Who is the next John Lewis?
That question quickly became the directive for this Leaders of Change project: Find the hardworking small-town activist, compelling national thought leader, outspoken public figure who is pushing for change — a person with the ability to rise up and lead the nation through the chaos of today’s civil rights fight.
When I think about the late activist, who died in July after a battle with cancer, I think of a young Lewis (captured permanently in black-and-white footage) walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, standing up to state troopers who tried to beat him down.
But of course there was much more to the congressman, who remained an energetic and dynamic leader until his last breath at 80. More than anything, he encapsulated a sense of hope, something I felt strongly during my interview with filmmaker Dawn Porter. She was one of our picks, not just for her recently released film about Lewis, but also for her collection of social justice work that includes an examination of justice system struggles for poor people in the deep South.
As a representative in Congress for 33 years, Lewis also stood up against the mistreatment of immigrants, making a plea on the House floor to remove innocent children from cages: “That’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just,” he said of undocumented children at the border. That sentiment is echoed in the work of Viri Hernandez, executive director of Arizona’s Poder in Action, who came to the United States undocumented as a child and has spent her young life trying to end “the violence our communities face at the hands of police: family separation through the killing of loved ones or through deportation.” She is one of many Latinas profiled in our project.
Lewis fought for economic equality through job creation. Entrepreneur Aurora James began waging a modern-day fight for economic uplift when she demanded that major retailers sell products from Black-owned businesses. See her story below.
And the work of young Lewis — the one who marched through Selma, sat at lunch counters and made a stirring call for action at the March on Washington — can be seen through the work of so many today: Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the national Black Lives Matter movement; Deja McCottrell, a young woman in Brockton, Massachusetts, who led thousands through the streets of her hometown to protest police violence; and 18-year-old Grace Jackson in Montgomery, whose stirring speech at the Alabama Capitol solidified the place of her generation in the modern-day civil rights movement. All of their stories can be found below.
The demand for equality involves change not just in the nation’s approach to justice, but also in its willingness to develop new approaches to philanthropy and the arts, in housing and economic mobility, in environmental approaches to poor Black and brown communities. We organized this project by 10 civil rights themes to reflect that complexity. This also allowed us to highlight group actions like those of doctors nationwide who took a knee to protest police brutality in the wake George Floyd’s death.
Who is the next great leader of change?
Ultimately, the USA TODAY Network’s editors couldn’t find just one person who captured the dynamism of a leader like Lewis. Instead, we carefully chose more than 30 national and local activists, business leaders, artists, politicians and public figures who encapsulate some aspect of the modern-day push for awareness and change.
We hope you agree with our picks.
More than that, we’d like to know who you would nominate as a leader of change.
Who are the unsung heroes in your family? Your community? Nominate them. Tell us who you would pick and why with this nomination form; leave a message on our Leaders of Change hotline at (240) 583-0997 or tell us on Twitter using #leadersofchange.
We may feature your nominated leader in an upcoming USA TODAY video, story or column.
Meanwhile, enjoy learning more about our choices in the interactive below.
Eileen Rivers is the digital content editor for USA TODAY Opinion
Explore Leaders of Change by topic
Darren Walker: president, Ford Foundation
Most people don’t think of philanthropy as a way to fight for social justice, but Ford Foundation President Darren Walker routinely preaches its civil rights value. He ought to know. He runs an organization that specializes in social justice with a $13 billion budget for giving. His foundation supports Color of Change, the racial justice group run by another Leader of Change (see below), and the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice organization that works to, among other things, overturn wrongful convictions and abolish the death penalty.
In his Leaders of Change column, Walker cites others who give, including Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, who sold a painting and donated $100 million of the proceeds to create the Art for Justice Fund, which advocates for an end to mass incarceration.
Walker knows that philanthropy has to work in conjunction with other efforts for justice to really take hold.
In a recent New York Times column, “Are you willing to give up your privilege? Philanthropy alone won’t save the American dream,” Walker praises philanthropy for helping him move from poverty to privilege, and pulling him away from “a structurally racist policing and criminal-justice system.” But social mobility has become harder for today’s generation, and income inequality requires a “redesign and rebuild” of American systems.
Johnny Perez: director, U.S. Prisons Program, National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Johnny Perez fights for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, not just because he has heard about their suffering in the system, but because he has lived it.
