On this episode of Dare to Lead
In this episode, I’m talking with America Ferrera—actor, director, producer, activist, and leader—in the first of a two-part series about leading with your whole self. I have done a lot of work with integration and leadership over the past decades, and I hadn’t heard it so clearly captured and explained as America did in this episode. Every transformational leader I’ve ever worked with refuses to compartmentalize who they are, and America has profoundly, publicly, and professionally integrated her identity into her process and her presence to create real change.
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Ugh, man, welcome to the most incredible conversation. I am talking to America Ferrera, actor, director, producer, activist, leader extraordinaire. She… she just kind of defies categories, which is both beautiful, and I would say intentional after talking to her. I learned so much in this conversation, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve wanted to talk to her for so long, and once we got started, I didn’t want it to end. So we’re making this into a two-part episode, really about, not just about leading, but about power and integration and wholeness, and kind of the source of where… The source of our conviction about who we are. I’m so grateful that you’re here to be a part of this. We’re going to dig in and at the end of part two, I’ll talk to you a little bit about how I see her embodying so many of the concepts I’ve written about, especially this concept of integration for many years, but you just don’t see it. You don’t see it living and breathing all the time like you do in this interview, so again, so glad y’all are here.
BB: So before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about America. She is an award-winning actor, director and producer, she’s known for her breakthrough role as Betty Suarez on ABC’s hit comedy, Ugly Betty. She won several awards for this, including an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild award, a Golden Globe, an Alma Award. She has produced and directed episodes of Netflix’s hit Latinx dramedy, Gentefied, which if you haven’t seen Gentefied, let me tell you, you know something’s good when in a millisecond of television or film, you can feel both despair and unbound hope. It’s just… Gentefied is such a great show. She has also executive produced, directed episodes of and starred in NBC’s beloved workplace comedy, Superstore. So good. And she’ll be making her film directorial debut with, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. We’ll talk about that a little bit. That’s going to be out in Netflix, I think in 2022 or 2023. I’m just, again, so glad you’re here, do not want to keep you another nano-second from this conversation, let’s jump in with America Ferrera.
BB: So I have about seven hours worth of podcast questions for you. Welcome to Dare to Lead.
America Ferrera: Thank you. Oh, I’m so happy to be on. I’m such a fan of yours and this show in particular.
BB: I just… I think so many of us know you, and I’m so curious about your experiences as a leader, because you are running a lot of things these days.
AF: Yeah, I got a couple of things going on that wasn’t as a conscious decision as it might appear. I feel like I was just following the threads of the things that I cared about and my passions, and then I looked up and saw, “Oh my goodness, how did all of this happen? How did I build all of this?” But it’s happening and it’s a really incredibly exciting time for me, and honestly, in a place in my life and in my leadership that is all about stepping further into my power. And like I said, such a fan of this podcast because I feel like there’s so much support from the amazing people you speak to. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, I’ve Amened, I’ve done it all from the inside of my Toyota Highlander, because it’s so important to hear the challenges of leading in any situation, be reflected back at you because it is a challenge constantly. Even if all you’re leading is yourself, even if all you’re leading is your own path, your own journey, your own vision and coming up against your own fears, it’s like leading an army of one, even if it’s just you.
BB: No, I mean, it’s true. And watching you has been like… I guess watching you started, it felt like an army of one, but then now I look at you and you’re leading groups of people, you’re leading teams, you’re leading big efforts. So I want to start where we always start, which is, tell me your story. Take me back to the very beginning, little you.
AF: Yeah, well, I was born in Los Angeles, California. My parents are immigrants from Honduras. I’m the youngest of six children, and I was the only one born in Los Angeles. I waited until I was in my hometown to come out, but yeah, I’m the sixth of six children. My mother raised us virtually single, alone. My father went back to Honduras when I was almost nine years old, and so she was a single mother with six children between the ages of 9 and 13, 8 and 13. So that’s a big part of the story. Being raised by a single mother, immigrant, doing everything and anything to survive, to provide and to thrive. She came to this country so that we could have every opportunity, and I think any child of immigrants understands the vital piece of their story that that sacrifice plays. You carry that with you into everything, it’s never just you, it’s never just your dreams and hopes in the classroom or on the field or whatever you’re doing, you know that you’re really playing your part in the longer story of legacy and sacrifice that came before you, so that I could have the opportunities that I’ve had, and so that’s a really big part of it for me.
