GLAAWc 2023 Speakers

Langston Hughes Literary Keynote

Abby L. Vandiver
Abby L. Vandiver books Body and Soul Food and Cleveland Noir
Abby L. Vandiver books A Deadly Inside Scoop and Where Wild Peaches Grow

Abby L. Vandiver

Abby L. Vandiver, also writing as Abby Collette and Cade Bentley, is a hybrid author who has penned more than thirty books and short stories. She has hit both the Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller list. As Abby Collette is the author of the Ice Cream Parlor mystery series, about a millennial MBA-holding granddaughter running a family-owned ice cream shop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and the Books & Biscuits mystery series starring a set of abandoned fraternal twins who reunite in adulthood and open a bookstore and soul food café. Writing as Abby L. Vandiver, she is the author, among other titles, of the Logan Dickerson Mysteries, featuring a second-generation archaeologist and a nonagenarian, the Romaine Wilder Mysteries, pairing an East Texas medical examiner and her feisty, funeral-home-owning auntie as sleuths the editor of Midnight Hour, a crime fiction anthology by authors of color, and a contributor to Cleveland Noir, writer of the short story, Sugar Daddy set in East Cleveland. As Cade Bentley, she has penned a women’s fiction, Where Wild Peaches Grow. Abby spends her time writing, facilitating writing workshops at local libraries and hanging out with her grandchildren, each of whom are her favorite.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes headshot

Langston Hughes (1901–1967) was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was the descendant of enslaved African American women and white slave owners in Kentucky. He attended high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote his first poetry, short stories, and dramatic plays. After a short time in New York, he spent the early 1920s traveling through West Africa and Europe, living in Paris and England.

Hughes returned to the United States in 1924 and to Harlem after graduating from Lincoln University in 1929. His first poem was published in 1921 in The Crisis and he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926. Hughes’s influential work focused on a racial consciousness devoid of hate. In 1926, he published what would be considered a manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance in The Nation: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”

Alice Dunbar Nelson Professional Keynote Speaker ​

Janice Lowe

Janice Lowe

A composer-poet and multidisciplinary artist, is the author of Leaving CLE  poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press) and SWAM (Belladonna Collaborative.) A native of Cleveland, she was honored to write the foreword for the anthology World’d Too Much: The Poetry of Russell Atkins (Cleveland State University Press.) With Teri Ellen Cross Davis and Kelly Harris-DeBerry, Lowe was recently a featured speaker/performer at Homecoming: Three Black Women Creatives Return to the Land. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Callaloo, Iowa Review, Best American Experimental Poetry, Interim Poetics, Solstice, The Hat, Solidarity Texts: Radiant Resisters and Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music. Noted for playing piano while intoning poetry, her work has been recognized by Creative Capital, MacDowell, City Artists Corps, The Rauschenberg Foundation and The Center for Contemporary Writing at University of Pennsylvania. Lowe has performed/recorded with the bands w/o a net; Julie Ezelle Patton’s Rock, Paper, Sisters; Anne Waldman & Fast Speaking Music, Irreversible Entanglements, BRAHJA, Digital Diaspora, NYC-ALL Stars with Marshall Allen, and HAGL. Her musical theater compositions include Lil Budda, text by Stephanie L. Jones (The Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference; National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Works.) Lowe was commissioned to compose musical settings of the Millie-Christine poems from the Pulitzer Prize-awarded collection Olio, by Tyehimba Jess. She has also  composed music for and music directed plays including Liza Jessie Peterson’s Chiron’s Homegurl Healer Howls (New Black Fest,) Dream, Girl by Lisa Rosetta Strum (Apollo Salon Series,) 12th and Clairmount by Jenni Lamb (Stage Left-Chicago,) and Door of No Return by Nehassaiu DeGannes. Lowe music directed the Mabou Mines production of The Vicksburg Project at Harlem Stage. As a pianist-vocalist, she has performed with ensembles at the Kennedy Center, Berlin Jazz Festival, Roulette, Vision Festival, Jazz Jantar, Crossing Borders Fest, Shift, New Ear Festival  and Bop Stop. Lowe recently composed poetry and music for the dance company RootsUprising, Nailah Randall-Bellinger, choreographer, in Cambridge, MA.The album Leaving CLE  Songs of Nomadic Dispersal, performed by Janice Lowe & NAMAROON has been described by The Black Fantastic as a “killer musical offering” and by Helen Young as a “notable…experimental jazz record.” Lowe holds an MFA in Musical Theater Composition from New York University. She is a co-founder of the Dark Room Collective.

Alice Dunbar Nelson

Poet, essayist, diarist, and activist Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to mixed-race parents. Her African American, Anglo, Native American, and Creole heritage contributed to her complex understandings of gender, race, and ethnicity, subjects she often addressed in her work. She graduated from Straight University (now Dillard University) and taught in the New Orleans public schools. Her first book, Violets and Other Tales (1895), was published when she was just 20. Her second collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899) explored the lives of creole and anglicized characters. Works exploring racism and racial oppression were largely rejected by publishers during her lifetime, a situation which, according to Sheila Smith McKoy, “made it difficult for both readers and critics to access Dunbar-Nelson’s work.”

