2012 was a year of victories, from the Supreme Court upholding the Affordable Care Act to a political discourse that focused on the middle class, reproductive justice, and marriage equality. As issues such as curbing gun violence, immigration reform, and reproductive health continue to be hotly debated in Washington, women of color are leading progressive movements nationwide to support these and other important issues.
In honor of International Women’s Day, here are 13 women of color to watch, who are leaving their mark on everything from politics to entertainment to health.
Angelica Salas is the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA. Since becoming the coalition’s director in 1999, Angelica has spearheaded several ambitious campaigns. Among her accomplishments, Angelica helped win in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students and established day laborer job centers that have served as a model for the entire country. She led the effort to allow all California drivers to obtain licenses and is a leading spokesperson on federal immigration policy. Under Salas’s leadership, CHIRLA and its partners across the country have built the foundation for the recent upsurge in immigrant-rights activism. As part of a national coordinating committee, Angelica helped convene a coalition of organizations in Southern California that have successfully mobilized millions of immigrants to demand comprehensive immigration reform, including legalization with a path to citizenship, family reunification, and the protection of civil and labor rights. Salas received the “Woman of the Year” award from the California State Assembly in recognition of her 20 years of outstanding leadership of the organization.
Geeta Rao Gupta
As the deputy executive director for UNICEF and vice chair of the board for the GAVI Alliance— a public-private partnership focused on saving children’s lives and protecting people’s health by increasing access to immunization in poor countries —Geeta Rao Gupta is a leader on gender, women’s issues, and HIV/AIDS. She is frequently consulted on issues related to AIDS prevention and women’s vulnerability to HIV, and she is an advocate for women’s economic and social empowerment to fight disease, poverty, and hunger. Rao Gupta is the former president of the International Center for Research on Women and was a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from 2010 to 2011, where she acted as the senior advisor to the Global Development Programme. Gupta has also led and participated in numerous global initiatives for women and children, including the U.N. Millennium Project’s Task Force on Education and Gender Equality and the U.N. Secretary-General’s Youth Employment Network. Rao Gupta is the recipient of numerous awards, including Harvard University’s 2006 Anne Roe Award and the 2007 Washington Business Journal’s “Women Who Mean Business” award.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Janet Mock is a writer, a transgender rights advocate, and the former staff editor of Peoplemagazine’s website. She came out as transgender in 2011 in an article in Marie Claire, and she now creates transgender-specific programs and education for the LGBTQ youth center of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which operates Harvey Milk High, a high school for LGBT teens in New York City. Although she is not gay, GBM News named Mock one of the “15 Most Powerful Gay Celebrities Of 2012.” The same year, she created a Twitter campaign to empower transgender women of color, called #GirlsLikeUs, and gave the Lavender Commencement keynote speech honoring LGBT students at the University of Southern California.She also served as co-chair, nominee, and presenter at the 2012 GLAAD Media Awards. She has submitted a video about her experiences as a transgender woman to the “It Gets Better” project and written about transgender issues for The Huffington Post and xojane. In November 2012 she received the Sylvia Rivera Activist Award.
Jessica González-Rojas is the executive director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, or NLIRH—the only national reproductive justice organization that specifically works to advance reproductive health and rights for Latinas. She has been a leader in progressive movements for more than 15 years, serves as a liaison between reproductive health, gender, immigration, LGBTQ-liberation, labor and Latino civil rights organizations, breaking down barriers between movements and building a strong Latina grassroots presence. González-Rojas is a strong voice for Latinas and a regular presence in national and local media outlets, such as El Diario/La Prensa, the nation’s oldest and largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States, which honored her as one of 2009’s “Mujeres Destacadas” (Women of Honor).
Prior to her work with NLIRH, González-Rojas was elected to the New York State Democratic Committee for the 39th Assembly District from 2000 to 2006. She also served on the Board of Directors of New Immigrant Community Empowerment for 11 years. Watch for González-Rojas as she and her organization make headlines for progressive health policy for Latinas.
Ubiquitous in the media scene, Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of The Grio and an on-air contributor on MSNBC. She is also a political columnist for The Miami Herald and editor of the political blog The Reid Report. Reid has appeared as a political commentator on national and local television and radio, including MSNBC, CNBC, Miami PBS affiliate WPBT, WTVJ/NBC 6, Britain’s Sky News, and Miami radio stations Hot 105 and 103.5 The Beat. Reid has worked in television and radio news since 1998, including for WTVJ and Fox station WSVN. In addition to The Herald, her columns have appeared on Salon, The Grio, CommonDreams.org, and the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the South Florida Times. From 2006 to 2007 she produced and co-hosted “Wake Up South Florida,” the morning show for Radio One’s then-Miami affiliate WTPS, alongside 30-year radio veteran James T. She and her husband are producing the documentary “The Fight Years” for WPBT in Miami, which chronicles the history of boxing in Miami.
Judith Browne Dianis
Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, an institute with more than a decade of experience in helping organize communities of color to dismantle policies that threaten democracy. Under Dianis’s leadership, the Advancement Project has fought tirelessly to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and break down barriers to voting and successfully ended the overuse of suspensions and arrests in school districts across the country. A prominent civil rights litigator and racial justice advocate,Dianis was named one of the “Thirty Women to Watch” in 2000 by Essence magazine and has been a prominent media commentator on race and civil rights issues, appearing frequently on MSNBC and CNN.
