Samantha Power is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Robin Wright occupies that position—in frosty Claire Underwood style—on the hit Netflix series House of Cards. But the two women are also tied together in a more profound way: both Wright and Power share an unyielding determination to bring about change in the most troubled regions of Africa.
At the Women in the World Summit on Friday, Power and Wright spoke with moderator Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, about the forces that drove them, and that can drive others, to advocacy.
The Congo—an area of particular interest to Wright, and the country that anchored the panel discussion—is rich with minerals sought by technology companies, but its mining industry is horribly corrupt. Military groups rake in hundreds of millions of dollars per year selling minerals to foreign companies, which rely on the Congo’s exports to power their electronics. Five million people have died in the wars waged by rebel groups over control of the industry. Since 1998, 200,000 Congolese women have been raped, according to stats cited during Friday’s panel.
Though Wright and Power are now firmly invested in the future of Africa, neither of them were particularly obvious “human rights people,” as Power put it.
“[In college] I did not have lofty ambitions,” Power said. “For me, there was something about the tragedies that occurred in the former Yugoslavia … [that was] a jolt to my system.”
Seeing images in the newspaper of emaciated men peering out from behind barbed wire fences prompted Power to visit Yugoslavia. “Once you’re up close, and you’re on the ground, you sort of lose your alibis,” she said. “Once I saw what was being done and what wasn’t being done to end the conflict, I was hooked … Now that I’m a bureaucrat, I always make a point of being on the ground.”
As U.N. ambassador, Power led the charge this past fall in the United States’ efforts to halt the spread of Ebola in Africa. True to her dedication to hands-on work, Power made sure to visit Liberia, where she was photographed doing the “Ebola handshake”—basically an elbow bump—with people across the region. Her goal was to spread awareness about the transmission of Ebola through shaking hands, and to offer a viable alternative.
“With government officials doing that in a very visible way, you educate community organizers,” Power said during the panel.
Wright was inspired to take up the activist cause after witnessing devastation in the Congo firsthand. After seeing a 2007 documentary about the country, recommended to her by activist John Prendergast, Wright decided to fly out to the Congo. There, she visited civil society groups devoted to repairing the lives of people—and particularly women—who have been brutalized by military violence.
“The consensus [among the Congolese women] was ‘Can you be a voice for us … and tell it to somebody who cares?’ Wright said, adding that she was inspired by “the amount of grace, and dignity, and fortitude” that the women displayed.
When she returned to America, Wright met with policy makers in Washington about so-called “conflict minerals.” Frustrated by the slow pace of government reform, she founded Pour Les Femmes—or “For the Women”—a line of sleepwear that dedicates most of its profits to aiding women in the Congo.
“[In terms of] God-given rights, it’s kind of limiting, the things that we have,” Wright explained. “A social movement is one of them, a people’s movement … It’s a woman’s movement for me: to make enough noise, to put enough pressure on your government and electronics factory to make sure there is a clean exchange.”
Power noted that grassroots movements like the one Wright described can have a tremendous impact on policy. The Dodd-Frank Act, for example, was signed by President Obama in 2010 and requires companies to be transparent about their chain of supply.
“Being in government, you’re not supposed to encourage pressure on yourself,” Power joked. “The allocations we get for the kind of efforts we’re making in the Congo … that’s because there’s a political space that is created by the constituents who show that it matters to the American people.”
Later, the conversation turned to pop culture. Walker asked Wright if she gained any insight into the life of Samantha Power after playing a U.N. ambassador on television. Wright demurred.
“I’m pretending to do something,” she said. “All I’m worried about is whether my Spanx are pulled up.”
But Power asserted that the sort of cultural sway that House of Cards enjoys can in fact have a tremendous influence on the public consciousness. “Because people love the dialogue and relationship between Frank and Claire [on House of Cards] … they’re getting exposure to causes that they might have to otherwise seek out,” Power said.
And when it comes to affecting change on the policy level, a Claire Underwood-style power dress never hurts. Toward the end of the panel, Walker asked Power what she thought about Wright’s character on House of Cards.
“I think I would be more effective if I had Claire Underwood’s wardrobe,” Power joked, and then turned to Wright. “And I think [your character] would be more effective [if she] had my husband.”
Wright reached behind her and pulled out a crisp, white dress. “This is the Claire ‘Power’ dress,” the actress said, tossing it to the ambassador.
Power accepted the gift with a winking reference to House of Cards: “Watch out Russians.”