Meet our Leadership Team

Our Board of Directors are young professionals who are passionate about making Grand Rapids a diverse and inclusive community to live, work and play. With the support of our amazing Advisory Council of seasoned professionals, we are able to help advance and retain young professionals of color in our community.

Board of Directors

Dee Brown

Digital Marketing Chair

Dee Brown was raised in Kentwood, Michigan. She is a graduate of Davenport University, receiving a degree in Business Administration and Management. She currently works as an Employee Engagement Coordinator at Express Employment Professionals providing resources to local organizations, managing promotional content, assisting in attracting, retaining & engaging talent. She joined BL²END in 2018 as the Digital Marketing Communications Chair where she works to improve consistency across all platforms and keep the website up to date. Dee also gives back to the community through non profits like Break Away and Bethany Christian services, helping to inspire youth to be their best.

I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.

Langston Hughes

Gilbert Conley

Executive Board, Treasurer

Gilbert Conley was raised in Lansing, Illinois. He is a graduate of Calvin College where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Economics. Gilbert joined the BL²END Board of Directors in 2017 as the Community Outreach Chair, since he has transitioned to Treasurer for the Executive Board. Gilbert is passionate about helping people understanding their human capital and the importance of a village regarding economic prosperity. With that passion, Gilbert proudly serves as the Treasure ensuring financial stability for the organization. Gilbert has stated that has always cared and will continue to care about the financial well being for the African American community.

Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.

Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut

Christy Bell

Community Outreach Chair

Christy Bell was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christy is currently obtaining a degree in Health Administration from Davenport University. Christy currently work works at D. A. Blodgett – St. John’s with families as they are beginning the adoption process. Christy is very passionate about helping others and advocating for those who does not have their own voice. She is also an avid volunteer and enjoys supporting organizations such as Red Project, West Michigan Environmental Acton Council (WMEAC), Grand Rapids Public Schools, Renaissance COGIC, Girls Growing 2 Women (GGIIW), and Lupus Foundation. Currently, Christy serves on the as the Community Outreach Chair.

True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

C.S. Lewis

Josilynn Burrel

Project Coordinator 

Josilynn was raised in Muskegon, MI. She is currently in her last semester of college at GVSU and will obtain her bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management December of this year.

Josilynn is very passionate about increasing awareness about racial discrimination and supporting diversity and inclusion. She loves children and simply being support for others. Josilynn is currently working as a Human Resource Generalist at Spectrum Human Services which is a non profit organization.

Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.

Coco Chanel

Erica Soto

Executive Board, President

Erica Soto was raised in Puerto Rico and has lived in Grand Rapids for thirteen years. As a graduate of University of Phoenix, she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. She is currently working at the Grand Rapids Public Library. Erica is passionate about helping underserved communities by helping them acquire the knowledge and resources, including teaching bilingual early literacy classes. She is a graduate of the 3rd cohort of the Latino Talent Initiative through Ferris State University and currently serves as a committee member for the Latino Talent Speakers Series. She also serves as the Kids Summit Coordinator on the leadership team for the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit and is a proud member of the Latina Network of West Michigan. She believes that every young professional of color deserves to thrive, love what they do, and live their greatest potential.

We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.

Maya Angelou

Craig C. Thompson

Executive Board, Vice President 

Craig C. Thompson was raised in Chicago, Illinois. He is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University with a Bachelor’s degree is Hospitality & Tourism Management. Currently Craig is working at Wheelhouse: Kitchen & Cocktails. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management. He joined BL²END Board of Directors in 2017 as the Project Coordinator. Craig is passionate about serving others and helping support minority businesses.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

President Barack Obama

Cordell Zachery

Professional Development Chair

Cordell Allen Zachery was raised in the Metro Detroit Area. He is a recent Grand Valley State University graduate with a degree in Advertising and PR. He hopes to pursue a career in Marketing or Public Relations. He is currently working as a Project Coordinator at Steelcase Inc. He joined the BL²END Board of Directors in 2016 where he has served as the Project Coordinator and now the Professional Development Chair. He is passionate about community engagement and hopes to create more pathways for black males transitioning from college to the professional world. Cordell is also an active member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 NKJV

A Letter From our Founder and Visionary

A letter from our visionary


BL²END was created out of a desire for belonging. During my college years and at the start of my career, I would be in many situations where I was the only person of color. On an everyday basis, I went to work in an office of over 500 people and somehow, I was one of only 5 people of color – and the only one under the age of 30. As a recent graduate of GVSU, I knew that there were other driven young professionals in the area eager to develop professionally and grow their social network of other like-minded individuals. While I will always appreciate the Grand Rapids community for allowing me to start my professional career, I often felt alone and that the face of “success” rarely looked like mine. I gathered a group of some of the smartest, strongest young professionals in the city and developed a plan to test this theory.

What we quickly recognized was that creating a sense of belonging for one community does not mean that there should be a sense of exclusion for another. We named the organization BL²END to be an invitation to all that want to help others while helping themselves. This is a major reason why years later, it is still making a positive impact on the Grand Rapids community. So, to all that have joined and to future participants, I hope that this organization does for you as it has for me. I hope it helps you better understand the perspective of others and the power inside of you.


Erayna Gamble Sargent | Founder

Advisory Council

Jamon Alexander

Board of Directors and Founding Member 2006-2010
Advisory Council Member since 2012

Mercedes Barragan

Board of Directors 2011-2017
Advisory Council Member since 2017

Janean Couch

Board of Directors and Founding Member 2006-2010
Advisory Council Member since 2012

Joy Fossel

Advisory Council Member since 2015

Floriza Genautis

Advisory Council Member since 2008

Maxine Gray

Board of Directors
2006 – 2012
Advisory Council Member since 2013

Marlene Kowalski-Braun

Advisory Council Member since 2011

Rodney Martin

Advisory Council Member since 2011

Brian Parks

Board of Directors
2009 – 2014
Advisory Council Member since 2015

Eddie Tadlock

Advisory Council Member since 2011

Special thanks and recognition to past Board Members:
Janae Currington | Anissa Eddie | Jermale Eddie | Ronnie Frelix, Jr. | Marnique Harris | Sara Hill | Jamie Martinez | Marquisa Nash | Cynthia Offutt | LaToya Pearson | Jenine Prus | Celeste Sánchez Lloyd | Alicia Adell Lloyd | Angela Wills | Charise Tucker | Danielle Williams | Maria Zavala | Larissa VanWyk | Laketa Alexander | Gregory Peacock | Graci Harkema | Aquoinette Blair | Christopher Sanders | William Jackson

Special thanks and recognition to past Advisory Council Members:
Tanja Oquendo | Susan Morales-Barias | David Luna | Dr. Sandra Upton | Mindy Ysasi Castañon | Joseph D. Jones

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