ESSENCE Presents 'Woke 100 Women'

For the first time ever, ESSENCE honors the women who are blazing trails for equal rights and inclusion for Black people in America.

The cover features a host of dynamic women, such as writer/producer Shonda Rhimes, veteran journalist Joy-Ann Reid, Women’s March co-chairs Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez. Plus, appearances from Women’s March organizer Janaye Ingram, political commentator Angela Rye, Circle of Mothers founder Sybrina Fulton, author/blogger Luvvie Ajayi and social activist April Reign.  #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Opal Tometi and educator/activist Brittany Packnett are also featured.

When we say Black women will save the world, we’re being literal.

On the ­following pages, ESSENCE recognizes 88 more socially conscious change makers. By their example they ­empower all of us to take action.

Join the #Woke100 conversation on Twitter.

This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.

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Actress Zendaya is no stranger to standing up for herself and others both on and off social media. Zendaya's most woke response to date? When she clapped back at former E! "Fashion Police" host Guiliana Rancic for criticizing Zendaya's dreadlocks at the 2015 Oscars and saying "I feel like she smells like patchouli oil and weed." Zendaya's response was classy yet perfect

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When 11,341 unprocessed rape kits (some, decades-old) were discovered in her district, this Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor immediately raised awareness and funds for testing. As a result of her efforts, 750 potential serial rapists were identified, and there have been 42 prosecutions.

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The San Francisco–based advocate of diversity and inclusion caught our attention when she joined 500 Startups, a seed accelerator, as a venture partner, making her the first Black executive at the firm.

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Black queer transgender activist Raquel Willis is dedicated to helping marginalized individuals in her personal and professional (she's the communications associate for the Transgender Law Center) work. In response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's controversial statement on trans women, Willis' op-ed for The Root, "Trans Women Are Women. This Isn't A Debate" was her most revolutionary moment to date.

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Weidman Powers took her advocacy of equal representation of Blacks and Latinos in tech to Washington, D.C., as a senior policy adviser to the former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. 

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Although it’s been six decades since a then 14-year-old Emmett Till was viciously murdered in Mississippi, Watts—a cousin of Till’s and cofounder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation—is dedicated to ensuring that we always remember him and the societal conditions that caused his death.

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Last spring, Watford, then 20, was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize—and rightfully so. As a high school senior, she led a crusade to stop construction on an incinerator that would have emitted more than 1,000 pollutants throughout her Baltimore neighborhood every year.

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Outspoken and on point, the veteran congresswoman has been one of the foremost critics of the Trump administration among her peers, standing up for the disenfranchised and speaking out against bigotry. (Her meme-­worthy side-eyes don’t hurt, either.)

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The New Orleans native uses her poetry to convey themes of equality and feminism. During the tenth anniversary year of Hurricane Katrina, one of her poems was erected on a billboard in the French Quarter—its message: strength after the storm.

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Healer, educator and performance artist, Utah is the owner of Harriet’s Apothecary, a Brooklyn-based haven for women of color who are committed to self-care—which is especially needed during these trying times. 

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Using materials such as rhinestones in her multilayered paintings, Thomas amplifies the diverse beauty of Black women. She brings multiple pieces together to create one whole image, both pushing the envelope and working against conventional beauty standards.

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Stenberg may be young, but The Hunger Games and Where Hands Touch actress is fearless when speaking out against misogyny and racism. She’s also driving conversation around ideas of identity: Recently Stenberg came out as nonbinary, which means she doesn’t identify as either gender, opting for the preferred pronouns “they” and “them.”

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Fully embracing the carefree-Black-girl aesthetic, Smith makes the political personal. After the results of the 2016 presidential election, the Chanel brand ambassador released the ballad “November 9,” seeking to uplift the disheartened. She has also traveled to North Dakota with her brother, Jaden, to stand in solidarity with Native people and protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

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The 17-year-old black-ish star and activist uses her celebrity to challenge the present political climate, including the Trump travel ban, and fights for a more tolerant and inclusive America, writing on Instagram, “The suppression of any person is the suppression of all people.” 

