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Actress Javicia Leslie Dishes on New Role, Faith & Breaking Barriers For Black Women In Hollywood

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Could you imagine God having a Facebook page and sending you a friend request? For some, this sounds intriguing, for others very feasible---considering they already consider God a bestie--and for a few more the premise sounds like a hoax or crazy troll. Well, the idea is set to come alive in the form of a CBS show called God Friended Me, debuting Sept. 30, and the cast includes some breakout black star power you won't want to miss.

One such star is Javicia Leslie, a Hampton University graduate whose career leap of faith that led to a fast-track path to acting credits including CBS's MacGyver and the lead on Lifetime's Killer Coach.

Javicia Leslie in 'Killer Coach' (2016)Lifetime

Now, she'll be playing the role of Ali Finer and joining a cast that includes Hollywood vets Malik Yoba and Joe Morton (hey, Papa Pope). Ali is the sister of the main character, Miles (played by Brandon Michael Hall), an outspoken atheist and preacher's kid who is forever changed when he gets a friend request from God and becomes an unwitting agent of change in the lives of strangers.

"When I got this, I posted on my social media, God Friended Me, and what a title for this point in my life," she shared in an exclusive xoNecole interview. "I really connected to the role of Ali. The character is very much [like me]--she psychoanalyzes everything and she loves to give advice. That's who I am. She's artsy and she's creative. But, more than anything, I really connected with the relationship she has with her brother. I have an older brother--he's two years older than me--and I admire him like crazy. And that's Ali, with her brother."

The show has themes that include acceptance and exploration of diverse religions and issues related to purpose, human connection, and community.

"No matter what you believe in, human connectivity is always the most important thing," she said. "You can sit in front of the TV with your family and every single member of the family can find someone or something to connect with on the show. Miles [the main character] is on a mission and it's one he struggles with… He comes from a father who is a Christian, but it's very much a spiritual show. … You'll see that it's going to help people of different faiths---acceptance for people being exactly who they are---that will be the catalyst for the whole show. It gets deep---Ali has secrets, Arthur [the preacher and Miles's father] has secrets, Miles has secrets. It's going to get interesting."

Leslie's true-life foray into acting is one that reads like its own interesting feel-good TV drama script. After earning a business management degree, Leslie did what many grads do and went the safe route---taking a job that could provide a stable income and benefits---until she felt led to pursue a desire that never died. While in college, she'd acted in plays including Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and the acting bug was still biting post-graduation.

Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

"For about two years, I was helping soldiers [and their] families while working in Washington, D.C. It felt good to help, but you know, only dealing with sadness can weigh you down a little bit," the 31-year-old actress recalled. "The entire time I was there, I was thinking I wanted to move to LA. So [one day], I finally packed everything up. I knew [I'd have] to break my lease. I was like, 'Oh, I can't do this. I have this job that's taking care of my bills.' Around that same exact time, our [work] contract ended... and a random person came to my building and said they'd take over my lease. It was a God-send; I had a perfect exit door. So I moved to LA, I met my manager a month after I moved there, at an event where I was helping a friend sell scarves, and I signed with her. We got an agency, and it's just been history since."

Leslie has taken her own trek toward spiritual awakening and self-realization through exploration that has helped to provide a foundation for her life and an authentic connection with God and purpose. She has enjoyed connecting with faith---on her own terms---by being inquisitive and open to expanding her awareness through experience. "My faith is who I am. It's in every part of my life. It's the purpose that I walk in. When I got to 10th grade, I decided I wanted to go to church, and every single Sunday I would go---even if I had to go by myself," she said. "I did that journey as a choice. I think making that choice on my own---as a child, pretty much---is why I feel so strong about it now. From the beginning of my walk with Christ until now---it has all been about transitions and learning."

"My faith is who I am. It's in every part of my life. It's the purpose that I walk in."

Leslie is a big advocate of learning by seeking answers and advancing through lessons of failure. "Mistakes are necessary in order to grow. Anything I've prayed for, whether I've gotten it or not, I know God heard me. It's not about whether you get [what you've prayed for], it's about the communication with Him. The more I communicated, the more I felt my prayers were strengthened. Thank God for [lessons from] the failures and the successes."

She also believes that faith and community intertwine when pursuing an ultimate goal of turning a dream into reality. "I realized...start praying for other people and start praying for your network and family---that way you strengthen your team. Another thing you realize in this industry is that you can't do this by yourself," she added. "God gives us the community for a reason, even if we're not related, like a blood situation. There are people in your life that are there for a reason."

Having, supporting, and being inspired by a tribe of fellow black female actresses, including Tessa Thompson and Nafeesa Williams, has kept Leslie motivated and hungry for success in continuing to change the game.

"We don't feel, a lot of times, that black actresses are getting the opportunities to tell authentic stories. That's going to be the most important part of my career. I want to be able to tell these authentic stories. I want to break those barriers," she added. "That's what I also love about this show. [They've] written a beautiful character in Ali who has something to say---she has depth. I want to find characters who talk about something---those who, when I was a little girl, I looked up to."

"I have a strong faith that God gives us a passion, and when we follow our passion, we find our purpose, so a lot of what my steps were [was] listening to how I felt about things. I had to pay attention to my surroundings, to myself and how I felt about things---the answers are right there."

For more on Javicia, follow her on Instagram. The CBS series God Friended Me premieres September 30.

Featured image by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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"Now, the only label I've got that matters is God's: God's creation. God's work. God's child."

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