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

Erica Soto

Executive Board, President

Erica Soto has lived in and served the city of Grand Rapids for over 15 years. She is a mother and dedicated community leader. She joined the BL²END Board of Directors in 2017, as Marketing and Communications Co-Chair. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree from the University of Phoenix in 2017.

Erica’s leadership experience includes advocacy for under-served communities, youth development and programming, bilingual education, and community connection. She is a graduate of the Latino Talent Initiative through Ferris State University and serves as the Kids Summit Coordinator for the City of Grand Rapids Neighborhood Summit. Erica was recognized as a Top 50 Latina in Michigan in 2018 by the Hispanic/ Latino Commission of Michigan, for her service and leadership in the community. She believes all professionals of color deserve intentionally created spaces that support their growth and uplift them to their highest potential.

Like tiny seeds with potent power to push through tough ground and become mighty trees, we hold innate reserves of unimaginable strength. We are resilient.

Catherine DeVrye

Craig C. Thompson

Executive Board, Vice President 

Craig C. Thompson was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Craig is a graduate from Grand Valley State University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality & Tourism Management. Craig currently works for the City of Grand Rapids, a Human Resources professional. He joined BL²END Board of Directors in 2017 as a Project Coordinator, then transitioned to the Marketing team as Marketing Communications Chair, and currently serves as the Vice President. Craig is passionate about serving the community and helping support minority businesses. Craig is also a dedicated member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated. 

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

Christy Bell

Executive Board, Secretary

Christy Bell was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Christy is currently obtaining a degree in Health Administration from Davenport University. Christy currently 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 do not have their own voice. She is also an avid volunteer and enjoys supporting organizations such as Red Project, West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Grand Rapids Public Schools, Renaissance COGIC, Girls Growing 2 Women (GGIIW), and Lupus Foundation. Previously Christy has served on the board as Community Outreach Chair. Currently, Christy serves as the Executive Board, Secretary.

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

C.S. Lewis

Josilynn Burrel

Community Outreach Chair 

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

Erika Carolina VanDyke

Professional Development Chair

Erika was born in Bogota, Colombia and raised in Grand Rapids.  She earned undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Women and Gender Studies from Grand Valley State University, and a master’s degree in Community Psychology from Michigan State University. She has spent years working in schools with a variety of nonprofits in Grand Rapids including FoodCorps, LOOP, Kids’ Food Basket, and the Kent School Services Network.  Erika is an active member of the Latina Network of West Michigan, serves as the communications coordinator for the Latino Community Coalition, and works as program officer at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. She is a graduate of the National Equity Project’s REAL Center cohort, Ferris State University’s LEADeres program, and Urban Core Collective’s Transformational Leadership Program, for which she still serves on the Alumni Advisory board. Erika is passionate about building collaboration across communities of color and across organizational structures, and about amplifying and centering voices that have traditionally been suppressed.

Asking you to give me equal rights implies they are yours to give. Instead, I must demand that you stop trying to deny me the rights all people deserve.


Carissa Patrone 

Marketing Communications Co-Chair

Carissa Patrone was born in Riverside, California and raised in Metro Detroit. She is a graduate of Grand Valley State University, where she obtained Bachelor’s degrees in Communication Studies and Spanish, and a Master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. She currently works as the Equity Program Manager for the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. Carissa is passionate about elevating voices, sustainability, and bringing people together from diverse backgrounds. She joined the BL²END Board of Directors in 2019 as the Marketing Communications Co-Chair. Previously, Carissa served on the Southeast Michigan Returned Peace Corps Volunteer board in 2016 after completing her Peace Corps service in Nicaragua.

Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality

Malala Yousafzai

Zahna Woodonson

Participant Engagement Chair

Zahna Woodson was born and raised in Lansing, MI. She is currently toward her BS in Business Administration and Management at Western Governors University. Zahna is passionate about partnering with our youth and working toward a more equitable environment, with a focus on education. Zahna currently works for Kellogg as an ITC Deductions Analyst. She also serves as a mentor for two youth groups in Grand Rapids and in Lansing, MI.

You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.

Shirley Chisholm

Sharnjit Virk

Project Coordinator

Sharnjit Virk was born in Sacramento, California and raised in Kalamazoo, MI. Sharnjit received her Bachelors of Science in Statistics from Grand Valley State University in 2018. She discovered her passion for working with marginalized communities early on and has been committed to that goal since. She completed a service year through the AmeriCorps program and hopes to continue doing meaningful work after obtaining her Master of Science in Data Science and Analytics from Grand Valley State University. 

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.

Maya Angelou

Naomi Magallán

Digital Marketing Chair

Naomi was raised in Gary, Indiana. She is a graduate of Kendall College of Art and Design, receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design in 2008. She is the Principal Designer at Seventh Creative in Grand Rapids and is also a Community Builder at Urban Core Collective. Currently she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Innovation at Grand Valley State University and will graduate in April 2021. Naomi is the 2019–2020 Orosz Fellow at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, researching effective nonprofit board development. She has been the Diversity & Inclusion Director for AIGA West Michigan since 2017, a local chapter of the Professional Organization of Design. Naomi is passionate about using design and research as tools to work interdisciplinarily and to create systemic change across sectors and industries.

The heart of justice is truth telling.

Bell Hooks

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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