African American Leaders for Today
This February, SEIU Local 1000 is shining a special spotlight on a collection of Black leaders whose recent accomplishments and impact will inspire today’s generations and many more to come. These leaders, who are shattering glass ceilings and making history in their respective fields, stand on the shoulders of pioneers who came before them, from Shirley Chisholm and John Lewis to Maya Angelou and Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Kamala Harris – first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President
On Jan. 20, 2021, Kamala Harris became the first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President of the United States.
Harris, who was born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father, spoke about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, in her first speech as vice president-elect.
“When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment,” Harris said. (Shyamala came to the U.S. in 1958 to study biochemistry.) “But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”
“So, I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women — who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight.”
Harris is also the first vice president to have graduated from a historically Black college or university (HBCU), Howard University, and credits her “sense of being and meaning” to her time as a student there. Harris is also a member of the oldest historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
And she was the first Black American to serve as California’s Attorney General from 2011 to 2016. In 2016, she was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate for the state of California.
Harris also helped others make history in December 2021 when she
hired the first all-woman senior staff for the U.S. vice
— Cory Stieg
Rosalind Brewer – Walgreens’ CEO and the only Black woman to currently lead a Fortune 500 firm
In March 2021, Rosalind Brewer, Starbucks’ former first Black and first woman chief operating officer (COO), began a new position as CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance. This makes her the only Black woman currently leading a Fortune 500 firm and just the third Black woman in history to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO.
As Walgreens’ CEO, Brewer is responsible for improving the company’s revenue amid the pandemic and tasked with overseeing the drugstore chain’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
Brewer previously spent four years at Starbucks in 2017 as COO and five years serving as the CEO of Sam’s Club, which is owned by Walmart. Prior to that, she spent 22 years working for manufacturing company Kimberly-Clark, where she started her career as a scientist and eventually worked her way up to being president of the company’s Global Nonwovens Sector in 2004.
As a longtime executive in corporate America, Brewer has been transparent about the challenges she’s faced as one of very few Black women in the C-Suite.
“When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot,” she said
during a 2018 speech at her alma mater, Spelman College.
“You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top
job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people
assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back
of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’”
– Courtney Connley
Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett – lead scientist on the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine team
At a December 2020 event hosted by theNational Urban League, Dr. Anthony Fauci had one very important thing to say about the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, aka “mRNA-1273,” approved by the FDA for emergency use that month.
“The first thing you might want to say to my African-American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African-American woman,” Fauci said. “And that is just a fact.”
Indeed, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 35-year-old viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is the lead scientist on the team that developed the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. She built on her six years of experience studying the spike proteins of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS in order to design the vaccine within two days of the novel coronavirus being discovered. (Spike proteins sit on the surface of coronaviruses and penetrate human cells, causing infection.)
“I like to call it the plug-and-play approach,” Corbett said in a virtual National Institute of Health lecture in October 2020. Dr. Corbett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Basically, the idea [is] that we had so much knowledge based on
work from us and from other labs previously that we were able to
pull the trigger on vaccine development and start the ball
rolling toward a phase 1 clinical trial.”
— Cory Stieg
Victor J. Glover, Jr. – first Black astronaut to live and work at the International Space Station for an extended stay
When NASA astronaut Victor Glover arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) — roughly 250 miles above earth— on a SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule in November 2020, he settled in for a six-month stay to become the first Black astronaut to live and work on ISS for an extended period of time. (Of the more than 300 NASA astronauts who have been sent to space, only 14 have been Black Americans.)
“It is bittersweet, because I’ve had some amazing colleagues before me that really could have done it, and there are some amazing folks that will go behind me,” Glover, who is serving as pilot and second-in-command on the crew, told The Christian Chronicle in November 2020. “I wish it would have already been done, but I try not to draw too much attention to it.”
Before becoming a NASA astronaut, Glover was a commander and test
pilot in the U.S. Navy, where he flew 2,000 hours in over 40
aircraft and 24 combat missions. Glover got his bachelors in
general engineering from California Polytechnic State University
in San Luis Obispo, California and received multiple related
graduate school degrees, including a masters in flight test
engineering from Air University and a masters in Systems
Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School.
– Catherine Clifford