Actress MJ Rodriguez Shares How to Live Boldly

During the fifth annual Diversity Summit, keynote speaker MJ Rodriguez, who stars in Pose on FX, discussed how she learned to be proud of her identity.

Diversity Summit
MJ Rodriguez (l) sat down with Drew Amstutz, Student Association vice president for public affairs, to discuss living boldly at the fifth annual Diversity Summit. (Sydney Elle Gray/GW Today)
November 11, 2019

By Briahnna Brown

For her keynote address at George Washington University’s fifth annual Diversity Summit, Pose actress MJ Rodriguez said her main goal was to share love.

The GW community crowded Lisner Auditorium to see Ms. Rodriguez share her insights on fearlessly being yourself when the world can be harsh to those with differing identities. As an Afro-Latina transgender woman who struggled with her identity growing up after being bullied by her peers as a child, Ms. Rodriguez said she never imagined life would grant her opportunities to inspire young adults who may identify with her story.

"It's kind of beautiful to see all these faces in a Diversity Summit, talking to every single last beautiful color of the rainbow in here,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I didn't think I was qualified for this, but there was this moment that I felt like I could finally take hold of me and feel truly bold."

The Diversity Summit, sponsored by the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, is a two-day event that seeks to create a space for attendees to engage in critical, thoughtful and challenging dialogue and find ways to continue building an inclusive GW. It featured a number of conversations on topics ranging from dealing with trauma to critical analyses of race, and poster presentations that focused on black femininity and voting accessibility.

The theme for this year’s summit was “BE BOLD: Learning. Unlearning. Relearning.” and focused on challenging attendees to critically analyze how they see the world and learn ways to be more understanding of those who are not like them. Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said during Thursday’s keynote that the fight for inclusion will only be won when hearts, minds and behaviors change.

"We hope your diversity summit experience will help you increase your knowledge, raise your self-awareness, build your skill base for effective engagement and will help you to plan for social action long after the diversity summit is over," Ms. Laguerre-Brown said to the audience. 

GW President Thomas LeBlanc offered welcoming remarks Friday at the summit’s lunch panel, which brought together scholars, activists and public figures from various backgrounds to discuss what white supremacy is and how to confront it.

Thanking the summit’s planning committee, he said the summit played a crucial role in challenging the university to have “thoughtful and urgent” conversations. He noted that this year’s themes were especially relevant for the GW community as it undertakes its strategic planning process.

“As GW aspires to preeminence, we must also strive to be bold,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “As we have been thinking about our future this year during strategic planning conversations…it is clear that diversity will remain one of our most critical, core university values.”

He said as members of the GW community learn, unlearn and relearn issues of diversity and inclusion, they will build empathy and a better understanding of how to support one another.

Diversity Luncheon

President Thomas LeBlanc spoke at the Diversity Summit's lunch panel that discussed the impacts of white supremacy. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)

Ms. Rodriguez said she always had support from her parents, who ensured she knew that she was worthy and that she was enough. She struggled to fit in until she started studying at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and later at Berklee College of Music, which she described as the “musical Hogwarts.” There, she was able to hone her singing and acting skills and feel at home in the “most diverse place” she could be.

Ms. Rodriguez left school when she had the opportunity to play Angel in a 2011 off-Broadway revival of Rent, and she said the role taught her how to teach and learn through her art. She had a number of small TV roles in the years after Rent, and in 2017 she got an audition for the FX series Pose as House Mother Blanca.

The show explores the lives of queer individuals through the underground ballroom scene in New York City during the 1980s, and has earned multiple Golden Globe nominations. The show also features the largest cast of LGBTQ actors in history for a scripted series. When the opportunity came along, Ms. Rodriguez said she was skeptical at first because she was worried how audiences would respond.

“The world can be extremely harsh at times when it comes to individuals like myself, not to mention I'm the minority of the minority of the minority,” Ms. Rodriguez said. ”I had all of my defenses up when it came, even when it was about us as trans women, I still was worried because I didn't know what the world was going to receive."

In August, Ms. Rodriguez became the first transgender woman to win the Imagen Award for best actress for her role as House Mother Blanca. She said that Pose changed her life and allowed her to make a difference through art while being an activist for transgender rights.

Her advice to those who may belong to a marginalized group was to take a few minutes every day before stepping out into the world to talk to themselves in the mirror and affirm that their existence and identity deserves to be seen.

"I would encourage anyone in the room to take that time for yourself to know that you are worthy, especially my young African American and Latina youth, and especially my LGBTQIA+ groups,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Y'all are worthy."

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