Unsung Heroes: Highlighting Brilliance during Black History Month

This article features contributions from MIND Research Institute's YANA Community - an internal affinity group dedicated to sharing their lived experiences as black women in America. YANA's members include Cynthia Okocha, Christina Pipkin, Jasmine Howell, ShaKeitha Green, and Twana Young. 

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February marks Black History Month. In 1926, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), dedicated a week, known as national Negro History week, to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans. By the 1960s, the week grew into a month-long celebration of Black history on college campuses. In 1976, forty-five years ago, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a month-long celebration to recognize the contribution Black people have made to our society. President Ford encouraged everyone to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Fast forward to 2021 and we are experiencing a time in our history as a nation where the voices and contributions of Black Americans are still struggling to be heard. In many places across this nation, we are stepping back, listening, and learning from our history, the sins of our past, the struggles we face today, and the realities of our broken systems. The conversations are not easy. Understanding, facing, and solving these problems will require a willingness to listen, learn, and extend grace to each other. 

Striving for equity has always been worthwhile, but we must remember that the worthwhile things are often the hard things. They are the things we must dig into and endeavor to persevere through together so we may live up to what is promised in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

Every year in February, we can expect to hear about people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. They were amazing, brave, change agents in the fight for equality. What we don’t often hear about are what we are calling the “unsung heroes”  – people who are or who have made a difference in the lives of others without recognition. People who have imparted wisdom, perseverance, identity, and value through their words, actions, and legacy. People who have made this world a better place. People we need to hear about and honor.

At MIND, we are focused on highlighting the excellence and assets that people possess. So, for this Black History Month in 2021, we are going to celebrate the unsung heroes. Black Americans who you may not have heard of, but who leave footprints for others to follow to continue to drive change, hope, and equality in our communities and our nation.

Phylis Mack II

Phylis Mack: A Mother, a Playwright, and Woman of Faith 

My unsung hero is my mother Phylis Mack. She has taught me how to weather every storm I face, give my time, talents, and love to all those I meet, and be strong in who I am. She has touched many lives through her incredible storytelling abilities. She’s written and directed several plays as well as authored two books.  Her plays tell the stories of Black women struggling to overcome addiction, incarceration, human trafficking, and who are learning to find forgiveness and hope. Her plays, books, and her ministry have helped women of all colors from various walks of life to believe in themselves, embrace their identity, understand their value, and receive encouragement to overcome the challenges they are facing.

Donald Bell

Donald M. Bell: A Father, a Coach, and His Family’s Rock

Cynthia Okocha, Project Manager, shared that her unsung hero is her pastor Donald M. Bell. Cynthia said, “He has taught me over the years how to be a friend, how to speak in love even when what you have to say is hard for you to say, and for the other person to hear. He has taught me how to change my narrative, to see what I thought was a negative, which actually resulted in a positive change. His straightforward, transparent teaching, his insight, calm demeanor, and his love for people are just a few of the qualities that make him my lifelong mentor.”

Dr. Kandice Sumner

Dr. Kandice Sumner: A Doctor, a Friend, Role Model

Christina Pipkin, Education Success Manager, said her unsung hero is her best friend, Dr. Kandice Sumner. “Her experiences of being a part of a desegregation program (METCO) in grade school, a Spelman College graduate and an educator in Boston Public Schools has helped her to create and facilitate a professional development curriculum entitled R.A.C.E. (race, achievement, culture, and equity). This framework is used to engage professionals of all ages on how to conduct courageous, critical conversations concerning race and how it affects our youth. With a deep passion for reforming urban education policies, she continues to have these conversations with students and educators across the nation.”

Jean Smith

Jean Smith: A Grandmother, a Teacher, and Self-made Entrepreneur

ShaKeitha Green, Professional Learning Lead Specialist, named Jean Smith as her unsung hero. ShaKeitha said this about Jean: “My grandmother is an amazing woman. Although she grew up in Mississippi in the late 40’s and didn’t get to finish school, she didn’t let that stop her. She was a single mother of three and worked hard to start a successful cosmetics business in the early 70s. She worked with chemists and was dedicated to making sure her line consisted of great products specifically for Black Women. She was able to sustain her New Orleans-based business, Jean’s Cosmetics, for over 25 years. Her focus on her business showed me what a woman could accomplish with hard work and dedication.”

Dr Gloria White Hammond II

Dr. Gloria White-Hammond: A Physician, a Pastor, and Social Justice Warrior 

Jasmine Howell, Education Success Consultant, talked about Dr. Gloria White-Hammond as her unsung hero. Jasmine shared: “Dr. White-Hammond was my pediatrician from a young age, and when I was a teen, my family actually began attending the church where Dr. White-Hammond was a co-pastor. This is when I started to learn more about her outside of just being a physician, which I already thought was amazing. I learned about Dr. White-Hammond’s work and how she was also a humanitarian activist, mentor, and advocate. Her work focuses on girls and women, for which she’s founded programs here and abroad that provide opportunities. The two that I’ve participated in and volunteered for are 1) “Do the Write Thing” a mentoring ministry for inner-city girls ages 8-17 and 2) “My Sister’s Keeper”, a women-led humanitarian and human rights program that’s done work with and for women in Darfur, Sudan. One of my personal favorite activist moments came by way of Dr. White-Hammond in 2006 when I participated in the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign and March, which she had organized. That event sparked a new flame in me.”

Join the Conversation #HighlightingBrilliance

These unsung heroes are just a few of the many Black men and women who should be celebrated. Throughout the month, we will be sharing unsung heroes on our social media platforms. These black men and women may not be well known but have worked to make a difference in the lives of others. We encourage you to reply to our posts with one of your own sharing your unsung Black heroes. Use the hashtag #HighlightingBrilliance.

Help us share their stories and celebrate the contributions of these amazing Black men and women. Join the conversation on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 


Twana Young

About the Author

Twana is Vice President of Curriculum and Instruction at MIND Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @TwanaYoung.


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