.
When I graduated from Princeton, I actually wanted to do something idealistic, like join the Peace Corps. My family didn't have that much money. And so I think they thought, well, that might be nice. But you need to go get a job. I remember through most of my career being either one of or the only woman around an executive table.
My very first interview with Avon was in 1993 with the, then, chairman. His name was Jim Preston. And he had a plaque behind his desk that had four footprints, a bare foot ape and then a barefoot man. And then a wingtip man's shoe. And then a high heel. And it simply said, "The evolution of leadership."
And I asked him before the interview was done, I love that plaque behind your desk. Do you really believe that? And he said Avon is a company that is mostly about women. And we should be one of the first companies someday to have a woman running this company.
The brand at that time was perceived as sort of your grandmother's brand, a little bit of ding dong-- Avon calling. And we did a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to modernize that brand today, from product formulas, product packaging, all the way to some terrific celebrity spokesperson.
I was actually passed over for the job. And I had a life moment-- a career moment If you dive deep in yourself and say, OK, someone else is going to come in and lead the company. And I'll either have to be extraordinarily supportive of that person. Or I can go off and do my own thing. And that decision to stay with a company that I love was probably one of the more important decisions I've made in my life.
About 18 months later it was about 10:00 PM at night. And I got a call from the, then, lead director of the board. And he said, well, congratulations, Madam CEO. And I remember waking my daughter up, who was young at the time, and saying, I've just become the CEO of Avon. And she said, you're joking, right? Go back to sleep. You're dreaming.
Being the first woman CEO, I felt it was a privilege. You know, we have over 6 and 1/2 million independent representatives. And they're mostly women. So I felt the responsibility of showing them that women can make it. I had someone tell me that she was a victim of domestic violence. And that only because of Avon was she able to get her life back together and today can support her children. And today is really a leader in her community.
And every one of those moments. I feel like, wow, I had the chance to be a part of something that actually did something good. There are still fewer women than men in every echelon of business, but it's changing. And it's changing for the positive. And whether it's Meg or whether it's Ginni Rometty at IBM or Ursula at Xerox, some extraordinary women running some very large companies. And that is great, great progress.
MARGARET CHO: I would challenge the stereotype and then kind of go and embody that stereotype and use it to my advantage.
Maybe someday I could be an extra on "M*A*S*H."
There was a way to acknowledge that there was a lot of racism against Asian-Americans, but there was also an understanding, like, well, I can do those jokes, too, and I could actually do them better, because I have a better take on it.
My family came to the United States in 1964 from Korea. They decided to settle in San Francisco. And in 1968, they had me. They bought a gay bookstore in the '70s, which was very unusual for them, for any immigrants to do, I guess.
So I grew up in the bookstore. It was called Paperback Traffic. It was this kind of place where there was a lot of community events. A lot of artists worked there, showing their art and getting tattooed. And a lot of people did drag.
Everything changed because of AIDS. A lot of the employees died. A lot of people that I grew up with died. It was an incredibly devastating thing to watch the community fading away before our eyes.
There were all of these organizations popping up, different kinds of AIDS activism. That's what made me want to start doing comedy, because there was a need for people to come and do performance. There was a need for people to come and speak. And there was a need to have a voice.
I was probably about 14 when I first started performing. A lot of my first shows were at AIDS fundraising events. I was pretty successful right away. My family didn't really understand it, but I really loved it.
I grow up on the rice paddy.
There was this idea amongst other Asian-American comics that I was around that we're not going to talk about our families. We're not going to talk about their Asianness, because we want to be judged as comics, not as Asian comics.
I walked past this guy, and he goes, me so horny.
But I never saw the value in that. So that set me apart, because I was not afraid to go into areas that were a little bit combative.
I remember just seeing so many Asian driver jokes in a night. So then I would go onstage and say, my name is Margaret Cho and I drive very well. It would just do really well, because people would be so embarrassed that they'd been laughing about these racist jokes all night, and then an acknowledgment that, yeah, that's what happened.
I had sex with a woman on the ship.
You get to a point in your minority status where you do become unassailable.
Am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized I'm just slutty.
