She's first among First Ladies. She's a class act. She interrupts violence and save lives. She puts out fires. She's a visionary who has a way with words and images. She's a genius. She celebrates our history. She has healing hands. She tells our story. She brings needed health care to thousands. She isn't so awkward, after all.
She is fierce!
As our manifesto states in part: “To be fierce is to embrace all that’s wonderful about being a black woman. To live your dreams, celebrate your strengths and appreciate your true beauty. It means being confident and unapologetically you!”
Here are 15 women who fit this description and made their mark on 2016. Their stories will inspire you in the new year and beyond!
Michelle Obama: The Queen of Black Girl Magic
By Mary C. Curtis
Black women caught on to the power of Michelle Obama before the rest of the world – before she became First Lady, in fact. The first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, would not have claimed that title were it not for the solid political and spiritual support of black women. And for that, Michelle Obama was the key. She was special, but instantly recognizable to all the women whose talents, smarts and beauty had been discounted and whose strength against unimaginable odds had been twisted into matriarchal stereotype.
She was ours, the perfect and perfectly human representative we dreamed of. If Barack Obama chose her, he was cool, too.
As she leaves the White House but not her mission of caring, of speaking out and speaking plainly, of working hard, everyone else appreciates Michelle Obama. Her mantra – “When they go low, we go high” – was first heard at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where I sat mesmerized as the down-to-earth woman dressed in imperial blue brought the raucous crowd to rapt attention. Her words have become the go-to phrase for those who have more important things to do than worry about the distractions of the petty and the petulant.
She spoke for all those who had had enough when she shut down a certain president-elect, then candidate, who was caught in a crude rant, joking about sexual assault; and she did it without mentioning his name.
She leaves accompanied by two strong, beautiful and accomplished young women and her mother -- together the family modeled the multi-generational bonds so familiar in the African-American community. That was important to her, being there for young women of all races, "somebody educated, strong [and] outspoken ... on a regular basis," as she told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that reminded us again of why she will be missed.
The very presence of Michelle Obama as First Lady and first in so many ways spoke volumes. And if past is prologue, we know that voice and the voices she inspired will never be silenced.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities and the Ford Foundation. Follow her on Twitter.
Issa Rae’s Not-so-Awkward Rise
By Jacinth Jones
Issa Rae is at the top of her game. As the lead actor of HBO's new comedy series “Insecure,” Rae leads viewers through an infusion of hip-hop, love, friendship and relatable black experiences.
The half-hour program debuts at a time when young African Americans are flourishing and thriving in the entertainment industry with the production of Donald Glover's “Atlanta” on FX, Cheo Hodari Coker's “Luke Cage” on Netflix and Barry Jenkins' feature film “Moonlight.”
Rae rose to fame through her 2011 YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl,” and her recent book, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Loosely based on the web series, “Insecure’ averaged 3.2 million viewers across all platforms during its first season, which is comparable to other half-hour series like “Divorce,” “Veep” and “Girls,” according to HBO.
"I wanted to show a much broader range of who we are," said Rae, who promoted “Insecure” during an HBCU tour sponsored by HBO and Ebony Magazine. "I wanted to tap into my own experiences.”
“My core is this socially uncomfortable introverted person, and I did not get to see that depicted anywhere for black people,” she said. “White people get to be everything. I never felt secure in my own blackness, and I wanted my character to reflect that."
As a Golden Globe nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy, and with a heavily anticipated season two, Rae lives up to the definition of fierce — powerful, passionate and confident with undeniable potential.
Jacinth Jones is an independent journalist and writer in Washington, D. C.
Ameena Matthews: Interrupting Violence on Chicago’s Streets
By Tonesha Townsel
Ameena Matthews has devoted her life to interrupting violence on Chicago’s streets, as well as teaching respect and responsibility to inner-city youth.
The daughter of a former gang leader Jeff Fort, Matthews turned her own life around and now pushes for positive change through Pause for Peace. One of her goals is to stop retaliation on the front end, as reflected in the organization’s motto: “Don’t let 30 seconds of rage change your life forever.”
Matthews previously spent just over seven years working with the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention's Ceasefire Program. The community activist was featured in the 2011 Emmy Award-winning documentary “The Interrupters.” She is known for her effectiveness in encouraging young people to resolve conflicts without violence, avoid the streets and minimize interactions with the police.
While Matthews and other anti-violence activists have been credited with interrupting dozen of incidents in 2016 alone, they stress that they could mediate more conflicts with greater resources and support from the city and community.
