16 Women of Color Who Made History in 2016

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Dec 31, 2016

It’s now become a Colorlines tradition to take a look at some of the amazing women of color who have made big strides in the past year. It’s never easy to narrow down the list, and we take suggestions from a wide range of places. But we hope the 16 women assembled here give you a taste of just how many incredible folks are making an impact across our political, social and cultural landscape. Is there someone you think deserves shine for her contributions this past year? Tell us about them in the comments section.

1. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha


You might not know Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha‘s name, but you likely know about the impact of her work. She is the pediatrician who sounded the alarm about the impacts of lead poisoning on children in Flint, Michigan. Thanks in large part to her work, the Flint water crisis became a national issue. While Hanna-Attisha’s work to uncover the crisis happened at the end of 2015, she spent 2016 tirelessly advocating for the children of Flint at legislative hearings, in the media, and in her daily work with patients there. She was named one of Time’s most influential people this year, and for good reason. You can read a recent Colorlines interview with Hanna-Attisha here.

2. Fatimah Asghar


Fatimah Asghar, an accomplished poet, made her screenwriting debut this year with the buzzworthy web series "Brown Girls." The show, which delves into feminism, sex, relationships and the beautiful complexity of friendship between women of color, has been compared to the television hits "Broad City" and "Insecure." Asghar is also a member of The Dark Noise Collective, a multi-racial multi-genre poetry collective. 

3. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard


The resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock may easily be the news story of the year, and while there are many women responsible for this incredible collaborative project, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard stands out. As the landowner whose property is closest to the proposed pipeline route and an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Allard allowed the first camp, Sacred Stone, to be established on her land. She’s been a crucial part of the water protectors efforts to resist the pipeline ever since.

4. Candi Brings Plenti


Another inspiring leader at Standing Rock is Candi Brings Plenti, who helped create and sustain the Two Spirit Camp. A member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, Plenti is also the executive director of the Equi Institute, an LGBTQ community health clinic, and serves as the volunteer director of the Portland Two Spirit Society, a social group for LGBTQI Indigenous and Native American/Alaska Natives. The Two Spirit Camp at Standing Rock has been creating space for Two Spirit and LGBTQ indigenous people and their allies during the action, as well as advocating for this community as part of the broader Standing Rock resistance. Plenti received "The Spirit of Portland: Community Leadership of the Year" award in December for her service. 

5. Catherine Cortez Masto


Being elected to Congress in this election cycle, particularly as a first-time Democratic senator and a Latina, is no small feat. And being one of just four women of color in the U.S. senate come 2017 won’t be either. But Catherine Cortez Masto broke through a big glass ceiling in 2016 when she won her Nevada senatorial race—becoming the first ever Latina senator to serve in the United States and the first female senator from Nevada. This latest role follows eight years as the attorney general of Nevada.

6. Suzanne Barakat


Suzanne Barakat has faced one of life’s worst tragedies—the news that her brother, his wife and her sister were all murdered at their North Carolina apartment in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime. She has shown incredible courage in the face of such tragedy, speaking out about the murders and working to combat Islamophobia with incredible grace this past year. Barakat took the stage at TEDWomen in October, delivering an incredible talk about the incident and what we need to do to combat Islamophobia. Barakat is also a family medicine resident working in San Francisco.

7. Marisa Franco


The successful ouster of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whilie overshadowed in the media by the victory of Donald Trump, remains a huge win for immigrant activists. Marisa Franco is just one of the people who helped make the victory against this sheriff best known for his racial profiling possible, and her leadership was recently recognized by the  Washington Post. Franco, who is originally from Arizona, had been organizing in the state against Arpaio since 2010. In 2015 she helped found Mijente, a pro-Black, pro-woman, pro-queer, pro-poor Latinx organization. They recently held a summit in Puerto Rico, bringing together hundreds of Latinx organizers to strategize and organize collaboratively. 

8. Laurie Hernandez


The 16-year-old Puerto Rican gymnast Laurie Hernandez is having an incredible year. She made headlines during the Rio Olympic games when she helped Team USA win gold in the All-Around competition, and won a silver medal for her solo performance on the beam. Hernandez has been doing gymnastics since she was 6 years old. Her position on Team USA in Rio was itself historic—she was the only first-year senior-level gymnast to be selected for an Olympic team. She’s also been a hit on "Dancing With The Stars," and became the show’s youngest ever winner just a few weeks ago.

