February is Black History Month, an important time to reflect on all the brave people who fought for equality and justice. While we often look back at activists from the 1800s or the 1960s, it’s important to remember that the fight isn’t over yet. Every day, people are dedicated to creating a safe and equal environment for everyone, one where creativity and expression can flow freely and no one fears being targeted for the color of their skin.
On this list, you’ll find some of the celebrities who have devoted their resources to equality, and some who have broken important barriers in their respective fields. Some of them are our most charitable celebrities, while others find more unconventional ways to give back. Just like some of our favorite male celebrities who support feminism, these stars give us some hope that true change is possible.
18. Oprah Winfrey
Perhaps no one embodies the American dream quite like Oprah Winfrey. Oprah grew up in poverty, but through hard work and determination, she became the richest African-American person ever. She has donated more than $400 million to educational causes, including more than 400 college scholarships for black youths. In 2007, she opened a school for girls in South Africa, dedicated to bringing good educational programs to an underserved part of the world. Oprah might not want to run for President in 2020, but she has a huge impact regardless.
17. Halle Berry
When Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001, she made history as the first black women to receive the honor. 17 years later, she still stands alone in that category. Born to a black father and a white mother, Berry says that growing up biracial was painful and confusing at times, but she quickly decided that she wanted to identify as a black woman. She’s used her platform as an activist for a variety of causes, including environmental issues and harassment of celebrities’ children. Halle is often at the top of lists of the most beautiful people in the world, but she’s much more than just a pretty face.
16. Barack Obama
On a list like this, Barack Obama really needs no explanation. As our country’s first black President, he broke one of the largest barriers in the fight for equality. In his eight years in office, he worked tirelessly to promote initiatives that would help people in need, most notably his sweeping health care legislation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for helping to bring people together, becoming only the fourth President to win the honor. Plans are currently in the works for his Presidential Library on the South Side of Chicago, aimed at bringing economic growth to a famously rough neighborhood.
Rihanna might not seem that serious from just listening to her music, but she uses her influence in various ways. She has a foundation that raises money for medical services in her native Barbados, raising millions of dollars each year to provide hospital care for people in need. She has also been involved in charity initiatives with brands like MAC, Cartier, and H&M;, putting her image out there to bring attention to important causes like HIV/AIDS and cancer research. In addition to her charitable work, her makeup line Fenty Beauty has been applauded for its range of 40 foundation shades, giving representation to people of color who are often underserved by top cosmetic brands.
14. Wyclef Jean
If you know anything about Wyclef Jean, it’s probably that he’s from Haiti. In the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, Wyclef became one of the leading figures in the effort to rebuild. He even considered running for President of the country, though he hadn’t lived there recently enough to be eligible. In the past few years, his charity, Yéle Haiti, was shut down over questions of mishandling funds, but there’s no question that Wyclef Jean did a lot of good for his country. Sometimes raising awareness is the most important first step in addressing an issue, and Wyclef helped put Haiti on the map, if you will, for a lot of Americans who didn’t give it much thought.
13. Kerry Washington
Kerry Washington plays an incredible character on Scandal, but she’s pretty incredible in real life, too. She has dedicated her time to many important causes to support LGBT rights and fight against violence towards women and girls. Along with her fellow Shonda Rhimes stars Ellen Pompeo and Viola Davis, she campaigned actively for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election. Recently, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Kerry spoke out about being an activist, saying that being an actor helps her “embody the worth and humanity of all people.” Scandal is coming to an end soon, but we have a feeling that Kerry is just getting started.
Beyoncé is a woman of many talents, and one of them is using her voice for good. She’s contributed her time and money to many causes, including Hurricane Katrina relief, female empowerment, and gun control policy. In her music, she’s also made statements about racial equality. With her song “Formation” and its performance at the Super Bowl, Bey raised her voice in support of #BlackLivesMatter, with the video even including graffiti saying “stop shooting us.” Powerful messages like these can cause controversy, but they’re also the beginnings of meaningful change.
11. Kendrick Lamar
Throughout his career, Kendrick Lamar has used his music to explore complex themes like racism and social injustice. His powerful lyrics are an incredible tool to spread an important message, and he has received near-universal acclaim for most of his work, including 12 Grammy awards. In 2016, he met with President Obama to discuss a program designed to help get young men of color on a successful life path. Recently, he curated the soundtrack for the Black Panther movie, which is itself an important step forward for equal representation for people of color in the arts. Kendrick has an exciting future ahead of him, and we’ll be right there for his next step.
