When diversity first gained traction, it was a symbol of a promised land, in which predominantly white institutions finally opened their doors to others and gave them a seat at the table. But since, we have learned that, in application, diversity is barely more than a quota, a box to mark on a checklist. Little by little, we are watching Black people in power shift their mindset. The five public figures on this list are making waves, paving the way for the rest of us, and they’re showing that we can achieve success by doing things our way. Instead of looking to the establishment for validation, they’re dismantling its legitimacy. They are not sneaking through doors that are slightly cracked – they’re breaking the doors down and they are refusing to compromise.
Major organizations, in business, entertainment, and just about every sector you can imagine, have historically been dismissive of our talents and unwilling to embrace us until it’s time to cash in. So, during the first Black History Month of a new decade, it’s important to recognize exceptional Black queer people who are doing important work right now, instead of waiting for the mainstream to ordain their relevancy.
Jeremy O. Harris (Entertainment)
Harris is the playwright behind Broadway’s critically acclaimed Slave Play. The 2019 production follows three interracial couples who undergo Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy at the MacGregor Plantation. Slave Play served as a searing commentary on race, sexuality, and power dynamics. Harris’ work interrogated hot button issues and confronted the audience – it didn’t simply entertain. It was a cultural firestorm that caught the attention of critics and celebrities alike, and it facilitated a bigger conversation who Broadway is for. The play’s success wasn’t about a Black queer artist assimilating into Broadway’s culture; it was about challenging convention and presenting an unfiltered vision to an audience that may not encounter his point of view otherwise. Next up, Harris will bring his talents to a different kind of theater. He’s the co-writer of the buzzy Sundance hit Zola, which was adapted from a viral Twitter thread.
Alicia Garza (Social Justice)
Black Lives Matter isn’t new – the activist organization has fought against police brutality, and against its conservative critics, since 2013. But part of BLM’s longevity can be attributed to Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the group and a proud queer Black woman. BLM takes a holistic view to its activism, explicitly calling out its commitment to including Black trans people and all sexual identities, gender identities, and gender expressions. There’s no question – without representation in BLM’s leadership, all of us wouldn’t be invited into the fray. Garza’s work and her continued presence in the movement show that when we’re in the room, we can ensure our voices are heard. Hopefully, BLM’s model of inclusivity can inspire the same kind of progress in politics and beyond.
Arlan Hamilton (Tech)
The tech world is undeniably white and male, and less than 10% of all venture capital funding goes to women, people of color, and queer founders. But Arlan Hamilton has made it her life’s work to change that. She’s the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a VC fund that has invested $7 million in over 120 companies led by underrepresented founders. Through her fund, she’s changing the tech narrative, fighting her way into a notoriously homogenous space, and bringing all of us along with her. And she uses her visibility to call out injustice wherever she sees it. On Super Bowl Sunday, she tweeted her desire to see more black team owners in the NFL. Her mission isn’t an easy one – 2019 saw a leadership reorganization at Backstage Capital amid speculation that some of its funding had fallen through. But it’s all par for the course. She’s staying in the fight and making Silicon Valley a more inclusive place.
Phillip Brown (Climate Activism)
When it comes to climate change, we always see Greta Thunberg. But rarely is it acknowledged that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental disasters. Activists like P Brown are ensuring that people like us are fighting on the front lines, too. Brown, who identifies as queer, nonbinary, and femme, left a career in academia to organize full-time for the global youth climate justice movement and served as a delegate at COP25, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Their work, activism, and passion are a reminder that we’re all affected by climate change and there has to be space for everyone in the fight.
Michael Twitty (Food)
Food isn’t typically a political industry. It’s warm and fuzzy – think Rachel Ray’s daytime cooking show or anything on the Food Network. But Michael Twitty is changing that in a big way. During his Southern Discomfort Tour, he hosted dinners on plantations, where he cooked the meals of our ancestors and facilitated honest discussions about slavery’s dark past and lasting legacy. He wrote about his experience in The Cooking Gene, the 2018 James Beard Foundation’s Book of the Year. Through his dishes, he’s showing the world what many of us already know – food facilitates healing, communicates history, and fosters bonding and revelation. In the process, he’s making waves in the culinary world.
These individuals are just a sampling of the many Black creatives and leaders making their stamp on history. This period will likely be remembered for how so many folks wrested control of the narrative instead of waiting for the old guard to commend them on a job well done. Jeremy O. Harris, Alicia Garza, Arlan Hamilton, P Brown, and Michael Twitty are leading the charge, but it’s up to all of us to continue the work.