A descriptor you don’t often see about Chicago & Black Men: grace personified

We’re inundated with news of how horrible Chicago is — the shootings, the weather, the school system, the taxes, the politicians, the fact that we lead the nation in catalytic converter theft. We were (are?) Trump’s go to location-reference for everything that’s wrong with America.

It is true. Our city is not perfect. We have our blemishes — some silly and inconsequential, some monstrous and good lord, how are we still so broken?! I and and many others have considered leaving or have left.

Yet we also have our sparkles. A street system that makes sense (Boston, I’m passively-agressively side-eyeing you), a bursting at the seams scene of accessible culture, a POTUS and FLOTUS who epitomize leadership (and whom I want to lock inside a certain DC house), the World Champion Chicago Cubs. 

We’re also inundated with news of how horrible black men are. You know the story after story after story.

It struck me recently how infrequently I hear positive reflections about Chicago and/or about black men. The reason it struck me? Because there are some black men absolutely bringing it in this city and of late, for once, my Facebook feed is filled stories that make my heart swell, both for my home and for this oft-marginalized group.

Their stories are so different, they themselves are so different. Where they parallel is where it matters — they have realized their superpowers and they are using said superpowers to build the life they want for themselves and to better the lives of others. They’re building with passion, literal and figurative sweat, a tribe of fellow Do Good’ers, transparency, and innovation. Each time I have been near any of them, lucky me all within the past year, I am struck by their towering yet welcoming grace. It manifests itself in varied formations but there it is, undeniable, confident, and inspiring.

Chicago Grace Personified

Emile Cambry


Emile founded the technology and entrepreneurship incubator, BLUE1647, which has expanded to several different locations across the Midwest. It fosters economic development in technology and 21st Century skills through people development (classes, workshops, and events around technology), workforce development (through youth and adult technology programs to prepare individuals for high-demand jobs) and Business Acceleration (through shared coworking-services). The BLUE1647 community is a vibrant example of the ways in which creative professionals, entrepreneurs, change-makers, and nonprofits can come together to make meaningful, lasting impact.

Emile’s exciting breaking news?! They’re moving headquarters, merging with Lacuna Lofts, and are now BLUE LACUNA. 250,000 square feet, making it one of the largest innovation centers in the game!


Jahmal Cole


Jahmal is the founder of My Block, My Hood, My City (MBMHMC) a non-profit whose mission is “to empower (under-resourced) youth to reach their greatest potential by expanding their worldview through explorations in their own backyard.” Every month they take a group of teenagers on a journey that expands their physical and mental boundaries.

Jahmal was just featured in a Tribune article, A Chicago nonprofit wins big, gets national spotlight courtesy of Mazdafor winning $30,000 to continue MBMHMC’s work. Jahmal on the Today Show talking about how he’ll use the funds.


Neal Sales-Griffin


Those of you who were at Handpicked Supper Club in November will recognize Neal as Chef Neal! He’s multi-faceted. And available to hire to cater private events. His food and his team were top-notch, cannot recommend him highly enough. You’d think from his output that night that he cooked professionally. But no, that’s just a passion. He’s got a job-job.

Neal is the newly minted CEO of Codenow.org, an organization that diversifies the talent pipeline of students who pursue computer science and technology. They do this by providing free out-of-school computer programming training to students, hosted on the weekends at tech companies and led by professional engineers.


James Green


Those that have been in my world for awhile may recognize James as “the stranger who saved the day and let Saya get ready for her wedding in his apartment.” He’s oh so much more than that.

James is an artist, designer, writer, podcaster, musician, and everything in between; he makes stories for radio and art on the internet.  He’s had an amazing journey to get where he is today, which he shares in The voices that shaped my world: How radio led me down an unexpected path. The sum (that leaves out all the second-guessing, emotion, and long hours): he fell in love with podcasts, created his own as a side-project, an email with “@viacom.com” showed up in his inbox, and now he’s moving to NYC to be an MTV News Producer.

Check out James’ latest MTV goodness here.


Shannon Cason


Shannon is a storyteller and has shared his stories all over the country. He is a host and GrandSlam champion with The Moth. He is a regular on NPR’s Snap Judgment — awarded Best Performance of 2013 —  and has appeared on countless podcasts and storytelling stages, including TEDx, RISK!, and the Third Coast Festival. Plus has an upcoming TV pilot, what?!?

Shannon was recently awarded $65000 by the Knight Foundation to “spotlight the best national and local storytellers through a monthly event, Homemade Stories Live” and featured on The Moth Podcast. The episode is currently in the top 10 downloaded episodes on iTunes.

Shannon is no longer technically a Chicagoan as he moved to Detroit a few years ago. But he’s back often, this is where we met, and he’s so dapper and suave and intelligent and funny, that I still claim him as ours. Fight me.


James Meredith


When I met James at my first real job sixteen years ago, I thought he would be my first adult boyfriend. We were paired together in team-bonding activity where he led me around a room as I kept my eyes closed; ya know, one of those trust exercises. I hadn’t thought of him in that way before this day. But he sweated so profusely that I was sure there was no other explanation other than he was wildly attracted to me and his body wouldn’t let him hide it. And who was I to say no to nature? Oh 21 year old naïve Saya. Turns out, he’s just a sweater (I found out soon after that he and our boss were happily together and remain so, with a cutie-pie son, today).

This memory came to me as I was trying to remember the first production in which I saw James. It was Master Harold and the Boys at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was James, the rest of the cast, me, my friend Liz, and perhaps one other person in a theater that sat 30 people perhaps? Since then he’s been on Broadway in Superior Donuts, on TV in Boss and Law & Order, and in a little musical called Book of Mormon.

He’s currently a bright spot in my Facebook due to his role in Roz and Ray. “The force of Chay Yew’s intense production flows from the potent performances by James Vincent Meredith and Mary Beth Fisher, both of whom turn in exceptionally complex and moving pieces of acting… And at many points in this 90-minute drama, Meredith beautifully embodies both the wariness of a protective father and the truth of how we come to depend on — and maybe even love — our medical professionals, especially those who seem willing to lead us through a bureaucratic maze.” Rest of Tribune review

And yes, he’s related to that James Meredith. Cool, huh?!



Thank you gentlemen for breathing grace into a world that so needs it. We are lucky to have you!


Many of you will recognize Shannon, James G, James M, and Jahmal as Idea Potluck Dishes.

Shout out to Heidi Massey, Master Connector, who “set me up” years ago with Neal and Emile. Need support in marketing, technology, or facilitation? Or in marketing-technology-facilitation? She’s your gal.