Rosario Dawson’s story is one of rags to riches, but she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The successful actor and director, known for her starring roles in “RENT,” “Top Five,” “Men in Black II” as well as her most current role on Netflix’s “Daredevil,” came to the University of Connecticut to talk about everything from her experience as an activist to what means the most in life.
The world of varying cultures, races and ethnicities was brought right to Dawson’s doorstep in in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she was raised. Her family moved into a run down, practically abandoned building that had been broken into for years, with many squatters residing within it.
As any indication of how Dawson would carry herself in her career and life to come, she said her family took what they were dealt and made the best experience out of it.
According to Dawson, the building had one extension cord that ran all the way down the street, which was the only power source for her building. The building originally had no heating, water or electricity, but her and her family worked to build up their living situation. They strove to improve the building as a whole to ultimately positively impact the community it was situated in as well.
She said she bore witness to an area of a huge pregnancy and dropout rates, as her mother was also a dropout, and grew up in an area of seemingly infinite cultures.
“It’s where I come from,” said Dawson.
She learned to be outgoing and social by constantly coming into contact with so many people of unique backgrounds.
“We’re so on top of each other, you can’t avoid it. It’s definitely opened up the entire world to me,” said Dawson.
“Especially being in New York, you get exposed to so much culture,” Dawson said, recounting memories of growing up in the '80’s during housing and police riots. She recalled one moment when a tank on her block and police in riot gear came to evict squatters from a building that was then blocked off from inhabitants for the next four years.
Dawson was raised to respect the varying cultures and voices she was exposed to and to become sensitive to their situations. “If it wasn’t for the families coming down to the cities, it wouldn’t be popular to gentrify,” said Dawson. Her family was among the pioneers of New York City, inhabiting unconventional territory unattractive to most others.
This, as Dawson said, was the beginning of what inspired her to become such a tireless activist – her roots gave her a heightened sense of empathy. “We’re exactly the same. We’re all humans,” said Dawson.
Dawson admitted that she’s “a mutt” herself, having heritage from many different countries. She spoke on labels such as “terrorist” or of race and ethnicity saying it’s important to challenge ourselves about why we feel a certain way towards others. “If we start recognizing ourselves as earthlings, then we can see other people as earthlings,” Dawson said.
She spoke optimistically regarding America, and the world’s, progress toward social tolerance. “I think it’s a remarkable privilege to say that we’ve broken through those glass ceilings,” said Dawson.
As an advocate for action, Dawson said, “You can change things around if there’s a problem. People, they want progress—it doesn’t come from pointing the finger and acting like we didn’t do anything wrong. We’re always together, so let’s figure it out.”
An activist herself, Dawson has not only embraced the modern movement towards tolerance, but the modern tactics of activism—including utilizing technology. She said it’s easier now than ever for organizations to link up under a common cause through technology. Still, “You have to talk to the community you want to help,” to understand where the money truly needs to go, said Dawson.
She has many philanthropic ventures such as working with young women in the Congo to empower them in areas of high rape incidents, or working with fashion/clothing startups in Ghana and Sierra Leone among other African countries through Studio 189, a social enterprise co-created by Dawson. She’s also very philanthropic in the New York City area through a multitude of organizations, such as the Lower East Side Girls Club.
Through her life, Dawson’s been able to put herself in others’ shoes both from life experience and acting. She defined success as something based on being proud of what you’ve been able to experience in life. “When you’re dying, you can reflect on it and it will be a life you enjoy watching through your mind’s eye,” said Dawson.
Dawson stressed how no one is better than the other and that our paths are defined by opportunity. Of all the social injustices she’s been exposed to, she said, “The one person who robs ourselves of opportunity is ourselves,” going onto say, “I’ve shocked myself so many times.”
“Every blade of grass, every feather, every snowflake is different. Don’t rob the world and yourself of what you’re specifically here to give and leave. Go find you,” said Dawson.