Pop culture is an evolving landscape that is populated by artists, entertainers, visionaries, activists, and political figures. At Bitch Media, we’re interested in shape-shifters who push pop culture to be more representative, inspiring, and meaningful for communities who are typically ignored by mainstream media. We’re paying attention to those who say what won’t be said anywhere else; those who do what needs to be done, with or without fanfare; and those who push for and measure social and cultural progress with a lens that expands the world beyond our current realities.
The Bitch 50 recognizes the most impactful creators, artists, and activists in pop culture whose imaginations extend beyond normalizing and affirming the same mainstream messages. The Bitch 50 have utilized their creative or political power to further advance visibility, equality, or access for marginal folks. We honor those who have taken risks in their work that push us closer to progress—a world where more LGBTQ people of color are in leadership and decision-making positions, democracy is a practice not a hope, and racial inclusion is a basic start instead of a goal. The Bitch 50 highlights the firsts and the pioneers; the people who created a ripple or a path from the margins to the center. We looked at cultural work that generated exciting possibilities for expressing identity, power, gender, sexuality, and relationships—work that intentionally focused on freeing others.
Prison-industrial complex abolitionists
We’d be hard-pressed to identify many bright spots amid the unrelenting pain, devastation, and inhumanity that has characterized 2020. But one emerging beacon is a reinvigorated abolition movement that has galvanized mainstream discussions of police brutality, state violence, and racism in the United States both past and present. The 8ToAbolition campaign has become one of the movement’s most crucial voices: one that demystifies the concept of abolition itself and urges us to rethink law-enforcement and criminal-justice systems that function very differently depending on where you live and what you look like. The social and racial definitions of crime and criminals are what 8ToAbolition wants to address, and the campaign lays out eight straightforward areas ripe for immediate harm-reduction impacts. These include defunding police departments, removing police officers from schools, providing safe housing for all citizens, and investing in what 8ToAbolition’s organizers call “Care, Not Cops”—non-coercive mental-health options, neighborhood trauma centers, universal childcare, and more. It’s clearer than ever that piecemeal reforms can’t fix institutions built on a bedrock of racism and state control, and 8ToAbolition is breaking new ground in the name of transformative justice.
Law Professor and Faculty Director for the University of California, Los Angeles’ Prison Law and Policy Program
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly threatened the lives of incarcerated people, Sharon Dolovich spearheaded the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. COVID-19 Behind Bars tracks confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in prisons, jails, and youth correctional facilities across the United States. Additionally, Dolovich’s project tracks court orders, legal requests, and authoritative actions to reduce correctional population densities. The information collected through the COVID-19 Behind Bars Project helps activists, lawyers, academics, and journalists do the important work of drawing attention to and challenging the dangerous and inhumane conditions incarcerated folks face.
Organizer with Survived and Punished
In the aftermath of Minneapolis police officers murdering George Floyd in May 2020, there was a sustained focus on the perniciousness of white supremacy and racial injustice in the United States. Amid an uprising that reached every corner of the country, organizer K emerged as a critical voice and source of information within an ecosystem full of disinformation and dissension. K, who organizes with the gender-based violence victims’ advocacy and prison-abolitionist organization Survived and Punished, has been helping organize movements aimed at educating people about prison abolition. In 2018, they organized the Building Power: Organizing Effectively Against White Supremacy conference at the University of Michigan to publicly resist a visit from Richard Spencer. In 2020, they helped cocreate 8ToAbolition.
Organizer and Activist
Kelly Hayes is a lifelong activist, and her passion shines through her work, specifically in her commitment to direct action. In 2016, she was the first direct-action trainer to join youth organizers at Standing Rock, and her work there served as a foundation for other activists who joined the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline: In 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, she conducted workshops on protest tactics for more than 400 people. Hayes’s experience and skill allows her to join the fight wherever she’s needed, and when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, she headed a list of demands from grassroots organizers alongside doctors, scientists, and nurses with regard to essential protections to help marginalized communities, including imprisoned people, survive the pandemic. She has done additional work as a writer for publications like Pacific Standard and Teen Vogue and cofounded the grassroots organization The Chicago Light Brigade and the direct-action collective Lifted Voices. Hayes’s work as a photographer is also notable, with photos featured in the DuSable Museum of African American History’s “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit. Hayes is currently the voice of Truthout’s Movement Memos podcast.
Organizer with DecrimNY
“When our movements for liberation replicate the oppressive systems that we seek to dismantle, we must call for accountability,” Leila Raven wrote in a May 2020 Medium post. Raven has long organized on behalf of other marginalized population at the intersections of leftist politics, sex work, and abolition: As the former director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, Raven has spearheaded efforts to develop non-carceral solutions to sexual harassment. As a member of NYC’s Safe Bar Collective, she has helped train staff in bars and clubs to prevent and intervene in incidents of sexual harassment and violence. As a steering committee member of DecrimNY, she works to shape both policy and public opinion on decriminalizing sex work and protecting those who do it. And as part of the 8ToAbolition campaign (see above), she organizes toward an anticarceral world. But Raven’s Medium article was more personal: After being raped by an editor at the now-defunct antifa publication Commune, Raven tried to engage the magazine’s core staff in a process of collaborative justice that, while ultimately unsuccessful, led to the dissolution of the magazine—a reminder that successful revolution requires divesting from personal, not just institutional, power structures.
