Meet the 2017 Leadership Academy Fellows

Elizabeth Benki is a Senior Staff Attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Elizabeth received her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her J.D. from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. After completing her undergraduate degree, she spent several years as an Accredited Representative at Catholic Charities in Houston, Texas, and has also worked with Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta and the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. In 2012, Elizabeth relocated to the Pacific Northwest and now supervises the Legal Orientation Program at NWIRP’s Tacoma office, which provides pro se assistance and direct representation to individuals detained at the Northwest Detention Center.

Michele Besso practices law in Yakima as the Senior Attorney for the Farm Worker Unit of Northwest Justice Project.  Michele grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Yale Law School in 1987. Michele has practiced law on behalf of farm workers in Washington State for most of her legal career.  Michele has focused her advocacy most recently on advocating for respect for the rights of both local and H-2A workers in the foreign labor certification process, as well as continuing the long term campaign for stronger enforcement of farmworker housing standards and health and safety regulations.  She is married to Matt Fairbank and has a 23-year old daughter named Hannah.

Esperanza Borboa is currently the Program Director at Eastside Legal Assistance Program.  Espy is originally from East Los Angeles from a large family. Her first involvement in the movement for peace, justice and civil rights was the 1968 walkout in her high school. She was also involved in anti-war efforts to end the war in Vietnam, worked on political campaigns, ran a  statewide economic development program for Latinos in Massachusetts, and faced police in riot gear to challenge racist practices of the LAPD. Espy moved to Seattle in 1980 and became involved with El Centro de la Raza, having many leadership roles in the organization over 15 years.  She is a Founding Board member of the Seattle-Managua Sister City Association, received a fellowship to MIT’s Community Fellows Program, and helped found the Institute for Community Leadership, where she still sits on the Board of Directors. Espy is also a recipient of the United Nations 50th Anniversary Award and the Weyerhaeuser MLK Keeping the Dream Alive Award.  Prior to ELAP, Espy managed the Executive Leadership Program and the Pastoral Leadership Program at Seattle University, where she graduated, Cum Laude, with a B.A. in History. She is married with four sons and four grandchildren.

Marsha Chien is an Assistant Attorney General (AAG) with the Washington State Attorney General’s Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit. As an AAG, Marsha investigates and litigates cases of discrimination in employment, housing, and at government facilities and business open to the public, and most recently worked on Washington’s lawsuit to stop implementation of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Previously Marsha clerked for the Honorable Marsha J. Pechman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington and worked as a Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney at The Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center in San Francisco, California (now known as Legal Aid At Work). At Legal Aid at Work, she lobbied for policies that prohibited discrimination based on one’s criminal history and successfully litigated cases against the State of California and Abercrombie & Fitch, asserting, respectively, the right of a Latino applicant not to be discriminated based on his prior undocumented status and the right of a Muslim employee to wear her hijab at work. Marsha attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate and the University of Pennsylvania School of Law as a Toll Public Interest Scholar.

Sokha Danh is the Neighborhood Safety Advocate at the Public Defender Association. Sokha oversees local LEAD operations for Seattle-King County. Passionate about working for underserved populations, he previously focused his time on district revitalization and public safety for communities of color in Seattle and unincorporated King County. Sokha served on Mayor’s Edward B. Murray’s Special Task Force on Public Safety & Neighborhood Vitality in the Seattle Chinatown-International District and was appointed by the Washington State Commission on Pacific American Affairs to serve on Washington State’s Legislative Task Force on the Use of Body Worn Cameras by Law Enforcement. Sokha was also selected as a Next Generation Scholar by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific America Community. From 2010 to 2012, Sokha was the recipient of the United Negro College Fund Special Program’s Institute for International Public Policy Fellowship (IIPP). As an IIPP Fellow, Sokha studied at the University of Maryland’s Graduate School of Public Policy, East China Normal University in Shanghai and Howard University in Washington D.C. He also participated in Harvard Business School’s Summer Venture in Management Program. Sokha is a graduate of Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics.  He is currently on the inaugural young professional board of Crosscut, a nonprofit electronic journal focused on politics, culture and technology in the Northwest.

Jay Doran is the Communications & Advocacy Director of the Legal Foundation of Washington (LFW), overseeing messaging and communications for LFW and staffs the Equal Justice Coalition, working to increase public funding for legal aid. Previously, Jay has worked in a range of roles, including positions with Friends of Youth, the Washington United for Marriage Campaign, and Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. Jay holds a BA from Duke University and a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Policy/Administration from the University of Washington. Committed to working collaboratively to create a more just and fair society, Jay is passionate about research and writing as ways to inform organizing efforts and policy changes that help marginalized communities secure justice.  Originally from Virginia, Jay has lived in Seattle since 2010, and he currently lives in West Seattle with his partner and son.

