Allison Williams Talks Millennials, Race & Injustice at MCON

by Erica Moody

The “Girls” and “Get Out” star got candid about her generation at the Newseum. 

Actress Allison Williams (Photo by Joy Asico for MCON)

What advice does Allison Williams, star of the quintessential millennial show “Girls” and the recent hit film “Get Out,” have for her generation?

“Subscribe to newsletters for organizations you care about…they’ll keep you up to speed on things,” she said to a sold-out crowd of social justice warriors at MCON (a “millennial engagement gathering” that aims to turn impact into action, in its sixth year) at the Newseum on Tuesday.

Her favorite newsletter to follow is from the Marshall Project, a nonprofit covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform, in addition to her work with Horizons as a National Ambassador on education, is a cause she cares about deeply and has been exploring further since “Girls” filming ended.

“The entire criminal justice system is just racist,” she said bluntly. Fresh from a trip to Angola last week, the impassioned actress is a prime example of the misunderstood group she calls “the action generation.”

I sat down with Allison before she went onstage to discuss more on millennials, activism and life after “Girls.”

Washington Life: What drew you to this speaking engagement with MCON?
Allison Williams: I was friends with Derrick [Feldmann, producer of MCON]; he was helping me figure out this education documentary series I’ve been working on that will hopefully start filming this fall, where we’re going to cover a bunch of different issues in education and focus on the heroes that are working to fix education on a small, local level. We became friends talking about that, and he was like, ‘I have a weird question. You’re a millennial, and I run a conference for millennials. Would you want to speak in it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ The funny thing is that people get really nervous about speaking in front of millennials but I feel like, being one myself, there’s going to be a camaraderie there that I’m very excited about. Any time a room full of people my age and slightly younger or older want to be a part of what’s happening in the world, that’s pretty awesome.

WL: I read an article where you said you don’t really identify as a millennial.
EM: The arc of millennial coverage has been fascinating to watch because initially, the way people were talking about millennials felt so foreign from the way I thought about myself and my friends.

Selfish, entitled…So I thought there must be this group of millennials that people are interacting with that I just don’t know. I don’t really feel like I fit into that group. And then it occurred to me that the entire generation has been misrepresented by people who comment on it.

Look no further than the way millennials have been behaving in the last year. This is a group that is focused, that is determined, that is energized, that’s motivated, that’s thoughtful, considerate, thinks globally, feels like they’re really citizens of the world in a way that I really admire. I would certainly think twice before crossing millennials.

WL: You talked about the NowThis education video series you’re working on. Is it true that you were also touring prisons for another series?
AW: It started as research for something, but it quickly became research plus the area of passion. I have spent my whole life, I think, reading about and learning about the history of racism in our country and also the present racism in our country, and when I saw the way the criminal justice system works up close, I was just so offended at how blatant it was, that they weren’t even trying to pretend that it was anything other than racism. I became obsessed with figuring out where I can help, how I can help. It’s not obvious to me how I can be helpful in this world, mostly because there are such rockstars already working, that I don’t want to disrupt anything they’re doing, I just want to be of service, and it’s all so localized because all the state laws about incarceration are totally different. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can about as many different places in the country and how they’re all suffering from this culture of mass incarceration. In general, it’s just something we haven’t really addressed and “Get Out” was a vehicle for a lot of uncomfortable conversations for people about race which is why I wanted to do it and why I’m so proud this many people saw it. Conversations aren’t enough, but it is the first step.

WL: You mentioned that you’ve been reading a lot of books about it. Are there any that you would recommend?
AW: The number one that I’d recommend is “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson. He is brilliant. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, and he works in Alabama. And then, there are people who would argue with various things in it, but I think “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander is a really good way of catching up on the history of incarceration. And then, the one thing I recommend to really anybody is: if you can, come to D.C. and go to the Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. I spent nine hours there and I didn’t finish. I still have two floors left. The way it’s set up is so brilliant because it basically reasserts the presence of black people into the foundation of our country. When we look back on the past, it’s very easy to imagine that…there was only a white European presence here. And that’s not true. Free labor is just completely ignored when people tell the story of how our country came to pass. It is so important to understand the legacy that we have, that I have just by being a white person in the U.S., even if I’m not directly related to that, it’s still a legacy that I have, much the same way that black people today feel like they’re paying for some kind of legacy having to do with how they came here. It’s just important to understand all of those dynamics and to become a little more comfortable with talking about them, so that you can realize how uncomfortable you are that they exist and start doing things about it.

WL: Ok, can I ask you about “Girls?” It’s my favorite show. I miss it.

AW: Of course. Thank you, I do too.

WL: Are there any shows you’d recommend for people who miss “Girls?

AW: Ugh, what a good question. I mean, you can rewatch it. (laughs) I feel like “Silicon Valley” could be called Boys. So you could watch Boys a.k.a. “Silicon Valley.” Or you could watch “Insecure,” but it’s not on again [yet]. “Atlanta” is one of the best shows ever made.

WL: I haven’t seen that yet.
AW: It’s amazing. You haven’t seen “Atlanta”? Get thee to an Atlanta nunnery! (laughs) That’s a weird version of an Ophelia demand.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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