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As a comedian, actor, writer, and television host, Amber Ruffin uses her public platform to unflinchingly and candidly discuss issues of sexism and racism. Her virtual keynote address to open Women’s Week 2021 was no different. In her speech, Ruffin stressed the importance of women realizing their value, speaking out against inequities, and supporting each other. She credits her career success to encouragement from other women, who helped her overcome her fears and find her voice while navigating the male-dominated world of comedy.

In 2014, Ruffin joined “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” becoming the first Black woman to write for a late-night network show in the United States. In addition to hosting her own show, “The Amber Ruffin Show,” she has written for the Comedy Central show “Detroiters” and was a regular narrator on “Drunk History.” She also co-wrote with her sister Lacey Lamar the New York Times bestseller “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism.” 

During her keynote, Ruffin related how she got her start in local theater and with an improv troupe in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. While performing in Chicago, an improv theater owner encouraged her to move there to pursue a full-time comedy career. She considered declining the opportunity, but her friend Shannon packed her bags and pushed her to go.

After an internship and completing classes in Chicago, she moved to the Netherlands to work as a writer and performer at Boom Chicago Amsterdam. The first year in Amsterdam was “extraordinarily terrible,” Ruffin recalled. “It was lonely and hard…I spent a lot of time without encouragement, so I had to hold on to Shannon telling me you are great at this, like I squeezed all of the encouragement you could possibly get out of that statement. I literally clung to those words to survive.”

“Try to be like those women who helped me…create a great environment where people want to work and are appreciated for working.”

Following a two-year stint in Amsterdam, she got a job at The Second City theaters in Denver and Chicago, where half of the cast members were women. She immediately noticed a difference in the workplace environment.

“I was encouraged. My ideas were taken seriously. All of a sudden, my ideas were great…I really came into my own,” she recalled. “But the difference between your workplace being half women and almost zero women is huge. I went from needing encouragement to being encouragement.”

Ruffin put those newfound powers of encouragement into action when she returned to Boom Chicago Amsterdam and was in charge of new actors. Recalling the pressure she felt her first time there, she strived to give the new cohort a more positive work environment.

Three years later, she moved to Los Angeles, working as a nanny to make ends meet while focusing on her creative endeavors. She wrote musicals “for fun” and landed a writing job with the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show. 

“Seth Meyers was the first boss I had who was a guy who didn’t treat me differently because I was a woman,” Ruffin said. “And once I got a whiff of it, I was off to the races. I was listened to. I was encouraged and given total creative freedom.”

“So I say all that to say, try to be like those women who helped me,” Ruffin added. “I try to do that. And I want to create a great environment where people want to work and are appreciated for working. I hope each of you finds such a place to work. But if you can’t, I hope you create that place for other people wherever you end up.”

She also spoke to students about ways that they could help to create an equitable future, regardless of their major.

“If you’re an accounting or finance major, maybe commit to looking at financial practices that uphold White supremacy,” she said. “If you’re an education major, make sure you’re learning a curriculum that doesn’t center Whiteness.”

“Our history is complicated. Tell the truth so that we can grow”

With regard to misogyny and White supremacy, Ruffin noted, “intersectionality is real.” Reading excerpts from the book that recounts her sister’s experiences with workplace racism, Ruffin urged everyone to speak out on inequities. She suggested ways that men could amplify marginalized voices in meetings, classrooms, and boardrooms, and encouraged women to speak out when they experience racist and misogynist incidents.

Ruffin also addressed racism among White women. 

As the nation marks Women’s History Month, she noted that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are celebrated for their contributions to women’s rights. The women also strongly opposed the 15th Amendment, voicing outrage that Black men would receive the right to vote before White women did.

“Our history is complicated. Tell the truth so that we can grow,” Ruffin said. “This is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was stolen by thieves and built by slaves.”

In discussing the Women’s Week theme, Ruffin underscored that “Inspiring a Movement” is not a “one-woman show. It takes all of us.” While there’s a lot for women to celebrate and be angry about, Ruffin expressed hope for the future. Equity takes work, and moving toward an equitable future also means telling the truth about our past, she added.

“USA should stand for the United States of Amnesia. At best, we approach our so-called American history with selective memory,” she said. “What’s the saying? Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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