Back in 2008, while on a break from filming Friday Night Lights, Connie Britton (aka Tami Taylor) convinced co-star Taylor Kitsch to join her on a trip to Kenya to meet with the African Children’s Choir. As many of her castmates already knew, the visit epitomized her true passion. The actress has been volunteering with the choir and a host of other organizations in the region since the late ’90s. “There’s something very appealing about that part of the world,” she told InStyle.
“Though we often see the negative, it’s a beautiful place with a rich cultural history.” Since April 2014, the actress has served alongside Antonio Banderas, Maria Sharapova, and eight others as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the U.N.’s anti-poverty agency. “This is something I’ve dreamed about for a long time in terms of what I want to be doing with my career and my life,” she says. “It’s one of my greatest opportunities yet.” Below, she goes in-depth on her work.
You’ve been working in countries like Kenya and Rwanda for nearly two decades. What are some of the issues you are most eager to address now?
"Education, particularly for girls. Many are still not getting proper schooling for various reasons—some of them cultural, some of them religious, and a lot of them poverty-driven. Another area of focus is creating opportunities for women to break into the economy. We met with a youth organization called PAJER in Rwanda that came up with a type of banking system in which women can borrow and earn money, and invest in one another’s businesses."
"In the ’90s, a friend of mine took a trip to visit AIDS orphanages in Ethiopia. I looked at his pictures and was completely blown away by everyone’s spirit. Soon after that, I started working on a documentary about orphans in Ethiopia. My friends used to say that I would come back with an orphan. It turns out, they were right. But it took me three years to adopt my son, Eyob, so it wasn’t nearly that simple."
For so many Americans, the African experience is completely foreign. How do you get people here to relate to what’s going on there?
"Whenever I talk about it, I try to speak to our mutual humanity. Eyob came from Ethiopia, and now he’s an American boy going to school with kids in Nashville. Sometimes it’s hard to see outside the confines of our own country, but a lot of issues we face are similar around the globe. We’re all human beings. Taking a closer look at the world helps us look at ourselves."
President Obama recently visited Kenya and spoke about women’s empowerment in his last speech. Why do you think now’s the time for change?
"Because it really needed to happen yesterday. Thankfully, it’s not too late to make real progress."
To learn more about the United Nations Development Programme, visit undp.org.