Professor and Cofounder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles
In August 2020, California made academic history on two fronts: It became the first state to mandate courses in ethnic studies as a graduation requirement for its state university system. One of those state-university campuses, Cal State Los Angeles, became the nation’s second university to establish an autonomous College of Ethnic Studies. It’s fair to say that neither victory would have been possible without the tenacity of Melina Abdullah. A Cal State L.A. professor and former dean of Pan-African Studies as well as a cofounder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, Abdullah’s work in decentering whiteness on campus and in the streets has made her all the right enemies. And they are enemies: Abdullah’s efforts to secure justice for the families of Black citizens murdered by the Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, has led to trumped-up arrests and at least one SWATing attack. At Cal State L.A., some colleagues believe she was passed over for the position of inaugural dean of the college due to past criticism of university leadership. Not that this slows her down: In discussing another ongoing fight—abolishing police officers on K-12 and college campuses—she told a student reporter “[I]f you don’t sacrifice something, then your struggle wasn’t really a struggle.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom
Associate Professor in University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science
Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD, is a certified genius—and that’s not hyperbole. In 2020, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of its storied “genius” grants for “shaping discourse on highly topical issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology for broad audiences.” It’s a well-deserved honor that signals how influential her work has become over the last decade. In 2017, McMillan Cottom’s book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, helped us all better understand the predatory nature of for-profit colleges. In 2019, her National Book Award-nominated essay collection, THICK: And Other Essays, brought her relatable approach to sociological inquiry to an even broader audience—something we should all recognize for the unique gift that it is. McMillan Cottom, who joined UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science in 2020, is an invaluable asset to academia and to all those lucky enough to access and read her work.
Director and Producer
Sam Feder is the director of several award-winning LGBTQ documentaries, including Boy I Am (2006) and Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger (2014), the latter of which was named one of The Advocate’s Best LGBT Documentaries of 2014. Released through Netflix during Pride Month, Feder’s latest film, Disclosure, has also received significant acclaim, with good reason. The documentary chronicles and critically analyzes the representation of transgender people onscreen, spanning from the 1914 silent comedy A Florida Enchantment to the FX series Pose, which premiered in 2018 and is currently in production on its third season. Disclosure is notable not only because of its expansive look at the history of trans narratives, but also for the impressive range of exclusively trans figures who provide commentary and insight, including Laverne Cox (who is also the film’s executive producer), Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Susan Stryker, Mj Rodriguez, and many more. Feder’s work interrogates the politics of visibility and challenges media to reflect the diversity of trans experiences.
In 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. The brainchild of investigative reporter and New York Times magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project examines the legacy of slavery in the United States and its impact on the experiences of Black Americans today. Hannah-Jones is a leading voice in covering racial inequality in America: In 2016, she cofounded the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a training and mentorship organization dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color. In 2017, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and in 2020, Hannah-Jones was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the 1619 Project’s lead essay. This year, she was also named to The Root 100, The Root’s annual list of the most influential African Americans, for the sixth time. The 1619 Project will be released as a series of books beginning in 2021, and is currently adapting her audio series “The Problem We All Live With”—which explores school integration and Black America’s centuries-long struggle to obtain quality education—into a book.
President of United Teachers Los Angeles
Education in America is inherently political, so when Cecily Myart-Cruz campaigned to be the new president of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teacher’s union, her activist background was a selling point. United Teachers Los Angeles is the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, and Myart-Cruz, a former elementary and middle-school teacher and advocate for racial and social equity in education, is the first woman of color to lead it (and only the third woman in UTLA’s 50-year history to do so.) Myart-Cruz has played key organizing and consulting roles in teacher strikes, a yearlong standardized-test boycott, and efforts to curb the encroachment of charter schools that can divert state funding away from public education. Stepping into this new role in 2020 is an extraordinary challenge, but Myart-Cruz told L.A. Progressive, “Cornel West said, If you don’t love the people, you can’t lead the people.”
Patricia Marroquin Norby
Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
White men have long dominated the field of museum curation, but curators from marginalized communities are beginning to make essential inroads. In September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Patricia Marroquin Norby as its inaugural Native American art curator. She’s the first full-time curator overseeing the museum’s Indigenous art program and is tasked with strengthening the relationship between the museum and Indigenous communities. Prior to joining the Met, Norby was the assistant director of New York’s National Museum of the American Indian, so she’s one of the best people to step into this role and help museums in New York and throughout the United States work more effectively and ethically with Indigenous communities.
Rapper, Poet, and Record Producer
Fatimah Nyeema Warner, known professionally as Noname, first made waves as a slam poet and rapper in 2010, eventually gaining wider recognition for her feature on Chance the Rapper’s 2013 mixtape Acid Rap. Over the years, Noname continued to amass success with several releases, and as a musical powerhouse in her own right, Noname deserves recognition. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t shine a light on Noname Book Club, an online and IRL community she created in 2019 to uplift the voices of writers of color and encourage members to support libraries and local bookstores rather than exploitative megacorporations like Amazon. This year, Noname’s Book Club raised enough funds to launch its prison program, which delivers monthly book picks to incarcerated people across the United States. According to Noname Book Club’s bio, “We believe reading is a critical part of liberation and developing solidarity.”