A writer of short stories, essays, and poems, Dunbar-Nelson was comfortable in many genres but was best known for her prose. One of the few female African American diarists of the early 20th century, she portrays the complicated reality of African American women and intellectuals, addressing topics such as racism, oppression, family, work, and sexuality. According to Gloria T. Hull, “Dunbar-Nelson perforce wrote in the interstices of a busy existence unsupported (except for one brief period) by any of the money or leisure traditionally associated with people of letters. Doggedly determined to be an author, she plied her trade… carried forward on the flow of words that came quite easily for her. Interestingly enough, she called all of her writing ‘producing literature,’ in a humorously ironic leveling of forms and types. But just as ironically, her status is lowered since the more belletristic genres of poetry and fiction are more valued than the noncanonical forms—notably the diary and journalistic essay—that claimed so much of her attention.” Hull edited the volume Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1984).

In 1898 she married the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; they separated in 1902, and Dunbar-Nelson moved to Wilmington, Delaware. She taught at Howard High School, the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State College), and Howard University, and she continued to publish essays, poetry, and newspaper articles. She married Arthur Callis in 1910, though the couple also divorced. Coeditor of A.M.E Reivew in these yearsDunbar-Nelson also published Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence (1914).

Dunbar-Nelson was politically active, organizing for the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic states and acting as field representative for the Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918; she also campaigned for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1924. In 1916 she married Robert J. Nelson. In her later years she published poetry in Black newspapers such as the Crisis, Ebony and Topaz, and Opportunity. She also edited The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920) and, with Nelson, coedited the Wilmington Advocate. She died in Philadelphia.

Leah C.K. Lewis

Founder and Executive Producer of GLAAWC

The Reverend Dr. Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., is the head of Three Butterflies Entertainment & Press LLC. Leah is a writer, documentary filmmaker, social entrepreneur, and event producer. She is the author of Little Lumpy’s Book of Blessings, which serves as the subject of a project in development for animated children’s TV. Currently, Leah is directing and producing two documentaries, Black Buckeyes: A Tale of Two Cities, an independent production examining the lived and historical realities of African Americans in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Leo’s Legacy for MidTown Cleveland Inc, which highlights Cleveland’s famed Leo’s Casino nightclub of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She also serves as co-producer of “Black Mary ” a co-production of POST Theatrical and DEMASKUS Theater Collective highlighting the life of Mary Fields, the first African American Star Route Mail Carrier in the United States, which will be streamed during Juneteenth 2021. Rev. Dr. Lewis serves as the spiritual consultant on the project as well. 

Leah is also the Founder and Executive Director of Little Lumpy’s Center for Educational Initiatives, whose signature event is the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAWC pronounced “glossy”) of which Leah is the Executive Producer. In 2020, GLAAWC’s virtual conference reached over 5600 people in twenty states and four international countries. Her articles and commentary have appeared in The Christian Century, Cleveland Scene,,, and a host of other outlets. 

A former community organizer, minister of community engagement at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, elected official, and adjunct faculty at Tri-C and Georgia State University, Dr. Lewis now fully focuses on projects that promote equity and justice for African American people. With degrees from Ashland Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Howard University School of Law, and Bowling Green State University, Leah brings her whole being to every task she undertakes. Justice, equity, and eliminating knowledge deficits are always her focus even in her art. 

Dir. Felton Thomas

Executive Director of Cleveland Public Library

Felton Thomas, Jr. was appointed Director of the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) in January 2009.  Since then, he has positioned CPL as a community deficit fighter and launched initiatives aimed at addressing community needs in the areas of technology, education, and economic development.

During Felton’s tenure, CPL has maintained its “Five Star” status and been named a “Top Innovator” by the Urban Libraries Council for its use of technology and data to inform decision making.  Felton also has guided CPL through the worst recession in decades by actively seeking input from the community, and then reducing CPL’s budget by millions while still providing superior service and keeping all neighborhood branches open.

Felton’s vision for the Library is that of a strong leader in defining a more prosperous future for Cleveland by battling the digital divide, illiteracy, unemployment, and other community deficits with innovative programming and action at all branches. He has also launched a “Downtown Destination” campaign to reposition the Main Library for the 21st century and market its status as a major downtown attraction.

Felton is a native of Las Vegas, where, as a youth, he first developed his passion for libraries.  At age 13, he became the youngest employee in Las Vegas-Clark County Library District history when a librarian noticed his enthusiasm and encouraged him to become a page.  Thirty years later, the young page has move up the library ranks to become Director of one of the best libraries in the country.

Felton earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from The University of Nevada-Las Vegas and his Masters in Library Science from The University of Hawaii, and is currently pursuing his PhD in Managerial Leadership Management at Simmons College.

Felton lives in Shaker Heights with his wife and two daughters, is an accomplished musician, and has become a devoted Cleveland sports fan since his arrival on the shores of Lake Erie.

Dr. Shenise Johnson Thomas

Dr. Shenise Johnson Thomas

Dr. Shenise Johnson Thomas currently serves as the Chief of External Relations and Development for the  Cleveland Public Library and the President of the Library’s Foundation. In her role she oversees  government affairs and fundraising for the system. She has served in this position since 2017. 

Dr. Thomas and her team have been instrumental in acquiring various financial and legislative resources for the Library. She contributed significantly to the passage of Cleveland Public Library’s 2017 levy resulting  in more than $110 million to support and advance the organization’s facilities master plan for its twenty seven branches. She also led the official launch of the Library’s Foundation in 2019 while building a  fundraising team with the skills and expertise to successfully achieve and surpass fundraising goals. Dr.  Thomas is credited with securing the largest philanthropic gift in Cleveland Public Library’s history.  