Especially for me, because I'm queer, I'm a woman of color, somebody that is normally perceived as policing all the things that people say, whether it's racist or sexist or homophobic, you can go to a more outrageous place because of your identity.
It was so outside of my world. I didn't know how to write jokes for TV. I didn't know how to write jokes for sitcoms. Because this was an ethnic minority, there was this idea that we're being so outlaw by featuring these people who are never on TV that we've got to be incredibly conservative in the way we do it. I knew that certain things weren't right and that I should take over to some extent, but I was empowered enough to do that.
The television people were looking at me on-camera and they were really horrified. They said, we have to do something about the size of your face. You have to lose weight or else we can't have this show on television. They were so alarmed that I was too fat to play the role of myself, and so I just stopped eating.
I remember becoming very sick. I was urinating blood. The whole time I was just scared that I wasn't going to lose enough weight. That, to me, was much more important than my health. I wanted to keep this job.
I felt incredible loss, and that I had failed, and that I kind of couldn't go anywhere beyond that.
--to where I was drinking too much. At some point, I realized I can't live like this. I cleaned up. Was going to try to be healthy and try to enjoy comedy again.
I am not going to die because I failed as someone else. I'm going to succeed as myself. And I'm going to stay here and rock the mic until the next Korean-American fag hag, shit starter, girl comic, trash talker comes up and takes my place!
The story of what happened to me in television gave me a framework to hang my stand-up comedy on. Now I had more of a purpose, maybe prevent other people from going through these really dark, insecure moments by saying, well, this is what happened and I survived it. No matter what happens, I don't have any insecurities that are big enough to stop me from satisfying the goal of doing comedy.
CONNIE CHUNG: The business that I've been in requires sticking your neck out. You can't sit back and wait for the story to come to you. You have to go pursue it. Dig, push, and be bold.
My parents and my four older sisters were all born in China. They arrived in Washington, DC. Less than a year later, I was born. In China, all you want are boys. So when they had yet another girl, it was like, eh, all right. I always wanted to be the son that my father never had. So I was going to make Chung memorable. With five girls, I could never get a word in. So I was the quiet little sister.
I'm Connie Chung.
They couldn't believe it when I got into television news and I had to speak to the world. And my father was such a news buff. We would watch Uncle Walter every night, Walter Cronkite. He was the man. So early on, when you could only see my hand holding a microphone-- that's Connie's hand. He was just eating it all up.
It was a little local station, and the only job they had open was for a secretary. And I thought, oh god, typical. I did that for several months, but they had an opening for a writer. It was the late '60s. The Civil Rights Act had passed in '64. There was a heavy push to hire women and minorities. So I became the writer in charge of the assignment desk.
There was this one reporter who was really lazy. So I'd say, why don't you watch the desk, and I'll do the story? I know you don't want to do it. So then I'd do stories. They finally let me go on the air, and then a short time later, CBS News, the network, was getting such pressure to hire women.
So in 1971, I was hired along with Michele Clark, black, Leslie Stahl, a nice Jewish girl with blond hair, and Sylvia Chase, a shiksa with blonde hair. Everybody was a male. I mean, everybody, the staff, the producers, the executive producers, the Bureau Chief, the people we covered on Capitol Hill, the White House, the State Department, men.
We all went through a very rigorous hazing period. There were camera people who, they didn't want to take orders from us. Or else I'd be covering some senator on Capitol Hill, and he'd say, "Well, sweet little lady, what sweet little question do you have for me?" And I just stuck it to him. They pitted the women against each other. Who would get the woman job? Leslie Stahl and I would frequently be told to go cover the First Lady doing something that we knew would never get on the air.
Ed Bradley would go up to the assignment editor and say no. But I really had a hard time saying no. There is this mentality on my part-- the good little girl, fear of being fired, fear of being uncooperative, fear of being the five-letter B word. Every step of the way, there were issues being a woman. The only way we could move forward was to do our job and do it better than anyone else.
- Here's to Connie Chung.
- (SINGING) Here's to LA. News to LA. And from our newsroom comes the history of the day.
- This is the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
DAN RATHER: Good evening, and welcome, Connie.