Perez, who has also worked as a safe reentry advocate at the Urban Justice Center, went from a Rikers Island inmate pushed into solitary confinement at the age of 16 to being one of New York City’s leading criminal justice reform advocates. At a time when the nation is focusing more than ever on combating police violence, Perez forces us as a society to look at what we are doing to those he calls the most vulnerable among us — incarcerated populations (some of whom are locked up for nonviolent, low-level offenses) whose brutality at the hands of law enforcement is never recorded, seen or protested by a caring public. “There were times when I feared being killed by the same guards who had sworn to protect me,” Perez said in his Leaders of Change column.
Perez was locked up as a teen for carrying a gun and ultimately spent 13 years incarcerated — three of which were in solitary. As he once wrote for USA TODAY: “I was held in that isolated cell, which was no larger than a small New York City apartment bathroom.”
Rashad Robinson: president, Color of Change
Rashad Robinson’s organization has declared a state of emergency. It is demanding more investments in health care and housing and less spending on policing. The demands fit the current climate and Robinson’s penchant for pushing change in the social and the political arenas.
Robinson has been a busy grassroots activist. After two Black men were handcuffed, escorted out of a Starbucks and arrested in Philadelphia (simply for waiting for a business associate without ordering food) he led the call for justice system reform through prosecutorial change. He and his group have found new ways to practice old-school civil rights initiatives — using online petitions to stop racial targeting and using the internet to inform voters about how changing prosecutors can change justice systems.
“In America,” Robinson said in his Leaders of Change column, “changing the very structure of society is what’s required for Black people to live in peace and security.”
Coss Marte: owner, CONBODY
Not many people would say they want the experience of someone who has been incarcerated. But Coss Marte, the CEO and founder of CONBODY, is making at least one aspect of his incarceration experience appealing to everyone.
When he entered prison, he was, as he described himself, “grossly overweight.” When he left, he was 70 pounds lighter. How did he get there? By running around the yard and exercising in the confined spaces of his cell.
Now, through his company, he’s teaching everyone how to have a body like his. But, more important, he’s teaching the formerly incarcerated how to get out of prison and have a positive reentry experience like his. He only hires formerly incarcerated people and trains them to teach fitness classes.
“I learned quickly that even after someone has paid his debt to society and is released from prison, he faces more than 44,000 collateral consequences in America,” Marte explained.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi: founders, national Black Lives Matter movement
Alicia Garza is one of the three women who have inspired the world to shout Black Lives Matter. Garza, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, gave life to what is now being called the modern-day civil rights movement. After the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, they pushed out a tweet that encapsulated what it seems this nation so quickly and repeatedly forgets: that #blacklivesmatter.
Among the three of them, they’ve marched to protest killings at the hands of police; traveled to the Middle East in solidarity with, and to learn protest techniques from, other marginalized groups; and met with former President Barack Obama about the changes needed in U.S. police departments.
Muriel Bowser: mayor, Washington, D.C.
As the nation watched President Donald Trump’s administration unleash troops on protesters in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser found a way to fight back with what she tweeted is a “night light” that can be seen from the White House. Since then, many cities across the country have adopted the same night light. The road to the White House is lit up with the yellow beacon declaring, on painted asphalt, that “Black Lives Matter.” The painting runs down 16th Street, a Northwest section of which has been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.
During CNN’s Mayors Who Matter Town Hall, Bowser (one of four mayors invited to the discussion) made her stance on responding to police brutality in her city clear. “It’s important that prosecution happens,” she said, and that “we’re holding our prosecuting offices responsible” for going after bad cops. Police alone, she said during the town hall, can’t make neighborhoods safe.
Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke: president and CEO, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies
Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke worked for the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1996 and started a consulting firm, years later, to help some candidates raise money and to train others to run for political office. She raised millions of dollars for candidates of color, she said, but she ran into exponentially more challenges for women of color than any other group. Instead, she found out how much easier it still is for the “old boys network” to get involved in politics and succeed.
Her latest mission: to get women of color, and more specifically Asian American women, involved in the political process at all levels. Born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and German American father, she has won awards for her efforts to give a political voice to those often left out of the conversation.
“The storyline of Asian Americans in the United States is not well known or discussed,” said Mielke, even though Asian Americans have been in the United States since the 1600s.