The Chicago police department has recorded at least 700 homicides so far this year — up more than 50 percent from 2015 and the most since the late 1990s, according to the Chicago Tribune. The peak was 970 homicides in 1974.
Matthews has also emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to dealing with violence, understanding it as a public health issue and recognizing other factors that exacerbate it such as the lack of jobs, resources and education.
She also advocates preventive measures to keep adolescents from a life in the streets. Through Pause for Peace, for example, she offers counseling, educational programs, a summer camp, spoken word and volunteer work at a food pantry.
While her own life has been interrupted by a 2014 diagnosis of multiple myeloma that required a bone marrow transplant, she refuses to let cancer interfere with what she has described as her life’s calling.
Beyond raising awareness about the plague of violence sweeping through the city of Chicago, she has also made time to lead a Girl Scouts troop. For her work, she has been invited to speak all over the world and has received several honors, including Chicagoan of the Year, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom From Fear Award and a Community Activist Award from Black Girls Rock!
TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Ameena Matthews in the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary "The Interrupters."
Tonesha Townsel is an independent journalist in Washington, D. C. who frequently writes for Fierce.
Tiffany Anderson: Transforming Schools and Communities
By Yanick Rice Lamb
Washers, dryers, food and books — these are just a few things in Tiffany Anderson’s massive toolbox to help children learn. Anderson truly believes that any child can excel, regardless of his or her circumstances. The key is to minimize the barriers that can get in the way.
That’s been her approach as superintendent in turning around school districts throughout the country — most notably in Jennings, Missouri, a city of 15,000 residents sandwiched between St. Louis and Ferguson.
“The impact of the investment in mental, physical and social public health care for families in high poverty schools has a direct impact on parental school involvement and student performance,” Anderson said.
Since growling stomachs make it hard to concentrate, the district began offering free lunch for all students and a food pantry for their families. To offset the lack of a local library and limited recreation facilities, schools are open until 6 p.m. weekdays with dinner and until noon on Saturdays. Anderson also partnered with a local university to provide on-site pediatric and mental health services.
University banners hanging from ceilings and teacher credentials outside their classrooms helped to reinforce the emphasis on literacy and higher education. College prep classes, an associates degree program and mentoring have contributed to 100 percent placement rate of graduates in a postsecondary institution or job.
Some of their parents and neighbors also received employment assistance, occasionally landing jobs with the district. And they could use washers and dryers at schools in exchange for volunteering or taking advantage of personal enrichment opportunities.
With buy-in from students, educators, residents and local businesses, Anderson was able to achieve state accreditation for a once underperforming system that met only 57 percent of standards as recently as 2012.
“As a native of St. Louis, I returned to work in Jennings School District to demonstrate that a complete turnaround model in a school district could impact and transform an entire community,” Anderson said.
Now she’s trying to replicate this success in her new job in Topeka, Kansas, over the school system that was part of Brown vs. Board of Education.
Anderson has already launched literacy initiatives there, set up a mobile food pantry and partnered with universities for more athletic trainers, who will also provide free physicals. “We are committed to fully supporting every child and their academic success,” she said.
As in Jennings, she’s laced up her sneakers and hit the streets with a stop sign in hand to connect with her students coming and going.
Yanick Rice Lamb is co-founder and publisher of Fierce
Anita Hill: An Enduring Voice on Sex, Gender and Race
By Katherine Gilyard
Women have been commemorating the 25th anniversary of the historic hearings with Anita Hill that would pave the way for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to be empowered enough to report and share their stories, without fear of negative recourse.
The author, lawyer, activist, scholar and educator bravely stood on unprecedented ground in testifying against then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with her claims of sexual harassment.
Hill’s actions since the 1991 Senate hearings have opened up discussions on sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond, leading to the passage of a bill that grants affected persons the right to seek damages and other compensation. Hill also sparked a surge of women seeking political office.
“I am really proud to be a part in whatever way of women becoming active in the political scene,” she said. “I think it was the first time that people came to terms with the reality of what it meant to have a Senate made up of 98 men and two women.”
Her story was recently depicted on HBO in “Confirmation,” starring Kerry Washington, who also served as co-executive producer. Hill was also the subject of “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” by Oscar-winning director Freida Mock.
Hill, now 59, is a University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University. She has also used her legal expertise as an attorney in civil rights and employment. Her books include Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home in 2011; Race, Gender and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings, co-edited with Emma Coleman Jordan in 1995; and her 1997 autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power.