Midori “Chach” Duarte White is a staff attorney at the Legal Counsel for Youth and Children where she represents children that are legally free and those that can qualify for special immigrant juvenile status in dependency proceedings. She also represents homeless youth and young adults by addressing their legal barriers. She is particularly passionate about immigrant youth and serving their needs given the current political climate. Before receiving her law degree from Seattle University School of Law, Chach worked in the Silicon Valley in manufacturing and operations in high tech as an engineer. She graduated with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Stanford University. Chach is the co-chair of the Judicial Institute, the chair of the WSBA Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection and a past-president of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington. She is passionate about fighting for the underdog and leveling the playing field. Chach was raised in the East Bay in California and in her spare time, she is with her 3 kids, 3 dogs and 1 husband.

Merf Ehman recently became the Deputy Director of Columbia Legal Services (CLS). Merf previously served as a law clerk, staff attorney and managing attorney at CLS. In these capacities, Merf engaged in multi-disciplinary advocacy through partnerships with clients, local universities, government agencies and national research groups to employ-cutting edge research in the quest for social justice. As an advocate, Merf has engaged in class action litigation, policy advocacy and eviction defense work to enforce and expand the rights of prisoners, tenants, people with criminal justice involvement. Merf has trained numerous lawyers, students, and other advocates on working with clients from diverse backgrounds and clients with limited capacity. Merf’s legal work is informed by past experiences as a legal aid client and a person living in poverty.

Amina Fields is an immigration attorney in Spokane, Washington. Amina came to the US in the early 1980s as a refugee from Vietnam. She graduated from David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington DC and is involved with various organizations that advocate and support the immigrant and refugee community.  As the Chair of the Board of Directors for Refugee Connection of Spokane, a Commissioner of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, and a solo practitioner that focuses her practice on immigration law, Amina aims to unite families and protect the human rights of the vulnerable communities.

Becky Fischer found her calling when working in direct service helping youth succeed and thrive. When Becky realized that great programming often went under-utilized due to the lack of resources needed to create effective community collaborations she wanted to help. Becky joined Pacific County Youth Alliance (PCYA) as Program Coordinator in January 2015. Becky is privileged to be on the forefront of creating a strong, collaborative community with healthy, capable youth. Becky has a background in Science, Management, and Youth Services. She relocated, with her husband and two cats, to Pacific County from Sicily, Italy after they separated from the military. They fell in love with the area back in 2010 during a military move from WA to CA and are now honored to call Pacific County home.

Tony Gonzalez  is currently involved in researching housing issues and hospitals’ charity care policies as an attorney with Columbia Legal Services’ Basic Human Needs Project in the Wenatchee Office. His passion for public interest work stems from his parents’ struggles and triumphs moving from Mexico to the U.S., which was reflected in his previous work as a Laurel Rubin Intern at Columbia Legal Services. Tony is a 2015 graduate of the University of Washington’s LLM program in Taxation and a 2014 graduate of Seattle University’s School of Law. He is fluent in Spanish.

Hilary Hibbeln has been licensed to practice law in Washington and California since 2002. During her legal career, she worked as an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and as an attorney in the public and private sectors. As an ALJ, Hilary presided over cases involving disputes between the public and governmental agencies. Before serving as an ALJ, Hilary worked in legal services for over 10 years. Hilary is also trained in arbitration and mediation. Hilary is a former Peace Corps Volunteer. She speaks Spanish and is conversant in Thai.

Larry Jefferson has worked as a public defender in King and Thurston County’s since 1996. He is a graduate of The Evergreen State College and Seattle University Law School. Larry is currently a board member for the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Campaign for Equal Justice. Recently he has served as the President of the Thurston County Bar, the Olympian Editorial Board and the Disciplinary Advisory Round Table. Larry is a devoted husband, father of two wonderful children and a self proclaimed mama’s boy. In his free time he enjoys spending time with his barbecue (her name is Nexie) and cheering for the Seahawks.

