Meet the 2017 Austin Fellows
(back to NLC 2017 Fellows)
Amanda Bennett, Client Services Manager, Jane's Due Process
Amanda Bennett is the Client Services Manager at Jane's Due Process, where she helps young Texans access abortion. Since moving to Texas in 2014, Amanda has become deeply passionate about protecting and expanding abortion access in Texas. Prior to joining Jane’s Due Process, Amanda worked as the Intake Hotline Coordinator for Fund Texas Choice, a practical assistance fund that pays for travel to abortion clinics. She interned with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas during the 2015 legislative session. In May 2016, she earned her Masters in Global Policy Studies from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She spent four months in Israel and Palestine conducting research for her MA thesis on gender and feminism in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In June and July 2016, Amanda had an intensive introduction to local politics as a Kirk Watson Campaign Academy fellow. Amanda was born and raised in Western Massachusetts, where she went to Deerfield Academy before spending her senior year of high school in Spain with School Year Abroad. She moved to Chicago for college, and she graduated with her B.A. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2014. In addition to abortion access, Amanda is interested in reproductive justice, ending immigrant detention, foreign policy, and anti-racism work.
Ashley Bliss, Lima Assistant Director, The University of Texas at Austin, Office of Strategy and Policy
Ashley Bliss Lima serves as the Assistant Director in the Office of Strategy and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. She is responsible for coordinating strategic initiatives related to presidential and institutional priorities; conducting quantitative and qualitative research and policy analysis; incubating and launching strategies to forward university leadership priorities, such as innovative academic pathways for high school students; developing and stewarding partnerships; and, supporting strategic communications efforts. In addition, she serves as the University Innovation Alliance Fellow, representing UT Austin in a partnership of eleven public research universities across the country developing and driving innovations on campus to best serve first generation and low-income students. Prior to this role, she served as Assistant Director of Research and Policy in the Office of the Vice President and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT Austin. Ashley led and supported community engagement and research initiatives, such as the Austin chapter of “My Brother’s Keeper”, a White House initiative to support boys and young men of color, which launched at SXSWedu 2015 and established a formal partnership with the City of Austin. Ashley’s career started as a Field Organizer on President Obama’s 2008 campaign in Ohio. This sparked her career in politics and policy. She worked in Washington D.C. for a U.S. Congresswoman and at an international public relations firm, where her clients included federal government agencies and nonprofits. During her years in D.C., she took leaves of absence to work on several other state and national political campaigns. As University Adviser for the UT Austin Chapter of IGNITE, a nonprofit that builds political ambition in young women and teaches them how to think critically about policy and politics, Ashley shares her passion for civic engagement and leadership, and encourages all young women to find similar aspiration through politics, the community, or public cause. She is also a certified children’s yoga instructor. Ashley has a master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus in education policy. While in graduate school, she worked at the University of California Office of the President, where she conducted her thesis work on the University of California’s teacher preparation programs. She has a bachelor’s of science in Economics and International Affairs from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Michael Choate, Associate Attorney McElroy, Sullivan, Miller, Weber, & Olmstead, L.L.P.
Michael Choate was born in the West Texas town of San Angelo. He spent many of his weekends and summers working on his family’s cattle ranch. Michael completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Government and English. He received high honors in both subjects all while completing the Plan 1 Liberal Arts Honors program at UT. Michael received an Archer Fellowship while at UT in 2004 and while living in Washington, D.C. was an intern for Congressman Nick Lampson (D – Texas). After graduating from UT in 2006, Michael worked the legislative session as a legislative aide for State Representative Trey Martinez-Fischer (D – San Antonio). After working session, Michael spent the summer of 2007 on a bicycle with Texas 4000 biking from Austin, Texas to Anchorage, Alaska to raise money for cancer research. Texas 4000 is still the longest charity bike ride in the world. Michael attended law school at Texas Tech University School of Law and graduated with his Juris Doctorate in 2010. After working the 2010 election cycle organizing at the community level in Houston, Texas, Michael married his college sweetheart, Natalie. They moved back to Austin at the end of 2010. Michael currently works as an Associate Attorney for McElroy, Sullivan, Miller, Weber, & Olmstead, L.L.P. where he focuses on regulatory issues in the energy and environmental business sectors. Michael and Natalie currently live in Northwest Austin with their new daughter, Violet, their hound dog Crockett, and their cat, Judge.
