on the rise: four emerging african-american leaders in cleveland

It usually starts early.

Often, it's thanks to the influence of a parent or the result of a life-altering experience. Regardless the genesis, those among us that emerge to the forefront of their professions and community have been honing their leadership skills for some time.

Now that these 20- and 30-somethings are armed with more education, awareness and lessons gleaned from their predecessors, they have an undeniable enthusiasm to leave their mark on Cleveland. Here are a few young African-Americans making waves around town through advocacy, talent and so much more.

Miquel Brazil, Director of Prevention Programming at AIDS TaskForce of Greater Cleveland

Before Miquel Brazil became the director of prevention programming for the AIDS TaskForce of Greater Cleveland, he couldn’t imagine becoming a leader. In fact, he resisted it.

“I didn’t finish [undergrad] at Miami University,” says the 32-year-old. “I wondered why is it that I have such passion but it was so difficult to finish school. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy because the people that I saw as leaders did some of those base-level things.”

But Brazil underwent a transformation upon returning to Cleveland. He gained confidence and tapped into his desire to raise social consciousness under the mentorship of his grandmother and a few leaders at the AIDS TaskForce. In 2010, he was named the organization’s director of prevention programming and has held that title longer than anybody in the organization's 33-year history.

The position allows him to provide sexual and reproductive health education to the community while showcasing his diverse talents in film, music, photography and graphic design. Brazil speaks at schools and recently helped launch the Mobile Health Van, which provides free HIV testing throughout Northeast Ohio.

Tracy Jones, CEO of the TaskForce and one of Brazil’s mentors, says he has become a key cog in the local support system for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the decade since he first volunteered with the group.

“On a daily basis, he contributes to improving their lives," says Jones. "He does this through media, through music, through giving up his time, giving up himself, through remembering that it really does take the entire community and you as an individual to help others. He puts everyone above himself.”

Whether it's disease or a lack of resources, Brazil says helping people rise in the face of adversity is the most rewarding aspect of his work with the TaskForce. Opening minds and increasing awareness and education in his own community are all challenges that Brazil remains dedicated to conquering.

“When I [live in] the community with people that we are doing work for, that’s important to me,” Brazil said.

Bishara Addison, Executive Fellow to the CEO, Cleveland Municipal School District

The same sort of community involvement and activism that led to Bishara Addison’s upcoming recognition as a young, emerging leader in Cleveland inspired her decision to build a professional life here in 2010.

One of Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club’s 2014 Top 25 Under 35 Movers & Shakers, Addison returned to Cleveland summer of 2010 to become an intern at Towards Employment. Election season was approaching and Cuyahoga County was gearing up for its first-ever county executive vote under a new governmental structure. Addison helped organize candidate forums on voter education and community reentry, a perfect match with the passion for social justice and community embedment she developed as a graduate of George Washington University and the daughter of John Addison, who spent years as an educator and activist in the greater Cleveland area.

She moved to Boston after the internship to partake in an unrelated fellowship focused on social innovation and social entrepreneurship, but once she was there she couldn’t help but reflect on what she had started in her hometown.

“I’m not sure it’s that I had a plan that Cleveland is the place I wanted to be, but I had such a good experience that I began thinking that Cleveland is a place I could be,” she notes. “The longer I’ve been here, I’m convinced that Cleveland is the place I should be.”

Those forums four years ago presented Cleveland in a much different light than she saw it as a student at Shaker Heights High School. Now, Addison is in the midst of an executive fellowship with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). She receives executive coaching from district CEO Eric S. Gordon in exchange for adding capacity to his role as he leads the implementation of the Cleveland Plan. Her duties range from creating talking points for presentations to filling in on meetings and staying on top of key dates that are pertinent to district contracts. She’s been in this role since July and will continue through November 2014.

Addison is also helping with project management for the 2014-15 phase-in of two new schools associated with the redesign of John F. Kennedy High School.

“[CEO Gordon] has allowed me to take on a lot of really interesting projects, he’s allowed me to go to meetings with him and gives me a lot of constructive feedback,” she said. “I really lucked out that key leaders in the community have just taken me under their wing.”

Addison says Towards Employment Executive Director Jill Rizika aided her in the same fashion during her time as an intern and policy associate with that organization. Gordon and Rizika, along with current and previous Top 25 Under 35 winners like Crystal Lynn Bryant, Erika Anthony and Will Tarter Jr., are the main figures that solidified Addison’s belief that her return to Cleveland was the right decision, she said.

Moving forward, Addison looks forward to volunteering with the E CITY student entrepreneurship program, as well as Social Venture Partners Cleveland and the Cleveland Young Professionals Senate. She’s not in a role to directly affect student achievement, but she hopes she can continue working on projects like the JFK redesign through the tenure of her fellowship.

“This is a real opportunity for our children to have a good school in their neighborhood, and they deserve it,” she said. “I’m real excited about that.”