Rae Martinez, director of Texas Rising, says her group is all about engaging young people to vote, to campaign, to be involved, even when legislators don’t. Texas Rising — like Rock the Vote, the Youth Voter Movement and dozens more groups — works to ensure that this key voting bloc’s voice isn’t lost, especially the voice of young people of color, who are waging a revolution against brutal treatment (both by police and border patrol), but frequently don’t see lawmakers who look like them. A look at the problems and some potential solutions through one group’s work, Texas Rising, below.
‘Young people of color don’t even see themselves represented in politics’
People of color are rising in numbers in Texas, says Rae Martinez, director of Texas Rising, a group that encourages young people to vote.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Aurora James: founder, creative director, Brother Vellies
Aurora James is an entrepreneur who has built her business, and her life it seems, around fashion and the fashionable — cut to her standing beside her date, Solange, on the 2018 Met Gala red carpet as the singer sported a pair of high heels from James’ company, Brother Vellies.
But lately her life has also centered around Black economic power and upward mobility in a much bigger way. Earlier this year, after the death of George Floyd, James found a way to help bridge what has long been a gap between Black businesses and major retailers. She used Instagram to get companies like Sephora, West Elm and Rent the Runway to sell more goods produced by Black-owned businesses. Her Fifteen Percent Pledge was the answer to companies searching to diversify as overwhelming masses of Americans from all backgrounds for the first time reacted to Black injustice at the hands of police.
“Black culture,” says a sign on 15percentpledge.org, “is no longer available for free consumption.”
Fashion designer asks big vendors to commit to racial equity
Aurora James created the 15PercentPledge, which asks large retailers to commit to buying 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Duane Johnson: co-founder, Tuloko
Duane Johnson describes himself as a scrappy entrepreneur. It took him years to find creative ways to fund his start-up, including taking seed money from an incubator in South America, where his business partner had to relocate for a year. But what he and his co-founder did to get their company off the ground isn’t unlike what a lot of Black entrepreneurs have to do to start businesses, to find customers and to maintain revenue.
Last year, venture capitalists spent less than 1% of their $130 billion for start-ups on Black founders, Johnson explained in his Leaders of Change column.
He hopes that his company, Tuloko (named after the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a “Black Wall Street” once thrived), and his work with the University of Minnesota will help make the work of Black business ownership a bit easier. Tuloko is one of the largest databases of Black businesses in the country. The goal? To connect businesses to suppliers and give Black entrepreneurs a step up when it comes to procurement.
Monique W. Morris: author, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools”; executive director, Grantmakers for Girls of Color
Start with the premise that educators “believe in the promise of all children,” said Monique Morris, whose book is about how Black girls get unfair treatment in the U.S. school system and are pushed into criminal justice at a rate higher than their peers. Then acknowledge, she explained, that schools need to create systems that stop facilitating inequality.
Morris’ book-turned-documentary shows how difficult it is for systems to change. A clip from the documentary on pushoutfilm.com begins with a painful scene that anyone who has been paying attention in America likely remembers: A school resource officer approaches a young Black girl sitting at her desk, grabs her upper body and yanks her out of the chair, flipping the desk over on her body before dragging her away.
To protect Black girls, school resource officers need to be removed from school campuses, Morris said in a recent column for USA TODAY.
In the video below, she talks about the documentary and her book, among the first to deal with the mistreatment of Black girls in education.
Author: ‘I had to address’ harm that Black girls were experiencing
Girls were being harmed more than boys in public schools, but no one was talking about it says Monique Morris, author of “PushOut.”
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
Leila Morsy: research associate, Economic Policy Institute
Most people don’t think about how something as day to day as shift work can affect outcomes for children in low-income neighborhoods. As a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, Leila Morsy not only studied its impact but also petitioned corporations to change practices damaging the children of janitors, hotel maids and other shift workers.
She also researches and writes about other practices that make it hard for minority families (and more specifically their children) to generationally advance — redlining to block off access to better housing for Black and brown people being one of the most egregious.
Dr. John Rich: co-director, Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, Drexel University School of Public Health
When it comes to trauma, Black men have specific needs that, until John Rich’s Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, were not only going largely unmet but also unrecognized.
Rich developed a medical language and practice rooted at the nexus of police violence, emotional and social trauma and the physical wounds that can come from all three.
“So great has this mistrust for the police grown that across the country, fewer and fewer young Black people trust the police enough to cooperate with them even after life-threatening injury,” Rich wrote in his Leaders of Change column.