At 17, Venus Cuffs entered the BDSM lifestyle in Los Angeles before moving to New York City, where she would become the host of one of the most accessible and inclusive BDSM dungeons around. While fighting legislation like FOSTA-SESTA, Venus is an advocate for people who she’s found are typically pushed out of so-called inclusive spaces. Many years ago, she hosted exclusive parties for sex workers, queer people, and people of color, and has used her skills to help promote other spaces and parties that are specifically focused on marginalized people. When COVID-19 hit, Venus organized a fundraiser for sex workers of color to help chip away at the massive lack of federal relief and unemployment, noting that priority went to Black workers who were based in New York. The mutual aid fund was a success and raised more than $100,000.
Close the Workhouse
The St. Louis, Missouri, medium-security prison known as the Workhouse was built in 1966, but took its unofficial name from a 19th-century city ordinance mandating that prisoners unable to pay the fines for their release could work them off in a nearby quarry. As a modern institution where low-level offenders unable to pay cash bail await trial, it has embodied the gratuitous cruelty of a cash-bail system that leaves poor, majority-Black detainees subject to inhumane and dangerous living conditions, including insufficient heating and cooling. Two years ago, a coalition of St. Louis activists, lawyers, and incarcerated people launched #CloseTheWorkhouse, a campaign calling for “an end to wealth based pretrial detention, and the reinvestment of the money used to cage poor people and Black people into rebuilding the most impacted neighborhoods in this region.” In July 2020, the city’s Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to pass a bill that will permanently close the institution and redirect its funding into communities that have long been the targets of criminal injustice.
Reproductive Justice and Sexual Health Program Manager at Women with a Vision
In March 2020, conservative legislators in Louisiana sent a restrictive abortion law to the U.S. Supreme Court with the hope of closing the state’s three remaining abortion clinics. The Supreme Court struck down the law in question in June for myriad reasons, including the fact that it was identical to a law they’d previously struck down and because of the ongoing advocacy of people like Lakeesha Harris. Harris is the reproductive justice and sexual health program manager for for Women with a Vision, a community-based nonprofit in New Orleans that focuses on sex-worker rights, drug policy reform, HIV positive women’s advocacy, and reproductive justice outreach. Harris became essential in the battle to overcome the state’s legal challenges to abortion access, writing in a 2019 op-ed for the Advocate, WWAV is “pushing to close the gaps in access to prenatal care to help people have healthy pregnancies, and we are promoting strategies to deal with the growing maternal mortality crisis in our country.”
Emily Harman, Rachel Hopke, and Felix Tran
Cocreators of Coffee at Large
In July 2019, Emily Harman, Rachel Hopke, Felix Tran, and three other employees staged a walkout at Slate Coffee Roasters in Seattle to protest the company’s poor working conditions. On the same day, Harman, Hopke, and Tran created Coffee at Large, an Instagram account highlighting the widespread problem of workplace injustice in the specialty-coffee industry. The account’s first posts featured photos of the former employees affected and resignation letters posted to the windows of Slate on the day of the walkout; within three days, Coffee at Large had amassed more than 5,000 followers. Since then, the three baristas have continued to amplify other stories of workplace misconduct, provide resources about labor rights, and host community organizing events. In 2020, the group created the Washington Emergency Barista Relief Fund, raising more than $30,000 for baristas in the state who were laid off or lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jesse Pratt López
Photographer, activist, and community organizer Jesse Pratt López is a trans Latina who uses her artwork to visibilize marginalized communities, including people of color, undocumented people, people living with HIV, and many others. López’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, and PBS NewsHour; it has also been exhibited at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Mason Fine Art. In December 2019, López founded the Trans Housing Coalition, a project that began as a photography-based crowdfunding campaign aimed at alleviating chronic homelessness in Atlanta’s trans- and gender-nonconforming community. The funding campaign has raised nearly $3 million and has been able to house about 40 trans and nonbinary residents—a success that’s a welcome shock to López. “Trans women are not a novel concept, or new, but society has never been set up for girls like us,” she told Project Q Atlanta in June. “But with the recent resurgence of mutual aid and abolition movements, hopefully we can begin to live the fulfilling lives we deserve.”
Stacey Park Milbern
Disability Justice Activist
The disability-justice movement lost both a powerful voice and a beloved comrade when Stacey Park Milbern died in May 2020, on her 33rd birthday. Born in South Korea, raised in North Carolina, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Milbern’s life and activism were intertwined in her intersectional approach to organizing: She advocated for those marginalized by a fundamentally ableist world while also pointing out the disability community’s own erasure of the queer and BIPOC people within it. As a cofounder of Oakland’s Disability Justice Culture Club, Milbern helped ensure that disabled California residents weren’t imperiled when Pacific Gas & Electric mandated rolling power cutoffs to curb the spread of wildfires in 2019; at the time of her death, DJCC was distributing DIY COVID-protection kits to unhoused Bay Area residents. “My ancestors are disabled people who lived looking out of institution windows wanting so much more for themselves,” Milbern wrote in a 2019 essay for the Disability Visibility Project. “It’s because of them that I know that, in reflecting on what is a ‘good’ life, an opportunity to contribute is as important as receiving [the] supports one needs.”
