18 Black Women We Think Are Phenomenal
Words: mater mea
It was hard to choose, but our inaugural Phenomenal Women list is full of some spectacular women.
As Women’s History Month 2016 draws to a close, we want to celebrate some women we think are, well, phenomenal. Whether changing the face of politics here and abroad or creating spaces for Black stories and conversation, this by-no-means-exhaustive sampling of phenomenal Black women captures a bit of what makes us so magical.
(Note: Entries with ∆ means the woman was nominated by our readers.)
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi
Out of a sea of frustrated and blunted voices, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi were able to turn our hurt into three simple, yet powerful words that captured why the hell we’re so angry: Black Lives Matter. Far from being just a rallying cry on social media, Black Lives Matter has become a community and framework for important activism and political awareness work, remaining relevant and action-oriented where past modern movements—like Occupy Wall Street—have floundered.
If you’ve been shouting out the phenomenal women in your life with the phrase Black Girl Magic, you have CaShawn Thompson to thank. Thompson started using the hashtag in 2013 to shine light on Black women doing incredible things. As she told the Los Angeles Times, “I say ‘magic’ because it’s something that people don’t always understand. Sometimes our accomplishments might seem to come out of thin air, because a lot of times, the only people supporting us are other black women.”
Black Girl Magic has since become the online equivalent of the nod: Us recognizing ourselves and our awesomeness in spaces that might not be friendly to said “magic.”
Imani S. Latif ∆
Imani S. Latif works tirelessly to help those who often need the most help but have access to the least amount of resources. Her Denver-based nonprofit It Takes A Village works to “reduce health and social disparities among people of color” and offers a variety of programs to meet this mission, such as Phenomenal Women, which created a community to help Black women “address health, relationship, financial, and emotional issues, focusing on HIV and Sexually Transmitted Disease prevention, substance use, and empowerment.” As a single parent who left New York to raise her son in Colorado, Latif has become a role model for many Black women in the area, according to the woman who nominated her.
The case of convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw turned our collective stomachs as we learned how the former Oklahoma City police officer targeted Black women with records in a high-crime, poverty-stricken neighborhood he patrolled as his victims.
Holtzclaw’s last victim, then 57-year-old daycare worker Jannie Ligons, reported him to the police after he attacked her. Her report kicked off the investigation that led to his eventual conviction on 18 out of 36 charges and a 263-year jail sentence. Despite being afraid for her life—”The only thing I could see was my life flash before my eyes and the gun on his right hip,” Ligons said during a press conference. ”As I tried to look up at his name, I was afraid to. I said, if I know his name I know he’s going to kill me”—Ligons filed a report that finally took Holtzclaw off the streets and led to justice for many of his victims.
“He picked the wrong lady to stop that night,” she said.
Bosaho is Spain’s first person of color to ever win a seat in Parliament. “"There are lots of people who don't understand that I'm Spanish,” she said in an interview with NPR. “They see that I'm black — and think those two things can't go together." A member of Podemos, Spain’s left-wing political party, Boshaho hopes to “empower minorities” and change the way the ethnically homogenous country views and treats them.
Carmen Williams ∆
When we learned that “Carmen is revolutionizing the black church experience by bringing it online in a fresh, new way” we were definitely intrigued. Williams has brought her skills as the founder of New York-based design agency Integrated Media Studio to Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church. Thanks to Williams, the Church is now reaching thousands more churchgoers through social media and digital experiences. It’s a collaboration that made sense to her as it combined her own interests in a compelling way: Williams left a cushy job on Wall Street to get her Masters in Journalism at Columbia University and then her Masters of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary.
“As a friend, I've watched Carmen encounter setbacks and obstacles, and still keep pushing forward,” a friend of Williams wrote to mater mea. “It's inspiring and amazing, and gives me confidence to follow my own inner callings.”
Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton
We’re ordering a round for Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton—along with their team the Pod Squad! Nigatu and Clayton have created more than just a podcast that makes Black women feel the same way ‘90s kids felt about T.G.I.F. Another Round has cosigned a Black woman-centered understanding of the world in ways mainstream media and white folks are still loathe to understand. They’re your best friends in your head, because they’re having the same conversations you’re having about race, politics, feminism, and pop culture, albeit with well-heeled influencers like Valerie Jarrett, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Whether you know her as Denise from Aziz Ansari’s Netflix-hit Master of None or as the producer of Sundance darling Dear White People, Lena Waithe, 31, has the “Where did she come from?” swag of someone who has been hustling for much longer than she’s been in the public eye. We’re excited to see what’s next for the writer, producer, and actress who has a pilot in the works with Showtime and is working with Lena Dunham on her upcoming book.