In her prior role, Dr. Thomas oversaw community engagement and corporate volunteerism for United Way  of Greater Cleveland. This was her second tour with the organization. During her first role with United  Way, she managed a fundraising team responsible for raising seven-figure gifts towards the organization’s  annual fundraising campaign.  

Before joining United Way of Greater Cleveland, Dr. Thomas led community engagement and government  affairs for Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern Campus. She was responsible for the design,  management, and measurement of strategic initiatives that advanced the institution’s priorities in the areas  of college-preparedness and student engagement/retention. During this time, she also served on the  College’s system-wide leadership committee for its operating and bond levies providing vital contributions  and support for its continued passage. 

Dr. Thomas holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from The University Akron, a master’s in  nonprofit administration from John Carroll University and a doctorate in community college leadership  from National American University’s John Roueche Graduate Center. She currently lives in Greater  Cleveland with her husband and their children. When not keeping busy with work she enjoys reading,  hiking, participating in Jack and Jill of America Inc. programs for her children, and serves on various civic  boards.  

Mistress of Ceremony

Andrea Campbell

Andrea Campbell

Andrea D. Campbell is a professional speaker, facilitator and  transformational coach. After spending over 20 years in Corporate America  as a successful engineer, trainer, and salesperson, she decided to follow  her heart’s desire to help others live their best lives…on purpose. Andrea is  passionate about inspiring others to be bold and make the intentional  change in their lives to achieve a life they desire, love and deserve.  

As a two-time cancer survivor, Andrea understands what it takes to be  resilient in the face of adversity. She has taken life by the reins to live an  authentic, unapologetic, highest version of self. Unselfishly, Andrea wants  others to do the same. She wants to ignite the spark needed to help them  BE more, DO more and LIVE more.  

Andrea is the author of two books, The Beautiful Journey: Finding Purpose  Through Cancer which chronicles her journey through cancer. Also, she  authored an eBook, God Never Wastes a Hurt: 3 Steps to Move from Pain  to Purpose. Andrea believes your story is your super power. You can  transform lives by sharing your story. She has a 10-week writing program,  Ready. Set. Write!, to help people write their non-fiction book.  

Andrea is a certified professional Coach with certifications from  Weatherhead School of Management, Brave Thinking Institute and CaPP  Institute. She received her MBA from Weatherhead School of Management  (Case Western Reserve University), and both her bachelor’s and master’s  degrees in engineering from Case Western Reserve University. Also, she’s  a member of the National Speakers Association and National Association of  Women Business Owners. 

Karla Payne

Karla Payne

Karla C. Payne is an accomplished writer and veteran stage actress/singer/dancer. Under the penname “Spirit-Lead (lehd)”, Karla released her award-winning spoken word CD, Words Unspoken in 2012, a poetry chapbook entitled From My Indigo Pen in 2015, and her most recent spoken word CD, Relatively Speaking, in 2017. She is fresh off of a run as Beverly Jenkins in New Horizon Theater’s production of Chicken and Biscuits, and is currently playing Martha Pentecost in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. Karla is the mother of two beautiful sons and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and The Pierians, Incorporated.

Vince Robinson

Vince Robinson is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Cleveland, Ohio. He took up  photography as a student at Kent State University in the 70’s while studying  Telecommunications with a minor in Pan African Studies. His career path took him  through stints as a radio news reporter, television and radio producer/host, voiceover  artist, entertainment journalist and photographer. He is the current host and executive  producer of Open Door, a television show which airs on Spectrum in Summit County. 

He’s also the producer/host of a radio version of Open Door on 95.9 FM WOVU –  Cleveland, in addition to co-hosting and co-producing 360 Info Network, an African centered radio talk show on AM1490 WERE – Cleveland. 

His filmmaking projects have included documentaries shot in Ghana, West Africa,  Israel, Egypt and Sudan in Northeast Africa. In addition to documentary films, he is a  content creator of videos and podcasts via YouTube. 

His photography has been featured in solo exhibitions and several group shows,  including two (2019 & 2023) at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. 

His book, Got Words?, was published in 2015. 

Robinson is the owner of Larchmere Arts, an art gallery, photography studio and  performance venue in Cleveland. He’s a pianist and leader of Vince Robinson & The  Jazz Poets since 1997.

African Drumming

Ali Jamal Boyd

Ali Jamal Boyd

Ali Jamal Boyd is a native of Memphis, TN and attended college at Jackson State University where led the drum section for two of his four years in the Sonic Boom of the South Marching Band.  Following college he picked up the drum kit, began performing with local reggae artists Uzoma and Jah Real, and then co-founded the funk and neo-soul collective Fuzion.  

After an eventual move to Cleveland, Ohio, Ali joined the Umojah Nation Reggae Band and recorded as the drummer and percussionist on the group’s debut album Smoke Screen.  He then became a djembe drummer for the Griot Project Poets and Passport Project African Drum and Dance Troupe.  Ali has also co-founded #Virgo (Hashtag Virgo) Indie-Soul-Jazz Collective and hopes to open Akofena Arts Drum Academy. 

Lift E'very Voice And Sing

Donnie Lynee

Donnie Lynee

Donnie Lynee is a Soul and R&B singer/songwriter hailing from Cleveland, OH. Her soulful vocals are consistently coupled with exquisite production again and again, as reflected in her numerous singles and two EP releases. Her songs have garnered her national and international attention from notable colleagues and music executives alike. Donnie’s recent EP “Grow” made it to #2 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list for Soul Albums. The singer has blazed staged as close to home as the House of Blues Cleveland and the Karamu House and as far as Le Pop In in Paris, France. has named her one of 20 Bands You Need to Know.