Thomas has spent most of the last quarter-century without uttering a word during sessions at U.S. Supreme Court. Many Americans have considered the 67-year-old’s silence irresponsible — even if they don’t really want to hear what he has to say — because he is filling the seat of Thurgood Marshall, the only other African American to serve on the high court.
Then and now, Hill continues to embolden in us the importance of knowing, finding and using our voices in spite of naysayers, doubters and those who refuse to listen.
“I did what my conscience told me to do,” Hill said, “and you can’t fail if you do that.”
Katherine Gilyard is an independent journalist in Washington, D.C.
Destiny Watford: A Health Warrior for Clean Air
As a teenager, Destiny Watford launched a fight against supporters of an incinerator planned within a mile of her high school in Baltimore — and won. Watford and her classmates started an advocacy group, Free Your Voice, to rally support and educate residents in Maryland, where toxic emissions kill more people than any other state, according to a 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her efforts, the Towson University senior became the one of the youngest honorees of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Watch this video to learn more about her story.
Monique Greenwood: Taking Care of Business With Flair and Hospitality
By Katherine Gilyard
Monique Greenwood and her husband, Glenn Pogue, have several dream homes that they share with the world. Their special blend of hospitality and business acumen have paid off as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of Akwaaba, an award-winning chain of bed and breakfast inns.
Two decades ago, they took a dilapidated Italianate mansion in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant and restored it to its 1860s grandeur with themed rooms such as “Jumping the Broom” and a reception area for weddings and other events. Their timing was perfect, since Brooklyn was lacking in accommodations for travelers.
From Brooklyn, they opened Akwaaba by the Sea in Cape May, New Jersey, that’s now based across the street in the Buttonwood Manor, where the couple first experienced and fell in love with the bed-and-breakfast concept.
Known as a people person, Greenwood was able to combine her passions for architecture, interior design and entertaining to create a home-away-from-home success. She infused her leadership skills as a magazine editor and executive at Children’s Business and Essence into her role as Akwaaba’s president and CEO.
Greenwood incorporated her love of books in bringing a literary theme to an 1890s brownstone in Washington, D.C., her hometown. The Dupont Circle location has rooms named for authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes and Walter Mosley.
The newest location is on an even grander scale. The Mansion at Noble Lane is a boutique spa resort with 14 guest rooms, a pool and grounds made for weddings in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
Along the way, Greenwood has instilled her business sense in her daughter, mentored others interested in being innkeepers and returned to her alma mater to give back as the John H. Johnson Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship at Howard University.
Her mantra for balancing one’s personal and professional lives is reflected in the title of her best-selling book: “Having What Matters.”
Kinshasha Holman Conwill: Bringing Our History to Life
By Yanick Rice Lamb
Kinshasha Holman Conwill is making people cry, laugh and feel all sorts of emotions over the history and culture of Africans in the Americas.
For four decades, Conwill has been committed to sharing our contributions to “all aspects of the American experience.” She has accomplished this in a variety of roles, from director of the Studio Museum in Harlem to her current position as deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Visiting the Smithsonian’s newest museum is on the cultural bucket list of people all over the world. It has been filled to capacity every day since its grand opening in late September, and admission passes are booked through March with a limited number of same-day passes available online.
Conwill has had a hand in nearly all aspects of bringing the museum to life, tapping into her wealth of experience that also includes stints at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City and the Frank Lloyd Wright Hollyhock House. She is one of many women in leadership and curatorial positions at what some consider the Smithsonian’s crown jewel, and it shows.
The exhibitions have breadth and depth, with a good gender and geographic balance. Visitors will see women who have worked behind the scenes (U.S. Navy Admiral Michelle Howard), as well as those who have been in the public eye (Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine).
Everyday people contributed their hard-earned dollars as well as family heirlooms to the museum’s holdings of 37,000 objects, of which only about 3,000 are on display so far.
Conwill says that helping to bring our history to life brings her “extraordinary pride and humility.”
Yanick Rice Lamb is co-founder and publisher of Fierce
Julie Dash: A Pioneer for African American Women on Film
By Maya Cade
Twenty-five year ago, Julie Dash released the historical drama “Daughters of the Dust.”
Twenty-five years ago, Dash broke racial and gender barriers by becoming the first black woman to write and direct a wide release film.
Twenty-five years ago, Dash wrote a historical drama that redefined black women in film.