Prior to joining the Advancement Project in 1999, Dianis served as the managing attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Dianis has also worked tirelessly to protect survivors of Hurricane Katrina and advocated for fair treatment of immigrant workers in New Orleans. With such a track record, Dianis is expected to be a strong advocate for people of color in the future.
A fierce advocate working to empower the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, Mee Moua currently serves as the president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, leading the Center’s efforts to create an inclusive society and empower both Asian Americans and other underserved communities. The Asian American Justice Center has a network of 125 community-based organizations in 29 states and the District of Columbia, with a mission to “advance the human and civil rights of Asian Americans, and build and promote a fair and equitable society for all.”
The first Hmong woman elected to a state legislature, Moua served as a member of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, representing District 67 in the Minnesota Senate and chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee. Moua also served as vice president of strategic impact initiatives for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a national health justice organization, where she was the executive administrator of the Washington, D.C., office and managed its divisions on policy analysis, political advocacy, and strategic communications.
An expert in health care and domestic policy, Neera Tanden is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and Counselor to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Tanden currently has a regular column for The New Republic online and has appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “This Week,” PBS’s “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. She was recently named one of the “Most Influential Women in Washington” by National Journal and received the India Abroad Publisher’s Award for Excellence in 2011. Tanden has directed domestic policy for both the Obama and Clinton administrations, and she previously served as senior advisor for health reform at the Department of Health and Human Services. While there, she advised Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and worked on President Barack Obama’s health reform team in the White House. Tanden also served as associate director for domestic policy in the Clinton White House and senior policy advisor to the first lady.
Nita Chaudhary is one of the founders of Ultraviolet—a community of women and men fighting to expand women’s rights and combat sexism everywhere, from politics and government to media and pop culture. Prior to Ultraviolet, Nita Chaudhary was the national campaigns and organizing director at MoveOn.org Political Action. In that role, she oversaw and managed MoveOn’s national campaigns department, including the organization’s work on health care reform, the economy, and Social Security, as well as supervising MoveOn’s campaign directors. During her tenure at MoveOn, Nita oversaw the fundraising program for the 2008 presidential election, and led some of the organization’s largest campaigns, including MoveOn’s work to end the Iraq war, protect constitutional liberties, and address climate change. Prior to that, she was the Democratic National Committee’s first director of online organizing during the 2004 election cycle. She started her career at People for the American Way, a nonprofit dedicated to making the promise of America real for every American, where she held several positions, including media research analyst, web editor, and online organizer.
Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs with Justice and American Rights at Work, both of which advocate for just labor policy. Prior to being the executive director of Jobs with Justice, Gupta served for five years as the national field director, overseeing the national field program and leading strategic programs such as health care justice, organizing and collective bargaining rights campaigns, and immigrant workers’ rights. Her work with labor issues dates back to 1996, when Gupta was elected the national president of the United States Student Association, or USSA, the country’s oldest and largest grassroots legislative student organization. She served as a trainer for the Grass Roots Organizing Weekend program, a project of USSA and the Midwest Academy. In addition, Gupta serves as co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national coalition of 200 advocacy organizations working together for quality care and support and a dignified quality of life for all Americans. Gupta is expected to be a strong voice and strategic organizer for labor issues going forward.
Active in both official and communal capacities, Saru Jayaraman has emerged as an ardent activist for the rights of low-wage workers. She was profiled in The New York Times’s “Public Lives” section in 2005 and was named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2008. Jayaraman directs the Food Labor Research Center at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which conducts research and education on issues related to labor and employment. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, or ROC-United, which organizes restaurant workers to win workplace-justice campaigns, conduct research and policy work, partner with responsible restaurants, and launch cooperatively-owned restaurants. ROC-United now has 10,000 members in 19 cities nationwide. Jayaraman continues to serve as a public speaker and presenter at various conferences, activist events, and congressional hearings. She is also the author of Behind the Kitchen Door.
In the same month that the first black U.S. president was sworn in for a second time, on the holiday set aside for remembrance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sherrilyn Ifill walked further along the path paved by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, taking the reins of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF. Throughout its history, the LDF has secured landmark court victories against school segregation and other forms of racial discrimination.
As a lawyer and civil rights advocate for more than 20 years, Ifill has spent her life’s work advocating on voting rights and political participation for communities of color, women, and low-income communities. Ifill is joining the LDF at a time when top pillars of the civil rights movement—affirmative action in higher education and key provisions of the Voting Rights Act—are being threatened. The Supreme Court is now determining whether these laws are still needed—only a few years after the court upheld their constitutionality. A fierce voice on civil rights issues, Ifill continues to be a driving force behind progress and change.
Best known as the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the medical drama television series “Grey’s Anatomy” and its spin-off “Private Practice,” Shonda Rhimes is an American screenwriter, director, and producer. Rhimes was an executive producer for the medical drama series “Off the Map,” and developed the ABC drama series “Scandal.” In May 2007 Rhimes was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 people who help shape the world, and she was nominated for an Emmy award on three occasions: in 2006 and 2007 for a dramatic series and in 2006 for writing a dramatic series for “Grey’s Anatomy.” Rhimes has received several NAACP Image awards for her work on Grey’s Anatomy and received the Women in Film Lucy Award in 2007, which recognized her for excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television. Rhimes also wrote the script for the 1999 HBO movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” which earned numerous awards for its star, Halle Berry.
These 13 progressive leaders were selected because they are dynamic examples of the impact that women of color have on America’s growing progressive movement. These women are trailblazers in their communities—fighting to create an America that works for all.
Sandra Shaker is an intern with Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.