Kerry Washington's Mother 'Begged' Her to Be a Lawyer, Star Reveals Ahead of New ACLU Doc

Kerry Washington's new documentary The Fight, out July 31, shines a light on the people behind and impacted by the American Civil Liberties Union

kerry washington and mother
Photo: Brad Barket/Getty

Kerry Washington's mother had a whole different plan for her daughter's life.

“She really, really wanted me to go to law school,” Washington tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, opening up about life, parenting and her powerful new documentary The Fight.

While Washington, a Bronx-born theater kid, always had her heart set on performing arts, mom Valerie, a retired college professor, tried to push her towards law with her own persuasive arguments.

“Oh my God, it’s what she begged me to do. She used to say to me, ‘Closing arguments are just like monologues'," recalls the star. "She was terrified to have a starving artist of a child.”

Decades later Washington, 43, who graduated from George Washington University in 1998 with dual majors in anthropology and sociology, is up for multiple Emmy Awards this year thanks to her most recent roles in powerful works like Netflix's American Son and Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere. But she's always maintained her drive to fight for others.

kerry washington
Celeste Sloman

"I started my life as a social justice activist," says Washington. "I was 12 or 13, doing HIV/AIDS education and advocacy work in New York through an arts and education theater company. For my whole life, art and social change have been impossible to separate."

For more on Kerry Washington's life now and her powerful new documentary, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

The star channeled that energy into her latest project, co-producing the Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios documentary The Fight, which spotlights the lawyers behind the American Civil Liberties Union.

"They're Avengers in real life," she says, "out there fighting for all of our rights."

Washington even has a personal connection to one attorney in particular.

"One of the lawyers in the film, Dale [Ho], and I were actually in acting class together 20 years ago," she explains. "It was right before he went to law school. He made the choices that would have made my mother proud, and I did the other stuff."

For her part, the actress couldn't be more proud of Ho and the work he's doing as head of the ACLU's charge to protect the census and voter rights.

Out of all the cases the organization has taken on right now, "The work that Dale is doing is what I think about the most," she says. "This really is a year where it’s so important that every single one of us counts."

the fight
Magnolia Pictures

And though the star is gearing up to reunite with her former Scandal cast mates, she has good advice for anyone wondering what Olivia Pope would do in times like these.

"I say that every single person reading this has more actual power in a democracy than Olivia Pope," says Washington of her former hit character. "Maybe what you are able to give is a check or your time making phone calls or volunteering. Maybe you’re able to drive people to the polls or post on social media. Even if you didn’t go to law school, there’s a way that you can be part of the solution. We too can be Avengers."

The Fight is available on demand July 31.

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