- To celebrate Black History Month, we are honouring notable black women whose accomplishments will change the world in 2020.
- These women represent excellence in entertainment, sports, culinary arts, politics, and more.
- From celebrities like Rihanna and Lizzo to activists like Tarana Burke and Adut Akech Bior, these women are making history.
Each February, Black History Month recognises, remembers, and respects black people and black history.
Kaia Shivers, a liberal studies professor at New York University, helped Insider 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.
Chef Mariya Russell is the first black woman to earn a Michelin Star.
Russell is chef de cuisine at Kikkō, a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in Chicago. In September, she became the first black woman to be awarded a Michelin star in the Michelin Guide’s 93-year history.
Originally from Springfield, Ohio, Russell became interested in food from a young age and began by cooking soul food and Midwestern staples, like mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and casseroles.
She later moved to Chicago to attend The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. She and her husband went on to work together, eventually both joining Kikkō.
In an interview with Michelin Guide, she said, “Thinking about [being] the only Black woman doing this is really, still very much so, blowing my mind. Representation is really important in all kinds of things, but in an industry like this, I think it’s really cool.”
“Black-ish” star Marsai Martin is the youngest executive producer in history.
Marsai Martin, 15, started her role as Diane Johnson on the hit ABC TV comedy in 2014, when she was just 10. Two years later, she starred in her first film, “An American Girl Story – Melody 1963: Love Has to Win,” set in Detroit during the civil rights movement.
She starred in “Little” for Universal Pictures, and at just 13, was named an executive producer, making her the youngest in history. She is also producing and acting in another film, “Amari and the Night Brothers.”
In an interview with the LA Times, she gave her advice to others wanting to follow a similar path. “Believe in yourself. Push to your highest limit. Be confident that you can do it. If you take that one push to do it, then God’s got the rest. Just leave it up to him,” she said.
Lizzo was the most nominated artist at the 2020 Grammys.
Lizzo shot to fame in 2019 with the release of her third studio album, “Cuz I Love You.” Her most played song was “Juice,” but the success of the album popularised two of her previous singles, “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell,” which were released in 2017 and 2016, respectively. In 2019, Time named the singer, dancer, and flutist Entertainer of the Year.
She was nominated for eight awards at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 2020 and won three.
Along with her work as a musician, Lizzo has been a champion for body positivity. After facing criticism for wearing a thong dress to a Lakers game, she took to Instagram to spread a message of acceptance: “Who I am, and the essence of me, and the things that I choose to do as a grown-arse woman, can inspire you to do the same. They don’t have to be like me – you need to be like you, and never ever let somebody stop you or shame you from being yourself.”
History’s most decorated track and field Olympian, Allyson Felix, stands up for maternity protections.
Felix is one of the most decorated track and field athletes in history with nine Olympic medals – a record she shares with Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey. Six of Felix’s Olympic medals are gold, the most of any female track and field star.
Even more incredibly, she won gold at the World Championships after becoming a mother in late 2018. But after Felix gave birth, she said her previous sponsor, Nike, offered her a 70 per cent pay cut, and in an op-ed for the New York Times, she exposed the poor maternity treatment she said she received from Nike.
“Protection during maternity isn’t just limited to Olympians; working women all over the US deserve protection when they have children. We shouldn’t have to rely on companies to do the right thing. Our families depend on it,” she wrote.
After the outcry, Nike agreed to update future contracts with female athletes.
Felix hopes to make her fifth Olympic team at the 2020 Games.
Janet Mock, who will be honoured at this year’s GLAAD Media Awards, is championing transgender representation in the media.
A transgender writer, producer, and activist, Mock will receive the prestigious Stephen F. Kolzak Award at the 2020 GLAAD Media Awards in March.
Mock is a writer, director, and producer on the Golden Globe-nominated series, “Pose,” which illuminates 1980s ballroom culture and its effect on media, fashion, and art of all kinds, while boasting the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever.
In her book, “Redefining Realness,” she said, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community.”