AF: I was raised in the San Fernando Valley, the neighborhood’s called Canoga Park and Woodland Hills. 818, anyone out there listening, 818 knows. And I from a very, very young age, identified myself as a performer, I was in kindergarten, so what, five years old. My oldest sister was in fifth grade and I remember watching the fifth grade production of the Wizard of Oz and the overwhelming sensation in my body was rage that nobody had asked me to be in the Wizard of Oz. [laughter] And that was the first time I just, I saw my sister up there playing a flying monkey or whatever it was, very begrudgingly, and I sat in my seat just knowing that I belonged on that stage. And so I was super young. I’m five years old when I said I’m going to be an actress, and also I’m going to be a human rights lawyer. Which is insane, I don’t even know how a five year old knows what a human rights lawyer is. I’m sure I just heard someone say the words and I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to fight for good, but also, I’m going to be an actress.” And that five year old girl, she spoke it out loud, and here I am. She knew what she wanted.
BB: Wow. Talking about prophetic. I mean, I’m going to be an actor and I’m going to be an activist. And how would you define yourself today?
AF: Yeah. You know, it’s such a loaded question because, sure I think I could fall under any of those categories. But I feel like my journey has been one of trying to escape those categories, trying to escape any of those labels. Because what it feels like is fracturing myself, fracturing my being into, “This is the part of me that’s an actress and a performer and a storyteller, and this is the part of me that is an activist and fights and cares about the world.” And that is not, that’s just false. It’s such a… It’s so the wrong image for what it feels like to be me and what it feels like to be in my body, which is that, to me, storytelling is saving the world. To me, saving the world is about telling good stories, and I feel like I had to go on my journey that felt really lonely for a long time to figure that out and realize that it didn’t have to make sense to other people and I didn’t have to take one hat off to put the other one on and vice versa.
AF: And it was sort of the tension that haunted me, taunted me for so long. And it really isn’t until much more recently, I would say in the last five years, that I stopped fighting myself. That I stopped seeing these things as contradictions, because other people saw them as contradictions, because other people saw my work as a storyteller, my work as someone outspoken about the issues I care about as being in separate lanes. So I just had accepted that for too long, knowing in my bones that that was not my experience. My experience was that I am a human being, first and foremost, who is passionate about the world and what is the world if not the stories we tell, the stories we believe about ourselves, about each other that dictate how we are in the world and who we are to one another.
BB: So I want to pause for a second and I want to really, really dig in to what you’re talking about, and I want to play back some of it and see if I’m on target and see if I’m not. Because whether I’m talking to you about that five year old who said I’m going to do all these things and then hearing about your journey from five until now, about the journey of refusing to compartmentalize the parts of you. What I hear you talking about is something I, when I work with leaders, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re creatives or they’re CEOs of Fortune 50 companies, there’s always a struggle around integration and this idea that we are one person. And I just have not heard it captured as clearly and beautifully as you just captured it. I think inherent in every transformational leader that I’ve ever worked with is a fight and ultimately a refusal to compartmentalize who they are.
AF: Yes. And I would even say for me, my experience, is that I can’t be the leader I’m meant to be without all of the parts of who I am. That my, the unique intersection of who I am the actor, the performer, the storyteller, the person with 20 years experience in media in front of and behind the camera, mixed with the passion and the education I have sought out around the issues I care about is what gives me my power, is what gives me my leadership. It tells me where I belong, it tells me what I have to offer. And if I’m not occupying the space of all of the things I am, I’m not being the unique leader that I can be.
BB: God bless. Keep going.
