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New Leaders Council

2018 Fellows

Meet the 2018 San Antonio Fellows

Tessa Benavides

Diversity & Inclusion and Supplier Diversity Specialist, H-E-B

NLCSanAntonio_Tessa_Benavides_-_Tessa_Benavides.jpgTessa A. Benavides is proud to be Texas Strong, and H-E-B Strong. As a Specialist in the Diversity & Inclusion and Supplier Diversity team at H-E-B, she assists in the planning and execution of programs, initiatives, and events that grow H-E-B’s commitment to ensuring diversity of the many communities served by stores are reflected in the company’s people, store formats, and products and goods offered to consumers.

As a proud native San Antonian, Tessa is passionate about growing a community that supports, embraces, and highlights its diversity and is proudly inclusive of all the cultures and peoples who make this community unique. In her role at H-E-B, this passion transcends to include the small business community and being an advocate for continuing the Lone Star State’s strong commitment to growing the small business community.

Prior to joining H-E-B, Tessa worked in the nonprofit sector both in San Antonio and nationally at organizations focused on education, and creating equity within our education systems. Tessa is a proud graduate of Southwest High School, Our Lady of the Lake University, and the University of Texas at San Antonio. An avid reader, Tessa believes that as Neil Gaiman once said, “a book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” In her spare time you will catch her typically with a book in hand, unless she is out for a run or in the middle of flamenco and folkorico classes at the Guadalupe Dance Academy (part of San Antonio’s Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center).


Brencia Berry

Chief of Staff, Councilman William "Cruz" Shaw

San_Antonio_Brencia_Berry_-_Brencia_Berry.pngBrencia Berry is a San Antonio native that recently returned back home after working on Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign to contribute to her dream of a more inclusive America. During her time on the campaign trail she had the opportunity to work as a national advance associate for Secretary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Business Administration from Louisiana State University (LSU). She is a member of Phi Kappa Theta National Honor Society and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Texas L.B.J. School of Public Affairs. During her time at UT, she served as the Co-Chair of the Public Affairs Alliance for Communities of Color, and with the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. She is passionate about social justice issues like mass criminal justice reform, education, and workforce development. She has also worked for the City of Austin and the City of San Antonio in Intergovernmental Relations. In her free time, she serves as a board member of MOVE San Antonio. Her ultimate goal is to invest in people and build more equitable outcomes by serving the constituents in District 2.


Michelle Casillas

Attorney and Owner, Casillas Law Firm, PLLC

San_Antonio_-_Michelle_Casillas.jpgMichelle Rojas Casillas is the principal attorney for Casillas Law Firm, where she focuses on probate law, including wills and guardianship matters, and personal injury law. Born in Mexico and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Michelle moved to San Antonio soon after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law. In her practice, Michelle has had the opportunity to help dozens of San Antonio families manage their futures and the futures of their families by providing comprehensive estate plans or guiding families through the management of their loved one’s estate.

These skills help Michelle bring a practical, long-term approach to problem solving, which she has utilized in many avenues outside of her law practice. Michelle serves on the board of Jane’s Due Process and the Mexican-American Bar Association and as a San Antonio steering committee member for Annie’s List. Each of these organizations is dedicated to equality for everyone regardless of their age, sex, or ethnicity, and Michelle’s leadership in these groups is an extension of that dedication. Michelle further puts her dedication into action by working on political campaigns and advocating on behalf of progressive candidates for school board, judge, and city council. Driven, motivated, and passionate for her culture and community, Michelle is committed to moving San Antonio forward to a more inclusive and progressive society.


Maria Cesar

Senior Policy Advisor and Deputy Communications Director, City of San Antonio

San_Antonio_Maria_Cesar_-_Maria_Cesar.jpgMaria Luisa Cesar is a senior policy advisor and deputy communications director for San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. There, she works to develop policy recommendations and program initiatives that improve community outcomes and reflect a vision of equity and inclusion. As the deputy communications director, she is passionate about creating narrative speeches that weave numbers with anecdotes.

She worked previously as the communications and community engagement director for Councilman Nirenberg, where she focused on issues pertinent to the refugee community and helped create a citywide dialogue event that focused on promoting tolerance and celebrating San Antonio’s diversity. Before that, Maria Luisa worked as a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, where she wrote education stories that evaluated the state's transition to a new testing and accountability system, the trajectory of a federal initiative to beat back poverty on the city’s East Side and the progress of a tax-funded early childhood program championed by former Mayor Julián Castro.

