Black History Month has given us a chance to look at how far the world has come on the issue of racial inequality. We’ve seen countless lists of powerful black leaders like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, and hundreds of other activities/ total bad-asses who have been responsible for some of the major change in this world. However, this month also gives us a chance to think about some of the African-American leaders who have spurred social change, launched powerful movements, and been total bosses in recent years.
And while we should be appreciating these people every month (not just in February!), I wanted to take a second before the month is over to highlight some girl bosses who have been SLAYING the game recently, even if you haven’t heard about it.
1. Dr. Riza Lavizzo-Mourey
Not only is she the former CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the US’s largest healthcare foundation, but she was the first woman AND the first African-American in this role. Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey holds a medical degree from Harvard and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (where she went on to be Chief of Geriatric Medicine at the university’s medical school). She was the co-director of a congressionally mandated study focused on racial healthcare inequality. Currently, she is a part of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The American Philosophical Society, and the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, as well as a former member the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. One thing she is NOT? Bored (I’d imagine!).
2. Rosalind Brewer
Rosalind Brewer is the former CEO of Sam’s Club, and current COO of Starbucks. She was the first woman AND first African-American to lead a Walmart division (Sam’s Club), OR to hold such a senior role at Starbucks. During her time at Sam’s Club, she was highly focused on enforcing diversity throughout the organization, including in the company’s external suppliers. She took the driver’s seat on improving Sam’s Club’s digital innovation (which helped to make them such a great UNiDAYS partner, BTW!) and was #19 on Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in 2016. Because of her incredible work at Sam’s Club, she was recruited specifically for the Starbucks COO role. I mean, imagine being such a boss that Starbucks comes to snag you for themselves?!
3. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
As the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her efforts to promote Liberian peace, especially after the nation’s history of civil war. She worked tirelessly to atone for the country’s violent past, and to save their economy through the securing of donations and grants. She is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and just this month she became the first woman to win the Mo Ibrahim prize for African Leadership (an award which has not actually been awarded to an African leader in several years).
4. Maxine Waters
“Auntie Maxine” is the 14-term (and counting) Congresswoman from California. Waters was raised by a single mother and started working in a factory at a young age, and then became a teacher and volunteer coordinator of the Head Start program (which provides support to low-income children through education, nutrition, healthcare, and parental involvement services). She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal State L.A., then became Chief Deputy for an LA city councilman, and then was was elected to a State Assembly seat in 1977. She recently went viral for her “reclaiming my time” slapback to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, when he refused to answer her question directly. After Fox News host Bill O’Reilly made rude and sexist remarks about Waters, she gave this ICONIC response: “Let me just say this: I’m a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody.”
5. Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
A former teacher who became South Africa’s first female Deputy President, and then LATER became the Under-Secretary-General and the second Executive Director of UN Women (I mean, NBD, right?). In South Africa, she also previously served as Minister of Minerals and Energy (NOT to be confused with the Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter), and Deputy Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka has been a longtime champion for gender equality, and has worked to help women advance in their roles in leadership, IT, business, science, and politics. She founded the Umlambo Foundation which, aside from providing other important services, supports disadvantaged schools and the development of their teachers.
6. Tarana Burke
You may recognize Burke from this year’s Golden Globes, where she was the honorable guest of Michelle Williams. But more importantly, Tarana Burke is a KICK-ASS civil rights advocate and former youth worker who launched the #MeToo movement. Before creating one of the most powerful campaigns of 2017, she created Just Be, Inc. - a nonprofit that helps sexual assault/harassment victims. From this nonprofit she worked firsthand with assault survivors, and decided to make a movement out of it so that no survivor had to feel alone- and she coined the name “Me Too” for the movement. She ALSO serves as senior Director of the nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity, which is pretty self-explanatory, and VERY awesome.