South Sudanese-Australian supermodel Adut Akech Bior is working with the UN to help refugees.
A former child refugee herself, 20-year-old Akech was recently featured on Time’s 100 Next List (the only model this year). She made her international debut walking for Saint Laurent during Paris Fashion Week, and in 2019, she was named Model of the Year at the British Fashion Awards.
In a recent interview with Vogue UK, she spoke on what it means to be a refugee. “You don’t wake up thinking, I’m going to be a refugee,” she said. “The only difference between a refugee and someone who grew up in the Western world is that we were forced out of our own country, out of our homes, because of fear – not out of choice.”
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 theatres.
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 honoured 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 colour. 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 organiser for the Transgender Law Centre. 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 $US600 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 recognised 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 recognising 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 $US1 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 sport.
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 colour 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.
Renae L. Bluitt just released a Netflix documentary on black female entrepreneurs.
Renae L. Bluitt is a New York-based filmmaker who champions black women’s representation in the media. Her new Netflix documentary, “She Did That.” explores black female entrepreneurs and the work they are doing to pursue their passions.
In an interview with Forbes, she said of her documentary, “Black women and the magic we create is the inspiration behind this film. As the fastest group of entrepreneurs in this country, we are literally turning water into wine in spite of the many obstacles we face on our entrepreneurial journeys.”
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole was an honoree at the National Women’s History Museum’s Women Making History Awards.
Dr. Cole is an anthropologist, educator, museum director, and college president. She became the first black female president of Spelman College from 1987 to 1997 and was president of Bennett College from 2002 to 2007. She has also been the Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.
She recently spoke at ceremony in the Capitols Emancipation Hall to mark the the 400th anniversary of the first-recorded forced arrival of enslaved African people.
“Owning our history allows us to break free from its shadow, empowering every American of goodwill to have the courage to challenge every day expressions of bigotry and hatred,” she said.
Director and producer Ava DuVernay has had her fair share of Hollywood firsts.
Ana DuVernay is a writer, producer, director and distributor of independent film. In 2012, she won the directing award at Sundance Film Festival for her film “Middle of Nowhere,” becoming the first black woman to do so.
In 2014, her film “Selma” made her the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director and an Academy Award for Best Picture. She also directed “A Wrinkle in Time,” and was the first black woman to direct a film with a budget between $US150 million and $US250 million.
Last year, she won critical acclaim for her Netflix series, “When They See Us,” based on the Central Park Five. Her new show for OWN, “Cherish the Day,” launches this month.
At the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, she said, “I’m interested in the lives of Black folk as the subject. Not the predicate, not the tangent. These stories deserve to be told – not as sociology, not as spectacle, not as a singular event that happens every so often – but regularly and purposefully as truth and as art on an ongoing basis.”
Crystal Williams is a special needs educator who has used meditation to help her students.
Williams is a California-based education innovator. She pioneered a new method of introducing meditation into the curriculum for students who have suffered traumas.
In an interview with Ark Republic, she said, “Students in foster care often fall behind in school and have some of the worst education outcomes in the country. I know that the traumatized brain does not learn [in stressful environments] and before they will listen to me or respect me, they want to feel safe.”
Professor Shivers added, “After immersing herself into more advocacy work, she discovered that her students might have been exposed to lead. Williams work forced Los Angeles Unified School District Charter School District to test their waters. The results showed, she was right.”
London Breed is serving San Francisco as its first black mayor.
Raised in poverty in San Francisco, Breed made her way to the top of government to become the city’s 45th mayor, and the first black woman mayor, in 2018.
Breed has made homelessness a priority during her time in office, declaring a shelter crisis and announcing plans to build 1,000 shelter beds in 2020. Her other areas of focus have been mental health, fighting substance abuse, and paid internships for city high school students.
In an interview with Kara Swisher, she said, “I think my biggest job for me, because this is why I got into politics in the first place, is honestly to really change the future of San Francisco to make sure that people who, sadly, grow up in poverty don’t have to have the kinds of experiences that I had to have growing up in San Francisco.”
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