Moms 4 Housing
California is in the throes of a housing crisis that disproportionately impacts people who are already marginalized, including LGBTQ people; Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; and working-class people without safety nets. Moms 4 Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers in Oakland, raised awareness about the state’s crisis in 2019 when they began occupying a home that had been vacant for years. After engaging in an extended standoff with the city of Oakland and the house’s owner, corporate real-estate group Wedgewood, the nonprofit Oakland Community Land Trust (OCLT) acquired the building for more than $500,000 and turned it into a transitional home and training center for single mothers in the area. And that wasn’t the group’s only victory: Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaff is now requiring Wedgewood to first offer any property for sale to the City of Oakland, the OCLT, or another affordable-housing organization before putting it on the market. Wedgewood has since offered to sell more than 100 homes to the OCLT.
Director and Cofounder of Konsent
After reading an Amnesty International study that showed 63 percent of citizens in the Czech Republic believe that rape survivors are partly to blame for their sexual assaults, 28-year-old Johanna Nejedlová was rightfully furious. She wrote a post on Facebook that demanded an end to victim blaming that quickly went viral. After receiving messages from strangers asking how they could get involved in anti-rape activism, Nejedlová decided to team up with them to cofound Konsent, a nonprofit that works to prevent sexual violence and create safer environments for women. Konsent offers workshops that educate children and adults alike on how to practice consent and debunk myths about sexual violence, as well as trainings for bartenders and other nightlife staff in recognizing and responding to sexual harassment in clubs. In December 2019, Nejedlová won Women in Europe’s Woman in Youth Activism award.
The Okra Project
Trans-focused Activist Collective
In 2018, actress and activist Ianne Fields Stewart teamed up with chef Meliq “Zaddy” August and Nyla Sampson, the founder of the Black Trans Solidarity Fund, to launch The Okra Project, a New York-based organization that brings Black trans chefs to the homes of food-insecure Black trans people to provide them with meals. The group’s initial fundraiser swiftly grew into a movement, and in 2019 Stewart and Sampson launched a cooking workshop called the Okra Academy and began hosting health and wellness events. COVID-19 forced the suspension of the project’s home visits, but the team has remained hard at work: In May, the project announced two mental-health funds—named for Nina Pop and Tony McDade, two of the Black trans people murdered in 2020—that provide Black trans people with one-time free therapy; and in August, it launched a monthlong collaboration with UberEats that provided 1,500 free meal vouchers to Black trans people. No matter what the format, The Okra Project remains committed to supporting Black trans people.
Like most people born with bodies that don’t fit into anatomical or hormonal categories of “male” or “female,” Pidgeon Pagonis spent their young life profoundly alienated from a body designated female but markedly different from those of their female peers. Once Pagonis found out all that they didn’t know about their history, they were determined to change the medical protocol that has long recommended surgeries, hormone replacement, and secrecy to parents of intersex children in the name of ensuring a “normal” life. After cofounding the Intersex Justice Project in 2017, Pagonis focused their attention on Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago with a public pressure campaign that garnered support from intersex and trans activists, local legislators, hospital employees, and luminaries like Pose’s Indya Moore and Angelica Ross. In July 2020, Lurie pledged to no longer perform medically unnecessary genital surgeries, and issued a public apology. Pagonis called Lurie’s decision a “tipping point”—a victory, but just one step in an ongoing, long-overdue movement for justice.
Founder and Executive Director of Brave Space Alliance LGBTQ
When protests erupted across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, LaSaia Wade knew exactly how she could contribute to the cause. As the founder of Brave Space Alliance, the first Black- and trans-led LGBTQ Center on Chicago’s South Side, Wade had organized marches in the past and knew that her community center could function as a literal safe space for protestors. Over the summer of 2020, BSA’s volunteer network began providing food, water, spare clothes, and first aid to protestors who were being met with police violence and tear gas in the city’s streets. And this wasn’t the first time in 2020 that BSA lived up to its name: In March, Wade helped the center orchestrate a crisis food pantry that has been delivering more than 200 bags of food weekly to food-insecure Chicagoans since the pandemic began.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California and Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
Karen Bass began her work in civil rights as a community organizer in the late 1980s, after hearing the Reverend Cecil Williams speak about the racist impact of the crack epidemic in South Los Angeles. Along with other local organizers, Bass founded Community Coalition, a social-justice nonprofit that for 30 years has worked to address the area’s social and economic conditions. In 2004, Bass was elected to the California State Assembly, and four years later became the assembly’s 67th speaker—and the first Black woman in the nation to hold that position. In 2018, Bass was named Public Official of the Year by the Los Angeles chapter of the Stonewall Democrats, the nation’s oldest LGBTQ caucus. In 2020, she was on the short list of potential running mates for Joe Biden. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Bass coauthored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 with Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and House Judiciary Committee leader Jerry Nadler. The bill bans the use of chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and excessive force and, if signed into law, would mandate the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri
A nurse, single mother, and pastor, Cori Bush entered the activism space in 2014 after Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Having led protests and organizing in the wake of Brown’s death, she pivoted to politics with a focus on Medicare For All, universal basic income, and the Green New Deal—which Bush calls a “racial justice issue”—as well as highlighting the years of difficult, painful work by Black women who have long supported progressive moments. Bush ran for Senate in 2016 and lost and lost again when she challenged Representative William Lacy Clay for his House seat in 2018. The third time was the charm, however: In August, Bush unseated 10-term incumbent Clay in the state’s primary; in November, she soundly defeated Republican opponent Anthony Rogers and became the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. Bush was backed by Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats, and Sunrise Movement, along with other progressive leaders; she now has the chance not only to have made history, but to continue to do so.