Lorraine Garcia, Event and Administrative Coordinator, Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
Lorraine Garcia is from Pampa, a small town in the Texas Panhandle. After interning for Mayor Julian Castro in San Antonio, she found her passion for activism and empowering minority voices. She received her BA from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was deeply involved in various clubs and organizations. Upon graduation, she joined the Wendy Davis Campaign as a field organizer with Battleground Texas. After organizing in South Dallas, she moved to Austin to serve as a Legislative Aide for Representative Ramon Romero during the 84th Legislative Session. An avid supporter of women’s rights, Lorraine then worked as the Development Coordinator at Annie’s List. Continuing her work for gender equality, she now works for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Mimi Garcia, Texas State Director, Enroll America
Mimi Garcia comes to the New Leaders Council with more than a decade of experience in community based organizing, non-profit strategic management, and work in progressive issues through Central Texas. Mimi currently serves as the Texas State Director for Enroll America. As a native Texan, she has put her career goals to improving the lives, health and well-being of all Texans. Ms. Garcia has appeared in dozens of media outlets including The Huffington Post, NPR, and Texas PBS. She is a leading voice on the consumer experience and best practices around Affordable Care Act enrollment and engagement in Texas. Ms. Garcia has worked in health advocacy, public investment, and social justice projects for over a decade. Prior to join the Enroll America team, Mimi lead the Texas Well and Healthy campaign – a statewide coalition campaign advocating for good policies to ensure all Texans have access to quality, affordable health care. Mimi has a Masters of Public Policy from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, a Masters of Arts in organizational leadership from Brandeis University, and a BA in sociology at Southwestern University.
Rachel Green, CEO & Founder, A Brand Called U
As CEO of A Brand Called U, Rachel has cultivated her passion for public relations and brand management into a multifaceted business that operates successfully in highly competitive arenas such as sports, lifestyle management, tech and non-profit. Rachel's clients have been featured in outlets such as Forbes, Essence, Black Enterprise, CNN, Crain's Business, Inc. Magazine, Mix Mag, and more. Her previous projects have included traveling the globe managing book tours, awards shows, and spearheading the very first House Music Art Gallery and Mobile Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. With a passion for serving the community, Rachel is an avid volunteer for a number of organizations and serves on the executive leadership boards for HYP Habitat for Humanity Austin as Communication Co-Chair and also as Community Impact Co-Chair for the Austin Black Googlers Network. Rachel holds a Masters degree in Marketing and as an advocate for continued education. She has proudly represented a variety of celebrities, entertainers, filmmakers, authors, artists, athletes and business owners. Rachel holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Management from Robert Morris University and a Masters degree in Marketing from American Intercontinental University. Serving the community is her passion as: Communication Co-Chair for HYP Habitat for Humanity Austin, Community Impact Co-Chair for Google Austin, and is a current University of Texas at Austin Instructor for the City of Austin Small Business Program.
Chris Harris, Data & Business Analyst
Chris Harris is a native Texan and independent Data and Business Analyst working exclusively in the non-profit sector. Previously, Chris worked in the software industry and held various roles, including analyst, consultant, project and product manager. His experience includes business process and technology consulting, large-scale enterprise software implementation management, and product strategy, ownership, and marketing. After 10 years of working in tech, he decided to put his skills to use directly in the struggle for social and economic justice, and began to offer his services to non-profit, advocacy organizations and focus more of his time on organizing. He is also a long-time member of KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin, a non-profit, cooperatively-run radio station, and can be heard Sundays from 2-3:30pm on Hip Hop Hooray.
Holly Kirby, Criminal Justice Programs Director, Grassroots Leadership
Holly Kirby is queer, half Filipino, and a native Arkansan living in Austin, TX. She holds a BA in Sociology and received her MS in Social Work at the University of Texas. Through the school of social work, Holly landed an internship with Grassroots Leadership, a national non-profit organization that works to end prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization through direct action, organizing, research, and advocacy. She became a full-time organizer shortly after she graduated in July 2013. In her time at Grassroots Leadership, Holly has worked on several campaigns at the local, state, and national levels, including leading a successful campaign to block a new private prison for immigrants in McAllen,TX. She also authored two major reports and released groundbreaking research on the interstate transfer of state prisoners to private, for-profit prisons across the United States. Her work and writing have been featured in Al Jazeera America, Salon, The Week, Business Insider, and Truthout. Holly now serves as the criminal justice programs director and oversees Grassroots Leadership's criminal justice projects and campaigns, including Texas Advocates for Justice, Decarceration and Prison Closures, and exposing and fighting the Treatment Industrial Complex. She believes in the power of intersectional organizing and that elevating the leadership of those most impacted by systems of oppression is paramount to achieving true transformational, systemic change.