Paul Maximus Brown

Paul Maximus Brown

Paul Maximus Brown, a Cleveland native. Has been rooted in music since birth. Coming from a musical family.  One can say that music is in his blood. Paul being a Pk (preachers kid) his church upbringing prepared him for the opportunities that would come. Along with gospel, Paul was influenced by Motown, Smooth Jazz, Country, Soul, Pop, and many others. Paul began playing guitar in 2006. After hearing the Usher Confusions Tour Live. Ushers guitar player Natural’ was the deciding factor in his decision to play. He was quickly exposed to playing around the city for church conventions and concerts. Which would also bring him opportunities to play in local clubs as well. These opportunities have afforded Paul the chance to play guitar professionally for over 15 years. Paul has played on several records and was even a Grammy nominated guitarist in 2018. Today Paul serves as the Director of Music at New Community Bible Fellowship in the great city of Cleveland Heights. He also plays guitar with his band Chemistry. Even today he decides to continue to push himself to be able to continue to produce and create music that will impact and bless so many.

African American Playwrights

Terrence Spivey

Terrence Spivey

Former artistic director at Karamu House, Terrence Spivey is a native of Kountze, Texas. He received a B.A. in Theatre Arts at Prairie View A & M University under the late, greats, playwright Ted Shine and director, Clarance Lee Turner. He was a member of the collegiate drama club, the Charles Gilpin Players, touring throughout Texas, the New Orleans World’s Fair and the Kennedy Center. He resided in New York City and continued to hone his craft at the fame William Esper Studios and legendary tap teacher, Henry LeTang. He appeared in numerous indie films, soaps, and plays at Harlem’s National Black Theatre, Sanford Meisner Theatre and Michael Chekhov Studio.

Spivey has worked with the likes of Ruby Dee, Bill Cobbs, Leslie Uggams, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Regina Taylor, Marva Hicks, Peter Lawson Jones, Otis Sallid, Durand Bernarr, Dianne McIntyre, Lisa Jones, James Pickens, Jr., Spike Lee, Gregory Lamberson, Richard Brooks, Frank Vincent, Elmo Terry-Morgan, Alva Rogers, Pamela Tyson, Samaria Rice and Hatch-Billops. He has garnered multiple awards and Karamu was honored Repertory Company of the Year in 2013 by AUDELCO in NYC. He was recently presented a Resolution by Cleveland’s City Council, 2017 Cleveland Scene Best Director, 2017 Alan Schneider Directors Award nominee, 2010 Proclamation from Mayor Frank Jackson. He has directed numerous plays such as The Wiz, for colored girls, Fences, The Color Purple, God’s Trombones, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Cut Flowers, Bootycandy, Crowns, The Shadow Box, Radio Golf, Breath, Boom, Master Harold and the Boys, Permanent Collection, The Amen Corner, Objectively/Reasonable, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, Live Bodies for Sale, Resistance, Bourbon at the Border, The Phoenix Society. 

Spivey has directed at Cleveland State University, John Carroll University, and Allegheny College and Kent State University Pan African Studies as director-in-residence and Black Theatre lecturer. He was also invited to Oberlin College Cinema Studies Program in 2020 to lecture about his award-winning docu film short, Resurrection of The Last Black Man in 08:46, which was an official selection in numerous festivals including the Toronto Black Theatre Festival in 2021.

His latest chapter was the play An Ocean in My Bones, about the last illegal slave ship, the Clotilda. The play premiered in 2022 and is returning February 2024 in Africatown, Alabama. He was commissioned to write and direct the historical play by the Clotilda Descendants Association, the major storytellers in the Obamas Sundance award-winning Netflix film, Descendant. Spivey is currently working on Circles of Water: An Africatown Story.

Spivey and his works have appeared in numerous local and national media outlets such as The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Magazine, The New York Times, Ebony, Black Mask, American Theatre. PBS NewsHour and the PBS docu Karamu:100 Years in the House. Some of his works are archived under Hatch-Billops, Inc. at Emory College. He is a member of The HistoryMakers, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and board member for AUDELCO. He is founding director for Powerful Long Ladder and the arts outreach program, The Ultimate Reach, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Spivey is the recipient of the 2023 Preserving Truth in Education Award by Color of Change, one of the country’s largest racial justice organizations.

Kim El

Kim El

An award-winning Pittsburgh-born playwright, actor, director and educator who uses words and movement to stimulate human consciousness. She earned her Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Journalism from Duquesne University. Her memberships include The Dramatist Guild, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and she is also included in The 2013 New Pittsburgh Counter’s 50 Women of Excellence. Kim has written 19 plays and is best known for the production of her one-woman show, Straightening Combs. 

Lisa Langford

Lisa Langford

Lisa Langford is a Buffalo-born playwright based in Cleveland, OH. Her play Rastus and Hattie received a Joyce Award, a Kilroy’s List honorable mention, and was published by New Stage Press. Lisa’s other plays include How Blood Go, produced by Congo Square Theatre in residence at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and Breakfast at the Bookstore, which won Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s 2022 New Play Contest and was one of five winning plays in the Ashland New Plays Festival in Oregon. She’s appeared on stage at Dobama Theatre, Karamu House, and the Beck Center.