Maria Luisa graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a minor in Latino Media Studies. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she has an appreciation for language and is passionate about social justice issues and compassionate policies that place the needs of people at the center of politics. Maria Luisa is bilingual in Spanish and English and working on being better versed in public speaking.


Chawanna Chambers

Assistant Director of Curriculum, Explo at Yale

San_Antonio_Chawanna_Chambers_-_Chawanna_Chambers.jpgDr. Chawanna Bethany Chambers is a national award-winning and board certified PK-20 career educator with teaching experience spanning primary, secondary, and higher education. Currently, she is a Curriculum Developer and Assistant Director of Curriculum for Explo at Yale and teaches undergraduate and graduate education courses online.

Chawanna earned her BA in Multidisciplinary Studies from Texas Lutheran University, where she graduated magna cum laude. After her successful tenure at TLU, Chawanna went on to obtain an MEd in Educational Administration from Grand Canyon University, a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction from Capella University, and a post-doc Graduate Certificate in Blended and Online Learning in K-12 Schools from George Mason University.

She has taught K-12 English online, coordinated Title I after-school tutoring programs, served as a reading intervention teacher, helped plan and facilitate advisory programs, developed curriculum, supported teachers as an instructional coach, and served in several other leadership capacities. In addition to being named New Teacher of the Year in 2009, the National Council for Teachers of English awarded her with one of its Early Career Educator awards, and she received the Principal’s Award on her campus in 2010.

In 2016, Chawanna founded Single Seed Enrichment School, Inc., a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the educational experiences of Pre-K-12 children in San Antonio, Texas. The organization provides free reading and math tutoring services to Bexar County children in grades 2-6. Using her pedagogical expertise and experiences as an online teacher and student, Chawanna designs individualized learning plans for each student and teaches through a blended learning approach.

In addition to leading the new organization, Chawanna is working towards opening a PK-12 public charter school in her hometown in 2019 that expands on the blended learning and personalized instruction approach. Single Seed School, a proposed PK-12 charter school in San Antonio, Texas, will champion competency-based and blended learning methods with an emphasis on restorative justice practices and non-eurocentric education.

Dr. Chambers is a member of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE), and San Antonio Younger Women’s Task Force (YWTF). Chawanna believes in the essentialness of a quality education and is dedicated to ensuring that right for every child through educational policy and practice.


Darlene Diaz

Project Associate, Port San Antonio


Darlene is an El Paso, Texas native who has dedicated her multi-faceted studies, career and ongoing professional development to public service. She is particularly interested in supporting economic growth and opportunities that further the well-being of people in her community.

For over two years she has served as the Project Associate within the Real Estate Development Department at Port San Antonio—the organization charged with redeveloping the large site of former Kelly Air Force Base. Spanning nearly 2,000 acres in southwest San Antonio, the Port is the region’s largest commercial development and serves as a unique and dynamic platform that is a growing center for aerospace, cybersecurity, manufacturing and other key employers in South Texas.

In her role, Darlene supports management and coordination of significant projects her team oversees throughout the campus, including major road and infrastructure development as well as commercial/industrial construction to accommodate the growth of industries and jobs at the Port. In that capacity, she works very closely with the organization’s public partners and customers.

Prior to her career at the Port, Darlene provided an array of support to several Texas public officials. She subsequently served as a special project coordinator for San Antonio City Councilman Cris Medina and also as a field representative for U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett.

Darlene holds a BA in Communication Arts/English Literature and an MA in Public Administration—both from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.

Fully bilingual, during her college career she furthered her Spanish-language proficiency and studies at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, Spain.


Victoria Gonzalez

Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Mayor Ron Nirenberg

SanAntonio_Victoria_Gonzalez_-_Victoria_Gonzalez.jpgVictoria Lin Gonzalez is a Senior Policy Advisor for Mayor Ron Nirenberg where she works on development and growth issues, affordable housing policies, and economic development as the Senior Policy Advisor. In this role, she researches complex policy issues and corresponds with and works with community stakeholders on behalf of the Mayor in his efforts to make San Antonio a more compassionate and resilient city.

The San Antonio native holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Urban Studies, with a concentration in Public Issues and Policy, from Trinity University. Prior to joining the Mayor’s Office, Victoria worked as a land use consultant for the entitlement, government affairs and economic development practice for the real estate law firm, Golden Steves & Gordon, LLP. There she assisted in the representation of companies, non-profits and developers through the process for obtaining economic development incentives, land development and zoning approvals.