California State Senator for District 2
California Senator Holly Mitchell knows that sometimes justice starts at the top—literally. Witnessing a rise in national reports of Black-hair discrimination that used coded words like “unprofessional,” “messy,” or inappropriate” to penalize students and employees, Mitchell introduced the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act in January 2019. The act was signed into law the following July, making California the first state to make discrimination based on Black hairstyles like locs, braids, and twists illegal—and sparking seven other states to pass similar action. And in September 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill at the federal level, noting that it will “explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of natural hair as a form of race or national origin discrimination.” It now waits on senate and presidential approval to become federal law.
Teressa Raiford has been a fixture in Portland, Oregon’s activist scene for many years, founding the police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland in 2014. That’s one of the reasons she was considered a serious contender when she ran to be Portland’s next mayor, coming in third behind incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler and challenger Sarah Iannarone in the primary. It seemed that her political hopes were dashed—and then George Floyd died, leading to the creation of the “Write in Teressa Raiford” campaign to add her to the mayoral ballot. Though Wheeler won a second term with 46 percent of the vote, 13 percent of ballots were cast for a write-in candidate, presumed to be Raiford. Her long-shot candidacy was a testament to the power of people-driven movements—a sentiment that will last long after this election cycle is over.
Member of the California State Assembly for the 79th District
Prior to her election to the California State Assembly in 2012, Shirley Weber was a professor at San Diego State University for 40 years. During her time at the university, Weber helped establish the Department of Africana Studies and served as the department chair. She also served as the president of the San Diego Board of Education. In 2020, Weber authored AB 1460, the first legislation passed at the state level requiring ethnic studies as a university graduation requirement. Starting in the 2020–2021 school year, all California State Universities will be required to offer at least one ethnic studies course at each of its campuses, and all incoming freshmen must pass an ethnic studies course in order to graduate.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Creative Director of Joop Joop Creative
Chicago-born Fran Bittakis has worked in social advocacy and justice since the late 1990s. Bittakis moved to Portland, Oregon, for culinary school in 2004, but began noticing friends and fellow creatives leaving Portland as the city became more expensive and they struggled to make ends meet. Following the 2016 election, Bittakis created the collaborative agency NXT LVL, which brought together musicians, activists, and small-business owners to throw parties and events with queer, trans, and POC performers at their centers. And in 2018, Bittakis founded Joop Joop, a “radical creative agency” that represents a diverse slate of creative talent and produces everything everything from music videos for local rappers and a tampon drive for local Portland charities to an afterparty at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s 2018 Met Gala. Joop Joop works to carve out spaces where marginalized creatives feel supported—and to make sure they have the talent management, training, and legal and financial support they need to thrive.
When the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death broke, the collective grief over his loss was overwhelming. As an actor who portrayed iconic Black figures like Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and T’Challa, it is difficult to understate the impact that Boseman has had on Black communities across the world. In 2018, Boseman became Marvel’s first Black superhero, playing the titular role in Black Panther. His portrayal of T’Challa was historic in terms of representation, but even more so as the film became an instant global phenomenon. Black Panther didn’t simply feature a predominantly Black cast and crew—it celebrated Blackness and highlighted Black excellence in a way that is rare for major blockbusters, let alone superhero films. Through his embodiment of Black Panther, Boseman taught us how to build bridges within communities, lead with integrity, and be better than those that came before us. Rest in peace, Chadwick Boseman. Wakanda Forever.
Publishers often talk a good game when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but nonwhite authors know all too well that walking the walk is a different story. In the wake of the January 2020 release of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt—a public relations disaster that would have been offensive even without the barbed-wire centerpieces at the book’s launch party—a group of Latinx writers organized to confront an industry where white authors, editors, and executives are still the overwhelming arbiters of whose voices are elevated and compensated. Dignidad Literaria founders David Bowles, Myriam Gurba, Roberto Lovato, and Presente.org moved quickly to galvanize support and action both online and off; by the first week of February, the group had met with Macmillan Publishers (the parent company of American Dirt’s publisher, Flatiron Books) to devise an action plan for increasing both Latinx authors and staff, and publicly called on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office “to initiate an industry-wide investigation of racial discrimination in big publishing’s hiring and contracting practices.”
