And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, and Promise

A Project of The Black Workers Initiative

cover image for the "And Still I Rise" report
The idea for this report emerged in October 2013 when the Black Labor Scholars Network (now the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative) and Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor hosted a two-day conference titled The State of the Black Worker in America. This event delved deeply into the history of black workers and their organizing efforts; the current state and vision of black leadership within unions; innovative and cutting edge black-led organizing across the country; and a gender-based analysis of black organizing.

Little-known, groundbreaking research about the effectiveness of black women’s leadership in union organizing created a lot of buzz at the conference and begged an important question: Why has the organizing success of black women not resulted in more black women serving in leadership positions that help shape the direction of the labor movement? We hit the road in search of an answer. In our travels from the West Coast to the Deep South, we heard amazing stories from incomparable women.

And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, and Promise gives the 27 amazing women we interviewed and the 467 who responded to the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Survey of Black Women in Labor an opportunity to not only explore this question for themselves but, more important, to show the labor movement a way forward.


Headshot of Clayola Brown

Clayola Brown

President, A. Philip Randolph Institute | Washington, DC

“…And together, we nurtured one another”

The importance of mentoring in shaping young and senior leaders.

Headshot of Roxanne Brown

Roxanne Brown

Assistant Legislative Director, United Steelworkers (USW) | Washington, DC

“This is the new face of labor…”

An unexpected advocate for the rights of Steelworkers and all working people.

Headshot of Jennifer Epps-Addison

Jennifer Epps-Addison

Executive Director, Wisconsin Jobs Now | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

“There’s a huge cultural shift … when regular folks are empowered to become leaders”

Leading by developing and following the leadership of workers.

Headshot of Valerie Irvin

Roxanne Brown

Executive Director, National Participatory Democracy Project, a project of the Working Families Organization (WFO); Former Councilmember and President, Montgomery County Council | Silver Spring, Maryland

“We need to be on the front lines of leadership … not behind the scenes”

From grocery store bagger and single mom to elected official, a former union organizer talks about the power of unions to politicize black women.

Headshot of Arlene Holt Baker

Arlene Holt Baker

Retired Executive Vice President, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) | Washington, DC

“The ceiling is cracking a little, but it is not fully cracked.”

Retired labor leader reflects on her ascendency and what it will take for other black women to rise into leadership positions.

Headshot of Karen Lewis

Karen Lewis

President, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) | Chicago, Illinois

“If we’re waiting for somebody to just let us in, we’ll be knocking on doors forever.”

Chicago Teachers Union President offers words of advice for getting to the top.

Headshot of Toni Lewis

Dr. L. Toni Lewis

Chair, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare | New York, New York

“Allow them to do the work”

A call for representative leadership and giving successful black women organizers the chance to lead.

Headshot of Pierrette Talley

Pierrette Talley

Secretary-Treasurer, Ohio American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) | Columbus, Ohio

“You’re not really a secretary, you’re an organizer”

How putting African Americans in the fight against anti-union legislation helped repeal anti-union legislation in Ohio.


Headshot of Sanchoni Butler

Sanchioni Butler

Lead Organizer, Nissan Campaign, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) | Raymond, Mississippi

“You’ve got to act like you have a union. You’ve got to own it”

What it will take to organize more African American women into unions in the South.

Headshot of Sandra Bellamy

Sandra Joyce Bellamy

Communications Workers of America (CWA) Volunteer and T-Mobile Worker | Charleston, South Carolina

“Not just for black women, but for everybody”

A T-Mobile worker on the challenges and importance of unionizing the South.

Headshot of Lola Smallwood

Lola Smallwood Cuevas

Chair of Coordinating Committee and Former Director, Los Angeles Black Worker Center (BWC) | Los Angeles, California

“How do black women change the economy so that it works for them?”

Insight on how worker centers and unions are working together to protect workers and raise standards.

Headshot of Shanna Peeks

Shanna Peeks

Administrative Assistant to At-Large International Vice President and Director of Organizing, United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) | Triangle, Virginia

“I have to understand what your needs are first, then we can work together”

Young labor activist reflects on joining labor’s rich legacy and her approach to organizing.

Headshot of Wilna Destin

Wilna Destin

Housekeeping Organizer, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (UNITE HERE) Local 737 | Orlando, Florida

“Housekeepers have a contract … because I was there.”

New organizer celebrates her wins for immigrant hotel workers in Florida.

Headshot of Erica Bynum

Erika Glenn-Byam

Shop Steward and Vice President of the Women’s Committee, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 79 | New York, New York

“We’re here and we’re here to stay”

Charting a path for women in the building and construction trades.

Headshot of Sukari Pinnock

Sukari Pinnock-Fitts

Former Director of Membership and Organizing, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) | Washington, DC

“Workers organize because they want rights, not because they have rights. That’s how and why unions get formed.”

The woman behind the largest union election victory in 70 years shares her winning organizing strategy.