She is currently serving as an Executive Board member for the Leadership Organization of Professionals (LOOP), which works to engage, lead and transform San Antonio into a desirable location for young professionals. As part of her board position, she helps co-chair a committee that plans events on issues relevant to San Antonio in hopes of engaging young professionals in their community.

Additionally, Victoria is an active member of the Young Leaders’ Group of the San Antonio chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and a graduate of the Alexander Briseño Leadership Development Program of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.


Yliana Gonzalez

Communications Director, San Antonio Book Festival

SanAntonio_Yliana_Gonzalez_-_Lilly_Gonzalez.jpegLilly Gonzalez came out of the womb reading a book, thoroughly upset by the interruption. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and grew up along the border in the Rio Grande Valley town of Pharr, where she spent her childhood with her nose in a book. Her love of words led her to Northwestern University, where she earned both her BS in journalism and her MFA in creative writing. In college she led the movement for the creation of a Latino Studies department. She spent two years working along the border with detainees facing deportation, giving daily legal rights presentations in the immigration jail. Prior to moving to San Antonio, Lilly worked in public affairs at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. She also served on the Shortlist Committee of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Lilly moved back to Texas in 2015, eager to return home, and joined the San Antonio Book Festival team as Communications Director. She is passionate about promoting literary culture in San Antonio and sharing her love of reading with others. “Books are the heroes of my life,” she frequently says. Her favorite books are Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.


Allison Hu

Principal Design Strategist, PARTS (Participation Studio)

SanAntonio_Allison_Hu_-_Allison_Hu.jpgAllison is a design strategist (Public Space East / PARTS) working on civic initiatives that provide clearer paths to community resources or power, or "urban literacy." She believes relevance is earned through purposefully-designed interactions that nurture understanding, a perspective informed by eight years of work on civic spaces spanning parks, venues, urban redevelopments, and educational spaces.

Also a licensed architect, she earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the UT Austin and a Master of Science in Urbanism from MIT. She writes, lectures, and with BaSiC Initiative has taught graduate-level participatory planning in Argentina with students of MIT, UPalermo, PSU, and UT Austin. Her work has won awards from UT Austin, AIA Fort Worth, and the Urban Land Institute with inclusion in publications by MIT Press, Taschen, and Penn Press. She currently teaches at UTSA and serves on the board of Community Housing Resource Partners, a national nonprofit that builds quality, affordable housing paired with critical support services to maintain self-sufficiency and sustainability.


Rebecca Kaufmann Podowski

Sr. Policy Advisor, Councilman Clayton Perry

San_Antonio_Rebecca_KaufmannPodowski_-_Rebecca_KP.jpgRebecca Kaufmann Podowski currently serves as the Sr. Policy Advisor for Councilman Clayton Perry, District 10, in San Antonio. Rebecca Podowski joined the District 10 team in August of 2015 under then-Councilman Mike Gallagher. Before entering the world of public service, she was a writer for HP and Shell, both located in Houston, TX. She graduated from the University of Houston in 2010 with a degree in Psychology; a degree that has proven handy when working in politics.

The daughter of a high school social studies teacher and IT manager, Rebecca grew up watching her parents restore a century-old home into the Pin Oak Bed and Breakfast in Calvert, Texas. She credits this experience for her love of preserving old homes and historic structures, which is why she immediately felt at home in San Antonio. Her father's work in teaching government and economic inspired her to learn more about local government and be active in helping residents and neighborhoods.

Before entering her current role as Senior Policy Advisor, she formerly served as the District 10 Communications Advisor, handling media inquiries, social media accounts and assembling the biweekly newsletters. As a policy advisor, she researches new ideas and scours best practices from other cities to bring to City Council for consideration.

When not editing or researching, Rebecca spends her time hiding the junk food from her three-year-old daughter, Emmeline, and husband Drew. She is currently preparing for entry into the Fall 2018 Master’s Program for Public Administration at the downtown UTSA campus to continue her public servant work well into the future.


Nicholas Lopez

Owner/Operator, Bubblebath Carwash

San_Antonio_nicholas_lopez_-_Nicholas_Lopez.jpgNicholas Lopez was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, he returned home to start a partnership with his family to build, operate and organize an extremely successful chain of car washes around central San Antonio. During that time he fell in love and married another life long San Antonioan, Carrie E. Norville. In short order, they welcomed their first child, Ophelia Rose Lopez. Nicholas has been a passionate member of the San Antonio ACTS Missions community, St. Francis Catholic Church and San Antonio First Baptist Church and Choir.