Compound that with the mistrust of the health care system present in a lot of Black communities today, and that’s a formula for long-term medical mistreatment and neglect.
“This tendency to literally ‘blame the victim’ when he is a Black man undermines their collective trust in the health care system, which in turn further erodes the health of the entire community.”
In 2014, in response to the deaths at the hands of police of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, more than 3,000 medical students participated in a die-in in solidarity with the thousands of protesters nationwide who were doing the same.
That’s how White Coats for Black Lives got started.
This year, after the death of George Floyd, thousands of doctors demonstrated again by taking a knee (reflective of the protest of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick).
The group also issues annual racial justice report cards — rankings of medical schools based on 14 metrics, including race-based targeting by campus police, training of campus police, whether the school’s curriculum addresses racism in medicine, and the school’s commitment to protecting immigrant patients, students and staff.
Indeed, activism for Black lives since Floyd’s death by a slew of organizations composed of people from various ethnic backgrounds is stronger than ever.
Below, Nivedita Lakhera, a California doctor who took a knee in solidarity this year, explains the importance of combating racism in medicine and beyond.
‘White Coats for Black Lives cannot be just one event for one year’
California doctor Nivedita Lakhera talks about the day of protest when doctors took a knee, racism and the death of George Floyd.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Majora Carter: urban revitalization strategy consultant, Majora Carter Group
Majora Carter now calls herself an urban revitalization strategy consultant, but to most who know her work, she will likely be remembered as the urban environmentalist who was way ahead of her time.
In the early 2000s, she was preaching about the connection between majority Black communities burdened with chemical plants (and industrial waste) and obesity, diabetes and poor health care.
“Unfortunately, race and class are extremely reliable indicators as to where one might find the good stuff like parks and trees and the bad stuff like power plants and waste facilities,” Carter said during a TED Talk.
Long before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., included a revamp of public housing in last year’s Green New Deal, Carter preached about the vital need for green spaces in inner-city neighborhoods like the South Bronx (her hometown in New York) and fitting new builds in urban environments with green roofs.
If it all sounds obvious now, it’s because Carter made it so.
Soon after that TED Talk, she started Green For All, a nonprofit organization that continues to focus on issues at the intersection of race, the environment and poverty.
Below, Claire Thornton, USA TODAY podcast editor, and Eileen Rivers, project editor, talk about the beginnings of Carter’s work and how she, more than anyone else, gave a sense of urgency to urban environmentalism and the complex issues behind environmental justice.
Thabiti Anyabwile: pastor, Anacostia River Church
As the nation embarks on a second civil rights fight, it doesn’t hurt to reflect on some of the most important aspects of the first. A significant one was the role of the church. It was a place to organize and spread the word about the movement, lend support and reinforce faith in the nation’s ability to change through the speeches of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
While today’s movement doesn’t depend as much on houses of worship, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile is a strong connection between the Gospel-driven, inspirational movement of the past and today’s social media-driven call that #blacklivesmatter.
Anyabwile preaches at Anacostia River Church — in the predominantly Black area of Southeast Washington, D.C. — relating stories of bloodshed in the Bible to that of the blood shed by Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police. He speaks of the death of Ahmaud Arbery as “neighbors who did not understand neighbor love.”
But he doesn’t just preach. Like civil rights leaders of the past, he marches.
Below, USA TODAY podcast editor Claire Thornton and Eileen Rivers, project editor, talk about Anyabwile’s sermons, his writing and his participation in the movement.
Dawn Porter: filmmaker
Dawn Porter decided to make films to tell stories of struggle and injustice. She also shines a light on an America most people don’t get to see. She has certainly shown the world a much deeper side of the late Rep. John Lewis in her latest release, “Good Trouble.” We knew he was tough. Footage of the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader sitting at segregated lunch counters is enough to prove that.
But few likely knew about the level of energy he maintained through the end, his faith not just in God but in love, and how unwavering his hope was for a better America.
Porter captured that and more.
“To understand what motivated the congressman,” Lewis said in her column for our project, “you must understand his particular form of faith. Faith in God certainly, but also faith in the power of love. He told me he would practice loving those who described themselves as his enemy. And in doing so, he never lost sight of their humanity. What he learned is that there is great power in passive resistance. The power to determine your own path, rather than have it be dictated by someone else’s hate.”