Shaunda McDill

Shaunda McDill, Moderator

Shaunda McDill joined Pittsburgh Public Theater as Managing Director in February 2023. Previously, she was a program officer at The Heinz Endowments, supporting a suite of Pittsburgh-based artists and arts organizations. Shaunda has over a decade of non-profit executive and arts management experience, working for theater companies across the country, including The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, Pasadena Playhouse, and Cornerstone Theater Company. In 2006, she also founded DEMASKUS Theater Collective ( In Pittsburgh, Shaunda served as vice president of programming and cultivation at the (then) August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where she managed all artistic and educational programs and produced the first Black Dance Festival. As the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s director of public relations, she headed both national and local public relations campaigns. Shaunda is a graduate of Dartmouth College (where she studied playwriting with August Wilson and led the Black Underground Theatre Association) and Yale University’s David Geffen School of Drama.  Shaunda is an adjunct faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University and serves on the Boards of Jada House International, Inc., the Office for Public Art, and Little Lumpy’s Center for Educational Initiatives. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (Alpha Alpha Omega Chapter), and the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pierians, Incorporated. She worships at Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh and is married to Pittsburgh native Sager McDill and the proud bonus mom to four children (Sager, Jr., Maria & Melanie, and Matthew). Shaunda’s mother needs a kidney. Her name is Janice Miles, and we are seeking a living donor.  You don’t have to be a perfect match to help!  To donate:

African American Entrepreneurs

Ras Asan

Ras Asan is a fintech pioneer, investor, author, and inc. 30 under 30 co-founder, currently serving as the Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the city of Cleveland, OH. In addition to being an award-winning entrepreneur, Ras is certified in Unani herbalism, exercise science, and nutrition. 

In 2021, Ras Asan published his first book – Heal Thy Hustle : Wellness Guide For Go-Getters – compiling proven concepts and routines that bring balance to our careers and health, allowing for the fulfilled lives we truly desire! 

Every Thursday from 11a to noon you can catch Ras Asan hosting The All Things Money radio show, on Cleveland’s very own WOVU 95.9 discussing wealth, wellness, access, and equity. Available in-person or virtually, Ras facilitates customized training options for adults and children such as: herbal remedies for beginners, group fitness classes, nutrition consultations, plant-based eating for beginners, and guided meditations. 

Visit for more info!

Craig Chavis

Craig M. Chavis Jr. is a world-renowned Business Coach who has worked with over 1000 founders in 24 different countries and six continents. 

At the core of Craig’s coaching philosophy is the mantra “time is gold, and money is silver”. Through this lens, he coaches through an unconventional perspective cultivated from over a decade of first-hand experience launching and managing multiple businesses in Ghana, Costa Rica, Peru, and the United States of America.

He is a serial entrepreneur, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a former division-1 collegiate athlete, and received his MBA from the University of Tampa and bachelor’s degree from Samford University. Craig is also a super foodie, world traveler, and lifelong learner, and currently resides in Columbus, OH.

Camille Heard

Camille Heard

About: Camille is a passionate entrepreneur, community builder, leader, and advocate for other founders and creatives of color. After six years in academia and nearly four years in corporate America, Camille embarked on her entrepreneurial journey to embrace her natural gift as an idea creator and co-founded FELOH, a social media and marketplace platform for beauty enthusiasts and rising beauty brands. 

In 2018, Camille quit her full time job and moved home to Cleveland Ohio to fully commit to her entrepreneurial journey. Through her efforts to get FELOH off the ground, Camille experienced firsthand inequities in access to early startup capital and networks to grow the company. She understood that all first-time founders were on a tremendous learning curve, and the best way to support them is through community and capital. 

In late 2021, Camille accepted a role as an Entrepreneur in Residence at JumpStart Inc., where she mentors and coaches over 20 minority early-stage tech founders using the lessons she learned along her journey. Through her work at JumpStart, Camille also created a community pitch competition called Pitch Cypher to help early founders share their business with the community and win non-dilutive grant funding. 

In 2022, Camille took her passion for community building to the next level and co-founded Tastemakers United, a Cleveland-based nonprofit devoted to building community for Millennial and Gen Z BIPOC entrepreneurs, innovators, and creatives through collaborative curated event experiences. Throughout the Tastemaker’s launch year, Camille led the organization to amass over 1,800 community members consisting of tech founders, small business owners, artists, and creatives. 

In 2022, Camille was also elected to serve as a founding executive director of FutureLAND, an annul multi-day tech and innovation conference designed to uplift Cleveland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. In this capacity Camille helped coordinate conference logistics, source speakers, execute artistic activations, and attract over 2,000 attendees in its inaugural year. 

Camille enjoys speaking with young entrepreneurs and welcomes opportunities to share motivational learnings through panels, podcasts, and interviews. In Camille’s down time, she enjoys spending time in nature going on hikes, reading, roller blading, and attending local artsy events. 

Maisha Howze

Maisha Howze

Maisha Howze is a Pittsburgh native who from a very young age, was groomed to be aware of, and empathetic to, the plight of her community and those closely related. This awareness raised a sincere dedication and commitment to the field of social services. Maisha holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology from Carlow University. She has worked in the social services field for more than 20 years.