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When political discussions get heated,   Setmayer maintains her cool and gets her point across. Since joining CNN as a contributor in 2014, the conservative commentator and columnist for The Daily Beast has used her voice to keep the conversation balanced.

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Hailing from Oakland, Brittani Sensabaugh is a photographer and documentarian who snaps subjects who are generally misrepresented in the media. #222forgottencities, one of Sensabaugh's most impactful projects to date, focuses on urban cities and its people of color to document their trials, tribulations and triumphs. 

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After winning a tough primary race and defeating a long-time incumbent, Scott is the first Black woman to serve in Kentucky’s State Legislature in 20 years. She is determined to revamp outdated policies on women’s rights.

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The former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign and current CNN pundit has succeeded in bringing women’s issues and the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the forefront of the current political conversation. 

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The trusted journalist has covered the White House for American Urban Radio Networks for more than 20 years, and she’s pressed administrations on the issues that affect Black communities most. When she took President Trump to task about not meeting with Congressional Black Caucus members, his office set up a meeting with the CBC within weeks.

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Reproductive rights are under assault, but Robinson, an OB-GYN  in Huntsville, Alabama, is committed to our care as the only local physician in the state to provide abortions. She believes it’s important for the women in the community to have a choice, and thanks to her work, they do.

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Tackling high obesity rates is all in a day’s work for Robinson. The deputy secretary for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Pennsylvania creates green spaces in Black communities for children to play in and sidewalks for them to get to after-school programs safely. 

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As founder and CEO of The Gray Matter Experience, Robbins shares the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship with students ages 15 to 18. The nine-week program introduces Chicago-based youth to Black professionals and team-building activities that promote critical, expansive thinking.  

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The LGBTQ community deserves a safe space to worship. Bishop Rawls’s understands. Along with leading North Carolina’s Unity Fellowship Church, she founded The Freedom Center for Social Justice and launched the Do No Harm Campaign to promote acceptance, starting with her fellow faith leaders.



With her hit HBO show, Insecure, Rae gives a refreshingly real look at how modern Black women navigate their personal and professional worlds. She also shines a hilarious light on important narratives missing from today’s popular culture lexicon. 

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Porter’s stirring abortion rights documentary, Trapped, won a 2016 Sundance Festival Special Jury Award. She later teamed up with ESSENCE and Time to produce an award-worthy doc on Black women seeking reproductive services. Watch at

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Michelle Obama has always inspired us and our children to achieve new heights with her education initiative, Reach Higher, and her global mission, Let Girls Learn, a program that opens the doors of education to 62 million girls worldwide who are not in school.

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The Honorable Nakita Perryman Blocton, Agnes Chappell, Elisabeth French, Shera Grant, Brendette Brown Green, Tamara Harris Johnson, Javan Patton, Annetta Verin and Debra Bennett Winston, all Democrats, made history last November when they were elected as judges in the red state of Alabama.

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In her role as deputy director of advocacy for Black Girls Vote, Murphy worked tirelessly to make sure Black women’s voices in Baltimore were heard. Through her organization, she spearheaded a voter registration effort that signed up more than 11,000 new voters. 

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Chicago community organizer Veronica Morris-Moore is a co-founder of Fearless Leading by the Youth (F.L.Y.). Morris-Moore, who is from the South Side, rallied with other activists in a radical effort to petition for the University of Chicago Medicine to open a trauma center on the South Side. After a few years and several protests, Morris-Moore and her team succeeded.

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The award-winning business journalist is the author of Fortune magazine’s raceAhead, a daily e-mail newsletter focused on understanding diversity challenges in the modern workplace. McGirt taps into the lived experiences of people of color for enlightenment and solutions. Subscribe to the newsletter at

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A discussion between McGhee, president of New York City–based DEMOS, and Garry, a White male North Carolinian, on C-Span went viral in August after he admitted he was prejudiced. She offered a lesson in our community and our history, and advocates that we unite as one.

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With her work, McClain ensures that the voices of Black women are represented in the media. She covers the complexities of race, reproductive health care and government policy at a time when journalists are under attack for pushing so-called fake news.

