Why The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira Is Telling World Leaders That Poverty Is Sexist: 'If One of Us Is Suffering, We All Are'

Walking Dead Star Danai Gurira Discusses Her Work with The ONE Campaign
Danai Gurira
Chelsea Lauren/Wireimage

03/08/2016 AT 05:00 PM EST

Danai Gurira may slay zombies in her day job, but as a global activist she's taking on much fiercer foes – poverty, sexism and the spread of HIV/AIDS among African women.

In her work with The ONE Campaign's "Poverty Is Sexist" initiative, Gurira headed to Washington, D.C., for International Women's Day on Tuesday to speak out and ensure the fight for gender equality is worldwide.

Gurira – who was also part of Monday's open letter to world leaders outlining the ways in which extreme poverty disproportionately affects girls and women and urging lawmakers to take action to improve basic nutrition and halt the spread of HIV/AIDS – tells PEOPLE why she is passionate about "bringing voice and a full face to the women and girls who we often never see or hear about who have great potential to help this world."

What about your own life experiences has made you want to become an advocate?
DANAI GURIRA: The fact that I am an African woman. I was raised on the continent. So I've always had this bird's-eye view of two very disparate places. Being that's who I am – that culture and that specific way – the idea of coming to the West and seeing the disparity of opportunities and protections that are experienced by women on the continent and other parts of the developing world, it's something that has made me deeply concerned and passionate about it being something we need to rectify. Especially when I spend time with women and girls who look just like me, but who do not have the opportunity to get back on a plane and go back to this country that has more opportunities available and less of a gender gap (there's still one unfortunately, nonetheless).

The statistics are staggering. How are you trying to make all these issues relatable to a larger group of people who still kind of see it at a distance?
That's the whole point. For me, that's what I do as a storyteller, because people relate to story. If they sit in a room and experience a story, they connect to people who are living and breathing in front of them and they see their full humanity and the full breadth of who they are. It becomes more and more tricky to consider them "other." That's always the goal of what I try to do, to really diminish or hopefully completely eradicate this concept of "the other." There is no "other." We are one.

The idea of adding storytelling is one of the most effective ways to bring true face and voice, to move step beyond statistics and step into our humanity when it comes to dealing with people. ... For me, it's a way of eliminating that concept of turning people into "the other," turning them into something far away and not something they should be concerned about. If another human being is undergoing certain injustices, we should be concerned. We're at that point in our development as a community where if one of us is suffering, we all are. These types of repressions that are still so palpable in the world today, they're completely illogical. So, sometimes it is about giving face and voice in another way, which I think is very effective through storytelling, which is what I plan to do.

How are you and The ONE Campaign planning to carry out this campaign while you're in D.C.?
I'm going to be learning as I go. I've certainly never undergone this particular form of activism before, and I'm very excited to learn from the experts about how you get to work with lawmakers. It's a whole other field from what I've done in the past. I've really been working trying to affect communities through storytelling and different forms of advocacy that way. So, this is going to be a whole new experience for me. I actually welcome the challenge.

The initiative's chief is that poverty really affects girls and women the most. You've done a lot of work with both those impacted and educating about the negative impact of poverty. Have there been specific examples from your work that you can talk about?
My first play, In the Continuum, is all about that because it's about how women who were contracting HIV were largely contracting it from their husbands. To me, that was deeply, deeply disturbing, and I grew up in Zimbabwe in the '80s, and I saw this epidemic hit the southern part of the continent where it has been the most intense. I saw families broken apart, families lose their bread winner, families go into states of turmoil and poverty as a result of this illness.

There has been, due to the efforts of organizations like The ONE Campaign, progress in this area, but there were several people who I met that really inspired me and humbled me in terms in the work I was doing to create that play. Women from the Mothers to Mothers program in South Africa – HIV-positive mothers who support each other and support new mothers who have realize they are HIV-positive while they are pregnant. A woman I met there deeply touched me, one who saw my performance and told me that was her exact story and told how she had, just like my character in the play, [hidden her HIV status from her husband] for a very long time before she could actually share with him what was going on even though it was a joint problem that she did not create by herself. Now, she's such a massive advocate and travels the world. So, there's some really women who I met and deeply touched in that area and with that particular issue, and various others, but specifically with HIV. Because of my work with that particular play, I've met a number of women who are doing amazing work, creating their own organizations to help other women.

For more information about The ONE Campaign and its "Poverty Is Sexist" initiative, click here.
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