But to celebrate Dash and her commitment to black women is to celebrate the continued impact and legacy that “Daughters of the Dust” has had on film.
In 2004, the award-winning film was honored through preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, which aims to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.” Dash is the only black woman to receive the honor.
In 2016, the deep influence and cinematic style of "Daughters of the Dust" reached new audiences by being emulated in Beyoncé’s epic “Lemonade” and through a 25th anniversary re-release and restoration of the acclaimed film by the Cohen Media Group. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also named Dash a voting member of the Oscars. Additionally, the New York Film Critics Circle voted in early December to honor her with a special award that will be presented in January.
Dash’s commitment to the imagery of black women and authentic storytelling has continued since the release of the 1991 film, which focuses on a multi-generational family in the Gullah community on the Sea Islands along South Carolina. She continues her work through various projects centering on black women’s stories such as her next release, “Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” a documentary on the late culinary anthropologist and NPR correspondent Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. And Dash has a “lifetime of stories left to tell.”
Her work has also opened the floodgates for other fierce black women filmmakers such as Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood. In addition, she’s sharing her expertise with young filmmakers as a Time-Warner Visiting Professor at Howard University.
Her commitment to film, black women and authenticity makes Dash one of the fiercest women of 2016.
Maya Cade is a social media consultant and writer in Washington, D. C.
After taking a year off school, the two-time NCAA champion is back at Stanford University, where she holds several swimming titles and records. And she’s having the time of her life as a history-making Olympian.
Manuel was recently invited to read a Christmas story with First Lady Michelle Obama, and she received “the best handshake I’ve ever gotten” from President Obama. She saw her first NFL game with the Houston Texans, and she was grand marshal of Houston’s Thanksgiving parade with Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.
According to Google Trends, the two Simones have also set a record for people looking up their name as a possibility for baby girls, with a 230 percent surge in August around the time of the Olympics.
With the history of segregation surrounding African Americans and the nation's pools, Manuel's four medals stand out for many people, who recall a 1964 swim-in at a pool in St. Augustine, Florida, where a white manager poured acid in the water near the black swimmers. Manuel's achievements have also inspired some children to swim recreationally or competitively.
“It means a lot [to be the first black woman to earn gold in the pool],” Manuel said. “This medal is not just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people that came before me and have been an inspiration to me."
— Twindividuals (@twindividuals) August 22, 2016
Joyce J. Scott: MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Jewelry Maker and Sculptor
Don't let the beadwork fool you. It's more than just jewelry, says artist Joyce J. Scott, one of this year's MacArthur “Genius” Fellows. The internationally acclaimed artist uses beadwork and sculptures to explore racism, sexism and violence.
This includes an "Election Day" series with expressions of joy, fear and anger surrounding images of President Obama; a large-scale installation called "Lynched Tree"; and “Ancestry/Progeny,” a satirical representation of parents passing for white but shocked by their darker-hued child.
Her work also features beadwork with blown glass sculptures created in collaboration with artisans in Murano, Italy. And the Baltimore artist is completing a tribute to Harriet Tubman in a large outdoor installation. Watch the video to learn more about Scott's artistic vision.
Mothers of the Movement: Solidarity for Black Lives Matter
By Yanick Rice Lamb
No mother wants to leave this earth before her child. And sudden, violent deaths —especially through encounters with those who have pledged to protect and serve the public — can be particularly painful.
That’s why the mothers of everyone from Trayvon Martin to Jordan Davis have been pushing through their grief to support other parents and let the world know that #BlackLivesMatter.
A group now known as “Mothers of the Movement” even took to the stage dressed in black to share their message in July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where they were received with thunderous applause in an extended standing ovation.
“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine," Geneva Reed-Veal told the crowd. "I watched as my daughter, Sandra Bland, was lowered into the ground in a coffin." Bland died in a jail cell in Texas after being arrested in a traffic stop three days earlier.
Jordan Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, said that “his life ended the day he was shot and killed for playing loud music, but my life as his mother didn’t.”
“I still wake up everyday thinking about how to parent him, how to protect him and his legacy, how to ensure that his death doesn’t overshadow his life.”
Although they were all suddenly thrust into the spotlight, the women encourage other parents to get up and use their voices. “No more silence,” Reed-Veal said, until the violence subsides and families receive what she calls God’s justice or the world’s justice.
Her family recently reached a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful death suit against Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“It’s a personal loss,” Reed-Veal said of her daughter's death. “It’s a national loss. It’s a loss that diminishes all of us.”