Emiliano Romero

Intergovernmental and Community Relations Manager, San Antonio Housing Authority

San_Antonio_headshot_-_Emiliano_Romero.jpgEmiliano Romero is an intergovernmental and community relations manager for the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA). In his current role, Emiliano is responsible for forming partnerships with organizations and elected officials to aid SAHA in combating homelessness, creating more affordable housing opportunities, and ensuring that SAHA residents achieve self-sufficiency. Prior to his role at SAHA, Emiliano worked as a Legislative Director in the Texas House of Representatives and a Legislative Aide in the Texas Senate. Emiliano is a native San Antonian who is passionate about helping to create a more equitable public education system in Texas, as well as advocating for policies that connect low and middle-income families to stable housing.


Gabriela Santiago

Artist & Educator

San_Antonio_Gabriela_Santiago_-_Gabriela_Santiago(1).jpegAs a young child, Gabriela Santiago, organized ticketed events for neighborhood kids, transforming the mundane into coveted experiences--think of a member's only water world using only a mangled sprinkler and plastic playhouse as the central attraction. That young entrepreneur continues to craft creative programming, only now it features art and education advocacy at center stage. As an artist, Gabriela’s creative practice is disguised as pedagogical programming that aims to initiate proactive and innovative responses to everyday challenges. This approach includes developing inquiry-based classroom and museum curricula, facilitating teacher workshops and youth programming, and installing interactive public art works. Gabriela weaves together a network of resources to make learning engaging, accessible, and relevant - collaborating with communities and collecting data as evidence that creative experiences have enduring effects.

In addition to being a classroom teacher for seven years, Gabriela is co-founder and director of the Spare Parts MINI ART MUSEUM (MAM), a travelling museum that challenges the idea of “museum as destination.” MAM tours contemporary art exhibitions to communities around the world to make the fine arts experience more accessible. Outside of her artist/educator habits, Gabriela is always looking for an excuse to spend time next to a cool Texas river with her pup, Turkey.


Kevin Shandy

Branch Director, Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio

SanAntonioKevin_Shandy_-_Kevin_Shandy.jpgKevin’s career includes working with multiple youth serving organizations including: Youth Building for the Future (2001), True Vision Church Youth Ministries (2004), Boys & Girls Clubs of SA (since 2005).

In 2005, Kevin joined the Boys & Girls Club Movement as a recreational aide for the Redeeming Grace Branch (now known as the Candlewood Branch). Through his ability to connect with young people and his unquestionable work ethic, Kevin has continued to rise through the ranks of the organization. In 2007, he was promoted to the Teen Coordinator position at the Eastside Branch. During his tenure, teen membership at the Branch increased drastically within the first year with average daily attendance of teens going from four to over 50. In 2009, Kevin was recognized for his contribution to the Boys & Girls Club movement and was presented with the Billy Thomas Advisor of the Year Award.

Kevin proved himself to be an effective leader and was named the Assistant Director of the Eastside Branch in 2012. During that time, he was responsible for the daily operations of a Branch that serves as many as 350 children daily. Major responsibilities included: preparing daily rotation schedules for as many as 350 children, planning & executing field trips, preparing monthly grant and organizational reports.

Although his role expanded to serving all members of the Branch, Kevin especially has a passion for teens. As such, he continued to support programs designed exclusively for teens. Under Kevin’s leadership, the Branch’s Keystone Club (leadership development program) has become one of the most active groups in the state of Texas. Additionally, Kevin led a pilot for the Diplomas to Degrees program (d2D, a college readiness program); that program is now used as a model for other organizations across the country. Through the d2D program, teens from San Antonio’s Eastside neighborhood have earned more than $125,000 in scholarships. The organization has seen a large increase in the number of members graduating from high school and continuing to college or military service.

Kevin was named Branch Director at the Antioch Branch in 2015 and later the Branch Director at the Eastside Branch in 2016. He brings a wealth of knowledge, strong community connections, a large professional network and great passion for young people to this new role.

Outside of his professional role, Kevin served on the Martin Luther King Commission as the volunteer coordinator and now the Chair for the Youth Empowerment Summit. He served in that role for six years. Kevin also is the President of the Sam Houston High School Class of 2001 Alumni Committee. This committee provides scholarships, as well as sponsorship for prom and graduation. Kevin is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University (2004), and is currently a student at the University of Incarnate Word.