Ziwe Fumudoh is a provocateur. As a writer on Showtime’s late-night blockbuster Desus & Mero, she’s helped two of our culture’s most indelible figures ask the kinds of questions of celebrities and other public figures that go viral and become memes. Once the COVID pandemic hit TV production, however, Fumudoh emerged as a star in her own right with the Instagram Live show Baited With Ziwe. Each episode finds Fumudoh engaging mostly white—and generally controversial—influencers, authors, and celebrities with the kind of direct questions about race they’d prefer to avoid. “Why do you hate Asian women?” she asked Alison Roman, mere weeks after Roman came under fire for making offensive statements about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. (She followed up with the query “Do you consider yourself the Christopher Columbus of food influencing?”) Asking Alyssa Milano how many Black friends she has and querying Caroline Calloway about whether her family owned slaves creates the kind of comedy that no one could’ve expected, so it’s no surprise that Showtime tapped Fumudoh for her own forthcoming variety series.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Author
N.K. Jemisin is truly one of the greatest sci-fi writers of our time. Her novels explore themes of oppression, sexuality, climate change, and self-acceptance. Despite its dystopian nature, her work feels like an odd comfort during these similarly chaotic times. In 2016, Jemison won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for her book The Fifth Season, becoming the first Black person to ever win the award. Her two follow ups in the Broken Earth series also won Hugos, making her the first author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three consecutive years and for all three books in a trilogy. In October 2020, Jemisin was awarded a MacArthur genius grant.
We’re continually impressed by singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, leader of the band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. A glance at Nguyen’s social media illustrates the causes that motivate them: the prison-industrial complex, incarcerated women, and the criminalization of survivors. This anti-carceral mindset is reflected in their music: 2013’s We the Common was inspired by a trip to a California women’s prison and the conversations the artist had there. 2020’s “All This and More,” a song written during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights a time of political unrest, catastrophic wildfires, and the U.S. government’s failure to protect its citizens from the deadly virus. Since moving to San Francisco in 2009, Nguyen has been an active member of the city’s activist community, volunteering with organizations like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
It was hardly a meet-cute, but romance novels and rabble-rousing paired up for an explosive plotline in December 2019 after Romance Writers of America, the genre’s largest trade organization, suspended author Courtney Milan. Milan is a prolific author of historical romances, a former RWA board member, and a prominent advocate for racial diversity in romance writing. Her willingness to speak out on social media about persistent issues of racism, cultural insensitivity, and institutional gatekeeping in the romance-writing industry, however, haven’t always been welcome in a genre that’s both wildly lucrative and perennially undervalued. Milan’s suspension set off an avalanche within the organization that included revelations of complaints filed and ignored, accusations of discrimination against authors by editors, backchannel scheming and ethical breaches among leadership, and more. But fomenting a long-overdue industry reckoning didn’t slow Milan down creatively: Her latest novel, The Duke Who Didn’t, was published in September 2020—and promptly became a USA Today bestseller.
Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion is on an absolute roll: In March 2020, she released a nine-track EP, Suga, which featured the viral TikTok song “Savage.” When Beyoncé hopped on a remix of “Savage” in April, it became the first Billboard chart-topping song of Megan’s career. In November, Cardi B’s “WAP,” on which Megan was featured, debuted at the top of the Billboard 100, with an instantly iconic video. GQ named Megan its Rapper of the Year, for good reason: She’s been nominated for a slew of awards, wrote a powerful New York Times op-ed about the ongoing need to protect Black women, and released her debut studio album, Good News. Tragedy has also characterized the rapper’s year: Besides a public battle with her record label, Megan was shot by a fellow artist and then both scrutinized and harassed in the aftermath. But through it all, her feel-good music reasserts the confidence that will continue to drive her career to new heights.
President of the Music Business Association
A trailblazer in the Pacific Northwest music scene, Portia Sabin began her career playing drums in several punk bands and later transitioned into running an independent record label. From 2006 to 2019, Sabin served as president of Kill Rock Stars, a Portland- and Olympia-based label that became home base for the feminist-punk movement in the 1990s, with marquee bands including Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile. Today, KRS describes itself as “queer-positive, feminist, anti-racist, and artist-friendly.” In 2014, Sabin launched The Future of What, a podcast that serves as an educational resource for artists learning how to navigate the music industry. In August 2019, Sabin was named the new president of the Music Business Association, where she will continue to champion diverse voices in the industry.
Showrunner and Executive Producer
For years, Noelle Stevenson has been central to queer representation in animation and comics. In 2012, she began creating the webcomic Nimona, which was published as a graphic novel by HarperCollins in 2015 and is slated to be adapted as an animated feature film in 2022. In 2014, alongside cowriters Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, and Brooklyn A. Allen, Stevenson brought Lumberjanes to life; the series had a six-year run that was beloved by both critics and fans. (Both Nimona and Lumberjanes won Eisner Awards for their impact on American comic books.) Most recently, Stevenson served as showrunner and executive producer of the Netflix reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which quickly became a cult favorite and was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming. “[I]t’s never an easy trail to blaze, but it’s an important one,” Stevenson said of LGBTQ representation in a 2018 interview with The Verge. “And every step we take, it just gets us all a little bit closer.” We’re grateful to Stevenson for helping to make that blaze a little brighter.