CONNIE CHUNG: Thank you, Dan. When I was first told that I would be co-anchoring with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, I couldn't believe it. Walter Cronkite was my idol, and I always wanted to be Walter Cronkite. I didn't think that that would ever happen. There are always these self-doubts, but I felt like I did know how to do the job. But it was very clear from the beginning that Dan Rather didn't want me there. He would not have wanted anyone there. He was very gracious upfront.
DAN RATHER: See you tomorrow.
CONNIE CHUNG: But you ask someone who's been in the job forever to move over and make room for somebody else, it's a recipe for disaster. It was a constant battle. I would have appreciated it if the boss had said, you know, it's over. I want to tell you face-to-face. But that didn't happen. They told my agent, and then he told me.
DAN RATHER: I'd like to take this moment to wish my longtime friend and colleague, Connie Chung, good luck and godspeed.
CONNIE CHUNG: I lost my dream job. It was completely devastating. Remarkably, though, my husband and I had been working on adoption for a couple years. The firing occurred on a Friday. The next day, we get a call that our son was going to be ours. It was, oh my god. My life just went flip. Lose the job, get our son. Woo! I had a baby when I was almost 50. It worked well for me. Everything that happened in my career was meant to be.
One thing that women really need to remember is sing your praises the way the men do. Sing your own praises. I was indispensable. You're welcome.
RESHMA SAUJANI: Things don't come easily to me. I never get things on the first time or the second time, more like the third or the fourth time.
My parents came here as political refugees from Uganda. My father was watching television, and Idi Amin, who was the dictator there in Uganda, came on and said that all of the Indians in the country had 90 days to leave the country. The United States was the only country that let them in. So my parents are probably the two most patriotic people that you will ever meet.
No matter how tired my father was, every day he would come home, take out a book, put me on his lap, and read to me, books that were about people who were doing good things, Dr. King or Mahatma Gandhi or Eleanor Roosevelt, and so these incredible change agents, and I think that that always really stayed with me.
I always wanted to serve.
I was a young woman who always knew what she wanted to do. I always wanted to serve and hopefully run for office. And then I woke up when I was 32 years old and realized that I was on the wrong path. I was really engaged in the 2008 presidential election. And I remember watching Hillary's concession speech, and I felt like she was looking right at me, and she said, just because I failed doesn't mean that you shouldn't try, too. And I just kind of took a really deep look in and said, what am I afraid of?
And it was the best year of my life. Everything was like jumping off a cliff. I remember my first television interview was with Chris Matthews.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Her name is Reshma Saujani. She's a lawyer and activist.
RESHMA SAUJANI: I had never been media trained before. I was terrified, but it was incredible.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: What would you cut?
RESHMA SAUJANI: I want to give you an idea. We're proposing what we call a national innovation bank. I believe that New York City has the capacity to become the city of innovation.
And I lost, and lost big. Put myself in debt and maxed out everybody in my life. I felt like I had just let down so many people, and started really thinking about, as women, how do we feel about risk and failure, right? We live in a society that's so ashamed of failure. And so I immediately started talking about how I felt, and that I was going to pick myself right back up and get back out there and meet those commitments that I had made to those constituents.
We focused on teenage girls and girls who didn't have access to technology. That was really important for us. There's going to be 1.4 million jobs that are open in the next 20 years in science, technology, engineering, and math. But right now, only one out of seven engineers is a woman. And Girls Who Code wants to change that.
With girls, there's not an aptitude issue. But when you ask a girl what she wants to do with her life, she says, I want to change the world. And when she closes her eyes and she thinks about what a computer scientist looks like, she sees a guy just kind of at a computer typing away.
So what we do at Girls Who Code is we not only teach them the hard skills, but we expose them to technologists who are changing the world. And when they get exposed to it, they're passionate about it and they're good at it.
One of my young girls, Cora, her father got diagnosed with cancer. So she developed an algorithm that would help detect whether a cancer was benign or malignant. She's 15 years old.
We don't even know what the world would look like if we gave girls the leverage and the power of technology. The ideas that they come up with are so different than if I was teaching a group of 20 boys, right? And all of their ideas are centered around changing the world. We'll do it. I have no doubt.
I have a lot of resilience. Part of it, it's like if you haven't failed yet, you haven't tried anything.