In 2019 Ms. Howze released a book entitled, W.A.S.H. (Withstand All Strife To Heal) Time To Do YOUR Laundry. W.A.S.H. is a self-reflective journey to healing and wholeness.  Ms. Howze uses W.A.S.H. to facilitate group discussions to help guide the reader through their own personal process.  In 2023 Ms. Howze released her second book entitled, Hidden Gems: Black Women In The Workplace.  Hidden Gems is a literary work written with the struggles of Black women in the workplace in mind.  It is not intended to bemoan those struggles, but instead to acknowledge them.

Dr. Tameka Ellington

Dr. Tameka is CEO and Founder of Dr. Tameka Ellington Enterprises, a personal and professional development company. She is a speaker, internationally acclaimed and awarded fashion scholar, and confidence coach. She’s the author of four books, including the award-winning book, TEXTURES: the history and art of Black hair written for its namesake exhibition co-curated by Dr. Tameka, featuring artifacts and contemporary artworks musing on Black hair and Black culture. Her fifth book, Black Hair in a White World was released Summer 2023 with Kent State University (KSU) Press. Dr. Tameka is also the host of the Black Beauty Activist Podcast where she has critical conversations with her guests to disrupt Westernize beauty standards and raise the consciousness and confidence of Black women. 

Meltrice D. Sharp

Meltrice D. Sharp, CPA, MBA is a native of Cleveland Ohio and a managing partner at Creating Leading Enterprises (CLE) Consulting Firm, an accounting and consulting firm offering accounting, tax, payroll and business consulting services to small and middle market companies, nonprofit organizations, religious organizations, and individuals.  

With more than twenty years as a CPA, Meltrice has extensive knowledge and experience in accounting, tax, management, finance, and business consulting.  

She started her accounting career at Ernst & Young as an auditor. She remained there for four years before joining Forest City Enterprises, where she served in a variety of accounting and finance positions for the next thirteen years. Inspired by a deep desire to use all she had learned over the previous two decades to chart a path of her own, she decided in 2017 to begin her journey as an entrepreneur. 


Meltrice received her BBA with a concentration in accounting from Kent State University and her MBA from Baldwin-Wallace University. She is an adjunct instructor at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), where she teaches a variety of accounting courses.


Meltrice is the Founding Member of Women Creating Wealth & Impact, an organization that addresses the education, knowledge, and access gaps with women and finance. She is the Treasurer of the Deaconess Foundation and the National Association of Minority Contractors, Northern Ohio (NAMC). Meltrice serves on the Audit Committee Board for Cuyahoga County. She is a trustee for the YWCA, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children Foundation, and the Women of Color Foundation. 


Meltrice is also a member of the Business Advisory Committee for Tri-C and the Marketing Advisory Committee for JumpStart. Meltrice is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Alpha Omega Chapter of Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of Aubrie’s Adventure to Cashland, a children’s book that teaches children the importance of giving back and how making wise money decisions can positively impact their lives and community.


Meltrice devotes a significant amount of her personal time civically, giving back to her community. She attends Faith Fellowship Church and is a loving and devoted wife, mother, and grandmother.

Her favorite pastime is hanging out with her family and telling corny jokes. (Her children remind her that her jokes are not funny while they are laughing.) Meltrice’s guilty pleasure is vegging out on the sofa and watching reality TV shows.

Patrice Blakemore

Patrice Blakemore, Moderator

Patrice Blakemore is the Senior Vice President of Equity and Inclusion of the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP).

Patrice leads the inclusive opportunity strategy, which comprises of (1) scaling minority businesses (2) hiring, promoting, and retaining diverse employees, and (3) advancing digital equity.  

Before joining GCP, Patrice served as the Executive Director for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). The 3-month entrepreneurial accelerator provides education, capital resources, and business support services.  Patrice increased overall diversity in the program on average by 15 percent. 

Patrice received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College in 3 ½ years and her law degree in 2 ½ years from the University of Dayton School of Law.  After graduating from law school, Patrice worked for the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s office before moving to Cleveland, Ohio.  

In 2009, Patrice pivoted, using her experience as an attorney to create a consulting practice where she assisted organizations with their diversity programs.  She also provided executive coaching, customized training, and support for employees to excel.  

Patrice believes to stay globally competitive, companies must embrace racial equity and inclusivity. A region’s ability to thrive balances on its ability to harness different perspectives from diverse people. 

African American Comic Book Entrepreneurs

Lynnesha "Nesha" D. Hamilton

Lynnesha "Nesha" D. Hamilton

Lynnesha, Better known as “Nesha Mars”, was born and raised in Cleveland, OH. Creating and community outreach have been  passions of hers since grade school. As she struggled with identity in high school, writing was a great way to escape and dive into a alternate universe.

Lee Johnson

Lee Johnson

My name is Lee Johnson I am the founder of 50Fiftycomix publications. Professionally, I work as an graphic designer an Illustrator. I proudly served the country as a soldier for 14 years. I started 50Fiftycomix with my brother Leonce and my college friend Lynnesha after finally deciding to create a story of my own. My brother whose a teacher and writer, helped solidify a concept for a story arc I had and we introduced the world to the Natura Saga. Lynnesha who is always looking to help the community,  rounded out the trio by offering her business savy and activism. So far we have made a great team of people dedicated to the art form. 

Leonce Hall

Leonce Hall

Writer and educator Leonce Hall, aka L. Edwards, is a New Orleans native, a mediocre chess player, and an apparent masochist who chooses to teach middle school English on purpose. His debut collection of poetry, High Above the Deep, is available on, and he threatens to release more work in the future. 