AF: Yeah. And I was going to say, and that came to light for me in such an incredible way, I feel so grateful these moments in my… It’s like we walk around thinking, “Things circle around and you don’t always know what you’re building, but you just sort of follow your passions and keep your head down and do your work and it’s not for you to understand right now, you’ll understand it later.” But when you actually get those moments in life, the aha moments of, “That’s what was happening. That’s why I had to go on that journey. That’s why I had to… That’s why I wasn’t allowed to give up. That’s why I had to shoot an independent film in Arizona and a pilot in Austin and finish my degree and a term paper on the floor of the Phoenix Airport, and wanted to do nothing but cry into my lap.” That’s what that was about. That was about me, like you said, refusing to give up parts of me that felt so vital to who I am and I was 18, 19, 20 years old when I was in college, wanting to be in college, studying international relations, learning about the world in a way that was painful. I think, for a lot of us, education is painful because you realize how little you know, you realize how little you’ve been taught, how little you’ve been exposed to.
AF: And I think there are a lot of complex feelings around that. I was a straight A student, I did everything that was expected of me, I was top of my class. I had all the markers of being smart and capable and I checked all the boxes. But when I got into college and had to think and learn in a different way, I felt betrayed. I felt like no one had taught me how to really think for myself, no one had taught me how to learn. They taught me how to take tests and pass tests and get As and be top of my class, but that’s not the same thing as thinking. That’s not the same thing as having ideas and having opportunities to implement those ideas and see what happens next and learn from mistakes. And so, my college education was super painful. And so much so that in my freshman year of college, I thought I had to give up acting because I was so ashamed of how little I knew about the world. I was a senior in high school on 9/11, so you know, 17 years old about to enter college, obviously very, very impacted by what was happening in the world and feeling so ashamed of how little I knew and how little I understood and how little context I had been given for the world that I lived in.
AF: And I studied international relations and I was learning so much and it was overwhelming and it was… The world can be a very depressing, overwhelming place when taken all at once in that way. And I remember just thinking, how. How could I possibly give my life and my time to acting, to making movies, when the world is so ill and needs so much healing. That seems selfish and not useful and not the right thing to be doing, although my passion was in storytelling and acting and I so shockingly had found opportunities so much earlier than I ever imagined. I got my first job, my first paying job as an actress when I was 17, a junior in high school. And I was 17 when I did my first film that probably anyone ever saw me in, which was Real Women Have Curves.
BB: Oh God. Let me just stop and say, that’s where I met you, that’s where I fell in love with you, that’s where I was changed by you. You were different. God, you were beautiful. That movie. So you were 17…
AF: Yeah, I was 17 and nobody in my life thought that I was ever going to have the career and the opportunities that I’ve had, that I wanted and that I dreamed of for myself. And not because they were malicious, but because they lived in the real world. Because my mother was an immigrant, single mother struggling to keep the lights on and she didn’t come to this country for me to be a starving poor actress. She wanted me to get an education and go to a good college and get a good job. And so I don’t the people in my family and my teachers and my friends and the people who just… There was very little encouragement, and there was enough. There was enough encouragement from a few people that kept me going, but I had to hold that for myself because no one else saw it for me, and I never imagined that it would happen so soon and I was 17 years old, in the right place at the right time.
AF: Yes, I worked hard, and I did whatever it took to seize any opportunity that came my way, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time when Real Women Have Curves was finally being turned into a movie by HBO and the writer of that movie, Josefina López, had written that for herself when she was 18. It had taken her 11 years to get that movie made, and I always think about that because I was six years old when she first started trying to tell that story. And the fortune of being a 17 year old girl in the right place at the right time when someone said “Yes.” When someone said, “Okay, we’ll make this movie, we’ll tell this story.” It’s a miracle for me that I got to be the one to step into that opportunity. And heartbreaking on other levels. Because why shouldn’t she have gotten to tell her story and be the one to tell it and be the one to be in that role? But I got the opportunity, and it changed the direction of my life. I remember up, until that point, all I wanted to do was act, and all the culture told me was that acting meant being famous and having a lot of people like you and talk about you and see you. And this is what success looks like. And I loved acting, I knew I loved it in my bones, but the only marker for success I had was like, “Well, when I’m famous, I’ll be successful, right? People will know me. I’ll know I made it.”