Headshot of Natilicia Tracy

Natilicia Tracy

Executive Director, Brazilian Immigrant Center (BIC) | Boston, Massachusetts

“I have found my voice and have been able to help others find theirs as well”

Former domestic worker leads a movement for labor rights and dignity.

Headshot of Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Associate Director of Civil Rights and Community Action, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) | Washington, DC

“I hope labor looks at civil rights through a different lens. Not one that isolates them, but one that can help to grow our movement.”

Connecting to new civil rights leaders could be the path forward for labor.


Headshot of Rachel Bryan

Rachel Bryan

Journeyman Electrician and Community Liaison, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 595) | Dublin, California

“Why not pay a mother like we would pay a man?”

Journeyman electrician on breaking down barriers for women and people of color in the building and construction trades.

Headshot of Alicia Garza

Alicia Garza

Co-founder, #BlackLivesMatter; Special Projects Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) | Oakland, California

“When black people get free, everybody has a chance to get free.”

Workers’ rights activist who co-founded #BlackLivesMatter offers unions insights from the domestic workers movement.

Headshot of Alice Goff

Alice Goff

President, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3090) | Los Angeles, California

“You have to come up through the ranks”

Union president reflects on her rise to leadership as a single mom and charting a pathway to success for other working mothers.

Headshot of Talisa Hardin

Talisa J. Hardin

Chief Nurse Representative, National Nurses United (NNU), University of Chicago Medical Center | Chicago, Illinois

“Every day you get to see that what you do makes a difference”

Registered nurse and nurses’ union representative on advocating for adequate staffing and for nurses to stay home when sick.

Headshot of Tyi Jones

Tyi Jones

Overnight Stock Professional, Club Monaco Activist, Retail Action Project (RAP) | New York, New York

“If you present the possibility of things getting better, everyone is always down for the idea of it.”

Veteran retail worker shares how the Retail Action Project is helping to educate and organize workers to address scheduling, childcare and discrimination issues.

Headshot of Noelle LuSane

Noelle LuSane

Actor and Member, Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) | New York, New York

“One day you’re likely going to have to call in the union, and they’re going to have to fight on your behalf”

An actor and mother-to-be shares her perspective on union protection against wage theft and unfair treatment at work.

Headshot of Pennie McCoach

Pennie McCoach

Executive board member, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 308; Switchman, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) | Chicago, Illinois

“I don’t see a lot of us African American women in top officer spots of unions. I see a lot of us where I am now.”

A transit worker and union leader shares her perspective on the challenges facing her industry and the need for unions to diversify leadership.

Headshot of Connie Ogletree

Connie Ogletree

Former Union Representative, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE), American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) | Atlanta, Georgia

“My highest aspirations for the workers I organize is for them to realize some of their dreams”

Former fast food worker and new union organizer shares the value of a living wage for low-income workers.

Headshot of Karmen Parrish

Karmen Kareen Parrish

Beverage Supervisor and Activist, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) | New Orleans, Louisiana

“That’s all I want. Fairness.”

New Orleans beverage supervisor organizes other restaurant workers for fair wage and working conditions.

Headshot of Rosalyn Pelles

Rosalyn Woodward Pelles

Retired Director of the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) | Washington DC; Advisor, Forward Together Moral Monday movement | Raleigh, North Carolina

“…a labor movement has to be part of a social justice movement”

Retired civil rights and union activist continues to build bridges in North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Monday Movement.



  • Create a leadership cohort for black labor women to pursue and achieve their personal and professional development goals through retreats and access to executive coaching.
  • Create a pipeline project for the recruitment of black labor women to key staff positions and boards of directors of women’s groups, civil rights organizations, foundations, labor unions and other progressive organizations. The pipeline project would include, as a core component, racial and gender equity training programs within progressive organizations to help create the climate and culture receptive to greater leadership opportunities for black women.
  • Add resources to existing mentorship programs and create new mentorship opportunities as needed: (1) to foster greater opportunities for black women to connect and support one another; (2) to foster and encourage those in existing leadership positions within labor to use their positional power to open doors for black women; (3) for black labor women to mentor and support the leadership and professional development of black women outside of the labor movement.
  • Launch a project to position black labor women as thought leaders and strategists in the media and within progressive spaces where long-term strategies for the advancement of progressive agendas are crafted.


  • Craft public education strategies that expose black women to labor unions, worker centers and other community-based economic justice organizations for the purpose of stimulating interest and a demand for more organizing.
  • Create collaborative pilot organizing projects between labor, community groups and women’s organizations focused on black women in support of existing or new organizing campaigns. Such projects would be designed to increase opportunities for black women to lead and shape the projects and to foster greater collaboration among and between these institutions around community interests.


  • A series of convenings to build greater mutual support between black women and women’s organizations. These gatherings would be designed to break down barriers to deeper, collaborative work.
  • Creation of a shared women’s economic policy agenda among labor, women’s organizations and civil rights groups. In addition to supporting existing efforts among and between these groups, this effort would seek to build bridges between organized labor and young civil rights activists leading efforts around police brutality. These efforts would be led by black labor women.