Ahmed Jenkins has worked for the Thurston County Public Defender’s office for almost 3 months. Ahmed was born and raised in Seattle, graduated from Frankin High School, and went to Wenatchee Valley on a Basketball Scholarship, where he got his AA. He attended Morehouse on a Basketball Scholarship then took four years off to get the single social jitters out of his system before attending University of Wisconsin for law school on a Tuition Scholarship.  He worked for the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office for 9 years before moving back to Seattle and working for the Office of Public Defense in King County for 18 months.

Maria G. Jimenez is a first generation Mexican-American, raised in the Lower Yakima Valley. Maria has a Master’s degree in Social Worker and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Welfare from the University of Washington, Seattle. She has partial accreditation by the Board of Immigration Appeals to provide limited immigration legal services to low-income families on behalf of Society of St. Vincent de Paul Counsel of Seattle | King County, where she is employed as the Social Service Program Manager. Maria also enjoys being a Mental Health Mobilizer for Puentes: Advocacy, Counseling & Education while advocating for social justice. Maria lives with her husband in Renton, WA and in her spare time she enjoys traveling around the world with family and friends.

Kitara Johnson is the Director of Training and Human Resources Development at the Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane. Kitara hails from Chicago’s inner city where she quickly recognized the impact of injustice and privilege. Her name in Swahili, Proud Sword, was a great influence on her life as evidenced by her many accomplishments despite the challenges she faced. Johnson survived being stabbed and having her hand broken by a bat. With the motivation to not just survive, but to excel, Mrs. Johnson went on to serve honorably in the U.S. Army exiting with the rank of Sergeant, earned her Bachelor’s degree in Workforce Development and a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and Management. Kitara was recognized in 2010 as one of the Top 20 business professionals under 40 in the Inland Northwest by the Catalyst Magazine and was featured as a judge for the same honor in 2012. Kitara is also the recipient of the Golden Tennis Shoe Award from Senator Patty Murray for the former PONY TALES Youth Services, a successful nonprofit she founded that served hundreds of at risk youth after-school by Senator Patty Murray. Kitara continues to inspire others through motivational speaking, life coaching, and Organizational Leadership and Development programs.

Sam Keller is responsible for overseeing the coordination and administration of all aspects of labor standards and health and safety programs at Fair Work Center, including planning, organizing and supervising program activities. Sam develops and implements racially just programmatic criteria, systems of community accountability and the programmatic vision for Fair Work Center. She also identifies and implements new program areas while considering staffing needs, budget and overall vision of the organization with the Executive Director. Sam brings 8 years of experience in event planning, union organizing, legal clinic coordination, and coalition organizing.  She has worked at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Puget Sound Sage, UFCW and New Beginnings.

Anne Lee is the Executive Director of TeamChild, a not for profit law firm for youth in Washington State. TeamChild’s attorneys uphold the rights of youth to meaningful education, health care, and housing by providing individualized and holistic civil legal representation to youth and engaging in policy and training work that focuses on catalyzing big shifts in juvenile justice, child welfare and education systems so that young people, especially youth of color, have opportunities to heal, grow and thrive in their communities. Anne is a member of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission and the King County Juvenile Justice Equity Steering Committee. She received her law degree from New York University School and graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University.

Shar Lichty is an organizer at the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, where she has been since 2009. She received her BASW with a minor in Africana Education from EWU in June 2010. Shar was first introduced to social justice work in 2006 through her involvement with a human rights club and a death penalty event she worked on while attending community college. Shar has continued to work on repealing the death penalty as well as issues of police accountability, fair hiring, LGBTQ safety and liberation, militarism, and economic justice with an intersectional racial equity lens. Shar firmly believes that ordinary people have the ability to do extraordinary things when they organize and take action together. She believes that learning never ends, is honored to be a part of this year’s cohort, and looks forward to building new relationships and strengthening her skills to work for a more just society.

Jill Malat is currently the Program Manager of the Children’s Representation Program of The Office of Civil Legal Aid. Prior to joining OCLA she advocated for the legal rights of foster children at Columbia Legal Services and The Washington Defender Association.  Jill represented adults and children in criminal and dependency matters as a public defender for 13 years at both the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons and the Skagit County Public Defender Office and for 3 years at the law firm of Mazzone and Cantor. She has served on the board of the downtown YMCA, volunteered for the legal clinic of El Centro De La Raza and taught law at Bilge University in Istanbul, Turkey.