7. Viola Davis
Aside from being a legendary actress, Viola Davis is the only African-American performer to win Tony, Oscar and Emmy Awards. She grew up in Rhode Island in a low-income household, but worked hard to earn a degree from Rhode Island College, and later a degree from Juilliard. Davis has been an important booster for her hometown of Central Falls, RI (the poorest town in the state), donating money to their library, high school, charter school, and health center, as well as being a spokesperson for important medical programs in the town. She has provided a strong voice on behalf of black actresses, and the disparity in available roles for them, while playing iconic characters onstage, in movies, and on television.
8. Marai Larasi
Marai Larasi is the Executive Director of Imkaan, a UK-based black feminist organization which aims to end violence against black, refugee, and minority ethnic women. She also serves as the co-chair of the End Violence Against Women coalition. Made the 2013 list of most influential LGBT people in the world of politics, arts, and entertainment on the World Pride Power List, and YES she did accompany Emma Watson to the Golden Globes this year, where she spoke out about the importance of speaking out. She said to Ryan Seacrest, "There is a wall of silence around violence against women and girls, and every time somebody speaks out, it just creates a bit of a crack in that wall. Women in Hollywood have an opportunity to amplify the issues and shine a light on things, and actually that's incredibly important. And so it's a special moment in time. It's not the beginning of the struggle or the end of the struggle. It's a critical moment."
9. Kamala Harris
Girlboss Kamala Harris is the former Attorney General of San Francisco, and currently the first African-American AND the first Indian-American woman ever elected to the US Senate (her parents are of Jamaican and Indian descent). She has been a strong advocate for immigrant rights for a long time, and has been praised recently for holding members of the Senate and the White House accountable for their words and actions (aka calling BS where she sees it). During her time as San Francisco District Attorney, she created a special Hate Crimes Unit, which focused largely on hate crimes against LGBTQ children and teens in schools. She has spoken out about women’s empowerment, healthcare, and environmental safety, as well. Some even predict she may be our first female president!
10. Kimberlé Krenshaw
Krenshaw is currently a law professor at the UCLA School of Law and at Columbia University Law School. She is noted for having coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, which refers to the unique discrimination faced by women of color due to the intersection of racism and sexism. She is also the director of the African American Policy Forum, and the founder of the #SayHerName movement, which exploits state violence against women and girls of color. In 2014, she led a campaign urging President Obama to include women and girls of color in his initiative “My Brother’s Keeper” which provided mentorship, funding, support, and summer jobs to men and boys of color. In 2015, the White House Council on Women and Girls responded by launching an initiative called “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color.” Intersectional feminism is so important and is (arguably) being discussed now more than ever, thanks to the tireless efforts of Kimberlé Krenshaw.
11. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox is an extremely talented actress, as well as a prominent voice in the transgender community. She was the first openly transgender person to grace the cover of Time Magazine, in which she opened up about her experience being transgender in Hollywood and in modern society. She recently worked with the ACLU to make a video about transgender history and resistance called “Time Marches Forward and So Do We.” Cox has been an advocate for trans rights, gender equality, and the awareness and prevention of violence and injustice against trans people. She has worked tirelessly to educate the world on gender identity, and has been named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2014, Anti-Violence Project 2013 Courage Award honoree, one of Time’s 2015 100 Most Influential People, among a myriad of other (well-deserved) honors.
Ok, you KNOW I couldn’t leave this one out. Lawyer, writer, and former First Lady of the United States. First African-American FLOTUS. My personal hero, not to mention serious fitness inspiration (THOSE ARMS). These are just a few of the things Michelle Obama is. She has degrees from Princeton AND Harvard Law, and was a successful lawyer for years (which is how she met Barack!!!). During her time as First Lady, she launched the” Let’s Move!” campaign, which works to tackle childhood obesity in the US, the “Joining Forces” initiative with Dr. Jill Biden, which is focused on supporting service members, veterans, and their families through wellness, education, and employment opportunities, and the “Reach Higher” program, which encouraged students to extend their education beyond high school, and provided them with the tools to do so. She launched “Let Girls Learn” with Barack Obama, an initiative focused on helping girls worldwide attend and stay in school. So, yeah, she stayed busy in the White House.
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