Dascha Polanco Talks 'The Irishman,' Inclusion & How the Arts Helped Her Find Her Voice

Courtesy of Michael Simon

Dascha Polanco
Courtesy of Michael Simon

With Orange Is the New Black coming to an end after seven seasons, actress Dascha Polanco is hanging up her orange jumpsuit -- once playing the compassionate-turned-hardened character Dayanara Diaz on the show -- and has her eyes set on new projects. She's slated to star in the highly anticipated Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, and will play Cuca in the upcoming In the Heights movie adaptation of the Broadway musical. With new ventures on the horizon, this actress and mom is using her voice for another project to impact the next generation: arts education.

  • Recently, Dascha surprised seniors at the John F. Kennedy High School in Los Angeles for a cause greater than herself.

    Dascha Polanco LIFEWTR
    Courtesy of Michael Simon

    Dascha, along with local artists, visited students at the LA high school to give them reimagined yearbooks, offering seniors a fresh new take on the tradition that includes everything from oil paintings to street art and graphic design.

    (Um, can we have ours redone, too? It's only been ... *cough, cough* a couple decades now.)

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  • LIFEWTR's #CanvasforChange aims to impact 10 million students in schools across the country through arts education and beautification projects.

    Scape Martinez with students at John F. Kennedy High School
    Courtesy of Michael Simon

    During her time at John F. Kennedy High, Dascha helped unveil the brand's latest beautification project, a school mural painted by local artist Scape Martinez. This mural is one of 15 commissioned in Los Angeles Unified School District, and just one of many across the country through #CanvasforChange.

  • CafeMom caught up with Dascha to talk about the project and why arts education is a "universal language" every child needs to learn.

    Dascha Polanco with students at John F. Kennedy High School
    Courtesy of Michael Simon

    "I'm a huge advocate for education, arts education especially, starting in school for the youth," the celeb mom tells CafeMom. "It's an outlet for creativity, it's inspiration. It's a universal language that's very necessary. Growing up in New York and in an urban community, we all seemed to gravitate towards the arts -- graphic arts, performing arts, illustrations."

  • "Art is crucial, it's essential, therapeutic, and inspiring. As a mom, it's important to have a focus on that, outside of STEM and reading."

    Artist Krie
    Courtesy of LIFEWTR

    "We need that, and I don't think we take the time to respect the level of importance art brings to our community," Dascha continues.

    "When you are in a school, especially in an urban community, that’s where we most feel comfortable. This whole concept that they're creating a canvas of change, creating an environment where they're beautifying their community, it's necessary. As essential as water is for us, so is the arts. It allows for creativity and for students to use their imagination.

    When I was in seventh grade, I was able to collaborate with my class on a mural, and that was our gift to the eighth grade class graduation. It's just funny how life comes full circle. It created in me an independence and self-confidence that allowed me to achieve so much more in my other classes and allowed me to enjoy school more."

  • As Dascha explains, the arts in school empowered her to find her voice, translating into a career where she's leaving her mark.

    Dascha Polanco at John F. Kennedy High School
    Courtesy of Michael Simon

    "Because of the arts in school, I was empowered to use my artistic expression in fine arts class and the performing arts. It kept me grounded and allowed me to have a balance in my studies but also speak to that inspiration; to be a well-rounded student," she adds. "We need to empower our youth and express themselves in a positive outlet."

  • The 'Orange Is the New Black' alum is set to appear in the upcoming Netflix film 'The Irishman' alongside some of Hollywood's heavy hitters.

    "Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci are all iconic figures. I grew up in school watching their movies," Dascha tells CafeMom. "Being a part of The Irishman as a New York City raised girl was incredible. Martin Scorese was a director on my bucket list I wanted to work with."

    While we don't know much surrounding Dascha's role in the film, it's an opportunity she's quite proud of. "To get this opportunity was incredible," she continues. "Just being there in the presence of these artists inspired me in a way to continue my art and to keep sharpening my tool."

  • Her inclusion is part of a wave of doors opening across Hollywood for people of color, a movement she helped create with 'OITNB.'

    23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Press Room
    Dan MacMedan/WireImage/Getty Images

    "We're noticing the beginning of a great time for us, especially in Hollywood, where there's more inclusion and diversity. I come from a show that set the platform that it is now," Dascha mentions to CafeMom about the Emmy and Screen Actors Guild award-winning series. "At the very beginning, we had no idea where it was going to go. Orange Is the New Black has allowed me to have not only the experience of being a part of such a huge show [known] worldwide, but have that platform where I'm able to speak about what's important to me."

    With Hollywood being forced to address its shortcomings in diversity, Dascha, who is Dominican American, is happy to see barriers broken that allow for more inclusion in roles in front of and behind the cameras. "There was a moment where I couldn't believe I was working on The Irishman. I was totally in shock," she continues.

    "But I knew I was the right fit for it. It's time to see what the true representation of the world is through art, regardless of the type of art it is. We have to reflect it and be very inclusive. I think the world has been waiting for that, and I think we're starting to see it. We're advocating for it, and brands are starting to take notice."

  • No matter the opportunities that come her way, Dascha is thankful for being exposed to the arts at an early age that helped shape her life.

    Dascha Polanco 71st Emmy Awards
    Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

    "Self-expression is key, whether you're a child or adult," she notes. "When you're able to express yourself in a way that's not detrimental to yourself or your community, it allows you to build a stronger foundation to be more confident and more positive."

    "Right now, we're in times where we have the access to express ourselves through so many different outlets. In school, I feel like this is the outlet that we've ignored that’s so crucial. What LIFEWTR is doing in LA, reaching all these students, is such important work. They're using art to allow kids to know that not only can you write, but you can also use such a positive way of expressing yourself. Imagine a kid feeling a certain type of emotion about being able to express that through art, and it being validated."

    Here, here!

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