When Octavia Spencer was growing up, her mother always stressed the importance of education to her and her siblings. “That was her thing,” reveals the Oscar-winning actress. “That was demanded of us, and I’m glad that she did demand it. We were from humble beginnings, and I believe education was the key out of poverty.” So it’s not surprising Spencer was drawn to City Year, a member of the AmeriCorps network. The organization is designed to help students and schools excel. Spencer became intrigued shortly after wrapping “The Help,” when 20th Century Fox Chairman and CEO Stacey Snider (then chairman-CEO of DreamWorks) invited her to attend the org’s annual Spring Break: Destination Education party. “I heard all the talking points and learned what they do in the community,” recalls Spencer. “I knew it was something I would lend my time to, and years later, I’ve become a member of the board of the L.A. chapter.”

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Art Streiber for Variety

With more than 1 million students dropping out every year, Spencer notes that the nonprofit is “about giving students the tools they need to manifest their own destiny. Without having an education, you’re missing a serious part of what I think you need to excel in life.” City Year’s mission is to help students graduate; it offers tutors, provides one-on-one support in classrooms and runs after-school events. More than 3,000 City Year AmeriCorps members between ages 18 and 25 spend the year working full-time in schools to aid students. In Los Angeles alone during the 2017-18 school year, 270 members will help out at 31 schools in the district, ultimately engaging more than 30,000 students. Spencer has attended service days, where participants go to schools to clean up and make them more attractive learning environments. And City Year has gone global, with affiliates in the U.K., South Africa and other places.

The busy Spencer, who will soon be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water” as well as the family drama “A Kid Like Jake,” alongside fellow Power of Women honoree Priyanka Chopra, says she wouldn’t be where she is now without proper schooling. “If I can do it, I know that any child with access to a solid educational foundation should be able to succeed in life,” she says. “I’m a walking billboard.”

Power of Women LA

Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Spencer’s Power of Women L.A. cover shoot.