You’re fierce, and we’re fierce. But who’s the fiercest of them all? Sometimes, you have to give mad props where they’re due. Thanks for sharing who inspired you to help us come up with our first annual list of the 15 Fiercest Sisters.
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 success stories to enlighten and empower you.
1. Monitoring Our Health
Noted epidemiologist Lucile L. Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., has been sharing some good news for a change about our health. Findings released this year show that we’ve made progress during the two decades that Adams-Campbell has devoted to the largest study ever on our well-being. The Black Women’s Health Study is monitoring 59,000 women and gathering information about how many illnesses affect us. Our healthy habits are paying off in a number of ways. Those who exercise most, for example, are reducing their risk of an aggressive form of breast cancer. “We all want to do what we can to reduce our risk of disease and improve our health,” says Adams-Campbell, a professor of oncology and associate director for minority health and health disparities at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Adams-Campbell is also working on a $6.1 million health disparities research grant from the National Institutes of Health. She is also a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine and the 2015 federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
2. Black Girls Rock!
Beverly Bond created Black Girls Rock! in 2006 to “enrich the lives of girls aged 12 to 17 years old through mentorship, arts education, cultural exploration and public service.” In the process, the former model and DJ wants to improve their self-worth and self-image at a time when they are being bombarded with all sorts of messages. Programs include Saturday Enrichment Institutes and a series of Queens’ Camps for Leadership & Excellence on college campuses. Black Girls Rock! has grown to include an annual awards show on BET to honor past and present sheroes. Bond recently hosted a town hall on race, gender and media messaging in Harlem. She also called out racist critics, saying that they have “blind spots associated with white privilege” and reminding everyone that there’s room for all girls to rock.
3. Girls Who Code
Kimberly Bryant didn’t see many people who looked like her when she was in engineering school. Then she couldn’t find the right programs for her young daughter. So she decided to do her part to help other girls and to broaden the pool of African-American women in STEM areas: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “By launching Black Girls Code,” she says, “I hope to provide young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming at a time when they are naturally thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.” Bryant holds workshops, boot camps and hackathons around the country for “Tech Divas” ages 7 to 17. She also added bilingual workshops this year to reach Latinas. In July, the White House honored Bryant as one of a dozen “Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion.” Founded in 2011, Black Girls Code has exposed at least 1,500 girls to STEM areas. Bryant is shooting for a million coders by 2040.
4. A Class Act
Linda Cliatt-Wayman couldn’t find someone to run one of Pennsylvania’s most “persistently dangerous schools,” so she stepped down as assistant superintendent of Philadelphia’s 52 high schools to do it herself. As the fourth principal of Strawberry Mansion in four years, she’s gotten the school off the list, cut violent incidents in half and doubled the number of college-bound graduates. Instead of closing, the high school is now a Promise Academy, part of the district’s turnaround program. Students returned to school this fall proudly wearing strawberry-colored polo shirts, and the football team is back, going undefeated this fall. By returning to North Philadelphia where she grew up, Cliatt-Wayman is meeting her goal of restoring hope despite district budget cuts and a to-do list that’s still mad long. Her message over the school’s public announcement system: “If nobody told you I love you today, remember I do.” No wonder she’s getting shoutouts from students, parents and the likes of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
5 & 6. Walking for Change
Walk like Harriet Tubman. Speak up like journalist Ida B. Wells. Organize like voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. That’s the ultimate message that Tanya Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison are sharing through GirlTrek, their national movement to encourage people to get to steppin’ a little or a lot. They’re shooting for a million walkers by 2018. In March, 15,000 black women and girls participated in the Tubman tribute walk as solo trekkers or in groups; they’ll do it again on March 10. GirlTrek also sponsors a 30-Day Jumpstart Walking Challenge, a National Church Challenge and 40-Day Gratitude Walk, and a Summer Trek Series in parks. And all of this started with a simple conversation about health.
GirlTrek (n.) 1. a personal journey toward health and fulfillment. 2. a national health movement of active black women and girls 3. a nonprofit health organization.
7. Taking Care of Business
From philanthropy to business, Sheila C. Johnson does it all. She empowers others to pursue their dreams in education and entrepreneurship through her words and deeds. Johnson is the only African-American woman to have ownership in three pro teams: the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals. She also has her hands in golf, aviation as well as accessories and home products. An arts lover who plays the violin, she launched the 2013 Middleburg Film Festival in the heart of Virginia’s horse and wine country. She also helped to bring The Butler to the silver screen this year and previously backed documentaries such as The Other City, which delved into HIV/AIDS. A former global ambassador for CARE, she also works to improve health in Africa through Accordia Global Health Foundation’s International Council. In 2005, she founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which includes three properties in Florida and one in Middleburg. Back in the day, she was founding partner of Black Entertainment Television.
8. The Urban Scientist
Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., is literally dropping science where it’s needed most — in underserved communities. As part of the Scientific American Blog Network, Lee writes about urban ecology, evolutionary biology and diversity in the sciences. She breaks down science for everyday people, highlighting everything from “food and knife politics,” camel crickets, training opportunities and her research on the African Giant Pouched Rat. Her popular blog, The Urban Scientist, is an outgrowth of Urban Science Adventures and the OutKast-inspired Southern Playalistic Evolution Music. She still occasionally infuses hip-hop references and revamped lyrics to demystify science and explain how things work. The scientific community and others rallied around her when a web producer called her out of her name for declining an offer to submit monthly blog entries for exposure, but no pay. She’s put the drama behind her, saying “I have science to do.”
