America’s Leading Black Women Advocating Change

For Women's History Month, The Root decided to spotlight some of the black women who are influential in activism and the nonprofit world. Find out how these women are trying to change the world.

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  • Dani McClain

    Dani McClain

    After conservative talk show host Glenn Beck called President Barack Obama a racist, McClain, a writer and staff member of the online activist group Color of Change, worked to get companies to pull their ads from his show. More than 285,000 people complained and signed online petitions. As a result, a number of major corporate brands, including Procter & Gamble and GEICO, pulled their ads. McClain also worked on the group’s efforts to eliminate sentencing disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine offenses. Last summer Congress passed a law reducing the disparity.

    Captions by Lottie Joiner

  • Marjora Carter

    Marjora Carter

    Carter received a MacArthur “genius grant” for creating green-collar job training and placement in urban areas. She also had the vision to see the Bronx River, near her blighted Hunts Point neighborhood in New York City, as a resource to revitalize her community and create green jobs. Her work was instrumental in the opening of Hunts Point Riverside Park in 2007, the area’s first waterfront park in 60 years. Today The Root 100 honoree heads an eponymous consulting firm focused on urban revitalization and green-collar jobs.

  • Helen Gayle

    Helen Gayle

    After two decades working on HIV/AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gayle used her knowledge to direct global health issues for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today she chairs the Obama administration’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Gayle, who is also the president and CEO of CARE USA, a humanitarian organization fighting poverty in more than 70 countries, ensures that women in the nation’s poorest regions are provided with the resources needed to sustain their communities.

  • Beverly Bond

    Beverly Bond

    It was only five years ago that the model-turned-DJ (and honoree of The Root 100) created the nonprofit organization Black Girls Rock! Her goal was to build the self-esteem of young women of color by offering mentorship and enrichment through arts programs. Last fall the organization teamed up with Black Entertainment Television to create a Black Girls Rock! show that drew 2.5 million viewers and honored trailblazers such as Ruby Dee, Missy Elliot and Iyanla Vanzant.

  • Pernessa Seele

    Pernessa Seele

    While working at New York City’s Harlem Hospital during the late 1980s, Seele saw an overwhelming number of African Americans suffering from AIDS. She believed that the faith community could play a major role in addressing the epidemic, so she started the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS in 1989. It was the beginning of the Balm in Gilead, an organization that encourages churches to fight against AIDS. Today the group says it provides technical support for health-education and support programs to more than 20,000 U.S. institutions.

  • Gina McCauley

    Gina McCauley

    The tagline of the website McCauley founded — What About Our Daughters — says it all: “Unapologetic, Uncompromising, and Unbowed in Defense of Black Women and Girls.” She began the blog in 2007 in response to Don Imus’ infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment about a women’s basketball team. The Root 100 honoree urges black women to stop supporting entities that portray them negatively. She is also the founder of Blogging While Brown, which is an annual gathering of black bloggers, and the Michelle Obama Watch blog.

  • Mandy Carter

    Mandy Carter

    Her social activism began in 1968 during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Since then Carter has dedicated her life to fighting racism and homophobia. She is a founding board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, an organization for empowering black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, and has used her organizing experience to co-chair the LGBT steering committee for Barack Obama’s presidential run.

  • Lateefah Simon

    Lateefah Simon

    At 19 Simon became executive director of San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development, making her one of the youngest leaders ever of a social service organization. In 2003 she received a MacArthur genius grant for her work on behalf of homeless, low-income and formerly incarcerated women. When she was head of San Francisco’s Reentry Services division, the programs she implemented for former offenders helped cut that city’s recidivism rate to less than 10 percent. The Root 100 honoree is currently director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

  • Tracie Washington

    Tracie Washington

    After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, Washington was displaced, like nearly 500,000 other residents. But the civil rights attorney returned to her native New Orleans and has been fighting for the rights of the displaced and disadvantaged there ever since. As president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a legal-advocacy organization devoted to social-justice campaigns, Washington is working to make sure that New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities have access to housing, education and health services.

  • Erica Williams

    Erica Williams

    In 2008 Williams testified before Congress about college students and credit card debt. The Root 100 honoree got young folks interested in politics and policy in advance of President Barack Obama’s election, focusing on issues such as energy and health care. Now, as deputy director of Progress 2050, a division of the Center for American Progress think tank, Williams is charged with promoting policy ideas that reflect the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity. has named her one of “50 Politicos to Watch.”