Mark Wright, Corporate Communications Manager at Cleveland Cavaliers

When Mark Wright faced a career crossroads after earning his bachelor’s degree in 2010, his hometown won him over.

All in the same week, the Ohio University graduate received a job offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers, a paid internship with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington D.C. and an interview for MTV’s Summer Associate Program.

“I was unemployed after college for about six months, but I was diligent and worked part-time at The Gap until I landed the job I wanted,” said Wright, a corporate communications manager for the Cavs. “I chose to stay in Cleveland and work for my favorite sports team.”

His decision to work for the home team also gave Wright a chance to dive head-first into Cleveland’s burgeoning YP (young professionals) movement. He is active in at least seven organizations and will be recognized for that drive on March 21, when he is officially recognized as one the Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club’s Top 25 Under 35 Movers & Shakers.

“For me, being involved is second nature,” he said. “I was extremely involved in high school and college, so after graduating and taking some time to adjust professionally, it only felt right to keep it up.”

Wright said he didn’t always have designs on becoming a known leader in Cleveland, but that changed once he saw how accessible leadership growth is within the city if one does a little digging. Joining the Cleveland Young Professional Senate’s board and getting involved with the Ohio Homecoming in 2011 let Wright know that he wanted to make an impact on what he sees as a dynamic shift in Cleveland.

“Especially downtown, the energy that Cleveland is experiencing is being driven demand-wise by YPs,” he says. “We recognize that, and I’ve seen an increase in interest for YPs to not only be involved in the demand of new amenities, but in the planning of development and [to have] a seat at the table with decision makers, as well.”

One of Wright’s recent seats came as communications chair for the Cleveland Rocks New Year’s Eve event. The upcoming program that excites him most is Ohio Homecoming’s Village Project, which seeks to give a Cleveland neighborhood a makeover by co-locating a group of YPs to revitalize homes, increase the taxpayer base and encourage business development.

“With the recent housing crisis in Cleveland, we’re working to identify a dilapidated neighborhood in Cleveland and breathe new life into the community by creating a village of young professionals,” Wright said. “I love the symbolism of this project and the potential impact that it will have on the city.

“We’ve got to change how people view Cleveland and our neighborhoods, and the Village Project is a very tangible, bricks-and-mortar type initiative that can do just that.”

When Wright is at Quicken Loans Arena, you might find him writing and brainstorming during the day or coordinating an on-court guest appearance during a break in game action. That’s if he’s not working with the guest services monitoring team to respond to fan tweets.

As busy as his days and nights are, you don’t get the sense that Wright is looking to change things up anytime soon.

“For me, being involved is second nature,” he said. “I was extremely involved in high school and college, so after graduating and taking some time to adjust professionally, it only felt right to keep it up."

Troy L. Smith, Entertainment Reporter, Northeast Ohio Media Group

Troy L. Smith is fast becoming a Cleveland social media point man for marquee concert coverage, new album and movie releases and breakdowns of all things pop culture, but he’s still familiarizing himself with the city.

Smith moved to Cleveland from Rochester, N.Y in December to become an entertainment reporter for Northeast Ohio Media Group. Since then, he brought live and post-concert coverage of larger-than-life shows from Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake to laptops and tablets around Greater Cleveland -- all while getting to know the region.

“Cleveland has been great,” the 30-year-old reports. “Moving to a bigger city, you expect to experience things you haven't before. I've really fallen in love with the options for food and music especially, so far.

“There's a rich diversity to Cleveland. You can go to different neighborhoods and areas and meet all sorts of people, and discover different types of businesses and culture.”

Smith brought seven years of newspaper experience and nearly 4,000 Twitter followers with him to Cleveland.  Unlike that of his predecessors, Smith’s career came of age in the midst of social media’s rise, giving him the chance to leverage Web platforms into readership-building and self-marketing tools.

“I was one of the first people I knew on Twitter, pushing out tweets about my stories and trying to gather contacts back when older journalists were telling me it was stupid,” he explains. “I'm not sure where I'd be without social media in my career. It's enabled me to become an innovator and leader when it comes to trends.”

It’s no longer a new concept in 2014, but it is one that some social media up-and-comers in his industry have yet to grasp. To that end, he enjoys speaking at various college seminars and conferences for journalists. One of his key points explains how he successfully transferred to a new a publication and city with little to no drop off.

With the right blend of live tweets, personal interaction and content from himself and other respected reporters, Smith’s is the type of account followed by everyone from large publications like Complex Magazine to everyday Clevelanders.

“When it comes to Twitter, I was very mindful about not branding myself into a location,” Smith says. “My Twitter page has always been about entertainment. I didn't want to be one of those people who establishes a big following based on where they work or where they live. The Internet is a global thing, so why shouldn't I brand myself that way?”

Brandon Baker
Brandon Baker

About the Author: Brandon Baker

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.