1996 was the year a particular generation was introduced to the talent of Sheryl Lee Ralph during the premiere of “Moesha.”
During the show, she played a wisdom-filled stepmother who gripped our hearts with her relatability, candor, and witty banter. Her character, Dee, became a staple in the late ’90s and would foretell her continued impact on the culture.
While “Moesha” may have been Ralph’s introduction to some, it is not how she got her start in the industry.
Born in Connecticut, Ralph is of Jamaican descent and made her official onscreen debut in 1977, appearing in the Sidney Poitier-directed film “A Piece of the Action.”
From that point, the now 66-year-old actress appeared in a range of television shows and films, tapping in with the culture for her short but impactful role in “Sister Act 2” and hitting the stage as Deena Jones in the Broadway play, “Dream Girls.”
Ralph’s work in the industry is noteworthy, earning her several honors and awards. Most recently, the mother of two won an Emmy in 2022 for Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy Series for her work on “Abbott Elementary.”
Although the multi-talented entertainer has a decorated career, she also involves herself in important issues.
In 1990, Sheryl Lee Ralph launched the D.I.V.A. Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to advancing the work and awareness around HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The foundation’s signature event is “DIVAS Simply Singing! Raising Health Awareness,” which is noted as the U.S.’s longest-running benefit concert for the cause.
According to its website, the D.I.V.A. Foundation has raised over $3 million to support organizations that provide needed services.
In addition to the advocacy work with her foundation, Ralph champions pay equity in the entertainment industry. Learning from past mistakes has fueled her passion to see women, especially women of color, have equal playing fields and get what they deserve.
Ralph regrets making a decision in her youth that is impacting her earning potential today. After starring in “Dream Girls,” Ralph sold the rights to her part in the play for nearly nothing, calling it her first mistake in the industry.
“‘Dream Girls’ — we sold our rights away for a dollar,” Ralph explained to AfroTech. “So all of the history and all of the wonderful stuff you see going around with the world with the show, we get nothing. That’s my number one mistake.”
And while much has changed for Ralph and her understanding of the entertainment industry, some of the tendencies around rights, pay, and access have not changed much.
“You know when you renegotiate your contracts and things, and you realize that people wanna lowball you, like you’re not doing the work that you’re doing, like you’re not bringing something that has never been brought before,” Ralph said in an exclusive interview with AfroTech.
Now Ralph is using her expertise and experiences to show what is possible when a person is persistent and confident in their craft. With that journey, she credits parts of her success to the power of a strong team that believes in her.
“It just took me the last ten years to find that right team,” Ralph noted. “But, I don’t discount anything that has happened, and I’m so thankful that it has been what it has been, and I’m doing what I’m doing.”
In this grand realization, the veteran actress has learned the power of negotiation. For Ralph, her craft is so important that she would do the work for free, but worth is far beyond passion.
“Now it’s sort of like, no honey. Love what you’re doing, but get paid what you are worth,” Ralph said.
“I’d have to tell everybody, anywhere, wherever it is you are, you get what you negotiate,” she added. “A lot of us need to learn how to negotiate better. And when you hear me talking about taking up space, you must take up space with the knowledge that you know who you are and you know your worth.”
The concepts above were key highlights during her talk at this year’s conference, TED2023: Possibility.
Despite the world’s challenges since the pandemic and the general pressures of life, Ralph encouraged onlookers to tap into the power of self-belief and actualization, using her story and journey as the backdrop for her wisdom-filled talk.
Opening with her now famous rendition of Dianne Reeves’s “Endangered Species” from her Emmy acceptance speech, Ralph gets down to it by giving three pro tips on how her journey helped her connect the dots and tap into the power of self-worth and confidence, as outlined by TED.
- See yourself for who and what you truly are.
- In order to believe in yourself, reframe your experiences in ways that empower you.
- Act as you believe in yourself.
Ralph’s journey is about taking up space, showing up as her authentic self, and staying ready no matter what. Therefore, she challenged the audience to look in the mirror and do the same.