Tracee Ellis Ross finds her joy at benefit in Greenwich
GREENWICH — In returning to her hometown of Greenwich for a benefit to assist women and girls across the region, actress and director Tracee Ellis Ross talked about the value of good role models, both in the home and in the culture at large.
Ross, a Greenwich native starring in her sixth season of the ABC sitcom “black-ish,” said it was imperative for young girls to see people like themselves on television.
“These images matter. The small screen has big power,” said Ross, whose real name is Tracee Joy Silberstein. She was the keynote speaker at the benefit for The Fund for Women & Girls of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation held Thursday at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Old Greenwich. As a black woman, she said she felt a particularly strong responsibility to portray the full spectrum of the African-American experience. “The images that you see actually make a difference in how you see yourself, or how others see you,” she said.
The show on which Ross stars and directs has been a strong performer in the ratings, but the real impact has been on the culture at large, she continued. The role she plays on the show, Ross hoped, was both entertaining and educational.
“In my job, and in every scene, I get to experience the pure freedom of choice, which is the definition of successes to me,” she said, “I am representing something that has not often been seen on television - a black woman thriving. A black woman who is joyful. Often on television, the black female experience is the quirky sidekick, the sassy fast-talking friend. The aunty. The black experience is often associated with struggle, for a reason, that is part of the history. But for people of color, the revolutionary experience of joy, and thriving, is just as much a part of the story.”
Ross said her mother, singer Diana Ross, a longtime Greenwich resident, was another inspiration to her: “I had the benefit in of a mother who showed me in my own home what was possible - taking your gift, your life, your joy into your hands, and be a woman in full glory.”
She also credited women comedians she grew up idolizing, such as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, for creating a sense that women could shape their own destinies.
“They were clearly smart, they were in charge, they had agency over their lives, they were making choices and decisions. As we watched, we saw women being completely free. And now I get to do that,” Ross told the 800 people attending the benefit luncheon. Her father, Robert Silberstein, was sitting in the front row — and making her nervous, she joked.
Ross said she hoped to inspire other creative talents to share their gifts, as well as make the workplace one of inclusion — “stories of all different kind of things, stories of other experiences, other faces, other voices, other lives, into the mix.”
The speaker also joked about her upbringing in Greenwich — “maybe I’ve seen you on the Ave,” she quipped after being introduced.
The actress took part in a question-and-answer session with president and CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, Juanita James. By turns brash and self-deprecating, Ross talked about her love of fashion — “For me growing up, fashion was my armor, and it still is. But it’s also one of the ways. I get to express myself creatively. Clothing for me is not a costume, it’s a form of expression,” said Ross, a graduate of Brown University who was decked out in a purple plaid dress with big boots.
Also at the event, administrators of the Fund for Women & Girls gave a rundown of their recent activities. The organization has provided mental-health services for pregnant women that showed good results, and it has been expanded to women of all ages. The Fund for Women & Girls has been working on initiatives to curtail sexual violence, and an outreach program to encourage athletic coaches to instill good values among young men is ongoing.
An educational program run by the fund has also been sending adults to Housatonic Community College. The program highlighted two people from Ansonia, a married couple with kids, who has benefited from the scholarship, Rebecca and Rich DelValle. She had a serious drug habit and spent time homeless, and he served a stretch in prison.
Now Rebecca DelValle is gearing up to get her bachelor’s degree for a promising career in business, and Rich DelValle has learned a trade in specialty manufacturing through the community college in Bridgeport. They’re looking to buy a home. “You have given us the luxury to dream,” Rebecca DelValle told the audience.
The event raised nearly $600,000 for the Family Economic Security Program at Housatonic Community College.
“It is our hope you leave here emboldened and inspired,” said Leah Glover, of Danbury, an event organizer.