Contemporary Black Changemakers: Vol. 4

Written by: Nikki Nair

Black Americans have been changing the world for centuries. This Black History Month, we’re covering 20 contemporary Black changemakers that are writing the next chapter in the history books. 

Nia DaCosta

Photo courtesy of Eric Rudd

Nia DaCosta is an up-and-coming filmmaker that will be the first Black woman to direct a movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney’s Marvel Studios hired her to take on The Marvels, which will be the sequel to the 2019 movie Captain Marvel. She will also be the youngest filmmaker to direct a Marvel film, unseating Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler. 

DaCosta does not have a lengthy body of work, seeming to prefer quality over quantity. In 2015, she raised $5,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund “Little Woods”, a short film about two North Dakota sisters who have to illegally cross the Canadian border to retrieve medicine for their sick mother. Three years later, DaCosta expanded “Little Woods” into her first feature-length film, which won her the Tribeca Film Festival’s Nora Ephron award for the best woman writer-director. This accomplishment caught the eye of another prominent Black filmmaker: Jordan Peele. Peele hired DaCosta to direct and co-write his second horror film Candyman. He called DaCosta a “bold new talent” and her work elegant and refined. Candyman made her the first Black woman to have a film debut at the top of the box office. Marvel Studios then contacted her about The Marvels, which is set to be released in February 2023.

These projects have brought DaCosta much positive attention. For Candyman, she won a Best Horror Film Award and a Director to Watch Award from the 2021 Hollywood Critics Association and was nominated for the Most Anticipated Film for the Rest of 2021 Award. She also received nominations for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture and Black Reel Awards for Outstanding Director and Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted or Original. And to think, DaCosta’s career is just beginning!

Issa Rae

Photo courtesy of Getty Images for BET

Like many modern celebrities, actress Issa Rae got her start on YouTube. In 2011, she began her work on the comedic YouTube web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Rae pivoted to writing with her 2015 memoir titled The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. In 2016, Rae became the co-creator, co-writer, and star of HBO’s Insecure television series. She also starred in the drama The Hate U Give (2018), the fantasy comedy Little (2019), the romance The Photograph (2020), and the romantic comedy The Lovebirds (2020). In 2020, she provided the voice work in the short film Hair Love, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In 2022, she will voice Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One).

Rae also practices advocacy and activism. After the shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016, she raised $700,000 to help put the Sterling children through college. Her work often includes themes of equality and social justice. Rae works closely with organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

For all this work, both in the industry and outside of it, she has received many accolades. In 2012, Rae was included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the entertainment section. In 2018, she was featured in the annual Time100 list of the most influential people in the world. Her work on Insecure has also secured her multiple nominations for Golden Globe and Primetime Emmy Awards. Rae wants to elevate people of color working in production and structures her work around making a lasting difference in the film and television industry.

Dana Canedy

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In 2001, Dana Canedy won a Pulitzer Prise for her work co-authoring the series “How Race Is Lived in America”. This award was a culmination of two decades of journalism with the New York Times. That was only the beginning to the impressive list of her accomplishments. In 2008, she wrote a memoir titled A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor, which details the journal her fiancé left for her son before his death in the Iraq War. In 2018, her book was adapted into a film co-produced and directed by Denzel Washington. One year earlier, Canedy made history as the first person of color and the youngest administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. As administrator, she said that the organization will defend press freedom during a time when the media is criticized by all sides.

But making history once wasn’t good enough for Canedy. In 2020, she became the first Black person to head a major publishing imprint, in her case: Simon & Schuster. Canedy works tirelessly to cultivate diversity within the workplace. Since publishing is about telling stories, she sees the value in uplifting different voices to inspire change. These beliefs have stayed constant regardless of her job title, which gives many confidence that her time at Simon & Schuster will be transformative for the institution.

Bozoma Saint John

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Bozoma Saint John made history when she was hired to be Netflix’s chief marketing officer in June 2020. While she is the first Black C-suite executive at the company, she certainly has experience within C-suite roles. After working in marketing at PepsiCo, Beats Music, and later Apple, Saint John took on her first executive role in 2017 as Uber’s chief brand officer. In 2018, she joined Endeavor, a holding company for talent and media agencies, as chief marketing officer. Two years later, she took her current role as chief marketing officer of Netflix.

Saint John is also heavily involved in activism and philanthropy. She was one of the founders of the Instagram initiative #ShareTheMicNow, which coordinated 52 Black women to take over the Instagram feeds of 52 white women during the peak of the Black Lives Matter Movement to catalyze change. Saint John herself took over Kourtney Kardashian’s account. As for philanthropy, Saint John represents Pencils of Promise as a Global Ambassador to Ghana and serves on the boards of Girls Who Code and Vital Voices. She is also a member of the Black Advisory Board for Impact, which addresses the widespread exclusion of Black people in the fashion industry.

She has been recognized by multiple organizations for her far-reaching impact. In 2016, Billboard recognized her as Female Executive of the Year. In the same year, Fortune magazine included her in their 40 Under 40 list. Adweek calls her one of the Most Exciting Personalities in Advertising. Saint John’s extensive experience makes her a pioneer for future Black leaders in corporate America.

Allyson Felix

Photo courtesy of David Ramos

Allyson Felix has a lengthy list of accomplishments. The Olympic track and field athlete specialized in two types of sprints: the 200 meter and the 400 meter. In her time as a 200-meter sprinter, she is a two time Olympic silver medalist (2004 and 2006), a three time world champion (2005-2009), the 2011 world bronze medalist, and the 2012 Olympic champion. As a 400-meter sprinter, she is the 2011 world silver medalist, 2015 world champion, 2016 Olympic silver medalist, 2017 world bronze medalist, and 2020 Olympic bronze medalist. Throughout her career, she is a ten-time national champion (2004, 2005, 2007-2012, 2015, and 2016).

Felix also played key roles on the United States women’s relay teams. She won six additional Olympic gold medals: two consecutive medals at 4 x 100 meters (2012 and 2016) and four at 4 x 400 meters (2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020). With all these medals, she is the first female track and field athlete to ever win seven Olympic gold medals. Felix is also the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history and American track and field history with 11 total Olympic medals. She holds the title of most decorated athlete in World Athletics Championship history with 18 career medals.

A lifelong athlete, Felix never took an “easy” year. That changed in 2018, when she developed pre-eclampsia, a condition that is disproportionately present in Black women and can have dangerous childbirth effects. The life-threatening circumstance forced Felix to deliver her baby through emergency C-section. After this experience, she testified before the United States House Committee on Ways and Means on the racial disparities in the medical community, especially surrounding Black mothers. Not only is Felix a world-class athlete, she is also a fierce advocate for Black women as a whole.

Thank you to everyone who took time to read this series. Black Americans deserve to be celebrated always, and hopefully this Black History Month series shined the spotlight on some that haven’t been as recognized as much as others.