Keith A Harris

Keith A. Harris

Keith A. Harris is President of both FutureGen Comics, LLC and Regal Consulting Group, LLC. Regal Consulting Group specializes in organizational and leadership development, project management, strategic sales planning and smart city planning and development. FutureGen Comics is a comic book development and publishing company. Both are located in Twinsburg, Ohio. He is the former President of Kero International Incorporated as well as its CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors. Kero International was a supply chain and inventory management company with expertise in obsolescence management and investment recovery of excess inventory.

His years as a student at Twinsburg High School throughout his studies at HBCU West Virginia State University has prepared Mr. Harris to identify and participate in many leadership and development opportunities. Prior to the previously listed positions, Mr. Harris, 56 served as VP of Sales Training and Development. He assumed that position after six years in the banking and insurance industries respectively. His corporate experiences range from chemical manufacturing to large-scale product distribution. He is a certified Construction Management graduate of the James H. Walker Construction Management course conducted by Case Western Reserve University and Turner Construction.

He was a President’s Council of Greater Cleveland “Emerging Entrepreneur” in 2008 member and a member of Sandler Sales Training President’s Club. A past member of the National African American Speakers Association and winner of the Small Business Administration’s 2015 Minority Business Champion award in the Cleveland district and Mr. Harris has been recognized by Crain’s Cleveland Business as a “Notable Entrepreneur” for 2021. He also currently serves on a number of boards and committees as mentors entrepreneurial, business and marketing students from Kent State. He works with students at Walsh University, has been “Locked Up for Good” by the Muscular Dystrophy Association and graduated with the inaugural class of the United Way of Summit County’s Neighborhood Leadership Institute.

Dawn Arrington

Dawn Arrington, Moderator

Dawn Arrington is the founder and executive director of Comics at the Corner, a literacy advocacy organization that uses graphic novels and comics to promote reading in traditionally underinvested communities. Mrs. Arrington recently launched her work’s next iteration by creating “Literacy Lounges”. A Lit Lounge is a pop-up-style community book fair where readers of all levels can engage with the material meaningfully. From “create your own comic” sessions to book exchanges and character discussion groups, Comics at the Corner provides a place where the community can gather, explore, and co-create. Mrs. Arrington has earned an MBA and an MA in English and Creative Writing. She is a member of several non-profit boards including Literary Cleveland & Larchmere Porchfest and a self-published author with public art/infrastructure credits to her name.

Divine Nine Authors

Patrice Wade Johnson (AKA)

Patrice Wade Johnson, AKA

Patrice Wade-Johnson is a writer, producer, and speaker.  Honored by the New Pittsburgh Courier as one of their Fifty Women of Excellence, and recognized as an Unsung Hero by the Ivy Charitable Endowment, she is a 2022 Sankofa Color of Achievement Award recipient from the University of Pittsburgh AAAC. Patrice is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated ®, The Pierians, Inc., Demaskus Theater Collective, and the Program Director for GLAAWC.  Her creative works include five stage plays: Sitting On Top of the World (1994),  Cindy: An Urban Fairytale (1996), In Your Mirror (2000), Lundyn Bridges (2010), Our Song (2023);  two film shorts: The Take Us (2012, Co-writer), Rhea The Great Detective (2021, Producer); a feature film: (Set Free (2014); three novels and one journal: Wisdom Seeds (2016), Pieces (2021); The Lemonade Ain’t Sweet Enough journal (2022) and; The Pirouette (2023).

Chante Thomas, AKA

Author Chante Thomas has been teaching for twenty-nine years, all at Woodbury School? Her favorite subject to teach is social studies, or Individuals and Societies. She has been writing children’s stories over the span of her career. Ms. Thomas stays busy!  She is an active member of the Shaker Heights Teachers  Association, Cleveland Chapter of the Chums, Inc, Jack and Jill of America, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She is the mother of two sons ages  13 and 10, and a caregiver to her 89 year old mother.

 In 2017, she decided it was time to bring her stories to life and published her first book, “Where I’m From.”  The book tells the geographic story of five diverse children with roots in the United States, Africa and Asia. She has continued to publish a 2nd book, “Go To School Tommy”(a story that teaches  us the power of a smile),  and a 3rd book, Sean and the Book Cures. This story takes us through the unforgettable year Covid 19 disrupted our lives and is told from a kid’s perspective. 

In the fall of 2022, she published her 4th book, Sean and the Book Cures… Can You Spare a Kidney? This is a story about love and organ donation. This book will show the reader that information is powerful.  As the main characters research what happens to the body when kidneys begin to fail, they are comforted to learn that there are options that can save lives.   

Author Chante Thomas desires to inspire youth to not only read but to also encourage them to create, build and write their own stories yielding from their own personal adventures. “Most of my stories begin in my dreams. You can make your dreams come true too!”

JJ Winston, AKA

JJ Winston, AKA

Judy “JJ” Jackson-Winston is the Author of the fictional novels, “The Anniversary,” released in April 2017 and “The Commemoration” released in June 2020 and non-fictional “The Anniversary Guide to Behavioral Health and Workbook,” released in April 2018.   

Ms. Winston received her Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) from the University of Akron, (1991), Master of Social Service Administration (MSSA) from Case Western University (1993) and her Law Degree from Cleveland State University (1998).   Ms. Winston is a Licensed Independent Social Worker with Supervisory Designation (LISW-S) and a Licensed Attorney (Esq.) in the State of Ohio. 

