James Joyce III

James Joyce III, who spent four years as a reporter in Yakima, started Coffee With a Black guy in 2016.

Ever since he was a kid back in Maryland, James Joyce III has been a keen observer of the life around him. What could he take from each experience? What could he learn from the people he encountered?

As a lanky young reporter, his ability to absorb real-life lessons served him well, eventually landing him to a job covering education for the Yakima-Herald-Republic in 2004.

Now, at 40, he’s a man in full. He won the 2018 NAACP Distinguished Citizen Award. He was district director for California state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson until term limits required her to step down in January.

And by the time he revisits Yakima at noon Thursday as the virtual keynote guest in the Downtown Rotary’s Black History Month presentation, he’ll have formally announced his candidacy for mayor of Santa Barbara.

But Joyce has also found success as an emerging social entrepreneur. He’s the founder of “Coffee With a Black Guy,” which is based on a simple premise: inviting well-intentioned people to talk openly about race. As the #CWABG website puts it: “The idea is that black men who are willing, share their experience and open themselves for better understanding of our shared, yet, diverse experience and background.”

Online slots are filling up fast for Joyce’s free Yakima talk this week, but he’s used to speaking to crowds.

His first “Coffee With a Black Guy” gathering in 2016 drew just seven people. But by the time the pandemic hit last year, the conversations were routinely bringing in more than 100.

In just four years, Joyce has hired paid staff to help administer and market #CWABG, added a full line of merchandise and gained national media attention. Numerous West Coast publications have written about him, and Forbes Magazine featured him in a profile just last year.

He’s not stopping there, though. Once public-health conditions allow, #CWABG might spider-web out to include regional live conversations. A dedicated app could be in the works soon, too.

But wherever life takes him, Joyce packs along a little bit of Yakima.

“I have a lot of fond memories of being in Yakima,” he said in a Friday telephone interview. “I became an adult in Yakima.”

He also learned some hard lessons during his four years here.

Immersing himself in a culture unlike any he’d ever lived in, he had to overcome “cultural disconnects” as he encountered values and references that were foreign to him.

But that’s where his natural tendency to observe, absorb and evolve kicked in.

In short order, Joyce began to feel at home. Welcomed warmly to town by people like the Downtown Rotary’s Eric Silvers, he developed friendships he expects will last a lifetime.

A talented athlete himself, Joyce helped coach the A.C. Davis track team, joined local clubs and played two seasons with the now-defunct Yakima Mavericks semi-pro football team.

All those experiences, he said, have helped him frame #CWABG.

“A lot of what it is,” Joyce said, “is just connect the dots.”

It comes in handy when he’s trying to communicate more effectively with the “cross section” of people who want to better understand Black history and culture by attending #CWABG’s informal sessions – middle-aged white women, seniors, parents with children.

“I can use what I’ve seen and done to help others learn,” he said.

This week, he hopes his Black History Month talk can help repay Yakima some of what he took away. Specifically, he hopes white audience members will see the value of Black contributions.

“We know all about Black history,” Joyce said with a laugh. “February is just for the rest of you all.”