'A Different World' Star Dawnn Lewis on the 'Ceiling' for Black Actresses: 'What Does a Person Have to Do?'

The actress and singer, who played Jaleesa on the NBC sitcom A Different World from 1987 to 1993, tells PEOPLE she's working with promising teenagers to help them get ahead

Dawnn Lewis spent six years playing Jaleesa on the NBC sitcom A Different World. Although she's maintained a busy, thriving career since the show ended in 1993, she says it isn't always easy for Black women to navigate the tricky waters of Hollywood.

"I believe we've taken several steps forward, that cannot be denied, but I also recognize that there is a ceiling that only a handful of us are allowed to press through," Lewis, 61, exclusively tells PEOPLE. "You can be the exception. We still feel limited. We're grateful for the variety of platforms now on which we can have opportunities. Because of the variety, one person can't be everywhere, so they've got to spread it out somewhat. But then, depending on the platform, you get either a nod or you don't from the industry."

"So yes," she adds, "there are more opportunities, but at the same time, they just raised the ceiling just a little bit higher, so you still feel like you're bumping your head."

Dawn Lewis
Lewis in 2022. Unique Nicole/Getty

Lewis cites the lack of Oscar nominations this year for Black actresses in leading roles as an example of how Hollywood can make Black actresses feel underappreciated.

"You look at the Oscar nominations," she says. "It's like, 'Seriously? Seriously?' Really, what does a person have to do? What does a person have to do? Viola Davis — nothing for The Woman King? What does a person have to do? Do you know what I'm saying?"

Despite the obstacles Black women have faced and continue to face in Hollywood, Lewis has managed to carve out a distinctive career for herself. During her six-season run on A Different World, she landed a role in the 1988 Keenen Ivory Wayans-directed big-screen blaxploitation send-up, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which was mold-breaking in an important way.

"My very first feature film was I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, where even though it was a comedy, it showed us invested in our community," says Lewis, who has appeared in a number of other big-screen movies, including the 2006 hit Dreamgirls. "It showed us willing to go to war, if need be, to defuse and to disassemble stereotypes. To see a woman of color as the damsel in distress being saved by her hero, not minimized, not abused..."

She continues, "And to this day, people still watch it. It still makes me laugh. And the level of talent that was in that movie was exceptional. Everyone from Bernie Casey to Isaac Hayes, and of course, Keenen and the Wayans boys. We got introduced to Marlon, Damon and Shawn in that movie, as well as Kim Wayans. The whole Wayans family was in that movie."

Lewis' A Different World character, Jaleesa, also presented a smart, ambitious young Black woman. She differed from other screen depictions of young Black women who, at the time, were usually being shown—or not shown—on TV.

She's particularly proud of the way A Different World smashed a lot of stereotypes about Black people by showing diversity among Black people on the campus of a fictional HBCU, Hillman College. "When A Different World came along, they were adding people of color, various shades of brown and financial elevation, social awareness or unawareness," she says. "We painted a palette where there was someone for everyone, whether you were a seasoned citizen like Mr. Gaines, who saw the value in continuing to speak into the lives of young people."

"There are millions of Mr. Gaines's out there. There are millions of Colonel Taylors out there representing our military service. There are millions of Jaleesas out there, people who say, 'I'm not giving up on myself yet,'" she continues. "So anything that we did, anything that our characters did to raise awareness or elevate the various facets of who we are in this fabric of this country and in our culture, I think that's what still resonates today, because we're all striving to be our best selves and just looking for a reflection of what does that look like in my world?"

A DIFFERENT WORLD -- Pictured: (back row, l-r) Glynn Turman as Col. Bradford 'Brad' Taylor, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Lou Myers as Vernon GAines, Charnele Brown as Kimberly 'Kim' Reese (front row) Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne, Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert Wayne, Darryl M. Bell as Ronald 'Ron' Johnson, Cree Summer as Winifred 'Freddie' Brooks
The A Different World cast: (back row, l-r) Glynn Turman as Col. Bradford 'Brad' Taylor, Dawnn Lewis as Jaleesa Vinson Taylor, Lou Myers as Vernon GAines, Charnele Brown as Kimberly 'Kim' Reese (front row) Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Cleophus Wayne, Jasmine Guy as Whitley Marion Gilbert Wayne, Darryl M. Bell as Ronald 'Ron' Johnson, Cree Summer as Winifred 'Freddie' Brooks. NBCU Photo Bank

Since leaving Jaleesa behind, Lewis has remained busy in film, television, theater and music (before A Different World, she was a recording artist, and she wrote and sang the sitcom's theme song), racking up dozens upon dozens of acting credits. She's also taken on voiceover roles while "paying it forward," creating opportunities for promising young talent that might otherwise struggle to find an opening in the business. Her A New Day Foundation, which she formed in 2017, is a continuation of work she's been doing for 40 years.

"I've learned that [phrase] 'pay it forward,'" she explains. "I did not know what the term 'mentor' was or 'motivational speaker,' but ever since I was in elementary school … I was bullied as a young child. So my teachers and the people in my village really put a lot of effort and energy into me to help me see the light and the positivity of myself and my abilities."

The organization offers programs targeted to both female teens (called Sisters Hangout) and male teens (called menTORS, which stands for Men Talking of Relevant Situations). The goal is to provide experiences for people ages 13 to 19 by exposing them to different cultures and career opportunities that they might not normally be able to access. In addition to the scholarships and mentorship programs provided, activities include trips to a recording studio to teach young people how to produce animated and video game projects, and visits to City Hall so they can learn how government works. There are also camping and rodeo excursions as well as horseback-riding lessons.

Her desire to be of service was sparked, in part, by a return to her alma mater, the High School of Music and Art in New York City, during her A Different World era.

"I went back to the school and I walked into the lobby to look for my teacher, but this time, I didn't walk back into the lobby as Dawnn. I walked back into the lobby as Jaleesa, and the school went crazy, because I was living the dream that everyone in that school was in school to attain," she recalls.

"They added a couple of hours to the school day to give me time to go to every single class, answer questions, speak about the business, speak about the business of show business, as well as the creative opportunities," she continues. "That was when I learned the term 'motivational speaking.' Something went off in my head and in my spirit that this wasn't just something that made me feel good, but I actually had something to offer, to empower, to inspire, and to educate someone else on their journey."

Adds Lewis, "So I became committed to helping young people, underserved communities who don't normally have access to people of my celebrity, for lack of a better word, to encourage them, to say someone sees them."

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As for her own ongoing professional journey, Lewis doesn't have any intention of letting any kind of glass ceiling keep her down.

"I look for cracks. I look for dents. I look for different ways," says Lewis, whose recent roles have included stints on The Boys, 9-1-1 and Grey's Anatomy. "One of the things I love about a prism, it's got so many shapes, and depending on which way you hold it, it's a whole other color. A whole other miracle of light happens within it. I do my best to be a prism."

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