AF: But the fact that that was the first experience I ever had gave my career and life a direction and meaning that it didn’t have for me before. And we told the story, Real Women Have Curves, we traveled the world with that film. I met men, women, young and old, black and white, gay and straight and everything in between, all around the world who saw themselves in this 17-year-old chubby, brown girl in East LA. And it taught me something so important, which was that, our stories matter. My story mattered, and that people not only wanted to see it, they needed to see it. And not because they were curious about me, but because they were curious about themselves. They were curious to see themselves reflected back at them in the culture.
AF: So, for my first experience as a 17-year-old kid straight out the gate, to get to tell a story that meant so much to so many people, showed me the function of storytelling. That what it can be, what it can do. And it can change people’s lives. Obviously, it changed my life. But for my whole career, I’ve had a front row seat to so many people telling me what it means to them to see their lived experiences reflected back at them, and so that became a driving force for me in my work as an actress, wanting to not just be an actress and be famous and make money at all costs, but to tell stories that really had the power to help shift culture and to help people be seen. And I have a very specific story, this was a real flash point for me.
BB: Wait, before you start there, I want to back you up because I want to help you, help us build the bridge between when you were 17, you did Real Women Have Curves and you traveled the world. Were you a senior in high school?
AF: I was a senior in high school when we filmed it, and then I was a freshman in college when it came out into the world.
BB: You went to USC, right?
BB: Was there any question for you like, “God, I’m really great at this acting thing, I’ve already filmed my first movie, I’m not going to school.”
AF: No. For a couple of reasons, one was that was not an option given to me in my household.
AF: College was not an option, it was mandatory.
AF: And that was so deeply ingrained in me from such a young age, that education was everything. I couldn’t ever conceive of not furthering my education, but there was the world in which I went to college to study acting, but because my career as an actress in film and TV had begun, I really wanted to do something else. I wanted to continue to explore the other things that I love.
BB: Got it, okay.
AF: And because I was a senior in high school on 9/11, I felt even a deeper urgency to understand more. And it wasn’t because I thought I was ever going to do anything with that degree, it was just because I cared about it and because it meant something to me, and because I was raised to believe in the value of education and learning, even if the quality of that education I had received wasn’t amazing. I just genuinely believed in seizing the opportunity to have the education. So, when I started university, I was just studying international relations, and at the same time, my career as an actress was beginning. So, all I did was like go to class, sleep, audition. Go to class, sleep, audition.
AF: And then when I got jobs, I would go do them and continue my school work virtually. This was in a time before that was super common, but I had professors who were really understanding and were great about me being able to continue my career. And listen, it wasn’t an option for me to stop acting, at least I didn’t see it as an option because like I said, opportunities for someone like me don’t just come around every day, like this was my opportunity, I had to seize it. And I couldn’t just say, “Oh, I’ll just stop for four years and go to college and come back out and see what’s there for me.” The train was moving and I had to just keep going. So, yeah.
BB: Okay. So, take us through your flash point.
AF: So, I was a freshman in college and I was taking an advanced IR class, I was learning about all kinds of genocides no one had told me about, plastic companies destroying animals and habitats and our planet. I was being exposed to so many harsh realities and like I said, feeling like, how could I possibly give my life to performance and acting and passion, and fulfilling my own desires versus trying to contribute and do something meaningful in the world?
AF: So, I had basically come to the decision that I would have to stop acting and go to law school or get a real degree and do something that mattered in the world, and I was depressed about the decision, but I was pretty fixed on it, and I went to one of my teachers at the time. He’s passed since, Professor Andrus. I went to his office hours. I’d never been to any office hours before, but I was so desperate for counsel. I went down to his dusty office and sat there and I just burst into tears. And I was one of at least 100 kids in the class, I didn’t think he knew my name, I didn’t think he knew who I was at all. And I said to him, “I’m an actress, and I think I have to give it up, and I think I need to do good.”