9. Renee Bracey Sherman


Renee Bracey Sherman spent much of 2016 speaking loudly and publicly about her own experience with abortion. It’s a risky proposition in our current media and political climate, and Bracey Sherman has received her fair share of online harassment and criticism. But that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her goal of making sure people who’ve had abortions use their voices. She also pushed the issue during the presidential campaign using the #AskAboutAbortion hashtag, which resulted in a question about abortion in the final presidential debates. These days, Bracey Sherman is focusing on her work with the National Network of Abortion Funds, where she helped launch the We Testify program.

10. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy


Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is an icon of the queer and trans community. As a Black trans woman and a participant in the Stonewall riots, she has been fighting her entire life on behalf of the most marginalized. This year, as she transitions into retirement from the exhausting work of social justice, the documentary about her life and work, "MAJOR!" received countless accolades, including winner of best documentary at three different LGBT film festivals. In many ways, you can see the incredible legacy of Miss Major’s work in the outpouring of support she continues to receive from the community that is indebted to her contributions, including a giving circle that seeks to support her during her retirement.

11. Minnesota Lynx WNBA Team


In July, the Minnesota Lynx were leaders in bringing Black Lives Matter and, specifically, the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, to the women’s professional basketball arena. It started with the players wearing shirts with the slogan and the names of both men as their warm-ups before a game. That action inspired a number of other WNBA teams to follow suit, despite fines from the league for not following guidelines regarding proper attire. The protests continued and intensified as players from the Washington Mystics instituted a media blackout in continued protest. The WNBA eventually rescinded all fines, and the WNBA president even tweeted her support of the athletes expressing their views.

12. Desireé Marshall


While Desireé Marshall started out as an organizer, her own negative experiences a queer women with short hair at the barber shop inspired her to move into that profession. Marshall is a queer barber who provides a safe space for queer, trans and gender non-conforming people to get their haircut in Brooklyn. It may seem like a small thing, but having an affirming barber or hair stylist can be hugely important for self-esteem and even safety. For that reason, Marshall’s work has garnered the attention of outlets like Upworthy and even cable morning news.

13. Angel Nafis


Angel Nafis was one of five poets this year to receive one of the largest poetry prizes available to young poets, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. Buzzfeed called Nafis one of "31 Contemporary Poets You Need to Read," describing her work a celebration of "[B]lack selfhood and culture by focusing on the minutiae of everyday life." Elle Magazine said her book "BlackGirl Mansion" should be added to the "modern brown girl literary cannon." Nafis also runs The Other Black Girl Collective, an internationally touring Black feminist poetry duo, with Morgan Parker.

14. Constance Wu


You might know Constance Wu from her starring role in the hit show "Fresh Off the Boat," but she has been making waves this year by speaking out against Hollywood’s Whitewashing of Asian and Asian-American characters and performers including Matt Damon’s starring role in a movie about the Great Wall of China. Wu proved that she isn’t afraid to make race a central issue in her discussions of Hollywood, even if it compromises her career opportunities. Wu was also the subject of a great subversive Twitter campaign #StarringConstanceWu which photoshopped her into prominent movie posters replacing White actresses.

15. Pramila Jayapal


Pramila Jayapal‘s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in November is ushering in another historic first—she will be the first Indian-American woman to serve in Congress in U.S. history. Jayapal won her campaign to represent the 37th legislative district of Washington State, which includes Seattle. She is a long-time activist. Before entering politics, she founded OneAmerica, which seeks to build power among immigrant communities.

16. Ava DuVernay


If you aren’t sure why Ava DuVernay is on this list, you’ve probably been living under a rock. It’s hard to keep up with all of DuVernay’s accomplishments, but some major highlights this year were "Queen Sugar" and "13th," both critically-acclaimed offerings that found major fan bases for their hard-hitting race themes. She also began directing Disney’s production of "A Wrinkle in Time" this year and continued to distribute films by people of color and women through her ARRAY organization.