Vulnerability is power.
That was one of the key messages imparted by Amber Riley, the featured speaker for CSUDH’s Presidential Distinguished Lecture Series on November 30. Riley, a Grammy-nominated singer, award-winning actor, producer, and author, spoke candidly about her personal journey of self-care and mental wellbeing, as well as the tools and lessons that have helped her along the way.
The Presidential Distinguished Lecture Series program, established by CSUDH President Thomas A. Parham, invites celebrated public figures to discuss their experiences within the context of society’s most pressing issues. Riley is a vocal advocate of mental health and speaks openly about her struggles with depression and anxiety, which she said “came to a head” in 2019.
A native of Compton, Calif., Riley rose to success for her portrayal of Mercedes Jones on Glee, FOX’s hit television series. After competing in and winning Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars, Amber returned to her acting roots, earning roles in live television adaptations and onstage in London’s West End. In 2020, she released her debut EP, RILEY. The 6-track project reintroduces the woman and artist she has become, and reveals how her experiences growing up in Compton and transitioning into Hollywood have shaped her.
Directly addressing the audience, Riley kicked off the event by sharing that her “purpose in life is to share” and heal, imploring attendees not to feel alone in their experiences. Parham then joined her onstage, asking about her Southern California roots, her childhood aspirations, and her family. Riley described difficulties she faced growing up, as well as the lack of positive representation of Black women in the media.
“I internalized a lot of that, especially walking into Hollywood,” Riley said. “I [knew I] was going to have to defy odds if I was going to make it.
“The trauma and baggage that I have carried turned into fuel for me,” she added. “We can either let challenges stop us and limit us, or fire us up. Fighting is hard, but when I finally figured out what my purpose was, I knew that I needed that fight.”
Riley also discussed the physical symptoms she suffered in 2019—including panic attacks—and the lack of vocabulary she had at the time to describe her feelings. She emphasized the importance of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, but also spoke about how talking openly and honestly with family and friends helped her heal.
“Once the secret is out, that secret doesn’t hold any power anymore,” Riley said. “Once I started sharing, that shame just disappeared.
“I didn’t feel alone anymore, because I started finding there were so many people going through the same thing, waiting for someone to say it. Every conversation was healing.”
Her vulnerability with others became a “superpower,” she said, and she used her experiences to inform her music, acting, and writing. In addition to professional help and her support network, Riley listed daily meditation, journaling, music and creative expression, and her faith as powerful aides for her wellbeing.
Riley also took questions from the audience, and advised students to be open with friends about their struggles, to practice gratitude, and to pursue ambitious dreams.
“Your dreams are supposed to scare you—challenge you,” she said.
The same night as her appearance at CSUDH, Riley made television history by winning Season 8 of FOX’s The Masked Singer. Riley is the only person to win first place on both Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Singer.
In closing the event, Parham thanked Riley for sharing her story, being vulnerable, and uplifting others through her talents and honesty. In summarizing the themes touched upon during their conversation, Parham noted that “the journey to self-care is a journey that is worth taking.”
“Peace is worth the time it takes to find it.”
Watch the entire recorded event: