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Image: Time Out

11 amazing women who changed the world in the last year

Toast these game changers from across the United States.

Written by
Sarah Medina
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To celebrate Women's History Month, we’re raising a glass to the Americans we're dubbing the Women of the Year. In the middle of a pandemic which has disproportionately affected women in the workforce, these women have not only survived, but channeled their efforts into making their local communities (and in some cases the whole world) a better place. Get to know the chefs, creatives, entrepreneurs, artists, activists and thinkers who are doing right by their cities, including groundbreaking chefs, of-the-moment scribes, a bonafide national treasure, and many more standouts from throughout the United States. 

RECOMMENDED: We're obsessed with these barrier-breaking all-women groups in the USA

Women of the Year 2021

Paola Velez | Washington DC
Photograph: Courtesy Paola Velez, Design: Time Out

Paola Velez | Washington DC

Paola Velez may have had famous mentors—she was the youngest pastry sous chef ever appointed under famed French chocolatier Jacques Torres—and served in positions of power—she's currently the Executive Pastry Chef of Maydan, Compass Rose and La Bodega—but her path to becoming a pastry chef was a rocky one. "I started out in culinary because I had never seen a pastry chef of color," she says. "When I applied for pastry jobs, I had to pass that first hurdle of having a very Latin-sounding name. And when I showed up for interviews as an Afro-Latina, I was often told that the position had been filled. But I kept applying because I knew someone even better than me will come along. And she will rock the cullinary industry because she will see me and have the confidence to apply."

Velez ended up at Kith and Kin in D.C. where she crafted traditional American sweets infused with flavors from the African Diaspora (think plantain sticky buns or guava-and-cheese and dulce de leche babkas) —and the accolades starting rolling in, including a James Bear nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Then the pandemic hit and Velez was furloughed as restaurants shuttered across the country. "I was really angry that my career had come to a halt, but I realized I was in a position of privelege. What about the undocumented kitchen workforce who are underappreciated, underpaid and forgotten?"

In May 2020, Velez started a donut pop-up where a portion of the proceeds went to Ayuda, a D.C. non-profit that supports undocumented immigrants. In June, she wanted to expand her work. Alongside fellow chefs Willa Pelini and Rob Rubba, they started Bakers Against Racism. They hoped 80 bakers across the country would join in a virtual bake sale to raise money for Black lives. Almost one year later, the movement has raised more than two million dollars from bake sales in more than 200 U.S. cities and 13 countries. Says Velez, "We did what we knew how to do best, which is bake and celebrate life. And I'll do it when the cameras are on and when no one is paying attention anymore." 

Any advice for other young BIPOC women who are looking to break into white- and male-dominated fields?

Do your research. Know your ratios and techniques like the back of your hand. Build your portfolio on social media and don't be shy in sharing what you know how to do. It takes time—what's for you won't ever pass you. 

Every home kitchen should have a ... 

Vitamix. You can ground coffee, puree soups, make salt. You can even make ice cream in it!

Underrated dessert that deserves its time in the spotlight: 

Stop seeing panna cotta as a "lazy" dessert. They're simple but beautiful in texture and presentation and they can support so many flavors year round. Make more panna cottas! 

Easiest dessert for novice bakers to perfect: 

A one-bowl chocolate cake. 

Post-pandemic plans: 

Somewhere hot and tropical. 

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field we should all be looking out for: 

There are so many amazing women that are part of Black Food Folks.

 Show your support: Follow Velez's on Instagram or start your own micro-bake sale as part of Bakers Against Racism

Lindsay Rose Medoff | Los Angeles
Photograph: ATIBA JEFFERSON / Design: Time Out

Lindsay Rose Medoff | Los Angeles

Lindsay Rose Medoff was very surprised to learn she would be a part of this list. "We're over here with our heads and hands down; I never know if people know what we're up to." But here's the thing: Everyone should absolutely know and pay attention to Medoff's 100 percent vertical sewing and production shop in Northeast L.A., Suay.

The activist sew shop puts reclaimed textiles at the center of their revolution in an attempt to eradicate the massive amount of waste that comes from the fast fashion industry. In 2019, Suay diverted over 250,000 pounds of garments from landfills. In 2020, Suay started a food distribution program that feeds more than 200 garment workers and their families each week, and partnered with national Indigenous organization Seeding Sovereignty to get much-needed PPE into the hands of Indigenous communities.

But Medoff isn't stopping there in her "unwavering dedication to the liberation of all people of the earth." The shop recently launched SUAY S.O.S.(Save Our Stuff), which includes collecting thousands of pounds of textile waste to recycle each week, offering a national repair program where anyone can send in their clothes to be repaired by a professional garment worker, and selling products such as linen quilts constructed entirely from post consumer waste. "Suay exists to prove you can supply open air, bright light, a true living wage, security, safety and career advancement to your production team and still have a business," says Medoff.

So don't be roped in by false promises from other brands; The sustainable fashion revolution is here, and Suay is the space to watch. She adds, "We don't need giant corporations to save us, because we’ve got each other." 

Advice for anyone who wants to have a positive impact in their communities: 

Start a Suay or something like it—I’ll help you! Create a donation bin, build a free rack, repair clothes with friends.

The best way for someone to break away from fast-fashion: 

Drop it fast and entirely. Just because a brand is claiming to be sustainable/ethical doesn't mean it's legit. 

The one thing you wish everyone knew about the work you're doing: 

If we think we have started to make a dent in “sustainable fashion” we are wrong. It took years of blind consumption to get here and it will take years to dig us out.

How has Covid permanently changed your industry: 

Covid made rich people richer in industries that are notorious for abusing people and the planet—that's terrifying. I feel up against more now, pulling back the curtain of brands “doing good.” Suay is up for the challenge but we need your help.

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field that we should all be looking out for: 

I give it up to every single woman working hard to make positive change in their own communities. It’s tireless work, unforgiving at times, and takes an incredible toll on you. To those women: You are seen, respected and celebrated, every day in Suay’s book.

Show your support: Donate a farm box to a garment worker. Shop Suay's line of reusable, upcycled products made entirely from landfill-bound textile waste. Send in your garments to be repaired.

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Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang | New York City
Photograph: Courtesy Tsai and Chang, Design: Time Out

Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang | New York City

Since the pandemic struck NYC in March 2020, Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang have provided 56,000 meals to elderly Asian Americans through their organization Heart of Dinner. What originally began in 2015 as a supper club that benefitted non-profits fighting food insecurity, Heart of Dinner has blossomed into a full-on project serving culturally appropriate meals to Asian American seniors who are facing isolation, hunger and fear all heightened by the pandemic. They've also provided meals under other initiatives to help support the Chinatown community, including #EnoughIsEnough and #LovingChinatown these past several months, with no personal income. 

Tsai, a chef and restaurateur, and Chang, an actor, have put their careers on hold to carry this out (with very little rest and downtime), but it's been a labor of love. "There is good and love and we're countering all the isolation, fear and frustration with encouragement, support and showing up with a smile," Chang said. "We're all in this for humanity. We're showing up for our people — our humans. I hope people can clearly see that if you raise your hand to step up, we're all better for it."

Tsai and Chang have been able to do so much, in part, because they have each other. They have been dating for almost seven years and have faced a lot together—neither of them had come out until they began dating—and they're what we consider a true "power couple." "During the early years, and during the pandemic, it felt like a pressure cooker, but it's been seamless—we're always on the same page," Chang said. "We've always been by each other’s side."—Shaye Weaver

What is the one thing that has gotten you through the pandemic?

The community that has rallied together throughout this time, my family, and Moonlynn. No matter the pandemic-related curveballs thrown our way, Moonlynn and I always see the silverlining in each and every circumstance. It’s also a huge plus that we find so much joy in each other’s love and company, not a day goes by without laughs! She’s My Person, and I couldn’t imagine going through the pandemic without her.—YC

What's your favorite spot for dinner in NYC?

The beauty of NYC is that dinner can be comprised of hopping from place to place and experiencing so many different flavors and cuisines on one route! We love taking walks around our neighborhood and venturing and visiting our friends who are local restaurant owners. One of our favorite routes is walking from Golden Diner to Partybus Bakeshop to Saigon Social and then picking up some treats at Stick With Me Sweets.—MT

What’s a new habit that’s become part of your routine during lockdown?

Oh no! I’ve always preferred a cheese plate and fried chicken over anything sweet for dessert, and this lockdown has turned me into a sweet tooth with a monstrous habit of eating treats right before bed (on our bed), no thanks to our ridiculously talented friend Susanna Yoon, founder and chocolatier at Stick With Me Sweets. She’s made me a true convert with the world’s best bon bons and sweets!—YC

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field we should all be looking out for: 

Our friend Yen Ngo (Van Da, Farmer & Sons) recently acquired a complex of buildings in the historic center of Kinderhook in Upstate New York. The history of the building is incredible—it was originally a 19th-century hat factory and knitting mill and left virtually intact. When Yin and I were walking through, we saw pieces of the original fabric laying around and the original light fixtures. Yen, alongside her partner artist Darren Waterson, are turning the complex into a new restaurant, barista, lounge, gardens, and event space. while still paying tribute to the history of the town and homage of the building. So excited to watch it come to life!—MT

Show your support: You can help deliver, write notes and more with Heart of Dinner or just donate. Go to heartofdinner.org to learn more.

Abigail Echo-Hawk | Seattle
Photograph: Samuel Fu, Design: Time Out

Abigail Echo-Hawk | Seattle

As a young, pregnant Native woman, Abigail Echo-Hawk was racially profiled and mistreated in a Seattle hospital. That experience inspired her to begin a career in public health. "I never wanted anyone else to have to experience what I did. I knew it was my responsibility to fight for good health care for Native women."

Now a Chief Research Officer at Seattle Indian Health Board and the Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, Echo-Hawk advocates for the health and wellbeing of all Native communities as well as the decolonization of data in the public health field. Her work became even more paramount when Covid hit the U.S. and Native communities across the country were disproportionately affected—and the federal government offered no help, even going so far as sending body bags instead of PPE. Echo-Hawk recalls, "In February 2020, Seattle was the first epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. We asked our local, state and federal partners for PPE, instead we were sent a box of body bags. I couldn’t help the tears and anger I felt. For more than 500 years, this is what Native people have experienced, burying our loved ones in a country that has taken, and continues to take, so much from us."

Echo-Hawk took a body bag home with her and over the next six months she transformed the source of trauma into an art work, a traditional ribbon dress which represents strength, power, and resilience. "I lined it with beaded florals meant to represent Indigenous values. I stitched the ribbons with the color of prayer, red. The sleeves are interwoven with toe tags and the string that would be tied to the toe of a body is now fringe. The stitching is jagged in places mimicking autopsy stitching. The mirrors are meant to deflect and reflect back to those who dare try to cause us harm. The words written are ones I repeat in my head every day, 'I am the tangible manifestation of my ancestors resiliency.' Red hands represent the work I do to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The handprints contain my fingerprints for a practical purpose, I told my sons, use these if I ever go missing, please never stop looking for me." 

While the process was hard, it also allowed Echo-Hawk an outlet: "I see it as a stream of ancestral consciousness brought to physical form that tells me to keep going, keep fighting, to never give up. I’ll never accept their body bags for our people, all I will accept is a world where we are thriving, ever continuing." 

How do you think Covid has permanently changed Native communities across the country?

COVID-19 highlighted what Native public health professionals had been saying for years: The health disparities that have been perpetuated by chronic neglect of the U.S.'s responsibilities to Native people resulted in high rates of infections and death during this pandemic. What has changed is this horrible impact was no longer hidden—the rest of the country saw it. And despite the horrific impact, we also illustrated what a public health response should look like: Native communities have had the greatest success vaccine distribtion. It showed the rest of the U.S. that they need to stop coming to us because they think we have the most problems, instead they need to come to us because we have the answers. 

Any advice for other young BIPOC women who are looking to break into white- and male-dominated fields?

Never doubt your brilliance and ability to contribute to these fields. Search out strong women mentors who can provide advice and support as you battle against systems that will try to devalue you and your voice. And always know that field needs you more than you need them. 

Favorite Native-owned small-business: Beyond Buckskin

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field that we should all be looking out for and supporting? 

Charlene Apok is a brilliant Inupiaq woman who is leading the efforts in Alaska to collect data the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). She is the executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice

Show your support: Donations to the Seattle Indian Health Board help provide services, conduct research and data collection, and reach health equity for Indigenous peoples.

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LaSaia Wade | Chicago
Photograph: Courtesy LaSaia Wade

LaSaia Wade | Chicago

When protesters took to the streets of Chicago last summer in response to the police killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Brave Space Alliance executive director LaSaia Wade sprang into action. “I knew it was our job to stop what we’re doing and figure out how to support people on the ground,” she says, describing how Brave Space Alliance provided food and clothing to protestors, opening up their offices as a safe space. Wade founded the South Side’s first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ+ center in 2017, after being rejected from countless jobs. She realized that, as a Black trans woman, she was searching for a place where she felt fully accepted. “There wasn’t a place where trans people could say, ‘That’s my beacon,’ but there’s a lot of places for lesbians and gay cis men,” Wade said. Over the past year, Wade has overseen a flood of support, multiplying the organization’s budget from $300,000 to $3.5 million. That money has funded the purchase of Brave Space Alliance’s Hyde Park headquarters and a slew of resources, including a food pantry, a mutual aid program and a telehealth program—all focused on supporting BIPOC trans and gender-nonconforming individuals. “If an organization is supposed to do organizational work, you’re actually doing the work of putting yourself out of business,” Wade said, stressing that the ultimate goal of Brave Space Alliance is to make its existence unnecessary. —Zach Long 

What Brave Space Alliance program do you feel has had the biggest impact over the past year?

The one that hit is the first LGBT pantry in the Midwest. We service over 300,000 people in nine months and we still are.

What is your primary goal for Brave Space Alliance in the coming year?

We’re buying two houses for homeless trans and gender-nonconforming people. My goal this year is to open our housing program.

Who has served as a source of inspiration for you?

There’s a leader I’m always talking to and she’s my gay mother, Valerie Spencer. She’s a woman who has taught me what it looks like to thrive as a trans woman but also to push myself a bit farther.

What’s the best way to support or get involved with Brave Space Alliance?

Look at your own capacity. If you can only donate, do that. If you can volunteer, do that. We accept all types and levels of time, currency and volunteers.

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field we should all be looking out for?

Kayla Gore, she created Tiny Homes for Trans Women of Color.

Show your support: Support the mission of Brave Space Alliance by making a monetary or material donation.

Dolly Parton | Nashville
Photograph: Shutterstock, Design: Time Out

Dolly Parton | Nashville

Despite having been on the scene since the 1980s, Dolly Parton has enraptured the younger generations with her charm, self-depracating jokes and ability to successfully use a "Jolene" meme. In late 2019, Parton was the subject of a popular podcast (WNYC’s “Dolly Parton’s America”), the inspiration for a Netflix series (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings), and the featured vocalist on an EDM song (the Swedish duo Galantis’s “Faith”). But it was her actions in the midst of a pandemic that made her a bonafide national treasure. In November it was revealed that her one-million-dollar donation to Covid-19 research had helped fund the Moderna vaccine and in December she released a holiday album, “A Holly Dolly Christmas,” that helped to lift spirits in the midst of a long winter. Last month we all watched as she received "a dose of her own medicine" live via social media—and with it blessed us all with a new vaccine-inspired rendition of "Jolene." 

