by Joce Blake
Pop Quiz. Which of the following statements do you agree with?
We would all love to answer ‘yes’ to the questions above, but in many cases we need guidance to do so. Forbes has suggested that having someone help you define goals, solve problems and see situations in new ways is one way to take control of your life and career path. Sounds to us like mentorship is the solution. It is essential for us to have someone in our life that pours into us. Whether it is encouragement, sharing insight or helping to build discipline, mentorship is wildly invaluable.
For example, 12 year old actress, J.Lee has found her passion in life because of the impactful people in her life. J.Lee has done extensive commercial work for clients like Children's Hospital, King Soopers and Furniture Row. Lee said, “My mentors are my mom and dad. They are both actors, so I'm able to learn a lot from their experience.” She went on to say that having her parents, Tammy and Lewis Brown, as mentors has always impacted her passion for acting. She loves watching them on television and they inspire her to pursue her goals. “The most powerful thing my mentor has shared with me is to be authentic. That means always be yourself and don't be afraid to do so. This goes for acting and life. People can always tell when you're faking,” Lee shared with us. This shining star says that she plans to be a mentor in the future. “I know how helpful having mentors is to me, and I want to help someone else be their best too,” Lee exclaimed.
On September 27, 2017, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado hosted its Annual Luncheon and it was full of laughs, tears and “ah-ha” moments. The audience was packed with women of all different ages waiting to receive the award-winning actress, Octavia Spencer, who was the keynote speaker.
As J.Lee sat in the audience listening to the Hidden Figures actress talk about her life growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, her face glowed like no other. In an open and honest conversation with President and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, Lauren Casteel, Spencer shared that she decided to buy out a movie theater for young girls to view Hidden Figures. She got the idea from comedian, Kevin Hart, and was not expecting it to have such a significant effect.
In a heart-wrenching moment, she began to tear up as she recalled her mother working multiple jobs and how she could not afford to take Spencer and her siblings to see movies in theaters. “Hidden Figures had an educational impact and I felt a lot of people should see it. I remember being in class as a child and hearing the kids talk about movies they had seen and I knew what it felt like to not know,” Octavia shared as she choked back her tears. “I just wanted little girls to know that even if their families couldn’t afford to take them to opening weekend that no matter what dreams you have for yourself...these women weren’t maids, they were scientists and they were doing what they loved doing. They had no idea the impact they would have on the world. I felt like every little girl should see that so that they knew in that moment that if that was something they wanted to do, they could do it.” Spencer shared with tears streaming down her face.
Lauren Casteel told us that WFOC chose Spencer because the actress’ personal story of how her mother taught her and her six siblings to believe in themselves is beyond inspirational. Casteel continued, “That inspiration is magnified when the beloved Academy Award-winning actress brings strong women's voices to the screen. Through the characters she portrays, she brings important issues and history to life.”
With Casteel’s 20-year experience in philanthropy, she had so much to share about success through mentorship. “Mentorship can be formal or informal. What's important is that during an exchange, individuals share real stories not only of success, but of missteps and lessons learned. Mentorship requires authenticity and listening,” Casteel said. The CEO even shared a mentorship success story that happened during the summer. She said, “WFOC has been honored to host two to three diverse college interns and fellows. They are invariably passionate, curious and dedicated. I like to think the team contributes to their future success by giving them meaningful work and opportunities to learn and grow. We integrate them into the team and share real-time feedback and support. We have close ongoing connections with these students, who in some instances have gone on to join various WFCO committees. We grow by learning from them as well.”
There is no doubt that Spencer is a formal and informal mentor. Through her filmography over the years, the actress has continued to portray powerful women of color, spreading inspiration to the masses. Her first film debut, A Time to Kill, as Roark’s nurse began her journey of depicting an unrepresented minority: black women.