Ms. Winston is the former Client Rights Officer (CRO) of the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services Board (ADAMHS) of Cuyahoga County where she was employed for 19 years, (1998-2017.) In this role Ms. Winston advocated for and protected the rights of hundreds of mental health and drug and alcohol patients and their families.  As CRO, Ms. Winston investigated allegations of abuse and neglect and rights violations within Cuyahoga County’s contract behavioral health agencies, adult care facilities and contract housing units and ensured that the rights of the behavioral health constituency that she represented was protected.  

Ms. Winston’s uses her extensive background in both Behavioral Health and Law to carry the message, “Behavioral Health Care is Health Care too” and that members of the community must advocate for their health and that of their families.  Ms. Winston uses her extensive personal history with Sickle Cell Disease to advocate for the community at large to learn if they are carriers of the disorder and to raise awareness about this important issue. 

In 2017 Ms. Winston left her position as the ADAMHS Bd. CRO and is now employed as a Post Decree Magistrate for the Honorable Tonya R. Jones, the first African American Judge to ever be elected to the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.  

Ms. Winston serves as the Domestic Relations Chair for the Ohio Magistrates Association and is a member of PAIMI council for Disability Rights Ohio.  She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc and is a member of Top Ladies of Distinction where she serves as the Sickle Cell Chair for the Cleveland Chapter.   

Stay in touch with JJ by visiting her website at www.novelistjjwinston or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @novelistjjwinston. 

Dominique Dobson-Briggs, DST

Dominique Briggs is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Michigan and returned to Pittsburgh to complete dual master’s degrees in business administration and health information systems at Duquesne University. Having worked with children since she was fourteen years old, it was not until the birth of her daughter, Rhea, that she was inspired to write children’s literature. As someone who has always loved reading, having the opportunity to create a space for imagination to flourish is one of her life’s greatest accomplishments. Her first book, Rhea the Great Detective and the Case of the Missing Mrs. Bearington, was released March 2019 which was later turned into a pilot for TV and film in March 2021.  Ms. Briggs was also the featured F.I.N.E. Artists resident at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh where she was able to feature another Rhea the Great Detective story using the museum’s exhibits as tools for immersive storytelling and play.  Dominique also performs as an actor, vocalist, and voice over artist in and around the city of Pittsburgh and is a true champion of sharing the arts with children young and old.

Michelle Rankins

Michelle Rankins, DST

Michelle Rankins is an award-winning published poet, educator, and creative professional. She is the author of, I Am One Blessed Poet, a self-published book reviewed in the Black Issues Book Review. Locally, Michelle served as a featured poet for Word on The Street -Summer Block Party hosted by Literary Cleveland, The BLAX Museum at the Maltz Museum, Pandemonium! at the Cleveland Public Theatre, and READING RACE:Poetic Expressions of Identity, a multi-media exhibition at MOCA Cleveland. Michelle was a featured poet at the International Conference on 20th Century American Poetry in Wuhan, China. Her publication credits include (but not limited to) Say It Loud: Poems about James Brown, ForClosure: Visions of Reality, Promise of Words, and Our Common Suffering: Anthology of Poets in Memoriam 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Shanghai Foreign Languages Education Press. As an educator, Michelle is a tenured assistant professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College and the founder of the African American Read-In at Eastern Campus. As a creative professional, Michelle served as a senior editor at American Greetings, Inc and through her business, MRankins Creative Enterprises, LLC, she offers creative writing workshops, consultant services, and educational programming. Currently, Michelle is completing at Master of African American History degree at Jackson State University (MS) and she holds a Master of Arts in English from Cleveland State University, and a bachelors in liberal arts with a minor in Pan-African Studies from Kent State University. Michelle is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, Greater Cleveland Alumnae Chapter.

Alicia Wiggins

Alicia Wiggins, ZPB

Alicia Wiggins began her novel writing career in the late 90s with her first romance novel Unconditional Love. She recently completed her sixth novel, Loving Ilsa. Whether writing novels or screenplays, Alicia loves to create characters and stories that take readers on a drama-filled yet satisfying journey to happily ever after.

Alicia is often asked how she comes up with stories and characters. She simply pays attention to people and real-life stories all around her. 

Alicia is an Ohio native and an HBCU graduate of Central State University and Franklin University. 

What does she do when she’s not writing?  She loves watching cheesy horror movies, cooking, traveling, and exploring the wonderful local sights and sounds of the Buckeye state.

Andratesha Fritzgerald, SGR

Andratesha Fritzgerald is the author of Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success (CAST, 2020), winner of a Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. She has served extensively in education as a teacher, curriculum specialist, administrator, and director. As an international speaker, presenter, and facilitator, Fritzgerald exhibits an audacious perseverance that calls organizations to evolve into inclusive antiracist safe zones for all learners. Andratesha is a book nerd, Jeopardy enthusiast and imagination expert who loves writing and dreaming out loud with her husband, two children and committed educators who believe in academic success for all. She is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc, where she serves as Anti-Grammateus for her chapter. She is the co-founder of Building Blocks of Brilliance Educational Consulting Firm. For more information, go to and @FritzTesha on Social Media


Make A Donation

Or Scan The QR Code To Donate

The GLAAWC website aims to conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1 AA standards. If you experience an accessibility barrier while on the GLAAWC website, please contact us via email at   We will provide alternative formats and work to eliminate any barriers to create a more accessible experience for everyone.

GLAAWC. All Rights Reserved. 2023.