Melissa Martinez, Communications Coordinator, Texas Civil Rights Project
Melissa Martinez was born in Washington D.C., grew up in San Antonio, and graduated from St. Edward’s University with a degree in Religious Studies with a minor in English Writing & Rhetoric in 2010. After graduating, she worked at the Austin American-Statesman as an Online Content Producer, running the entertainment website Austin360.com. In her current role, Melissa is the Communications Coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy non-profit. She works to inform the public about the important work of TCRP on protecting and expanding voting rights, reforming the broken criminal justice system and pursuing racial and economic justice through social media, email and the press. In her free time, Melissa is a mentor to a 10-year-old girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters and is very involved with her spiritual community, Vox Veniae. She also loves to bake for her friends, family and coworkers.
Gena McKinley, Corporate Marketing Communications Consultant, City of Austin
Gena McKinley brings a passion for public service and community betterment to both her work at the City of Austin and her volunteerism in Austin and Central Texas. As a Marketing Communications Consultant, she works with City departments and the community to inform and engage residents in their local government. As a structured, process-driven project manager, she understands the need for consistency, measurability and transparency to ensure accountability in how services are delivered. Her career in public service began at the Houston-Galveston Area Regional Council where she worked with cities and counties on regional sustainable development. Becoming fascinated with resource management, Gena took an opportunity to lead the City of Austin’s zero waste program and policy development team. While with the program, the team established policies to ensure that businesses and construction projects keep valuable materials out of landfill. Her leadership, commitment and advocacy for zero waste earned national recognition as she was chosen to be included in Waste360’s 40 Under 40 list of rising stars in the industry. Gena has earned a Masters of Public Health from the University of Texas School of Public Health and Bachelor of Arts in biology and sociology from Southwestern University. During her academic career, she focused on behavioral science and enjoys applying behavior change theory to the various aspects of her efforts with local government. Gena lives in Austin with her son and they can often be found on a hiking trail or listening to live music. She also spends time serving as a Guardian ad litem for children in the foster care system through CASA of Travis County and helping Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) raise money to fund its efforts to provide healthcare for Austin musicians.
Blanca Murillo, Development & Administrative Specialist, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes
Blanca Murillo is the Development and Administrative Specialist for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the statewide electoral and legislative advocacy organization that promotes and protects the work of the Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas. Growing up, Blanca saw the failings of abstinence-only sexual education at her middle school and high school and carried these experiences with her to The University of Texas at Austin. At UT, she was a Healthy Sexuality Peer Educator, where she taught students about methods of contraception, sexual consent, and other health related topics. After being affected by the Texas legislature’s family planning cuts in 2011, Blanca became an advocate for Planned Parenthood. She co-led Voices for Reproductive Justice, a student organization that promoted reproductive justice issues and support for Planned Parenthood on the UT campus. In addition to her reproductive justice advocacy work, Blanca honed her fundraising skills while interning for Students for a New American Politics PAC and Annie’s List. She went on to work for Susan Harry Consulting where she maintained fundraising efforts for multiple city races in 2014. Blanca was born and raised in Corpus Christi, TX. She has a bachelor’s degree in Women’s & Gender Studies. In her spare time, Blanca enjoys walking with her dog Pumpkin, watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, and learning random pop culture trivia.
Jasmin Patel, Senior Policy Analyst, Texas Health and Human Services Commission
Jasmin was born and raised in Athens, GA by her Indian immigrant parents. She attended the University of Georgia and received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Economics and International Business and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. She completed her Master of Public Health in Health Policy & Management at Emory University. Jasmin is passionate about reducing health disparities and increasing access to care for marginalized groups through evidence-based policymaking. She has had the opportunity to gain hands on experience with healthcare organizations in South America and Africa. Her professional experience includes a federal research fellowship at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in Rockville, MD and managing 1115 Waiver Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment Projects at a hospital in San Antonio. She currently works on Medicaid policy. In her free time, she enjoys going to the park, cooking, listening to Bollywood music, and volunteering with grassroots organizations and political campaigns.