9. A First Among Presidents
Valerie Montgomery Rice, M.D., will add president to her titles when she becomes the first African-American woman to be CEO of an independent medical school. Dr. Montgomery Rice takes the helm of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta on July 1, 2014. She has served as executive vice president and dean of the school since 2011. Only 16 percent of deans at leading medical schools are women. “The vision is crystal clear,” she said in a statement. “My role is to continue to further the mission while also positioning the school to remain relevant and at the forefront of an ever-changing medical school environment.” She’s also crystal clear about the importance of our health. Dr. Montgomery Rice is the founder and former director of the Center for Women’s Health Research at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. The Harvard-educated physician specializes in gynecology and obstetrics. A renowned expert in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, she is part of a research partnership with the University of Zambia focusing on the development of a vaginal microbicide to prevent HIV.
10. Moving With the Mom-in-Chief
Michelle Obama is certainly a different kind of First Lady – in style and substance with special talents that have made her influential across the world. Indeed, President Obama’s soulmate has a sky-high approval rating and has proven that she is — in many ways — the wind beneath his wings. A self-described “mom-in-chief,” she maps much in her life around their daughters, Malia and Sasha. Fun-loving and a nurturing, she has taken on a long list of causes to benefit children. She speaks about substantive issues — from aiding military families to making healthy eating choices — in a way that makes others listen. To get kids engaged in her “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity, she dispenses with the lecture, slips on her workout gear and dances right by their side. She’s even willing to get her well-manicured hands dirty — in the White House garden that is – to make a point. In August 2013, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found declining obesity rates in poor children, it was a sign of progress for her signature program. For more, see “Why We Love Michelle.”
11. Most Valuable Player
This has been an award-winning year for Los Angeles Sparks forward and center Candace Parker. During her first all-star game, Parker was named Most Valuable Player after helping the West beat the East, 102-98, with a record-setting 23 points and 11 rebounds. Across the pond, she helped the Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg win its first EuroLeague Women’s Championship and took home more MVP honors. The Women’s Sports Foundation named her Sportswoman of the Year in team sports, and she also won the 2013 ESPY Award for Best WNBA Player. As the Sparks’ No. 1 draft pick in 2008, she broke Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’s record for most points by a rookie in a debut by scoring 34 points against the Phoenix Mercury. Not surprisingly, the WNBA named her Rookie of the Year and MVP. And who can forget her history-making dunks as a 6-foot-4 freshman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, helping the Volunteers win back-to-back conference titles while playing with a dislocated shoulder? Now the question is, will this two-time Olympic gold medalist pass her family’s strong b-ball genes to her 4-year-old daughter?
WINNING WAYS: Candace Parker leads the Los Angeles Sparks to a 102-69 win over the Seattle Storm in May. (CandaceParker.com)
12. Made for TV
Shonda Rhimes, the award-winning executive producer and creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” spinoff “Private Practice” and “Scandal,” is rewriting the script on both sides of the camera. A proponent of colorblind casting and multidimensional roles, especially for women, she has helped to boost the star power of actors like Kerry Washington. Through Shondaland, her production company with Betsy Beers, she’s widening the talent pool behind the scenes, resulting in new ABC pilots for a comedy and a legal thriller. Rhimes recently pulled out the director’s chair for Debbie Allen on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy,” now in its 10th season, and Sundance winner Ava Duvernay for a cliffhanging episode of “Scandal,” which averages 12.5 million viewers a week — a 50 percent jump from last year. One fan tweeted that Rhimes is spiking her blood pressure with nail (and skin) biters. Rhimes also wrote the 2004 Disney film Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement and co-wrote Halle Berry’s dream project, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. An avid reader who loves a good story, Rhimes is working on her memoir. It should be a page-turner — even without scandals.
13. The Voice of Reason
Talk about being under the gun. Antoinette Tuff mixed a little TLC laced with empathy in her impromptu strategy to diffuse a hostage situation at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy outside Atlanta. "It's going to be all right, Sweetie," the bookkeeper-turned-lifesaver told the suspect, Michael Brandon Hill, in the 911 call heard around the world. "I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up, and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.” For roughly an hour, Tuff shared the ups and downs of her life with the 20-year-old suspect, who said that he hadn’t taken medication for a mental illness. Tuff was one of three school staffers trained to deal with emergencies — but nothing quite like this. Hill was locked and loaded with an AK-47-style assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. However, no one was injured and no one died, thanks to Tuff’s quick thinking. Tuff has started a foundation for inner-city children and is releasing a book in January: Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege.
14. An Artistic Genius
Carrie Mae Weems describes herself as “a complex woman” who works on different levels to tell stories, using photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, video and installations. Humanity shines through her work, she says, which goes beyond race and gender and politics whether it’s “The Louisiana Project” (2003), “Roaming” (2006) or “The Obama Project” (2012). Her art attempts “to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm-barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.” For her body of art over the last quarter-century, the 60-year-old artist received a 2013 McArthur “Genius” Grant. Her artwork has been exhibited at international venues ranging from the Guggenheim Museum to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
15. Winning Streak
Serena Williams is on another roll. She won 34 straight matches for a 78-4 record this year, taking the U.S. Open, the French Open and nine other titles. She’s now up to 17 Grand Slam championships, not even counting the sister act in doubles with Venus. The Women’s Tennis Association ranks her No. 1 overall and for fastest serves — one clocked at 128.6 mph at the Australian Open. Serena is also the 2013 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, alongside her male counterpart, Miami Heat star LeBron James. Plus, she took home a season record $12.4 million in prizes. Just two years ago, her tennis career was on hold, because of blood clots and surgery to repair a tendon in her right foot, which she cut on broken glass. The Williams sisters are the only black women to dominate tennis globally since Althea Gibson, also an AP honoree, won her back-to-back titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958.