Dawnn Lewis said choosing to focus on the positives throughout her life – setting goals and setting out to be the best version of herself that she could be, and holding fast to her faith – has led her to enjoy success as a singer, songwriter, actress and television creator/producer for decades.
“I have been blessed to have such rich soil deposited in me by such amazing women in my life,” Lewis said as she read a love letter to the women who inspired and continue to inspire her during Claflin University’s fourth annual Women’s Leadership Luncheon on Friday in Ministers’ Hall.
This year’s two-day Women’s Conference theme was “Empowering Sisterhood: Power, Passion and Purpose.”
Lewis, who is perhaps best-known for her role as Jalessa Vinson on the hit television sitcom A Different World that centered on the life of students at the fictional historically black Hillman College in Virginia, said as often as she heard words of encouragement growing up, she also heard those of discouragement when it came to her love of singing, acting and dancing, and her desire to pursue a career in those fields.
“On the one hand, I was encouraged … and on the other, I was told to slow my roll,” Lewis said. “Often, we as adults really have to be mindful of the words we choose. You may do irreparable harm just by the words you speak. (Young people and children) are trusting you – us – to love them and tell them the truth … so when we are not standing by them, they know what to do.
“I decided I was going to dial into the things that were spoken positively into me. … My mother kept speaking into my life positivity. I’m so grateful for that.”
Knowing what she wanted to do and who she wanted to become, Lewis said the next step was clear.
“The surest way to get where you want to go is to set a goal,” she said. “My goal was to be the best that I could be. It was not to be THE best, but to be MY best. What I choose to do, I have to do it to MY best. What I have is what I have, that’s it. I’m going to make it work. … It’s about making the best and the most of what you have. Make it count.”
Lewis – who said she has always loved learning, and graduated from high school and entered college at 16 – said her family, faith and love of God have been with her every step of the way, as evidenced when she asked the head of the production studio, who she had just met, to pray with her after she found out she had been cast on A Different World. Mentoring and giving back are also engrained in her life.
“Strive to put your best foot forward,” Lewis said. “The more we lift up and give back to God, the more that is given to us. That’s why your cup keeps getting filled. If your cup is filled, if you think you have everything you need, there’s nowhere for those blessings to go. Release it, get it, release it, get it.”
Growing up with three brothers, Lewis said she was surrounded by loving, strong males. But she said today’s young men don’t know how to talk to young women – and young women don’t know what to listen for.
“I believe part of the solution is that we communicate with each other,” she said. “There is nothing that women alone can do to make things better, and there is nothing that men alone can do to make things better.
“Surround yourself with people who love you and are honest to you. … You need iron sharpening iron. I need strong people around me, because life is hard.”
And when you’re having doubts and facing bad days, just keep in mind that things will get better, Lewis said.
“No one has got it all together all of the time,” she said, adding that she tells herself during those bad times, “If I keep moving in spite of what I’m thinking and feeling, I will get to a better place.
“More often than not, people see your light, and they want to be close to your light.”
This year’s Women’s Conference also included a health fair, beauty night, forum and master class led by Lewis.