10. Colin Kaepernick
Not a lot of people would sacrifice for their beliefs like Colin Kaepernick has. As the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick ignited a huge controversy in 2016 when he refused to stand for the National Anthem at the beginning of games. His small act of protest, aimed at calling out racial inequality and police brutality, angered many people, but also inspired others. Unfortunately, being a leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement hasn’t helped his football career, and he went the entire 2017 season being unsigned by any team. Sometimes fighting for what’s right comes with harsh consequences, but Colin Kaepernick is still a trailblazer no matter what and has our support.
9. Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington is one of our best actors, winning two Academy Awards for his work. Many of his movie roles are intricate depictions of the black experience, giving a voice to people who didn’t have the ability to speak out. He is a portrait of pure black excellence in his films, but he also works hard off-set to make a difference. He has been a spokesperson and board member for Boys & Girls Clubs of America for more than 20 years, helping to build a sense of belonging and worth in younger generations. He has also donated more than $1 million to the Nelson Mandela Children’s fund, helping children in need in Africa.
8. LeBron James
Since his NBA debut in 2003, LeBron James has built an amazing career and an incredible legacy. He is regularly voted as the league’s most popular player, and he was the first black man to appear on the cover of Vogue. But he’s also dedicated to creating change in the world. At the 2016 ESPY Awards, LeBron gave a speech in honor of Muhammad Ali: “To do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence.” LeBron is one of the most well-known and influential athletes in the world, and his message is clear.
7. Queen Latifah
You might know Queen Latifah from her romantic comedies, but there’s a hell of a lot more to her story. She was one of the most popular early female rappers in the 1990s, and many of her lyrics contained messages in support of racial equality and female empowerment. In recent years, her career has shifted away from hip-hop, but those messages are still just as important. In 2016, she commented on the racist values embedded in our society, saying that it’s up to all of us to change our attitudes and perspectives. She also teamed up with Missy Elliot to support Michelle Obama‘s “Let Girls Learn” initiative, aimed at bringing education to girls everywhere.
Common is another example of an artist who has used his music to spread messages of progress. In 2015, he won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Glory,” from the civil rights biopic that he starred in, Selma. The song, also featuring John Legend, is a powerful tribute to the civil rights movement and all the work that still needs to be done. He is also an outspoken supporter of #BlackLivesMatter, appearing in a documentary about Ferguson in 2015. Common does his best work when it’s related to these important issues.
5. Ava DuVernay
Female directors are depressingly hard to come by, and black female directors are practically nonexistent in Hollywood. Luckily, Ava DuVernay is starting to change that. She shot to the top of the industry after directing Selma, and her documentary 13th is an eye-opening look at how our government is designed to keep people of color behind bars. Her next project is the highly-anticipated adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, which stars Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. Ava’s revolutionary work will hopefully inspire a whole generation of little girls to get behind the camera and direct.
4. Spike Lee
While there are almost no black female directors, there haven’t been that many prominent male ones either. Spike Lee, who has been directing since the 1980s, broke into an industry that was painfully white, and he gained respect by putting in the hard work for years. He’s produced over 35 movies since 1983, and many of them contain themes of race relations and discrimination within the black community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Lee called out the government for not doing enough to help black Americans, and has repeatedly called for stricter gun regulations. Spike Lee never apologizes for speaking out about his beliefs, whether through his films or in life.
3. Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah has quickly become a household name since he started hosting The Daily Show in 2015, and we really love him. He wasn’t the first black host in late night (that was Arsenio Hall), but it’s still a major achievement. Noah’s background growing up in South Africa during the fall of Apartheid gives him a unique perspective on American politics, and he puts it to good use. Whether during solo segments, or major TV moments like his interview of Tomi Lahren, Trevor Noah is constantly being shared all over the internet, bringing black representation to a field that is still dominated by white men. Now, if we could just get a woman in late night.
2. Jesse Williams
Jesse Williams might be best known for his role on Grey’s Anatomy, but he stays pretty busy off the small screen, too. He has garnered lots of recognition in recent years for his work as a civil rights activist, something he takes very seriously. He serves on the board of directors of The Advancement Project, a nonprofit aimed at solving problems of racial justice. He also produces Question Bridge, a media project designed to question the identity and diversity of black males. In 2016, he was given the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards, giving an inspirational speech highlighting police brutality and racial injustice. If you haven’t watched it yet, do that right now.
1. Michelle Obama
It didn’t feel right to make this list without our girl Michelle Obama. During her time as the First Lady, Obama was dedicated to a number of causes, and she did it all with grace and poise that we aspire to have someday. One of her most important causes is girls’ education, with the “Let Girls Learn” initiative committed to getting adolescent girls around the world the education that they deserve. Obama was also focused on health and fitness, ending poverty, and LGBT rights, just to name a few. We can’t wait to see what Michelle Obama still has planned because she’ll surely be amazing at it.