AF: And he stopped me and he said to me, “You know, I mentored this Latina girl in a local high school,” and I was like, “Oh great, I found the one professor who is looking for another pet Latina,” and he said, “Yeah, I’ve mentored her for a number of years now, and I’ve been trying to help her get into college. But she has never really trusted me and didn’t really ever open up to me until one day she came to me and said, “Do you really want to understand what my life is like? You want to know what I’m up against?” And he said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, then come watch this movie with me, it’s called Real Women Have Curves.”
BB: Oh, my God.
AF: I know. And he told me that he took his mentee and a couple of her friends to go to this movie theatre and watch this movie, and then afterwards they went to a diner and he bought them pie and they laughed and cried and talked about how the movie mirrored their lives. And if you remember, Ana, the girl I play, she wants to go to college, but her parents don’t know how to support her in that dream, and they oppose it and they don’t want her to move away from home. And this is what she said to him, like, “You sit and you talk to me about what I have to do to get into college. You don’t understand what’s happening in my house. You don’t understand that my parents need me to work to support, to help.” And he said he bought the DVD when it came out, he went to her parents, said, “Can we watch this movie? Can we talk about this movie?”
AF: And then ultimately, her parents watched the movie, talked about it, and then changed their minds and supported her dream to go to college and helped her get into college and… I’m going to cry telling it right now. But you know, I was sitting in his office crying, I’m an easy crier, and he said, “Your movie changed her life, and I’m sure it did for so many other people.” So, he did a lot of things. He, in that moment, taught me that storytelling changes lives, that it changes the world and that we need it, and that it teaches and shifts people’s perspectives like it did his, and also that I had the permission to do what I love, that I had the permission to stay committed to my passion, my path, it didn’t have to look like something else to be meaningful, to be powerful, to be impactful.
AF: And so that was huge for me, because I got to stay on my path and see the value of my path and understand that I got to decide how my storytelling was going to be used as a tool for telling stories that matter. And so that was huge, that one teacher really changed my life and was one of the first steps towards that integration. It was a much longer… It was a much longer journey that I’m still in, but that was one of the first moments that I realized, “Okay, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.” And I feel like I’ve been on that path ever since of really trying to integrate all of the things I love and care about into my life’s work.
BB: Well, first of all, I don’t know if you believe in God or a higher power, but what a moment to be… What a moment to… “Do you want to know more about my life, come watch this film with me.” Come on. Jeez. One of the things that strikes me, as you’re talking, is that this idea about stepping into our power as leaders, like you said in our own lives and leading teams, you have many initiatives from a directorial debut, activism, community learning and teaching.
BB: I can see… Maybe I’m connecting dots that shouldn’t be connected, but I can see how you described the education that, your early, probably high school education, and the grief that came when you got to a university that taught you not what to think, but how to think. I think about Paulo Freire and banking education, like we’re going to deposit and then when we withdraw, you give it to us on the test and you pass, versus critical thinking. I can definitely see how much of… Is it fair to say your power relies on keeping sacred your integrated, like one America, many parts.
AF: Absolutely, absolutely. And I feel like so excited about when I look at my work, when I look at, “Okay, here’s the docket. What’s on the docket?” Whether it’s my work at Harness, my work with Poderistas, my work as a producer, my work as a director, my work as an actress, my work as a speaker. It’s the same thread and I feel such joy around that. It gives me energy instead of sucking the energy out of being like, “Oh, now I have to go put on this hat and play this role.” I don’t have to do any of those things. I can just be exactly who I am, and in all of these spaces, and it’s the totality of all the things I am that gives me value in those spaces, the honoring it. And here’s the thing, this is a lesson that I had to learn. So some of us have leadership thrust upon us.
AF: And I do feel like… I’m an Aries. I’m a fire brand for sure. I’m definitely one to choose leadership, but there are times too, where I’ve felt like I didn’t have a choice. And that started for me when I started my career as a 17-year-old girl stepping into these characters, into these roles who are so often created by, written by, directed by, edited by, produced by people who have no idea what it’s like to be me or this character. So, I had to become my character’s number one advocate, I had to advocate for dignity, I had to advocate for complexity, for humanity inside of these characters. Because if I didn’t, no one else would have asked the question, no one else would have known that anything was missing.