Historically, the visionaries of children’s television have been those at the helm of live-action series: Jim Henson, Fred Rogers, Bill Nye. But Rebecca Sugar easily earned her place in that pantheon with Steven Universe, the animated series that drew both critical praise and ardent fandom for its thoughtful, creative, spirited, and thoroughly queer take on the hero’s journey. Sugar, Steven Universe’s creator and showrunner, built a world whose gender inclusivity and representation of connection, confusion, family trauma, and intimacy never required throat-clearing or hand-wringing; they were simply intrinsic to the stories Sugar wanted to tell, and resonant for viewers of all ages. 2020’s epilogue miniseries marked the end of Steven’s universe, but Sugar didn’t leave longtime fans empty-handed: Steven Universe: End of an Era, published in October, is a behind-the-scenes companion book that bursts with concept art and storyboards, as well as interviews with Sugar and a forward by award-winning fantasy author N.K. Jemison. It’s the perfect, joyous farewell as we wait to see what Sugar does next.
Leo Baker is one of the best skateboarders in the world: After becoming one of the youngest skateboarders to medal at the X Games, they’ve now earned seven X Games medals. However, Baker was long classified as a skateboarder in women’s categories, a distinction that didn’t sit well with them because they’re nonbinary in a sport that has only recently begun recognizing and celebrating women competitors. In July 2019, Baker publicly revealed that they’re nonbinary via Miley Cyrus’s “Mother’s Daughter” video, and since then has been intentional about making more room in the sport of other marginalized skateboarders. In 2020, they joined forces with Nike for both a clothing line and an incredible series of ads celebrating LGBTQ people. There’s no limit to what Baker’s going to do—both inside and outside of skateboarding.
WNBA Player and Activist
As a professional basketball player for the Minnesota Lynx, Maya Moore is used to making assists on the court; off the court, she’s also known for assisting victims of the criminal-justice system. A month before Colin Kaepernick made headlines for peacefully protesting police brutality, Moore and her teammates wore Black Lives Matter shirts to honor Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two of the men murdered by police in 2016. In 2019, Moore announced that she would take a hiatus from the WNBA in order to help free Jonathan Irons, a Missouri man wrongly convicted of burglary and assault and serving a 50-year prison sentence. Moore founded Win with Justice, an organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions and elect officials who intend to challenge the racialized system of criminal prosecution in the United States. More than 20 years after he was wrongfully imprisoned, Irons walked free on July 1, 2020; he and Moore married in September.
Creator of Proper Gnar
In 2013, Latosha Stone founded the Ohio-based skateboard company Proper Gnar with the goal of pushing the limits of design and creating boards unlike any other. In doing so, she became the first Black woman–owned skateboard company in an industry long dominated by and marketed to young white men. Proper Gnar’s reach expanded in 2020 when Beyoncé featured the brand in a directory of Black-owned businesses; Stone’s boards were also featured in Betty, an HBO series about a diverse group of teen girls who skate the streets of New York City. Both collaborations feel true to Stone’s work: Like Beyoncé, she’s a trailblazer; like Betty’s impressive cast of real-life skateboarders, she’s breaking boundaries for young women. “It’s such a neat sisterhood to get into,” she told Elle in July. “Don’t let other people discourage you because you’ll always have guys that want to say sexist things to you. It’s worth it in the end.”
Professional Sports League
Since its inception 24 years ago, the Women’s National Basketball Association has faced uphill battles with grace, confidence, and commitment. In 2020, the league was nothing short of extraordinary. Its 22-game season—abbreviated because of the COVID pandemic and played in a quarantined “bubble”—would have been impressive based on gameplay alone. But using its platform to counter the “shut up and dribble” rhetoric of the Trump administration turned out to be just as winning: The league dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement, announced a newly created Social Justice Council to foreground dialogue and activism around systemic racism, and told Georgia senator and Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler to fuck around and find out after Loeffler introduced a bill meant to ban transgender girls and women from playing publicly funded sports. As Amira Rose Davis wrote in a September piece for Bitch, “Women’s sports, by their very existence, have always been political, but every time the WNBA takes the court, they’re refusing to cede the powerful platform they’ve built.”
SCIENCE, TECH, AND INNOVATION
Founder of Black Tech Pipeline
After losing her first job as a tech developer, Pariss Athena looked to Twitter to find other Black developers and quickly noticed that, despite a large Black tech community online, she rarely saw people who looked like her IRL. So she posed a question to her followers, asking “What does Black Twitter in Tech look like?” and encouraging folks to share pictures of themselves. Athena’s tweet promptly blew up, garnering more than 11,000 likes and 2,000 replies and popularizing the hashtag #BlackTechTwitter. Practically overnight, a movement was born, and Athena began using the hashtag to help businesses recruit Black technologists. A year and a half later, she founded Black Tech Pipeline to continue recruiting Black professionals in tech and to further address inclusivity and retention problems endemic to many tech companies. Through Black Tech Pipeline, Athena created a model to create better workplace cultures, consult with Black technologists after they are hired, and provide transparent feedback to employers so they can move beyond the bare minimum of diversity and inclusion.
