Issues + Advocacy

5 Black Women and Nonbinary Femmes Making History Today

Last year, I was honored with the Harvey Milk Alumnus Award from The University at Albany, SUNY, and was asked to deliver an uplifting keynote to the graduating seniors, about work and success as an out Black woman.

The truth? I was exhausted. It had been almost two years since I founded SafeWordSociety, a company dedicated to QTPOC+ visibility, and I had no clue where to find beautiful words for all of the ugly things. So, on the morning of my speech, I decided to say just that: I spoke candidly about what it means to exist as a queer Black woman, fighting daily for equity and actionable inclusivity, while consistently dispelling interrogations of my authority and thwarting attempts to benchmark the nuance of my experiences. Apparently, my audience needed to hear this—and honestly, I needed to say it out loud.

The result? Standing ovation. Twice. 

This year, instead of giving energy to wasteful questions of my worth, I’m proudly fielding these inquiries with intentional responses that highlight the multitude of change-driving Black women and nonbinary femmes in our communities. Some, you may be very familiar with, like politician, lawyer, and novelist Stacey Abrams; screenwriter, producer, and actress Lena Waithe; actress and singer Danielle Brooks; and writer, professor, editor, and commentator Roxane Gay, to name a few. Others, you may be less familiar with, as there are countless Black women and nonbinary femmes in our workplaces, our schools, our homes, and our neighborhoods making a significant impact on our daily lives and building foundations for our future without the recognition they deserve.

I spoke candidly about what it means to exist as a queer Black woman.

I am honored to start my newfound journey of gratitude and celebration by sharing a short list of some of the women and nonbinary femmes who inspire my continued resilience by speaking their truth to power and living their authentic lives out loud, unapologetically. In no particular order, this list represents the most uplifting parts of my Twitter timeline, and therefore, some of the most valuable resources for those days I just need an extra push. As writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Here, I present these five amazing women and nonbinary femmes—driving change, in their own voices and on their own terms.

LANAE SPRUCE

“In the museum digital field, a lot of museums don’t invest in social. This museum has shown that they are committed to expanding narratives beyond our physical location.” (The Lily)

Equipped with a Master’s degree in Internet Marketing and a penchant for learning, Lanae was the first social hire at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2013. Currently the Manager of Social Media and Digital Engagement and Acting Web Content Manager, she spends her days creating virtual learning experiences that put Black History at the fingertips of over 100k followers, every day. With hashtags like #HiddenHerstory and #APeoplesJourney, Lanae and her team are committed to broadening the depth of knowledge about the African American experience and the many historical events and figures that are consistently bypassed in the tales of American history. In 2018, Lanae and her team became Webby Award Winners, taking home the People’s Voice Award for Education & Discovery in Social.

RAQUEL WILLIS

“I have built morale amongst marginalized people, amongst trans women of color.” (Huffington Post)

Raquel is the Executive Editor at Out Magazine and their first transgender woman in a leadership role in its 26-year history. Raquel has been a trusted voice in many social justice spaces, always leading with her deep and unwavering commitment to uplifting the voices and experiences of trans and queer Black people. She is a fierce activist and a former National Organizer for the Transgender Law Center. In 2018, Raquel was named a Sylvia Rivera Fellow by Jack Jones Literary Arts and a Soros Equality Fellow by Open Society Foundations. As a Soros Equality Fellow, Raquel launched her project Black Trans Circle, which prioritizes leadership building for Black trans women in the South and Midwest as a healing justice community initiative. A spirituous storyteller, Raquel is a champion at using her perspectives on identity, current events, and politics to spark thought-provoking conversations.

KIMA JONES

“I think what drew me to publicity and marketing was I really want to see folks win. At the time so many books that I loved weren’t getting critical attention, and those were always black books.” (The New York Times)

Kima is the founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity company based in LA that “privileges narratives told by Black women and women of color.” Kima is also a prose and poetry writer, with work published in Poets and Writers, NPR, and The Rumpus, just to name a few; as well as anthologies such as The New York Times Best Seller The Fire this Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. Her genuine commitment to pushing forward art that is “unorthodox, underappreciated, and unparalleled” is on ful display in the trajectory of her clients, as she operates as lead strategist on their campaigns, including Tyehimba Jess’ Olio, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Driven to create pathways for writers who experience marginalization in the publishing industry, Kima is a literary force, as both writer and strategist.  In 2018, Kima was recognized as “an important new voice on the national stage” by The Los Angeles Times.

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN

“It is so important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get experimental.” (Emergent Strategy)

adrienne is a celebrated writer, social justice facilitator, pleasure activist, healer, and doula. She is the co-editor of the social justice organizing essential, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, and more recently, author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Committed to the well-being of Black-led groups dedicated to Black liberation, adrienne graciously offers many opportunities to interact with her work—and to build better movements. Based in Detroit, adrienne offers these immersions through the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute and others. Non-Black-led groups can benefit from adrienne’s workshops, as well, because, as her website states, “Facilitation work for groups that are not Black-led helps subsidize this underfunded work.” (Allyship 101!) She also has a refreshingly honest blog, featuring an authentic display of thought streams and slice of life stories, which is updated frequently. Her anthology, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, is set to release this month (Feb 2019) and is published by AK Press.

ERICKA HART

“My ancestors have already said these things. I’m just forwarding the message.” (Huffington Post)

Ericka is a Black queer nonbinary femme activist, writer, and renowned speaker and awarding-winning sexuality educator based in Brooklyn, NY. In 2016, she went topless at Afropunk, displaying her double mastectomy scars and quickly becaming a household name. Ericka’s form of activism is hailed for its relatability and authenticity, as she shines a candid light on the history of medical racism and the nuances of sexual education through a racial justice lens. Ericka is an adjunct at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and can be seen frequently in digital and print campaigns in outlets such as Refinery29, Cosmopolitan, Essence, and many others. Ericka has become a critical voice in conversations around race, gender, and sexuality, and is widely requested by college and university audiences, as well as various conferences and other venues. Along with her partner Ebony, Ericka is also co-host of “Hoodrat to Headwrap: A Decolonized Podcast,” which can be found wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Kristen McCallum is a Black Queer writer, consultant, and founder of Brooklyn-based vision consulting firm, SafeWordSociety. She is the creator of The SafeWordSociety Podcast and discussion-based card game, The Visibility Packs. She is the recipient of the 2018 Harvey Milk Alumnus Award from The University at Albany, SUNY for her continued commitment to honoring the authentic narratives of her communities.

All illustrations are by Brianna Ellis-Mitchell, an illustrator based in LA. You can follow her on Instagram @brnnmtchll.