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Co-creator of Safety Pin Box, the two developed the monthly subscription box service to provide tools that help Whites become better allies in the struggle for racial equality. A portion of the monies goes toward supporting Black female activists and their agendas.

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Co-creators of Safety Pin Box, the two developed the monthly subscription box service to provide tools that help Whites become better allies in the struggle for racial equality. A portion of the monies goes toward supporting Black female activists and their agendas. 

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As CEO and cofounder of Heritage Box, Lewis is making the art of learning history a family affair, starting with the youngsters. The monthly subscription service ships age-specific books, activities and keepsakes directly to your doorstep.

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The 50-year-old breast cancer survivor intends to shift our focus from “saving the tatas” to finding a cure. Last summer, Leaphart walked topless 1,000-plus miles from Biloxi, Mississippi, to D.C., to lobby Congress about affordable treatment.

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Both provocative and poignant, A Seat at the Table—Knowles’s commanding album depicting the trials, tribulations and triumphs associated with the contemporary Black female experience in America—garnered the songstress her first number one album and a Grammy Award win.

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As superintendent of Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, King is committed to reducing the inequalities in public education and reforming school entrance requirements (a practice that often prevents people of color from gaining access to certain schools).

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After noticing a dearth of welcoming spaces for minorities in the comic book community, Johnson opened the Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia in 2015. She is believed to be the only Black female owner of a comic book store on the East Coast.

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Ishola has earned high praise for the launch of, a Web site dedicated to ­challenging society’s beauty standards. It includes the striking photo series, Body Noire, A Celebration Of Black Female Bodies.

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The Nigerian-born Ikyaator saw a void in Houston’s health care system and responded by opening Life Savers Emergency Room with her husband. The full-service facility offers affordable, round-the-clock care to the city’s underserved community. The best part? They strive to uphold a no-wait policy so patients can see the doctor right away.

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As lead architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., Howard helped design the ethnically rich space to showcase the impact of Black lives on America.

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Hector became the national youth director of National Action Network when she was just 14, and sought political office at 19. When she got pushback for being too young, the Spelman sophomore campaigned for (and won) the right to run for city council in Dekalb County, Georgia.

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Often described as a “trans freedom fighter,” this Ohio native has shone a national spotlight on the murders of Black transgender women. Alongside the nonprofit organization, GetEqual, Hearns is laser-focused on making the world a safer place for her community.

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She’s already made history as the first woman elected as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general. By winning a Senate seat last November, Harris is now the first Black woman to reach that milestone in nearly 20 years, and is using her platform to challenge the agenda of the Trump administration.

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One of a team of journalists who founded the Ida B. Wells Society, an organization that supports budding investigative reporters of color, Hannah-Jones deftly tackles tough issues, such as current-day school segregation and race relations, for The New York Times Magazine.

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The veteran journalist and ID channel’s Deadline: Crime host partnered with Safe Horizon, one of the nation’s leading victim assistance organizations, to create The Tamron ♥ Renate Fund. Established in honor of Hall’s late sister, the fund provides support for those harmed by domestic violence. Go to for more info on how to get involved.

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Gloss uses fashion as political expression with Glossrags, her apparel line that promotes Black consciousness through merchandise like the “Stay Woke” tees donned by this month’s cover stars, and shirts listing the names of Black men and women who’ve been victims of police brutality. Visit to shop.

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With her layered, complex approach to such hot topics as feminism, racism  and intersectionality, the prolific scribe is also making history as the first Black woman to write for Marvel Comics with World of Wakanda.

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Garza and fellow cofounders Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors woke up the world when they coined the hashtag and movement after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Since then Garza has continued her activism with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which promotes the  rights of domestics nationwide. 

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In addition to her work on Sway’s SiriusXM show, Garraud quenches millennials’ thirst for love, light and levity with audio affirmations on success during her podcast, She’s Beauty and the Beast.

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As state’s attorney for Chicago’s Cook County, Foxx works tirelessly to mend relationships between the city’s police department and its constituents. 

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Harnessing the power of social media, Ford urged her followers to donate funds to their local school districts so that students with outstanding lunch debts could settle their ­accounts. As a result, she helped raise more than $100,000 to cover costs for in-need children.