Shenée Simon

Executive Director, Younger Women's Task Force

San_Antonio_Shenee_Simon_-_Shenee_Simon.jpgShenée Lynette Simon is a Virginia native with an emerging presence in the San Antonio community. She has fifteen years of experience in for-profit and not-for-profit sectors specializing in Human Resources, Education, and Nonprofit Management. Within these roles she led program and initiative ideation, creation and implementation. Most recently she founded the Younger Woman’s Task Force (YWTF) of San Antonio, a 501(c)(4) organization.

Shenée held influential roles as Director of Development for Orlando, Florida’s first homeless drop in center; Human Resources Consultant for Valencia Enterprises; Senior Recruiter for CNL Financial Group and Randstad North America; Assistant Director of Annual Giving for the Madeira School, and Director of the Transition from Welfare to Work Program for the Virginia Foundation for Women. She is a proven performer committed to the success and sustainability of initiatives and programs related to education, employment and overall betterment of communities in which she lives and works.

She serves on several local, state, regional and national boards including: Martinez Street Women’s Center (Board of Directors Vice Chairman), AAUW Texas (College, University and YWTF Convention Coordinator); University of Richmond Alumni Association (Regional Representative/Regional Recruitment Committee); and AAUW National (Inclusion & Equity Committee). She is an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc; National Women’s History Museum; U.S Army Family Readiness Program Trainer; National Women’s Studies Association; and American Research Education Association.

Shenée is completing an M.A. in Women Studies (Southern Connecticut State University) with thesis research focusing on the peace and security of girls in Education. She holds a M.A. in Human Resources Management & Non-Profit Management (Rollins College) and B.A. in Women’s Studies & Leadership Studies (University of Richmond).

Shenée is married to MSG Ronald Simon and they are proud parents of three--Ronald, Robert and Rory. She enjoys traveling, reading historical fictions, spending time with family, exploring French and Spanish culture, and the Arts.


Ashley Smith

Senior Project Manager, Alamo Architects

SanAntonio_Ashley_Smith_-_Ashley_Smith.JPGAshley Smith is an architect and an advocate for San Antonio’s transgender community. She grew up in a conservative Alabama family and graduated from Cornell University in 1995 with a Bachelor of Architecture. After working in San Francisco and Hong Kong, Ashley settled in Texas, where she has worked for several design firms, including her own. Her areas of expertise are scientific research facilities and higher education projects. Smith's clients have included institutions such as UT Austin, Texas A&M, UT Health San Antonio, UTSA, UT El Paso, Baylor University, Texas State, The University of Oklahoma, Alamo Colleges, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Currently, she is a Senior Project Manager at Alamo Architects and is the parent of two young women.

Ms. Smith has also served as an HOA President, a volunteer assisting the homeless, and an advocate for civic engagement. In 2017, she testified before the Texas Senate in efforts to stop discriminatory legislation, and she has encouraged other transgender people to engage with their lawmakers. Ashley also is the founder of a local Indivisible group and has been active in several local political campaigns and voter registration efforts. Recently, she joined the City of San Antonio Affirmative Action Advisory Committee to help ensure that the City's hiring policies remain current with a rapidly growing population and that San Antonio has the appropriate tools and methods to reach under-represented communities.

Recently, Smith drew attention to the Texas bathroom bill controversy when she took a snapshot with Gov. Greg Abbott, a proponent of the legislation, during a 2017 San Antonio event announcing his re-election campaign. Her photo went viral, and since then, she has appeared in local and national media to speak up for transgender people and equal rights.


Courtney Wai

Special Projects Manager (Office of Equity), City of San Antonio

SanAntonio_Courtney_Wai_-_Courtney_Wai.jpgCourtney Wai is the Special Projects Manager for the City of San Antonio’s Office of Equity. She works with City departments to embed racial equity into service delivery and policies, conducts workshops on embedding racial equity, and partners with other community organizations to advance the goals of the Office.

Prior to joining local government, Courtney worked with Teach For America in order to pursue social justice and work with youth of color. She lived in the Rio Grande Valley, where she was a 7th Grade English Language Arts teacher and teacher coach. In 2015, she moved to San Antonio to lead professional development for 150 teachers through the Teach For America – San Antonio program, where she focused on developing culturally responsive teachers and supporting teacher coaches.

Courtney completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture from Scripps College in Claremont, California. In college, Courtney discovered race/ethnic studies and her passion for working with low-income, communities of color. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts degree in education at the University of Texas – San Antonio and is a participant in Leadership San Antonio ISD's Class of 2018. Courtney is originally from Hawai‘i and enjoys reading, cooking, playing soccer, and surfing.


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