  • Marian Wright Edelman

    Marian Wright Edelman

    The first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1965, Edelman directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in that state’s capital city. In 1973 she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, which has become the premier children’s-advocacy organization. The CDF issues reports and promotes public policy to ensure the well-being of the nation’s youths. As part of her work with the CDF, Edelman is currently working on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline campaign to develop programs that will help prevent youths from entering the juvenile-justice system.

  • Byllye Y. Avery

    Byllye Y. Avery

    One of the early leaders in the reproductive-rights movement, Avery co-founded the Women’s Health Center in Gainesville, Fla., a medical facility where women could have safe abortions; and later Birthplace, an alternative birthing center in the same city. In 1983 she created the Black Women’s Health Project (now the Black Women’s Health Imperative), the first national organization dedicated to black women’s wellness. Today she heads the Avery Institute for Social Change, which is focused on finding health care solutions for women and families of color in poverty-stricken areas.

  • Malika Saada Saar

    Malika Saada Saar

    Focused on improving the lives of women at the margins of society, The Root 100 honoree is the founder of the nonprofit Rebecca Project for Human Rights. She works to reform policies that affect women and girls in health, child-welfare and criminal-justice systems in the U.S. and Africa. She has fought for the civil rights of low-income and homeless families, and was instrumental in getting the Craigslist adult-services section shut down in 2010.

  • Esmeralda Simmons

    Esmeralda Simmons

    Whether she’s addressing educational equity in public schools or providing legal work to African-centered organizations, the former New York assistant state attorney general is working on issues affecting communities of color. Few can say that they argued a case before Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, but Simmons did. Now she is executive director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., which offers free legal services to the disenfranchised on issues such as voting rights, police brutality and discrimination.

  • Angela Glover-Blackwell

    Angela Glover-Blackwell

    Glover-Blackwell first made her name helping to revitalize urban communities in California. She founded PolicyLink, which advocates social and economic equity, in 1999 after a stint with the Rockefeller Foundation. When President Barack Obama hosted a 2010 gathering to discuss his $50 billion infrastructure proposal, Glover-Blackwell was the only public-interest advocate among the gathering of governors, mayors, labor leaders and four former transportation secretaries. In Minnesota, PolicyLink is working with a faith-based network to implement a transportation program using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

  • Maya Wiley

    Maya Wiley

    After years working for civil rights and social-justice organizations that include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Institute, Wiley started the Center for Social Inclusion to address the public policies that have led to socioeconomic disparities. The organization, which works to dismantle structural racism and inequity, is currently collaborating with black farmers in South Carolina to help build farmers markets, as well as with education advocates in Mississippi to help shape funding decisions.

  • Makani Themba-Nixon

    Makani Themba-Nixon

    For most of her career, Themba-Nixon has focused on the intersection of media, race, public policy and health. As executive director of the Praxis Project, Themba-Nixon helps communities use media to advocate for policies that will address the nation’s health disparities. She is leading the organization’s efforts to create policy initiatives that will limit tobacco use in urban communities.

  • Melanie Campbell

    Melanie Campbell

    Campbell got her political start working under legendary Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, heading the city’s youth-services office. Today she leads the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which focuses on voter education and outreach. She created a youth-focused leadership-development program called Black Youth Vote! It was part of a get-out-the-vote campaign that contributed to the record turnout among young black voters in the 2008 presidential election. In the November 2010 midterms, the NCBCP managed a command center to monitor black-voter turnout and voter suppression in 12 states.

  • Malkia Cyril

    Malkia Cyril

    She understands the power of media. That’s why Cyril, a longtime community organizer and communications strategist, founded the Center for Media Justice in 2002 to ensure that “movements for justice have a public voice.” In 2007 Cyril organized youth activists and people of color to challenge the dominance of the corporate radio giant Clear Channel in the San Francisco Bay Area and ensure that the voices of local hip-hop artists and community members were heard. She writes and speaks frequently on communications rights and the impact that media consolidation has on communities of color.

  • Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

    Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

    Ellis-Lamkins got her start working in California’s labor movement. Today she is the CEO of Green for All, an organization dedicated to creating a clean-energy economy while lifting people out of poverty. As head of the organization, The Root 100 honoree has helped secure funding at the federal level for green jobs and job training. She has also helped states establish energy-efficiency programs. At the local level, she has helped communities train leaders and create programs that cut energy bills and reduce pollution.