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The founder of Digitalundivided, Finney is an OG of tech disruption. Her groundbreaking #ProjectDiane report identified that less than a mere 0.2 percent of venture capital deals from 2012 to 2014 went to Black women founders. Finney intends to change that.

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The cofounder of Technicolor DC is fired up to buck the trend that only 7 percent of investor money goes to women-led start-ups. Last spring, Edwards cofounded #BFF (Black Female Founders) to help level the playing field by offering networking, business mentoring and access to funding.

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In 13th, the Oscar-nominated director trained her lens on African-American history by exploring how the abolition of slavery paved the way for the prison industrial complex. As the first Black woman to direct a film with a budget of $100 million, which features an ethnically diverse cast, she cements her status as a necessary champion creating art that affirms us all.

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Through her work as the social media manager at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, her popularity as @museummammy on Instagram, and her Black Contemporary Art page on Tumblr, Drew documents Blackness in the post-digital age.

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The 12-year-old dynamo grabbed our attention when she stated her goal to collect #1000BlackGirlBooks. Last year she landed back in the headlines as editor-in-chief of newly formed Marley Mag, an e-zine dedicated to celebrating women of color.  

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The gifted Tony nominee’s stage play, Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, gives a voice to those affected by the vicious cycle of police brutality, fractured education systems and the school-to-prison pipeline.

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Ever dedicated to public service, Demings began her career as a social worker and later served as Orlando’s police chief. With her win in Florida’s 10th district race, she has expanded her reach on the congressional level.

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In addition to her world-class acting, this Oscar-winning actress gives the most rousing speeches about Black womanhood, erasure and representation. She’s quoted Harriet Tubman, paid homage to August Wilson and generally tugged at our heartstrings with her passionate addresses.

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Lifelong political activist Angela Y. Davis has been woke since before the phrase came into existence. The UC Santa Cruz distinguished professor emerita has taught feminist studies and courses on mass incarceration that kept a generation of students both informed and empowered to act.

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Activist Patrisse Cullors cofounded #BlackLivesMatter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, but Cullors has always considered herself a freedom fighter. One of her most revolutionary moments was founding Dignity and Power Now, a LA-based grassroots organization that fights for incarcerated people with the ultimate goal of ending state violence and mass incarceration.

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Long before she created the crystal-encrusted headpiece for Solange’s seminal Saturday Night Live performance, Crowe was making art with hair. The Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist displayed her visionary work last summer in a photo exhibit simply titled Braids. 

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For the UCLA professor and critical scholar on issues of race, #SayHerName is a hashtag she lives by. In 2016 Crenshaw took her campaign on the road, speaking at conferences, universities and with media to bring attention to the often forgotten Black female victims of police brutality.

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She’s made it that much easier to patronize Black-owned businesses with the launch of her BuyBlack Google Chrome Extension, which helps us locate our fave Black-owned products and services online. 

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Named for her great-grandmother, the Essie Justice Group was formed by Clayton as a means to support women whose loved ones are serving time. Her larger goal? Ending mass incarceration and reenvisioning the movement for justice. 

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Under her leadership, the Black Youth Project 100—a national collective of young Black activists—has campaigned for racial justice in the wake of the extrajudicial killings of Black people such as Rekia Boyd and Michael Brown, and has led organizing and training efforts on LGBTQ rights issues and more.

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A Ferguson, Missouri, native, the founder and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab is developing the next generation of civic leaders by galvanizing Black and Latinx populations in major cities to develop solutions that address racial injustices and inequities.

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As the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable in Washington, D.C., Campbell joins forces with national civic groups to promote the Power of the Sister Vote, which combats voter suppression and ensures that millions of Black women continue to rock their vote.

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Byrd is helping to elect Black women to the government’s top spots via her consulting firm, Three Point Strategies. The Ohio native is also a campaign director at Democracy in Color, a multimedia platform aimed at getting more people of color involved in the political process.