Kyle Abraham: choreographer, artistic director A.I.M. dance company
Kyle Abraham tackles issues that, until very recently, haven’t been on the radar of many of his contemporaries — namely those centering around the struggles of Black men in America. In the middle of choreographing a piece for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater about the generational nature of mass incarceration, Abraham was confronted by a police shooting that forced him to rethink the direction of his choreography: “While we’re making this work, I’m left thinking about the fact that so many people that look like me can’t even make it to the prisons. We’re being shot before we get to even a trial.”
“Untitled America” was created in 2016, but the death of George Floyd and the continued disproportionate incarceration of Black men and boys makes the piece just as powerful four years later.
Abraham created “Pavement” in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Abraham works, he said, to “support and represent my culture.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates: writer
When it comes to the fight for reparations, perhaps no one has been more outspoken than award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
He has not just been talking about the need for them, he also has been among the many thought leaders talking about the forms in which they could come, moving the conversation away from one that centers around money (and the perception of greed) to one that focuses on education, job creation and the improvement of the Black community.
When Coates testified before Congress last year, he stated: “We perceive the era of enslavement, the era of Jim Crow and … the era of mass incarceration as separate things that are somehow not tied to each other. The greatest damage that enslavement did … is (create) the institution in the American mind that Black people are necessarily inferior. In 1865, when Black people were emancipated, that belief did not magically dissipate.”
His 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” put the topic, for most Americans, into the modern-day civil rights conversation.
Below, podcast editor Claire Thornton and project editor Eileen Rivers on the work and influence of Coates.
Favianna Rodriguez: Painter, activist
It’s easy to see the influence of Favianna Rodriguez’s Oakland, Calif., upbringing in her artwork. One painting includes the word “power” above a dark brown fist, reminiscent of the Black Panther movement that originated in her city. Another features Black and brown people forming a circle around the word “equity,” which points to the gender rights she fights for now because she saw so many women affected by “machismo” in her family.
That influence is also visible in her activism: “I work on climate issues because I grew up in a polluted community. I experienced sexism my entire life … and so today I organize for gender equity.”
Her work for gender equality and minority rights can be seen in her involvement with 5050by2020, a group that was started as part of the Time’s Up movement, and whose mission is to ensure more female and minority representation in leadership roles in Hollywood.
Colin Kaepernick: activist, former NFL quarterback
Colin Kaepernick is not the first athlete to sacrifice his career for his principles. Flashback to 1967 when Muhammad Ali lost his title and sacrificed potential championship titles, money and endorsements to protest the war in Vietnam.
The difference between Ali and Kaepernick? Ali staged a comeback.
It has been three years since Kaepernick started a wave of protests among athletes by being the first to take a knee during the national anthem and refusing to relent, even after being called unpatriotic and anti-American.
Much has happened, but a lot hasn’t. Kaepernick has written a book; he started a publishing company that will, among other things, prioritize the works of marginalized minorities and social justice issues. But the main thing he has been waiting for, a shot at getting back into the NFL, is the main thing not happening.
After the killing of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, however, even the NFL has been forced to recognize Kaepernick’s social justice leadership.
For more on Kaepernick’s story, his probability of getting back in the NFL and why he was chosen as a leader of change listen to this podcast with USA TODAY Sports columnist Jarrett Bell.
Bubba Wallace: driver, NASCAR
Bubba Wallace, the only full-time Black driver in NASCAR, has experienced racism since he started in the sport as a kid.
At the age of 13, he recalled during one interview, his father confronted the father of another driver for using the N-word in reference to the young teen. When something similar happened involving an official after a different race, his father demanded that either the official who lobbed the word against him was gone, or Wallace’s team would never return. The official was dismissed immediately, according to Wallace.
So when an uprising occurred after the death of George Floyd, and the nation began confronting police brutality and, along with that, Confederate symbols, it didn’t take much for Wallace to demand that NASCAR act. He pushed for a ban of the Confederate battle flag so that families, all families, could enjoy NASCAR events. NASCAR quickly complied. He also sported a Black Lives Matter car at the Martinsville Speedway.
NASCAR was ready for the message. Several drivers had teamed up to create a video in which they stated their commitment to learning about racial injustice in order to “advocate for change in our nation, our communities and … our own homes.” Drivers also observed a moment of silence before a race.
Below, podcast editor Claire Thornton and project editor Eileen Rivers on Wallace’s demands for NASCAR, his emotional response to the deaths of Floyd and Arbery, and the history of Black drivers in NASCAR.