With the passing of iconic leader Representative John Lewis this weekend, we woke up to a world without one of its greatest lights. Representative Lewis spent a lifetime getting into, as he called it, “good trouble,” as he fought the right for every American to vote, and for racial equality and justice. As Lewis was the first to point out, unsung womxn* heroes have played a significant role in fighting for equality, women’s and children’s rights, and social justice throughout the course of the civil rights movement, and the work of activists like Claudette Colvin, Ella Baker, and Diane Nash has continued through a new wave of advocates. Black womxn such as Toya Lillard, who encourages youth in theater and art pursuits, and I, an advocate for the inclusion of BIPOC in advertising, are pressing ahead on new paths, advancing our causes, and striving for the good of all. Learn more about just a few of the strong women today who continue to organize for positive change.
Investing in Our Communities
For nearly 20 years, viBe Theater Experience — led by executive director Toya Lillard — has provided BIPOC girls, young women, and non-binary youth with a theater-based pedagogy that allows them to explore gender, race and other pressing issues through empowerment. Every step of the way, youth are connected with and supported by performing arts professionals who guide them in developing and sharing their work through performance. Lillard uses her extensive experience in hands-on and leadership work in support of helping Black youth discover their voices and express themselves through performing arts that reflect lived experiences.
As vice president of programs for Code2040, Mimi Fox Melton has been instrumental in expanding Code2040 from serving as a bridge into high-tech industries for Black and Latinx people to organizing and supporting the overall changes necessary to dismantle racialized systems and ensure racial equity in the innovation economy. Her work is focused on all aspects of tech companies, from their operations and products to their corporate cultures, and how those aspects impact Black and Latinx workers and their communities. Her areas of expertise include coaching external staff, tech industry executives, and managers while overseeing the operations of Code2040, including designing curriculum and facilitating learning experiences.
Striving for Justice
Since establishing her own law firm, The Scruggs Firm, LLC, prison abolitionist Natasha Scruggs, Esq., has made it her mission to share her strength and her voice on behalf of incarcerated people across the country and in Missouri in particular. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s raised the alarm on the impact and implications of the coronavirus on inmates and defendants. Her areas of expertise and activism include voters’ rights, prison entry and the reinstatement of ex-offenders’ voting rights through her organization, Just Us System.
Surena Johnson, a community advocate for nearly 20 years and mother of four, runs Orchid Bloom, a nonprofit organization that serves low-resource communities by creating more avenues to assist them in maneuvering through broken systems, while at the same time working to dismantle those same systems. Her past experience as a gang outreach worker, detention officer and case manager for first-time youth offenders, plus her current work as a coalition coordinator for Raleigh PACT, an organization that works to hold police officers accountable for misconduct, has provided her with unique insight into community needs and workable solutions. Among the services provided by Orchid Bloom are parent and student advocacy, mentoring and pre/post-release services.
Making Progress in Health and Wellness
New Mexico scientist, author, and speaker Dr. Karissa Culbreath is the Medical Director for Infectious Disease Diagnostics at TriCore Reference Laboratories in Albuquerque, and she’s dedicated to supporting underserved communities needing infectious disease diagnostics. To that end, she strives to keep her state among the top states for per-capita testing of COVID-19, while keeping the most at-risk and rural communities in her sights. Dr. Culbreath is also a NAACP-nominated children’s book writer; her book Daddy’s Little Girl focuses on the value of a father’s encouragement on his daughter’s dreams, whatever they may be.
For more than a decade, Calethia Hodges has led the growth and development of service firms supporting biopharma clinical research and functional domains. With a bachelor’s degree from DePaul University and professional certificates in clinical trial monitoring, clinical trials approvals in the U.S. and the E.U., and clinical trial management from BioPharma Institute, she’s one of the few Black womxn in her field. Today, she’s one of her city’s experts on COVID-19 and is committed to helping the Black community navigate the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic through inclusive research.
A natural bridge-builder in Greensboro who believes in the importance of communicating effectively across differences, Zithobile (Zitty) Nxumalo, Ph.D. is a community educator who works full-time as an instructor and student advisor in the School of Health and Human Sciences at the University of NC at Greensboro (UNCG). To further that goal, she founded Deftable, LLC in 2017. Her consulting business is focused on fostering deftness through leadership development and community connection. At present, Nxumalo is coordinating efforts to develop community enrichment and civic engagement opportunities that directly address the community’s needs.
Advocating for Our Voices to Be Heard
Through her online lifestyle platform Harlem Lovebirds, Quiana Agbai highlights the crossroads of activism and mom life. Her work includes serving as the Boston Community Outreach Lead for Moms Demand Action, and she’s also facilitated conversations on race with the Wellesley Racial Justice Initiative. As a communicator, connector, and consultant, Agbai uses her background in advertising to champion small businesses through her consulting company, Trifecta Media Group. She’s been a featured speaker at conferences like BlogHer, Mom 2.0 and Altitude Summit, on topics like social media and activism, privacy and entrepreneurship.
As an advocate for BIPOC communities in advertising — and in my work as the Chief Client & Communications Officer at Solve Innovation Group — I use my expertise and authority as a thought leader, journalist and digital powerhouse to speak up for the importance of diversity and inclusion in the advertising industry. My commitment goes beyond agency work. Leading the advancement of the mission and goals of organizations that support rising Black girls and young women in STEM fields, like Black Girls Code, Code2040, and 600 and Rising is my life’s work.
Instead of letting men mostly define issues that affect families and communities, Yvette Buckner tirelessly works with elected officials and candidates to raise the profile of issues central to women. These include everything from maternal health to paid family leave, fair wages, education and housing, and any number of additional public policy issues to help get them a seat at the table. Buckner is a political strategist and consultant for Tusk Strategies, and she fights for more women to be elected at all levels of government, from local to national. By creating an infrastructure that challenges patriarchal ways, Buckner hopes to overhaul the policies that impact us the most and ensure equity in the political system. She is also the vice chair for 21 in 21, a member of the Vote Mama Action Fund Board, and a board member of the Brooklyn YWCA.
This is just a small representation of the hard work that Black womxn activists around the country are doing every day. By supporting and amplifying their voices, you can help expand their reach. What’s more, by seeking out and showing support to the Black womxn activists in your own community, like Natasha Scruggs, Esq., Dr. Karissa Culbreath, and Surena Johnson, you’re strengthening the investment and potential for change in your neighborhood, where small changes can have big impacts, as the work of these womxn in particular demonstrates.
*The spelling of womxn is meant to show inclusion of trans, nonbinary, womxn of color, womxn with disabilities and all other marginalized genders. At The Riveter, we respect people of all genders, identities, and the use of pronouns that best identify an individual.