Mothers of the Movement: Others pictured above include Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontré Hamilton; Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown; and Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, mother of Hadiya Pendleton.
Crystal Emery: A Storyteller for Our Time
By Sheree Crute
There’s a quiet revolution going on in the world of medicine. Black women physicians are emerging in increasingly greater numbers to transform the field to one that is far more diverse and responsive to the needs of patients from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Crystal Emery, author, filmmaker, actor and playwright tells their story in her groundbreaking documentary Black Women in Medicine and the book Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine.
The projects are the most recent accomplishments in Emery’s extraordinary career. An artist who counts legendary actor and director Bill Duke, the renowned actor and dancer Gregory Hines and Tony Award-winning actor and director Lloyd Richards among her greatest influences, Emery creates work that not only sheds light on African American achievement, she chronicles our grace under fire during those journeys.
Her other mission is to advance social change. Emery’s body of work spans 30 years and includes the documentary, The Deadliest Disease in America, an examination of racism in medical practice, which earned her the Congressional Black Caucus’ “Health Brain Trust Award in Journalism.”
Emery’s other notable works highlight the critical importance of equity in the fight for health and wellbeing. Combining educational initiatives and the arts, she created “This Is Where I Live, Don’t Dump On Me,” a play and a series of workshops about environmental responsibility and “Woman to Woman: Helping Ourselves,” a highly successful national series of conferences about breast health education, targeting women in urban communities.
In a life that underscores triumph over challenges, Emery continues to create while facing two chronic diseases herself, as a quadriplegic. Yet, when you meet her, the thing you notice most is her broad and engaging smile.
Sheree Crute is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Fierce
Debbie Chatman Bryant: A Health Hero for Those Who Need It Most
By Sheree Crute
Sometimes we discover our heroes through the bright light media shines on celebrities, but often, the people who help others to live better, longer, healthier lives fly well below our radar. Or as Debbie Chatman Bryant, DNP, RN describes it, when people notice people like her, it’s for “the work you try to hold your head down and get done.”
Dr. Bryant, a nurse practitioner is that kind of hero. Her determination to prevent cancer among the medically underserved in South Carolina earned her a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader Award and the honor of becoming an Executive Nurse Fellow.
Director of the Partnership for Healthcare Quality Research and Director of Outreach and Community Relations for the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston, Dr. Bryant does the hard work of building partnerships between health care providers, medical systems and community-based organizations to ensure that people from every walk of life have access to the best cancer care.
Her work has brought desperately needed care to thousands through patient outreach and patient navigator and programs designed to increase the number of people with access to cancer prevention and treatment services. Her safety-net mobile screening program for coastal South Carolina has brought mammography services to more than 15,000 women, while patient navigators have helped nearly 2,000 women across 11 counties. An important achievement in a state where 18 percent of residents live below poverty level; the rate for African Americans is more than 28 percent. These programs have decreased the number of women receiving care after an abnormal cancer screening from 11 percent to 5 percent over five years. This is not the kind of news that makes you a star of social media, but it is the kind of work that saves lives.
As a child who grew up in South Carolina during segregation and was often ignored, Dr. Bryant says what she wants other health care leaders to learn from work like hers is that it’s important to “hold your head up and speak loudly enough … so that other people can know that this work is important.”
Sheree Crute is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Fierce
Jessica O. Matthews: Breaking the Tech Ceiling
By Sheree Crute
Less than 1 percent of the billions in venture capital poured into tech start-ups goes to black women, so that tells you just how fierce entrepreneur Jessica O. Matthews had to be to raise $7 million to fund her new company, Uncharted Play.
But that’s just one aspect of what makes Matthews so impressive. Rather than raise money just to make money or contribute to the social media vacuum, Matthews’ company has garnered 15 patents for energy-generating play products that are used to produce opportunities for young people to be physically active and learn about the global importance of clean, renewable energy.
Combining Uncharted Play’s products with her company’s “Think Out of Bounds Curriculum,” young people in communities around the world, including Harlem, are inspired and encouraged to create imaginative tech projects that will solve problems in their neighborhood.
Uncharted Play’s first product—SOCCKET—is a soccer ball that doubles as a power generator. The ball produces rotational energy every time it’s rolled, creating enough light for another three hours of play. Matthews invented SOCCKET as a college student.
Matthews hit her $7 million goal with a round of funding led by NIC Fund with participation from Kapor Capital, Magic Johnson Enterprises, BBG Ventures and Lingo Ventures.