Show your support: Get vaccinated. And do it while listening to her new single, “I Still Believe." 

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Tamieka Atkins | Atlanta
Photograph: Courtesy Tamieka Atkins, Design: Time Out

Tamieka Atkins | Atlanta

Tamieka Atkins was one of the tireless Black women who, alongside Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot and others, worked to turn Georgia blue and flip the Senate in the last election. Though she'll tell you that the organization she heads—the voter engagement advocacy organization ProGeorgia— doesn't support either political party, you still have to give her props for the astronomical voter turnout in Georgia last November, a feat which took decades of work, and was achieved in the middle of a pandemic to boot. "We build trust with the community by showing up year-round and not just treating voter registration as a transaction. We are there every day providing direct services, resources, leadership development and training opportunities. In the face of the pandemic, we were also providing food, PPE/masks, and sanitizer to community members as well." 

But Atkins didn't take much time to revel in her hard-earned victory. Just five days after the January runoff election, the legislative session in Georgia began and Tamieka has been hard at work ensuring that voting rights are protected in Georgia. She launched the #DontBotherMyBallot campaign to defend voting rights across the state in the face of over 60 anti-voting rights bills. ("We are already seeing the retaliation from those who benefit from communities of color being silenced.") And she's already got her eyes on the next election cycle. "Voter engagement is a year-round effort and it doesn’t just happen in election years. We are continuing to fight for voting rights in the face of challenges ... Our democracy doesn’t work unless we have fair and equitable participation and representation of all people." 

If you could be president for a day, what would your first executive order be? 

To free everyone who is in jail for marijuana related charges, and offer those released mental health services along with other social services that will set them up to be successful in their reentry in society. 

What makes Atlanta one of the best cities in the world? 

The music and the people, but most importantly the foundation of love, care and concern for each other, especially amongst the Black community and communities of color. 

Go-to comfort meal: 

Lemon. Pepper. Chicken. Wings. 

What one thing has gotten you through the pandemic? 

My children. Being a single parent is tough, being a single parent during a pandemic is tougher. But my girls have filled these months with laughter and love. 

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field that we should all be looking out for: 

Jakalia Brown is our Data Manager and has been combining activism with data. She is also a photographer and has been using her services to document the movement. 

Show your support: Visit the Go Vote Georgia website to find out ways to volunteer or donate. 

Amanda Gorman | Los Angeles
Photograph: Shutterstock/ Image: Time Out

Amanda Gorman | Los Angeles

In a single day—January 20, 2021 to be exact—Amanda Gorman went from relative anonymity to national icon. We know we weren't the only ones completely enraptured by the then 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, who literally shone in a brilliant yellow coat as she recited her now-famous poem, "The Hill We Climb" at the Biden inauguration. (Let's be real, it was the best part of the show.) The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman has continued her meteoric rise with three forthcoming books, a seat on the board of 826 National and a slew of writing credits and awards with everyone from The New York Times to Nike to the NFL hitching themselves to her wagon. Still, Gorman remains immensely likeable and cool, as she advocates for Black artists and Black women everywhere, inspires with talks about conquering her speech impediment and navigates her new life in the spotlight. And honestly, we can't wait to see what she does next. 

Show your support: Buy one of Gorman's three books currently for sale. Go ahead and order them from a Black-owned bookstore, too. 

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Jiayan “Jenny” Shi | Chicago
Photograph: Sally Blood

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi | Chicago

When Chinese student Yingying Zhang disappeared from the campus of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017, the tragic story caught the attention of people all around the world. Jiayan “Jenny” Shi felt a personal connection—just like Zhang, she came to the United States as a student, studying journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School. As part of a class during her final quarter, she picked up a camera for the first time and began working on a documentary about Zhang’s murder. “I started to realize the power of longform storytelling,” Shi said. “Being a documentary filmmaker really allowed me to experience other peoples’ lives.”