Spencer’s breakout role as Minny Jackson in the period drama, The Help, has to be one of her most memorable roles. As a colored maid in racially charged Alabama in the 1960s, Minny Jackson was the perfect balance of extreme strength and vulnerability. Spencer told the audience at the WFOC luncheon that her portrayal of Minny Jackson was the closest to home for her because she grew up with five sisters. “I realized after playing Minny, that if, as a woman, you have no agency, you don’t really know if the glass is half empty or full because you don’t own the glass. So I realized that, wow, I am happy that I own the glass and I know Minny in the 1960s couldn’t own the glass and now Octavia does.”
Most recently Spencer portrayed Dorothy Vaughan in the film, Hidden Figures. The critically acclaimed film depicts the true and untold story of several African-American women who provided NASA with essential information needed to launch the program’s successful space missions. Spencer’s amazing performance has earned her multiple nominations including the Screen Actor’s Guild, Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award to date. The Space Race would not have been the same without mathematician and colored computer, Dorothy Vaughan.
When Casteel asked the actress about her experience of conquering the role and the machine, Spencer’s advice was powerful. She advised the audience to allow boys and girls to choose their toys. “Let the little boys play with dolls; if they want to pull the doll’s head off, let them! And if the little girls want to play with trucks and science gadgets, let them. I think we start steering them into gender roles and then when a child shows acumen for a certain field of study like mathematics, science or anything STEM related, we say, ‘Oh that’s for boys’. If they have the academics, then we need to make sure they have programs available for them to express themselves.”
Spencer noted that she became veracious after she found her way around her reading challenges and she is a strong believer that when a child is supported, they have no choice but to flourish. Octavia also left us in awe after the film, Gifted, which is J.Lee’s favorite role to date. Lee shared, “Of Octavia's amazing roles, my favorite character was Roberta in Gifted. I liked that she was like a mother to the little girl, Mary, and a great friend to her and her uncle. She was also willing to fight for her! Her love, playfulness, and strength reminded me of my Nana.” Over a slice of chocolate pie, Octavia ended the luncheon by wishing the women and girls of Colorado dream big and that the men step up to help the women and girls achieve those dreams.
In Spencer’s “spare time”, she mentors formally as an AT&T Hello Lab Mentor. AT&T designed this mentorship program to pair entertainment industry leaders with aspiring filmmakers from diverse backgrounds as they create new short films. The program is focused on supporting each filmmaker by introducing them to studio and production company executives, agents and attorneys. Also, mentors including writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, rapper Common, film director Desiree Akhavan and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi are responsible for counseling filmmakers on pitching their work, managing budgets and directing character-driven narratives. Most importantly, these films will highlight and celebrate untold stories from neglected communities like LGBTQ, women and people of color. This program is proof that mentorship is crucial throughout our entire life span.
We had the amazing opportunity to have a heart to heart with Octavia after the luncheon and she poured out about the importance of mentorship. As she embraced young actress, J.Lee, you could see them connecting and building this beautiful rapport. While this actress did not have a mentor growing up, she remembers learning much from Whoopi Goldberg. Spencer told us, “She shared some solid advice and that was be true to yourself at the end of the day. I know what that means now.”
We asked the Hidden Figures actress what advice she would share with aspiring actresses like J.Lee and she said, “1. Train because it does not come naturally and while some people make it look easy, it’s not. 2. Live your life because life experiences is what an actor brings to a role. If you haven’t lived and gone on those trips and experienced things then you’re not going to be able to bring depth to the role. If you think that you will be an overnight success, then acting isn’t for you. Most people I know became successful in their 40s. I became successful in my 40s. It’s a marathon not a sprint.”
It is also very interesting that Spencer does not want to take on the title of “role model” because she realizes that she will do things that people like and dislike. Above all, she strives to make her mother proud of her by keeping her legacy intact. “I just want to be the best person I can be,” Octavia said. Amazingly enough, J.Lee left the room feeling empowered and inspired. Lee said, “After meeting Octavia Spencer, I had to pinch myself. Days later it still felt like a dream! I really enjoyed hearing her speak, and I'm motivated to work harder at being a great actress like Octavia."
- From WOD Magazine's Winter issue