Since you loved our 2014 list of 14 women of color who rocked, we thought it was only right in 2015 to present 15 incredible activists, organizers, artists, writers, builders and entertainers who made major moves in 2015. Check out our list—which is in no particular order and in no way exhaustive. And feel free to add more WOC who rocked in 2015 in the comments!
1. Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland brought even non-ballet lovers’ attention to the world of dance in 2015 when she was promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland is the first African-American woman to take the starring position. She also made her Broadway debut in “On the Town,” and a documentary about her groundbreaking career, ”A Ballerina’s Tale,” dropped this year. Clearly Copeland had a banner 2015.
2. Bree Newsome
Artist and activist Bree Newsome scaling a flag pole at the South Carolina state house and taking down the Confederate flag was definitely one of the most triumphant moments of the year. Newsome garnered nationwide media attention and the stubborn state removed the racist flag just two weeks after her heroic action. South Carolina’s retreat was part of a wave of states and businesses finally backing away from the racist flag in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s White supremacist massacre at Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church,
3. Linda Sarsour
Chances are you’ve seen Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, in one media appearance or another in the months since the Paris terror attacks and the intensification of American Islamophobia. Sarsour, whom the New York Times called “a Brooklyn homegirl in a hijab” in an August profile, has also been a leading Muslim presence in the Black Lives Matter movement. This year she supported a fundraiser that collected $100,000 to rebuild burned Black churches in the South and she co-chaired the April March2Justice. Sarsour, along with two other activists, also launched POWER Change, a digital political platform for “Muslims by Muslims.”
4. + 5. Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez and Mya Taylor
Kitana “Kiki” Rodriguez and Mya Taylor had their film debut in ”Tangerine,” this year’s breakout independent film about two trans women of color surviving on the streets of Los Angeles. While that description may sound like a played-out trope, Rodriguez and Taylor brought authenticity, direction and heart to this film, which is as much about their enduring friendship as it is about their gender identities. “Tangerine,” famously shot on iPhone, is now available for streaming on Netflix. Hopefully this won’t be the last we see of Rodriguez or Taylor on the big screen.
6. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a Lambda Literary award-winning queer disabled femme writer, performance artist and educator, published two exciting books in 2015: a poetry collection called “Bodymap” and a memoir, “Dirty River,” which had been 10 years in the making. She also launched a radio advice column on Hollow Earth Radio, ”Ask Sharkmom,” which she says is “like Dear Sugar if Dear Sugar wasn’t a White cis straight lady.”
7. Charlene Carruthers
Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), isn’t typically in the spotlight, but her work has been a consistent drumbeat toward, in her own words, “getting freedom and justice for all Black people.” BYP100 uses a queer feminist lens, something informed by Carruthers’ decade of movement work. The Chicago-based organizer was part of a strong push for the city to release a graphic dashcam video of police shooting Laquan McDonald. She co-organized several major demonstrations against the city’s apparent cover-up of the video, leading to the ouster of police superintendent Garry McCarthy. Carruthers also faced police violence herself in 2015: During a late November protest she reported police throwing her to the ground and yanking her hair.
8. Mia Birdsong
More than one million people have watched Mia Birdsong’s TED talk from earlier this year, and for good reason. Birdsong’s engaging speech centers on the radical idea we’re overlooking a major tool for fighting poverty: poor people themselves. “Marginalized communities are full of smart, talented people hustling and working and innovating just like our most revered and venerated CEOs,” she said on the TED stage. Her talk resulted in the birth of a new organization, Family Story, which is “working to change the national conversation about what makes a good family to [a conversation] that lifts up, celebrates, values, and supports the growing diversity of family structures in America.”
9. Staceyann Chin
Writer and performer Staceyann Chin reached new heights in 2015. In collaboration with Cynthia Nixon and Rosie O’Donnell, she produced and starred in “MotherStruck!” a one-woman show about her journey toward single motherhood as a Black lesbian poet. The show debuted in New York City on December 14 to rave reviews. Another 2015 highlight was “Living Room Protests,” a series of adorable and on-point videos featuring Chin and her 3-year-old daughter, Zuri speaking out against a range of ills. The duo have created 23 such videos in the past year including one in support of Planned Parenthood that garnered more than 30,000 views. Clearly, star power runs in the family.
10. Dior Vargas
This year activist Dior Vargas fought the widely held belief that mental illness is a ”White person’s disease” with her People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. For the project, dozens of people of color with illnesses such as PTSD, depression, OCD and anxiety submitted pictures of themselves holding up signs that identify them as survivors. It was a simple and widely-used concept but a big step toward destigmatizing mental illness for people of color. Vargas, who raised more than $6,500 on Kickstarter this year to support the project, also received a great deal of press, turning the project into a powerful act of visibility.
11. Ariell Johnson
You may remember Ariell Johnson from Sameer Rao’s “Breaking“ piece about her plans to open a comic and coffee shop in Philadelphia. Starting a small business was enough of a feat on its own, but Johnson’s Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse got extra attention for focusing on marginalized communities not often featured in the comic industry. Johnson’s shop is just one example of how 2015 has been the year of embracing geek-of-color culture. After several renovation setbacks, Johnson’s Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse, opened on December 14.
12. Valerie S.
Since our August piece about her joyful online documentation of her yoga practice, ”Big Gal Yogi“ Valerie S. has gone from 35,000 Instagram followers to nearly 120,000. The self-described introvert and “product of the Bay Area bubble” is now planning to start a yoga teacher certification, funded in part by her online supporters. She also continues to fight fatphobia and racism through her work, often responding to incredibly ignorant and mean comments with words of confidence and self-love. If you aren’t following her on Instagram or Tumblr, what are you waiting for?
13. Isa Noyola
Identifying as a “translatina, gender fluid, activist, two-spirit, queer, jota, pastor’s kid, muxerista, and cultural organizer,” Isa Noyola juggled lots of incredible work in 2015. As program director of the Transgender Law Center, she tackled a wide range of national policy issues, from health care access to prisoners’ rights to student safety. She was a member of Mijente, a new Latinx political organizing group. She served on the steering committee of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. And she worked to end the detention of trans people through the #Not1More campaign.
14. Angy Rivera
PBS released “No le Digas a Nadie” (“Don’t Tell Anyone”), the story of Angy Rivera and her undocumented immigrant family, this year but that was just the latest triumph for this young Latina activist. Rivera ran a unique advice column in 2015 called “Ask Angy,” where she answered intimate questions about immigration status and being undocumented. She has also been active in the movement of undocumented people “coming out” about their status. While Rivera (and her mother, with whom she came from Colombia as a young girl) now have status through the U visa program, she continues to support immigrant women through her work as a field coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
15. Nicolle Gonzales
Our story about Nicolle Gonzales and her co-founder Brittany Simplicio’s Native American Birth Center project was one of the 10 most popular on the site this year, and for good reason. Gonzales, a Navajo midwife, worked to create a one-of-its-kind birth center in the United States to serve Native women and their families in culturally specific and nurturing ways. At press time she and her partner had raised more than $14,000 to support Simplicio and they used some of those funds to travel to similar centers in Canada to learn from other indigenous midwives in the field.