Also, every creator should put this quote from Waithe’s Vogue.com interview up where they can see it every day:
“Everyone was saying, ‘Let’s make Twenties [a pilot she wrote] a Web series.’ But I just didn’t want to settle for that. There’s nothing wrong with a Web series, but my thing was that for someone to say that Lena Dunham can have a show on HBO about her experiences and what it means to be a 20-something trying to figure out life, why does Lena Waithe have to have a Web series? What is the world trying to say to me with that? I have a voice and I think people want to hear it.”
We’re all familiar by now with the lack of diversity in the tech industry—minorities are incredibly underrepresented in the field, but Black women are especially invisible: Black women make up less than 3 percent of the workforce in America’s biggest tech companies.
Coder, engineer, and MIT Sloan MBA Stephanie Lampkin launched Blendoor to help address one of the biggest factors in the dearth of diversity in tech: unintentional bias. The mobile app hides candidates’ names and photos to create a platform for truly merit-based interviewing and hiring. “Studies have shown that two identical resumes with only a name difference (i.e., Joe to Jose) can yield 100% difference in the response rate,” the site says. “Our goal is to highlight the information that's most relevant to a candidate being a "good fit" independent of race, gender, ability, military history or sexual orientation.”
Named by New York Magazine as a “Next Obama” (i.e. someone the Democratic party is excited about), Stacey Abrams is a Georgia assemblywoman who has been killing it since she was elected when she was 32 years old (she’s now 50). Along with being an assemblywoman and the House minority leader (which she became at age 36), Abrams has founded a number of businesses and nonprofits, including the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan effort to register more minorities.
If that weren’t enough, Abrams is also an author—she’s written “eight romantic thrillers under the name Selena Montgomery,” New York Magazine reports.
Marianne Miles ∆
In 1994, Marianne Miles was a year away from graduating from college when she found out she was pregnant with her son. While many worried she wouldn’t be able to provide for herself or her son, Miles went on to get her degree in marketing and communications the following year and start her career in PR with jobs at Warner Music and Universal Music Group International. When she was eventually laid off from her job, Miles started her own firm, Merité Public Relations, which has multiple clients including OnlyMums and OnlyDads, a portal that helps single parents, and Merité Media Foundation, which she started with her second son Taj to teach underprivileged kids media skills.
Kierna Mayo is one of the patron saints for Black women in journalism as the co-founder and founding editor-in-chief of Honey, a since shuttered smart and beautifully done magazine from the ‘90s. When she was named editor-in-chief of Ebony in 2015, she told Black Entrepreneur that she was excited to bring back the magazine’s 20th century “maverick spirit”—and she hasn’t disappointed. Ebony and Ebony.com have become conversation starters in ways few other major Black publications have been able to do; her willingness to celebrate Blackness while also criticizing some of our sacred cows (we know her mentions must still be crazy after the infamous Cosby cover) is, simply put, phenomenal, and makes Ebony a must-grab magazine at local newsstands.
L’Oreal Thompson Payton ∆
“L'Oreal believes in women supporting women and lifting each other up, instead of knocking each other down,” one nominator wrote, “[and] building girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place.” L’Oreal Thompson Payton lives her mission by working as a media relations manager for Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana; freelancing for a number of women-focused sites and publications; and volunteering for organizations like “Polished Pebbles, a nonprofit on Chicago's South Side for young Black women, the Young Women's Leadership Charter School of Chicago, and GirlForward, a nonprofit for refugee teens in Chicago.” (Fun fact: Payton had the most write-in nominations from readers.)
Shawana Kemp ∆
A special education teacher in the South Bronx, Shawana Kemp works tirelessly to improve the self-image of the brown children she teaches in New York. Kemp also uses her considerable gifts as a singer and songwriter in Shine & the Moonbeams, her R&B and soul family band that encourages children to use their imagination and to love themselves.
Khanisha Foster ∆
We couldn’t say it any better than this nominator did:
“Khanisha Foster started a podcast that focuses on women who write for TV and film called How I Wrote That. She focuses on underrepresented voices in theatre, TV, and film. The podcast cultivates the relationship between those who have already made it and those who are dreaming up.
“She is currently getting her MFA in TV and Screenwriting, has two children, is a Theatre Communications Group Young Leader of Color, and has partnered with the Citizens Theatre in Scotland. As a teaching artist her work has been honored by the White House The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award 2010, and she remains the lead teaching artist for both The Goodman Theatre in Chicago and The Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, two of the nation’s biggest theaters. Her work with youth focuses on social justice through playwriting, personal narrative, and acting. She is also the associate artistic Director of 2nd Story, a story collective that has been active for more that 15 years in Chicago and an organization that focuses on unification through story. All of Khanisha's work serves as a mechanism to activate our truest stories as women of color. The honest truth of it all is that I don't know a human that works harder than Khanisha Foster. She works for unification, innovative art, and how clarity of the individual voice creates the next level of our collective future.”
Who are the phenomenal women in your life? Tell us in the comments!