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Tracee Ellis Ross Speaks Words of Wisdom to Young Women at Step Up's Inspiration Awards

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January Jones, Lea Michele and Yara Shahidi turned out for the 14th annual event, sponsored by the Coach Foundation.

When Anthony Anderson sauntered over to the podium at Step Up's 14th annual Inspiration Awards to offer the women gathered inside the Beverly Hilton ballroom the sentiment, "I am not a woman, but I feel your pain," his Black-ish co-star Tracee Ellis Ross had the perfect response. The actress strutted back to the microphone, paused a beat and said to thunderous applause, "We are not in pain." (She and Anderson, who had a playful onstage rapport, hugged it out afterward.)

Ross, as well as the rest of the Black-ish cast, were being honored on Friday afternoon for their show's ability to — in the words of ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey, who presented the ensemble with their award — "spark conversation" about hot-topic issues in a meaningful way that's also humorous. Added Ross, "We are honored to work on a show that is a part of reshaping the perception of how we see women in the context of humanity. ... In life we know that our worth is not defined in relationship to something else. We are valuable and powerful and entertaining because we are."

But the true stars of the afternoon were not the Hollywood actors, but rather the young women who participated in the four-year Step Up program at their local high schools and are consequently headed to college next year. Azalea, a high school grad headed to Loyola Marymount for a pre-law program in the fall, sang the program's praises. "I met a lawyer through the program, and she told me not to be discouraged," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "I really took that to heart."

The event, sponsored by the Coach Foundation, also served as a fundraiser for the expansion of the program into new cities like Dallas and Atlanta (Step Up is already active in Los Angeles, where it was founded, as well as in New York and Chicago). The freshly minted Step Up alumnae — impossible to miss in their tangerine orange tees — were congratulated onstage by January Jones, who shook their hands while universities like UCLA, UC San Diego and several Cal State campuses were read off as being among the girls' future schools.

"We wanted to be part of the movement [Step Up] is creating to connect women and teens and help them see each other, hear each other, inspire and encourage each other," said Margaret Coady, executive director of the Coach Foundation, which pledged $3 million to the organization over the next three years. Coach ambassador Selena Gomez has also been involved with the program, visiting a handful of participating L.A. high schools with Coach CEO Victor Luis in March.

 

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During the fundraising portion of the luncheon, which was led by the spunky actress Erica Ash (it's no easy job asking people for money, and if you're going to call out Anderson for a donation, you'd better be charming as hell), the room raised more than $85,000.

Black-ish's Yara Shahidi (outfitted in an Adeam dress), who herself is headed to college this fall, closed the luncheon with the following message to her fellow college-bound ladies: "As someone who is a senior and is graduating this year, I am so inspired by the many peers of mine that are committed to going to college because I know how insane it can be. ... I'm so excited to see what we do together."

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