Twenty inspiring black women who are making history in 2020 (part 2)

March 12, 2020

Each March, Women’s History Month recognizes the ground-breaking achievements of women and women of color.

Kaia Shivers, a liberal studies professor at New York University, helped Insider.com select a list of 20 female innovators and leaders who are making history and setting records.

From entertainers to philanthropists, here are black women who will change the world in 2020.

Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, and her latest movie is out in theaters.

Waithe is a screenwriter, producer, and activist. She starred in and wrote for Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None,” winning a Primetime Emmy. The episode for which she won was loosely based on her experience coming out as a lesbian to her mother.

This past year, she wrote and produced the crime film “Queen & Slim,” which is out in theatres now. She will be honored for her achievements at the American Black Film Festival later this month.

And she’s paying it forward: Waithe hopes to pass on her learnings to the next generation of filmmakers.

“I have a ton of mentees. They’re all people of color. Some of them are poor. And I’m just trying to help them learn how to be great writers; and for those that have become really good writers, I help them get representation; and those that have representation, I want to help get them jobs. That to me is a form of activism,” she told Vanity Fair.

Activist Raquel Willis is the executive editor at Out magazine — the first transgender woman ever to hold a leadership position at the publication in its 26-year history.

Willis was previously a national organizer for the Transgender Law Center. In 2018, she was named a Soros Equality Fellow by Open Society Foundations and created Black Trans Circle, which focuses on promoting leadership for black trans women in the South and Midwest.

She told The Huffington Post about the need for greater inclusion in the media: “I want us to be talking about people who are incarcerated. I want us to be talking about people living with HIV and AIDS in a different way.”

Rihanna is the world’s richest female musician, valued at $600 million.

Not only a musician, RiRi is a mogul. Her incredibly successful brands, Fenty Beauty and Savage X Fenty, have made her a fortune, and for good reason. Both brands focus on inclusion of all sizes, shapes, cultures, gender identities, and more — or “beauty for all.” Her Fenty brand foundation comes in 40 different shades from light to dark, a huge step for representation in a generally whitewashed beauty industry.

“All women deserve to feel beautiful and all women deserve to have a choice and an option when they go to the makeup counter,” she told Entertainment Tonight.

Last year also saw a teaser of a new album from the artist, so fingers crossed we’ll be hearing more from her soon.

Nafeesa Williams is TV’s first black lesbian superhero.

Raised in West Philadelphia, Williams got her start in Hollywood opposite Meek Mill in the 2012 film “Streets.” She went on to act in multiple CBS shows, including “The Bold and The Beautiful” and “Code Black,” as well as the continuation of the 1990s drama by David Lynch, “Twin Peaks.”

In 2017, she was cast in the series “Black Lightning,” as black lesbian superhero, Anissa Pierce. The third season is currently on The CW and runs until March.

“I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to give voice to this character and show young black lesbian women that it’s OK to be themselves, and enjoy seeing themselves on TV every week,” she told NBCBLK.

The founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, continues to campaign against sexual violence.

A civil rights activist from the Bronx, New York, Burke founded the Me Too campaign in 2006, when she used the phrase to illustrate the ubiquitous nature of sexual violence. In 2017, when Alyssa Milano retweeted the hashtag #MeToo, the movement exploded, becoming synonymous with the Harvey Weinstein case.

Burke was recognized as one of the “Silence Breakers” named as Time’s Person of the Year in 2017. She continues to fight for survivors, writing a recent Time article on the importance of political candidates recognizing sexual assault victims as voters.

“Candidates have a responsibility to address the rampant sexual violence that permeates all of society’s systems and structures, including government,” she wrote.

Ari Melenciano is an innovator bringing together art, science, history, and black culture.

Based in Brooklyn, Melenciano is an artist, designer, researcher, and DJ. She is the founder of Afrotectopia, which focuses on interdisciplinary innovation in art, design, technology and blackness.

Professor Shivers said she is “unassuming when you meet her, but her mind, her ideas are absolutely powerful.”

She is changing the world this year through her new role as a consultant for New York City’s Department of Education, where she is helping to build STEAM curriculum that is culturally relevant.

“I think much of my work intentionally serves as a mirror for the beauty, capability and innovation of Black culture,” Melenciano told Insider. “To remind my community, in case they ever forget or are told otherwise, how abundant we are.”

Jo Martin in the first black woman to play the Doctor in “Doctor Who” in the show’s 57-year history.

The British actress previously played Natalie Crouch on the BBC sitcom, “The Crouches,” and played neurosurgeon Max McGerry on the BBC medical drama “Holby City.”

This year, Martin makes history as the first black woman to play the Doctor in “Doctor Who.” She shared the news in a Facebook post in January.

“This Sunday I am in Doctor Who, I have longed to be in this show. Watched it throughout my childhood wishing I was a dalek,” she wrote.

Dr. Shirley Jackson is the first black woman to lead a top-ranked research university.

A theoretical physicist, Jackson was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT and the second black woman to earn a doctorate in physics in US history. In 2015, President Barack Obama selected her to receive the National Medal of Science.

She’s now president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) — the first black woman to lead a top-ranked research university. Since her appointment in 1999, she has helped raise over $1 billion in donations for philanthropic causes.

Misty Copeland is the first black woman to be the American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer.

Widely regarded as a ballet prodigy, Copeland was dancing en pointe within her first three months of taking a dance class at 13. She was performing professionally in just over a year, making her an extreme rarity in the art.

In 2001, she joined the prestigious American Ballet and in 2007 became their second black female soloist and the first in 20 years. She was named their principal dancer in 2015, the first black woman in the company’s 75 year history.

“You are going to hear ‘no’ in life no matter what you do. You just have to keep pushing and persevering. And I think it’s important to know that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is or your body shape is. Whatever you want to do, you should go for it,” she told Elle magazine.

This year, as well as continuing with the American Ballet in upcoming performances, she will be a speaker at Black Enterprise’s 2020 Women of Power Summit.

(Continued next week)