It took more than two years for Shi to finish her debut documentary, Finding Yingying, during which time she met Zhang’s family and became a fellow at Chicago-based Kartemquin Films. Telling the story of Zhang’s disappearance and the trial of her killer, Finding Yingying debuted at various virtual films festivals last year, won the Chinese Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Documentary and was acquired by MTV Documentary Films. On the heels of her success, Shi is already working on a new documentary, exploring the Chinese American experience in the U.S. and women’s rights in China. — Zach Long 

What’s your favorite place to see a movie in Chicago?

"AMC River East 21, I went to the Chicago International Film Festival there two years ago.

What’s your favorite Kartemquin Film?

Minding The Gap, I just really love it and I cry every time I watch it.”

What’s the most powerful documentary you’ve seen recently?

Last Train Home, it’s a documentary that’s about a Chinese couple that work in a factory and their relationship with their child who they left behind in rural China. It’s a very intimate family portrait about working class life in China.”

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field we should all be looking out for: 

“Ashley O’Shay, the director of Unapologetic, another Kartemquin Film.”

Show your support: Learn about how you can watch Finding Yingying.

Taylor Small | Winooski, VT
Photograph: Courtesy Taylor Small, Design: Time Out

Taylor Small | Winooski, VT

It took Taylor Small only 24 hours to decide to run for Vermont House of Representatives and only three days to get her campaign together. Thankfully, she knew how to put on a show: "The best poltiical practice that I've gotten is doing drag." In November 2020 she was elected as Vermont's first transgender state senator, and only the fifth transgender state legislator in the country. In her short time in office she's managed to get Covid relief funds for refugees in her city and almost passed her first bill which would ban the Trans/Gay Panic Defense in Vermont (a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction), all while "putting a face to diversity" in her small state. Her passion, though, lies in healthcare. She still works part-time as the Director of the Health & Wellness program at Pride Center of Vermont, helping to navigate health disparities specific to the LGBTQ+ community, and her dream is to bring single payer healthcare to Vermont. "So many people don't have access to what they need to thrive. Instead we just see them surviving, and we accept that." 

Advice for young people who wants to have a positive impact in their communities: 

Start now. Join student government or speak up at your local school board. Those policies directly affect you. 

If you could be President for a day, what would your first executive order be?

Medicare for all. 

Last show you binge-watched: 

Black Earth Rising on Netflix. It's about the Rwandan genocide and is a really in-depth examination of how leaders can influence global events—sometimes in a negative way. It's really beautifully done. 

What's one thing you wish people knew about your job?

How long we work. In Vermont we have a part-time legislature (and we're paid part-time), which means most people add being a part-time senator to their full-time jobs. 

Shout out an up-and-coming woman in your field we should all be looking out for: 

A huge shout out to Senator Kesha Ram, the first women of color to serve in the Vermont State Senate. 

Show your support: Visit her website for more information. 

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Brit Bennett | Brooklyn
Photograph: Emma Trim, Design: Time Out

Brit Bennett | Brooklyn

Brit Bennett is about to become a houehold name. Her acclaimed first novel, The Mothers, was published in 2016 (when she was just 26), and her follow-up, The Vanishing Half—the story of twin sisters who decide to live their lives on opposite sides of the color line (one as a white woman and one as a black woman)—has spent weeks in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list and triggered a Hollywood bidding war that resulted in a seven-figure deal with the HBO. Now newly 30, the young author from San Diego is a Women’s Prize for Fiction finalist, has been compared to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and her book on racial passing is being read across the country at a time when the world is a little more eager to discuss systemic racism, racial privileges, and racial hierarchies. But at its core, The Vanishing Half is a brilliant retelling of a long-known truth—one that Bennett is able to masterfully make new again. 

Show your support: Read one of Bennett's novels and buy it from a Black-owned bookstore

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