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New Leaders Council

Our Board

2017-2018 Board

Chapter Director: Virginia Palacios

Virginia was a fellow in NLC Austin’s inaugural cohort, then went on to serve as Finance and Fundraising chair on the board before becoming Chapter Director in 2017.  She is the State and Local Policy Manager at South-Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER), where she manages research and partnerships aimed at reducing air pollution through energy efficiency measures in Texas.  Additionally, she examines state and local level policies, including those that influence energy efficiency programs implemented by investor-owned utilities, financing energy efficiency and broad participation in energy markets.


Palacios was a Senior Research Analyst at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) prior to joining SPEER.  There, she led the creation of a workshop series in South Texas, aimed at connecting rural and Spanish-speaking communities with the appropriate regulators for reporting potential oil and gas pollution incidents.  In addition to her work with impacted communities, Virginia has worked with natural gas utility leaders on adopting advanced technologies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2016, she worked with EDF in collaboration with New Jersey’s largest natural gas utility to demonstrate the benefits of a pilot project using advanced technologies and analytics to prioritize a $905 million infrastructure replacement program.

Virginia earned her Masters of Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in 2012. Although now fully engrossed in energy and environmental policy, Virginia is a former airplane pilot, with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science. Virginia graduated from high school in Austin, and moved back in 2012 after graduating from her Master’s program at Duke. In her spare time, she volunteers with Capital Area Master Naturalists, rows at Austin Rowing Club, registers voters, and advocates for environmental justice.



Alumni Chairs: Tanner Williams and Ysenia Rhodes

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.


Communications Chair: Katelynn Essig

Katelynn Essig, Sustainability Coordinator, Foundation Communities

Katelynn Essig recently moved from Montana where she completed her fellowship for New Leader's Council. After receiving her Master's Degree in Sustainable Development and Policy from the University of Illinois, she spent three years serving in two AmeriCorps Volunteer programs in Oregon and Montana. The last two years, she served with EnergyCorps in a small mountain town working on a wide variety of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. She’s worked on a variety of issues related to sustainability including economic development, local agriculture, energy policy, and environmental reporting. Foundation Communities brought her to Austin, where she is now working on resident and staff engagement for their 6,000 residents and 300 employees regarding sustainability and green practices. She hopes to continue her advocacy and passion in healthcare and environmental justice


Finance Chair: Ysenia Rhodes

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.

Fundraising Chair: Mimi Garcia

Mimi Garcia

Progressive activism reaches back to Mimi Garcia’s youth - founding the first feminist discussion group in her high school, to leading a student movement at her university against sexual violence on campus. Mimi has worked in health advocacy, public investment, and social justice projects for more than two decades. She was the Deputy Legislative Director with the Texas State Employees Union/CWA 6186, lead a health access campaign for Engage Texas, and was the founding Texas Director for Enroll America -- the national nonprofit leading the outreach and education efforts around the Affordable Care Act. Currently Mimi serves as the Director of Policy and External Communications for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers - advocating for health access for all Texans and protecting and expanding the vital health services of safety net clinics across the state. She holds a BA in Sociology and Feminist Studies from Southwestern University, a Masters in Public Policy and a Masters of Arts in Jewish Professional Leadesrhip from Brandeis University. Mimi lives in Austin with her family, working hard to teach her children to be ethical beings and just trying to keep up with life. 


Institute/Curriculum Chairs: Lorraine Garcia, Gena McKinley, Jereka Thomas-Hockaday

Lorraine Garcia

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 before becoming the Development and Event Manager for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She's now the Assistant Finance Director at Susan Harry Consulting, a local firm that specializes in political and non-profit fundraising and event planning. 


Gena McKinley

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.


Members At-Large: Servando Esparza, Ana Rodriguez-DeFrates, Jamarr Brown, Sam Robles, Beth Stevens

Ana Rodriguez-DeFrates

Ana Rodriguez DeFrates is a state grants advisor and works to dramatically shift the culture and policy climate in Texas so that anyone who wants an abortion can have one affordably, in a timely matter, with support and dignity. Previously, Ana served as the Texas Director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and as District Director for Texas State Senator Kirk Watson. Ana received her law degree from South Texas College of Law, as well as her bachelors and masters degrees in social work from the University of Texas at Austin. She holds over 20 years of experience working for social justice issues in Texas, including abortion access, sexual and domestic violence, anti-racism work, and civic engagement. Locally, Ana serves as a city council-appointed commissioner with the Austin Commission for Women, and is an active board member of New Leaders Council-Austin. 


Jamaar Brown

Jamarr Brown is an accomplished political strategist, healthcare advocate, organizer, and trainer with over 10 years of political experience. He serves as Organizing & Training Director for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes (PPTV), Planned Parenthood's statewide advocacy arm that engages grassroots supporters to fight to protect and expand access to reproductive health care at the local and state levels. Jamarr has worked on political and advocacy campaigns across the country, ranging from local and state races to working with ColorOfChange to take the Confederate Flag off the South Carolina State House grounds in 2015.  Additionally, Jamarr conducts leadership trainings across the country, training leaders on campaign management, candidacy, strategic planning, fundraising, and field engagement. Jamarr is an active board member for New Leaders Council - Austin and serves as National Committeeman for Texas Young Democrats and Young Democrats of America.  Jamarr received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Clemson University.


Sam Robles

Beth Stevens, Voting Rights Program Director, TCRP

Beth Harrison Stevens is the Voting Rights Program Director at TCRP. She is responsible for the oversight of TCRP’s voting rights litigation and for partnering with local, state-wide, and nation-wide organizations to ensure eligible Texans are able to vote. Beth brings extensive litigation and advocacy experience to this role. She received her BA in History from UT Austin and her law degree from SMU Dedman School of Law. She is committed to furthering progressive causes throughout Texas, enjoys volunteering with local non-profits, and is zealous about fighting inequity and injustice. In her extra time, Beth plays volleyball, enjoys preparing vegan dishes, and spends time with her close-knit family. ​


Mentorship Chair:Amanda Bennett

Amanda Bennett, Client Services Manager, Jane's Due Process

Amanda was part of the 2017 NLC cohort and currently serves as Mentorship Chair on the NLC Austin board. Amanda is the Client Services Manager for Jane's Due Process, a legal advocacy group that helps minors seeking abortions without parental consent. Originally from Massachusetts, she came to Austin by way of Chicago, and landed in Texas to do her Masters in Public Policy at the LBJ School at UT Austin.


Recruitment Chairs: Ashley Bliss-Lima, Chris Harris, Michael Choate

Ashley Bliss-Lima, Assistant Director, Office of Strategy and Policy - UT

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; 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. 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. 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 and a bachelor’s of science in Economics and International Affairs from the Georgia Institute of Technology.


Chris Harris, Independent Data and 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.


Michael Choate

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. In 2004 Michael received an Archer Fellowship while at UT 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. 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 his wife Natalie currently live in Northwest Austin with their daughter, Violet, their hound dog Crockett, and their cat, Judge. 


Selections Chairs: Blanca Murillo, Jasmin Patel, Valerie Peterson

Blanca Murillo, Development and 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

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.


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