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She visited her youngest child, Kalief, weekly and appeared at his court dates during the three years of his wrongful imprisonment. Sadly, he committed suicide at age 22, two years after his 2013 release. Browder told Kalief’s story and advocated for criminal justice reform until her death last October. Rest in peace, mother and son. 

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The CEO and the cofounder of STEMBoard and former NASA aerospace engineer is creating high-tech solutions for government and private entities while working to close the achievement gap through STEM camps, partnerships with HBCUs and career opportunities for youth.

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As the youngest person to hold the position of director for the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department of the AFL-CIO, Berkley wears many hats (activist, writer, corporate trainer) in her ongoing effort to protect the rights and interests of workers nationwide.

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A senior engineer at Slack Technologies, the Oakland-based Baker called out the tech industry for its isolation, harassment, lack of diversity and the ­detrimental psychological effects that can come with being the only one. 

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She struck a chord with 2010’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. Now Alexander is putting her money where her pen is, literally. The civil rights attorney plans to donate book royalties and her $250,000 Heinz Foundation Award prize to a fund dedicated to social justice. 



Alcindor’s astute journalistic skills were prominent during the 2016 political campaigns, and she continues to drill deep as the Trump administration makes its moves. The Georgetown grad isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, and helps keep social justice and women’s equality at the forefront of the conversation. 

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Whether fighting against human trafficking or on behalf of domestic violence victims, Addo, in her role as coordinator of Gender Justice Initiatives at The Center for Court Innovation, speaks for those who often suffer in silence.

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Following a 25-year career teaching math, Adams-Lawton currently serves as executive director of Detroit’s Robert Tindal Recreation Center. The newly rehabbed facility is where she also launched Healthy Kidz, Inc., a much-needed after-school program  for local children focused on wellness.

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With her Building Leaders and Uplifting the Electorate (B.L.U.E.) Institute, Abrams—who serves as Georgia’s House minority leader and state representative—hopes to prep young people of color to engage in the political process, with the help of those who understand government’s inner workings.

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When Michael Brown was senselessly shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri, it sparked outrage among the Black community and Brittany Packnett was one of the leaders in the Ferguson protest. Packentt's most distinguished work was being appointed to President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing and co-founding Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign to end police violence and mass incarceration.

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In the age of so-called fake news,the veteran journalist and author gives us the real facts—coupled with a high level of consciousness—on her weekend MSNBC show, AM Joy.

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The politico and Women’s March head of logistics ensures that when we gather in protest, we’re gathered safely and smartly.

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Between leading Harry Belafonte’s The Gathering for Justice and cochairing the Women’s March, this Latina activist has had one clear goal: freedom for all.

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In the beginning we came for her knee-slapping Scandal recaps. We stayed for the Nigerian-born writer’s informed and snarky indictments of racial injustice, which can be found at

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As a warrior on the front line of Islamophobia, this Women’s March cochair lends her voice to build up intersectional movements.

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When it comes to eradicating racial and social injustices, the Women’s March cochair always answers the call.

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Whether she’s writing about White privilege, racial microaggressions or the murder of an unarmed young Black man, the TV series creator uses her shows as a mirror to what’s wrong—and what should be right—in the world.

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Following the unjustified murder of Travyon Martin in 2012, Opal Tometi alongside Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors started the #BlackLivesMatter movement as call to action to combat anti-Black racism. Tometi is also an advocate for migrant rights. Most notably at just 28, Tometi was named the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the United States' only national immigrant rights organization for Black people.



Five years ago the senseless death of her youngest son, Trayvon Martin, reverberated across the nation. Through her grief, she found the resilience to become a national voice for social justice activism and to cofound both The Trayvon Martin Foundation and Circle of Mothers.

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HBO tried it when they announced that they greenlit Confederate, a series set in an alternate universe where the south won the Civil War. This doesn't need further explanation why it's disturbing. However, April Reign, creator of #OscarsSoWhite, mobilized Black Twitter and launched #NoConfedarate, along with Rebecca Theodore, Jamie Broadnax, Shanelle Little, and Lauren Warrenand, and got production shut all the way down!

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Regularly calling out people for holding back marginalized communities keeps this lawyer and CNN commentator in heavy rotation.