Actress and Model Joy Bryant Talks to ORIGIN About Her Passion for Helping Others, Her Commitment to Taking Risks, and Her Travels To Cambodia with International Nonprofit Oxfam

Q: How did your childhood influence your desire to help others?
Joy Bryant: I grew up in the South Bronx, raised by my grandmother, who scrapped and scraped to make sure I had a roof over my head and food in my stomach. I was painfully aware of what it was like to live with limited resources and a certain level of uncertainty. But in spite of those realities, my grandmother instilled in me two important lessons: I was just as good as anyone else, and education was my salvation. Fortunately, I was able to get scholarships to excellent schools, but I was one of the lucky ones. All of this is what draws me to anti-poverty organizations like Oxfam.

We live in a country where the belief is that anyone can succeed, but for so many here, and for the majority of the world, that’s not the case. In many parts of the world, women and poor people are at a huge disadvantage—certain rights and protections don’t exist, and they don’t have the chance of upward mobility. Being involved with Oxfam has really opened my eyes to the world at large and the suffering of others. But my background
and my life experience are what have allowed me to understand how interconnected we all are. I believe one person suffering reverberates throughout the world.

Q: When you visited Oxfam’s programs in Cambodia, what inspired you the most?

JB: What inspired me most was the resilience of the Cambodian people. The country is still living with the trauma of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. People lost everything—family, friends. The rich culture of Cambodia was nearly extinguished. They are a nation of survivors. And while poverty and infant mortality affect a disproportionate amount of the people there, those I met were hopeful for the future and doing the best they can with
what they had.

Cambodia JUN 08 System of Rice Intensification (SRI) Q: During your travels, how have you seen climate change affect women in particular?

JB: When I was in Cambodia, we talked a lot about climate change and how it affects the most vulnerable, especially women. There was one woman I met who had been struggling to support her family as a rice farmer. She’d been dealing with a lot of uncertainty around her crops because of extreme weather, but Oxfam introduced her to a new technique to grow rice plants with stronger roots that help them withstand the heavy wind and rain. Because of its yield, she was able to harvest enough rice to keep her family out of extreme poverty, and she was able to send her kids to school. When you empower women and help them thrive, you help their communities thrive. Women shoulder the burden disproportionately.

It’s been encouraging to hear the pope talking about climate change and take it away from being a political issue to being one of survival. He literally said, “Any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity.” I don’t agree with the pope’s positions on other social issues, but he’s on point with this one.

Q: During this season of giving, are there simple ways people can make difference?

JB: Awareness: Mindfulness of the resources we have and respect for where we live, eat, and sleep is a good starting point. Being conscious of your consumption, what goes in and out, will help cut down on wastefulness. Acknowledgement: Understanding and compassion for others and their suffering is the next step. Put yourself in the shoes of people who don’t have the luxury of being wasteful. For instance, people who have to walk miles for water—and we just turn on the faucet and let it run. Or people right here in our country who are food insecure, and yet we as a nation throw out an inconceivable amount of food.
Action: Donate time, food, or money to organizations that fight the good fight. We can act individually for the collective good. We can all do something.

Q: You recently started a new fashion line. What would you say to people considering a new risk or career challenge?

JB: I never wanted to be the person who said, “I woulda, coulda, shoulda.” Life is way too short, and you may not last that long. I dropped out of Yale after two years to pursue one of the most uncertain careers—modeling. That seemed like a crazy decision, especially coming from where I came from and given what Yale is. Most people I knew told me so. But I was following what my heart was telling me I needed to do. I took the risk. It could easily have not worked out, but it did. Phew!

You have to move to your own beat. There will be times when no one believes in you or understands what you’re doing and why you are doing it. The most important thing is for you to believe in you. Following your own vision is one of the only things that will sustain you. And failure isn’t really an option because, as my grandmother used to say, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” Thanks, Nana.

Like Joy, you can join Oxfam and stand with families around the world who fight to break free from poverty by helping them access the tools they need to succeed and thrive. Whether you donate a water pump, books for kids, or any other gift, you can make a difference today at

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