Founder of Somewhere Good
In 2020, there’s been a reckoning within coworking spaces that prioritized whiteness and classism at the expense of people from marginalized communities. Naj Austin has risen from the ashes of that reckoning with Somewhere Good, a forthcoming “social platform designed for people of color to connect around the things we love.” It started with Ethel’s Club, a subscription-based physical and digital community, that aims to support and celebrate people of color. Austin opened the physical doors of Ethel’s Club—named after her late grandmother—in 2019 and expanded to a digital membership to accommodate the pandemic. Ethel’s Club has become a safe space for its members where self-care and wellness are prioritized above all else. “As a member of Ethel’s Club, you are directly entering a funnel that gives money and opportunity to other people of color—every touchpoint was influenced, created or sourced by someone who believes in the same credo—for us, by us,” Austin told Jopwell. What a mantra to steel ourselves with against a world that is as deadly as it has ever been.
Like many healthcare workers, Tommye Austin was alarmed by the speed with which the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States—and by the evidence that the nation’s hospitals weren’t prepared for it. Austin, the senior vice president and chief nurse executive of University Health System in San Antonio, Texas, knew by April 2020 that reserves of N95 respirator masks in her hospital and others would soon be depleted, and worked quickly to design an alternative. Austin used a material readily available at hardware stores—air-conditioning filters—to create a mask with a 99.5 percent rate of filtration efficiency, and that, unlike the N95, could be worn comfortably for long periods of time. The pattern was disseminated on hospital websites across the country, and Austin’s innovation landed her on Modern Healthcare’s 2020 list of the country’s 50 most influential clinical executives.
CEO of LOOM
The United States is in the throes of a maternal mortality crisis that has disproportionately impacted Black parents. Doula Erica Chidi became passionate about helping people become their own health advocates—both before and during pregnancy—when she worked with incarcerated pregnant people in San Francisco. In 2016, she cofounded LOOM, a Los Angeles-based brick-and-mortar organization that educates women and nonbinary people about their sexual and reproductive health while deepening their self-care habits. LOOM offers everything from classes about menstrual cycles to pregnancy to abortion; in 2020, after raising $3 million through an initial seed round, the company is expanding into a digital platform that’s accessible to all. Chidi is one of only a few Black women to raise more than $1 million in venture capital, and it’s for a great cause. “We hold trauma in our reproductive organs and abdominal area,” Chidi told Refinery29. “Becoming closer to understanding how it works—whether it’s around your period or as it relates to birth control, fertility, or sex—is an extension to our power.”
In July 2020, Jamaican-born Monique Mendes made history as the first Black woman to earn a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester. At universities across the United States, Black students are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, comprising only 5.4 percent of science doctorates, according to the National Science Foundation. As an undergraduate, Mendes was named a McNair Scholar at the University of Florida. During her time in the highly ranked neuroscience program at Rochester, Mendes conducted valuable research on brain disease and injury. She was selected as a Neuroscience Scholars Program Fellow and awarded the National Institutes of Health Diversity Fellowship. The 27-year-old Mendes recently began her post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University where she will spend the next five years conducting research that expands our scientific understanding of brain development.
Creator of Cute Little Fuckers
Nothing against anatomically detailed Fleshlights or porn performer–branded dildos, but it’s fine to put some respect on sex toys as, well, toys. Cute Little Fuckers (CLF) does just that with its offerings: colorful silicone monsters that feature five vibration speeds and are USB rechargeable rather than battery-operated. CLF founder Step Tranovich, who identifies as gender-fluid, wanted to create queer- and trans-friendly toys that didn’t announce themselves as “for women” or “for men,” and conceived of the Cute Little Fuckers as characters in themselves (they even have their own webcomic). But personality doesn’t come at the expense of design quality—Tranovich consulted with people of all genders and sexualities to inform the designs, resulting in toys that are ergonomic and can be used both internally and externally. CLF also stands out as one of a small handful of sex-tech projects to be approved for a Kickstarter campaign: The project launched in September 2019 with a funding goal of $13,500 raised more than $16,000 within a day and began shipping in February 2020. For Tranovich, the support from Kickstarter is crucial in bringing sex toys to the mainstream in a way that’s accessible, transparent, and, yes, playful.
Salomé Chimuku and Cameron Whitten
Since the pandemic began, local communities have stepped into the gap to care for their neighbors in ways state and federal governments have mostly failed to. In June, Salomé Chimuku and Cameron Whitten created the Black Resilience Fund on GoFundMe with the goal of distributing $300 to Portland, Oregon residents in need. Chimuku and Whitten (who is the former director of Portland’s Q Center) set a goal of $5,000—but ended up raising more than $1 million, which they’ve used to help Black people in hard-hit areas of Oregon and Washington meet their basic needs, including buying food and paying rent. “Our systems are so broken,” Whitten told Willamette Week in June. “How do we even begin fixing them? To me, the answer is clear. We start by taking care of our neighbors.” Indeed.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Presente.org in the entry for Dignidad Literaria. (December 10, 2010, 10:56 a.m. PST)
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