Valerie Peterson, Partner Engagement Manager, AVID Center
Dr. Valerie R. Peterson was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago. At 17 years old, Valerie became a teenage mother. Determined to be the exception and not the rule, Valerie finished high school, packed her belongings and took her daughter to DeKalb, IL, enrolling in Northern Illinois University (NIU). Two years later, Valerie gave birth to her second daughter. Still determined and motivated to complete what she started, Valerie worked full time, raised her children as a single mother, and graduated from NIU with a Bachelor of Science Degree in four years. As a single parent, Valerie realized that she had to use support systems around her and those provided in our society to excel as a mother and a professional. This allowed Valerie to continue working full time and to obtain a Master’s degree in Elementary Education from Roosevelt University and a Doctoral Degree in Organizational Leadership from Argosy University, Chicago. Knowing that many single mothers feel as if their dreams can’t be realized, Valerie became passionate about helping women find their path to opportunity and success. Through mentoring and sharing her personal stories of success, failure and the importance of individual determination, Valerie works with women across the nation helping them break through barriers and achieve the goals they set for themselves. In 2015 Valerie suffered a devastating pregnancy loss that ultimately led her to the steps of the United States Supreme Court. Through her personal experience dealing with the effects of the HB2 law in Texas, Valerie birthed a new passion for women’s rights and submitted testimony to the court on behalf of the National Abortion Federation and the National Center for Reproductive Rights. She also shared her story world wide through various media outlets including the New York Times, NPR and NBC. When the court ruled the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, Valerie continued to advocate and lobby on issues that concern women’s rights. She is now a Board Member of Naral Pro-Choice Texas a statewide reproductive rights and advocacy organization based in Austin, TX. Valerie currently works for AVID Center, a National non-profit Educational Organization that ensures that underserved students and students that perform in the academic middle are prepared for College, Career and Life. Valerie currently lives in Cedar Park Texas with her two daughters, a cat named Bucky and a dog named Bentley.
Ysenia Rhodes, Co Director of Client and Investor Relations, SALI Fund Services
Ysenia grew up in Alice, Texas before moving to Austin to attend the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her Bachelors of Business Administration in Finance with a minor in Accounting. Upon graduation from the University of Texas at Austin, Ysenia joined SALI Fund Services, where she has spent the last six years working in various operational, product structuring and investor relations roles. Currently, Ysenia serves as the firm’s Director of Client and Investor Relations and maintains all client and investor relation activities on the SALI platform. Ysenia and her husband live in south Austin with their son and their yorkie. When Ysenia is not otherwise enjoying her family, she can be spotted at several local gyms, running at Lady Bird Lake, enjoying culinary experiences or commuting in her car listening to NPR. Growing up in a small, mostly Hispanic town, Ysenia feels empowered to give back to the minority and female communities. She is determined to lever the NLC community to make the world a better place for her son and his peers.
Kelan Robinson, Project Coordinator, Land Use Solutions, LLC
Kelan Robinson is a native of East Austin. He graduated from McCallum High School and went on to graduate from Schreiner University where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 2013. Upon graduating from Schreiner University, Kelan returned to Austin to work under the Director of Public Works and City Architect examining the implementations of form-based code. He then joined Austin City Council staff where he worked for former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, Council Member Bill Spelman and Council Member Ann Kitchen. During his time at City Hall he specialized in policy concerning land use planning, transportation and economic development. Kelan is currently employed at an Austin and San Antonio based consulting firm, Land Use Solutions, LLC. He participates in policy advocacy related to land use/development and provides insight concerning city and county code interpretations, development due diligence, strategic planning, public and private partnerships, rezonings, vested rights, development agreements, along with other related entitlement processes. Kelan has a passion for advocating for policy that positively affects the urban built environment and the quality of life for all Austinites. He is involved in a number of community organizations and is an avid soccer fan.