AF: And so for me, if I didn’t speak up in those moments, find a way to have a conversation that was maybe a little uncomfortable, find a way to have a conversation where I had to humble myself and let it be someone else’s idea, whatever gets the better idea on screen in the story, whatever gives my character and therefore everyone my character represents more dignity, more humanity in this moment. That’s the conversation I have to learn to have. And sometimes that was an easy conversation, sometimes it was a hard one, sometimes it was an incredibly combative one. And I had to make choices all the time at a very young age about which pot I was willing to stir. And luckily, I have a high tolerance for conflict, and I have a high tolerance for stirring the pot, but I was also in positions where I did have the power to speak up and to be heard.
AF: I didn’t always win, they didn’t always listen to me, it was sometimes very limited power. But I realized early on that if I did speak up, they had to listen to some degree. And so I had to learn what was my power in this situation and how do I have the conversation that needs to happen in this room with the people who are in this room right now, to get the better idea to win. And I feel like in that way, from the very beginning of my career, I was being trained to have to speak up and to have to lead in moments where I didn’t want to have to do that, but I had to. Or just accept what was being handed to me.
BB: It’s just another powerful example of integration, if you don’t strip yourself of everything, but I’m just here to act, but I’m also here to protect the humanity of this character and what that means and what that represents for everyone watching it. Oh my God, I love this conversation. Y’all, I want to keep it going. I really want to talk more about this idea of integration, we’ll stop here, we’ll pick up in part two. I hope that’s okay. Okay? More on episode two. Thanks, America.
AF: This was so wonderful. Thank you.
BB: I’m telling you, what a bad period ass period, bad ass. I’m just saying, that I’m like, I’m just crushing hard on her, I’m telling you, she’s… She’s got it. You can watch Gentefied on Netflix. We’ll put all the links on the Dare to Lead episode page, y’all know we have Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us episode pages on brenebrown.com. We’ll also put links to where you can find her on Twitter and Instagram, she’s America Ferrera.
BB: Again, let’s just talk about this idea of integration and that our power comes from our wholeness. Integration, the Latin root word “integrare,” to make whole, rather than orphaning these parts of ourselves that we’re like, either think don’t belong in a certain moment or won’t get us to where we’re going. I think back… Barrett, do you remember that slide I used to have that said, Brené’s home for wayward girls and women?
Barrett Guillen: Oh, yes, I loved that slide.
BB: I used to have this slide when I would do decks and talk about integration, where I had this old rickety house, it was a photograph, and I called it Brené’s home for wayward girls and women. And I would talk about calling back all of the parts of myself. And I had pictures of me in my Flock of Seagull haircut. And I had pictures with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and Doc Martins, and I had pictures of me in the delivery room with my kids, and I had pictures of me during some troublesome wild days and how this calling back of all these parts of me, some beautiful…
BB: No, you know what, fuck it, all beautiful. Some troubled, but all beautiful. And I called them back and I became this whole person, and they all are part of me, and I don’t regret any of them. And I refused to orphan them anymore, I refuse to say, I have to kill you. You 20-year-old wild ass, out of control, quasi, self-destructive person, because you don’t fit with my mom image. Well, you know what, you taught me a lot and you make me a better person, a better mom, a better leader. I know all the lyrics to freaking all the ’80 songs, so come on back. I just, I love how we dig deep into this.
BB: In the next episode, we’ll talk a little bit more, we’ll also, our rapid fire questions turned into a slow fire deep discussion. And she had one of my favorite answers to one of my questions that I ask all the time. She is not playing. America is not playing. All right, thank you all for being here. Stay awkward, brave and kind. I’ll see you for part two, America Ferrera, this is Dare to Lead. And y’all invite back all the beautiful disenfranchised orphan parts of yourselves, and I’ll meet you where all the whole people hang out.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and the music is by The Suffers.
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