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday, Certified Surgical First Assistant/Managing Director, River City Assisting, LLC
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday is a native of Baytown, Texas. She received a Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences in Occupational Education from Texas State University- San Marcos and a Master's Degree in Professional Education from Capella University. Over her seventeen-year career in healthcare, Jereka has worked as both an Emergency Room Technician and Surgical Technologist in various hospitals in the Austin. In these positions, Jereka was regularly responsible for precepting and training students and new employees. This created in her a deep desire to enter the area of higher education. In 2011, Jereka accepted a position as Surgical Technology Instructor at the newly opened Brown Mackie College-San Antonio. During her tenure, she served as Instructor, Clinical Coordinator and Acting Department Chair. In 2015, Jereka completed an Advanced Certificate in Surgical Assisting from Meridian Institute of Surgical Assisting in Nashville, TN. Jereka was then invited to become a partner and Managing Director at River City Assisting, LLC surgical assisting group. In this capacity, Jereka manages four employees and the group provides surgical assisting services for fifteen surgeons in Austin the areas of General, Orthopedics, OB/GYN, Plastics, ENT and Brain/Spine surgery. Jereka also possesses a fierce passion for politics. She is well versed in the political arena thanks to her late father, Jerry Thomas. Mr. Thomas served on the McNair Community Water Board in Baytown and both her parents were an active member and community organizers for the Houston area chapter of the NAACP. She continues her father’s political legacy by serving as the Parliamentarian of the Black Austin Democrats. Jereka is hoping to take her expert level of knowledge of the field of medicine to push more comprehensive health services for the poor. It her deep belief that healthcare for all is the “Next Great Civil Right”. Jereka is completing her EdD in Educational Leadership and Management from Capella University and would like to begin to work to bring more allied health training programs for minorities to the Austin area. Jereka and her husband of seven years, William “Ben” Hockaday live in rural South Travis County with their two dogs, Dottie and Chula. Servant leadership and public service is a Hockaday family legacy as Ben is a career federal employee at the Veterans Administration.
Frank Washington II, Sales Promotion Coordinator, CBS & Telemundo
Austin Frank Edward Washington II moved to Austin from Houston, TX in 2010. He studied Broadcast Management and Speech at The University of Texas at Arlington and proceeded to work at top rated news organizations, assuring the delivery of superior broadcast content to more than 2.7 million households in the Dallas/Fort Worth Area. Passionate about living out loud and being oh so proud, the move to the capital city was a natural fit. Immediately upon his arrival, Frank plunged into Austin's vibrant art scene, volunteering with local art and service organizations. In 2013 Frank joined the CBS and Telemundo Austin Family, where he now serves as the Sales Promotion Coordinator, spearheading numerous community engagement initiatives including The Chuy’s Giving to Children Parade, The Austin Police Department’s Operation Blue Santa Toy Drive, and The Souper Bowl of Caring. In his free time, Frank performs with The Mahogany Project which aims at humanizing the Black Queer experience. He also owns Edit Collection, a vanity publishing company, and is currently launching Luke 1532, a lifestyle brand that celebrates modern African American Identity through an exploration of and return to the design and iconography of various African Cultures. Grateful for an amazing group of friends and inspirational figures, Frank takes responsibility for the communities that have supported him and is not silent when he is called to speak on their behalf and in their best interest.
Tanner Williams, Director of Organizing & Leadership Development, Texas AFT
Tanner Williams currently serves as the Director of Organizing & Leadership Development of the Texas affiliate of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Texas AFT, working to build collective power for public school employees. Williams began his career working for AFT Missouri as a state field representative and director of communications. There, he coordinated political mobilization efforts including the state’s coalition to fight against school voucher legislation. Williams moved to Texas in 2007 to open the Deep East Texas AFT office in Lufkin before relocating to Houston to lead a Texas AFT statewide organizing project. In Houston, Williams began his involvement with numerous organizations including The Diana Foundation, which is a 501(c)3 nonprofit recognized as the oldest continuously active gay organization in the United States. He currently serves as the organization’s president. Williams also serves a member of the board of directors for AIDS Foundation Houston and is a member of the Development Committee. Williams was born and raised in Green City, Missouri, which is a small rural town in the state’s northeastern region. Williams attended Truman State University, a highly selective public liberal arts and sciences university, where he graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in Political Science. Following an assignment as a legislative intern in the Missouri Senate, he was accepted as one of twelve individuals in 2002 to work for the Human Rights Campaign’s Campaign College where he assisted fundraising efforts for a congressional campaign in Ames, Iowa. Williams currently resides in Austin, TX.