Gloria McKinney is a Staff Attorney of the Sexual Violence Legal Services Program of the YWCA. Throughout her career, Gloria has specialized in working with clients who face significant barriers to legal services while experiencing extreme trauma and life upheaval.  She has worked for the United States Army as a JAG Officer where she served as the Chief of Legal Assistance, as Senior Trial Counsel (Prosecutor), and as a Special Assistant United States Attorney. She has worked with survivors of nearly every high-risk group to include displaced military personnel and their families; the indigent and homeless; those with mental health challenges; and individuals with physical and cognitive limitations. She is passionate about providing needed assistance and services to all children and especially those from underprivileged backgrounds or who have learning and behavior differences. Gloria received her Juris Doctorate from the University Of Washington School Of Law in 1994 and graduated with a degree in Law and Justice from Central Washington University in 1990.

Mirya Muñoz-Roach is the Chief Program Director for The Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County (SVdP). Under her leadership, SVdP has begun to integrate multiple programs to serve individuals and families living in poverty and in marginalized communities. One of SVdP fastest growing programs is Centro Rendu, a Latino focused program that helps connect families with resources and provides education, advocacy, legal services and case management that is culturally responsive.  Centro Rendu/SVdP is also a leading member of an emerging collective impact partnership in Kent working to address equity in education for communities of color. Mirya holds a MA from Seattle University and a BA in Business Administration and Human Resource Management from the University of Florida. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico, is bilingual and bicultural, and brings 25 years of experience, knowledge and skills working with communities of Latino/Hispanic origin.  Mirya currently sits on the Board of Directors for Catholic Schools and the Access to Justice Board of the State of Washington. She is also the current Chair of the Multicultural/Diversity Commission for the SVdP District Council and a member of the National SVdP Latino Task Force.

Georgina Olazcon Mozo is a Staff Attorney at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. She works in the Violence Against Women Act Unit, providing services to immigrant survivors of domestic violence and other violent crimes. Georgina was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when she was 15 years old, adjusting to a new high school environment as an ESL student. She earned her A.A. from Highline Community College and a B.A. in Law, Societies, and Justice from the University of Washington. She earned her J.D. in 2015 from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. As a first generation immigrant and first generation college student, Georgina has a deep understanding of the systematic barriers that exist for communities of color and hopes to continue assisting immigrants such as herself.

Adam Papini has served the City of Spokane as an Assistant City Prosecutor for 18 years.  He has worked in the mental health court, the domestic violence unit and the traditional court system.  Adam is one of the co-founders of the Spokane Municipal Community Court and currently serves as that Court’s lead prosecutor.  For the past five years Adam has gone through a transformation in his view of prosecution from that of a punitive practice to one that promotes accountability with help.

Karena Rahall is the Assistant Dean for Seattle University School of Law’s Access to Justice Institute. From 2012-2015, she taught the Youth Advocacy Clinic and Trial Advocacy. In 2016, she became the inaugural Executive Director of the Court Square Law Project, a legal residency project at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law; Karena returned to Seattle University in 2017. Karena received a B.A. from Hampshire College, an M.A. from NYU, and her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law, a sister Jesuit institution. In addition to the roles at SU Law and CUNY Law described above, Karena comes to the assistant deanship with over fifteen years of practice and program management experience. She practiced as a criminal defense lawyer in state and federal courts, as both a public defender and as a solo practitioner in a firm she founded. Prior to that, she was the Deputy Director of International Legal Foundation, an NGO headquartered in New York, where she supervised a large staff locally and overseas for a program that instituted criminal defense services in post-conflict countries including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. She has been the recipient of the Thurgood Marshall Award from the New York City Bar Association for outstanding leadership in pro bono death penalty work and the Legal Aid Society Pro Bono Publico Award for outstanding leadership in capital defense representation, and she’s been active in the New York City Bar Association LGBT and Criminal Law Committees. She is also a member of both the Washington and New York bars.

Sandy Restrepo is an immigration attorney and co-founder of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo. She represents individuals in various stages of the immigration process including family-based petitions, deportation defense, naturalization and non-immigrant visas. Sandy is committed to working with immigrant populations individually and collectively, in a capacity that empowers and informs them of their rights. Before becoming an attorney, Sandy focused on grassroots campaigns and organizing with migrant communities for education, immigration and worker’s rights. Sandy grew up in Santa Ana, California and is the proud daughter of immigrant parents. She obtained a B.A. in Latin American Studies and a minor in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Sandy graduated from Seattle University School of Law. She is the first in her family to graduate college and obtain a professional degree.

Brian Rowe (AKA Sart) is a professor and techie working at Northwest Justice Project, managing the National Technology Assistance Project and teaching at the University of Washington and Seattle University. He is also a former  Chairman of the Board for Washington Lawyers for the Arts.   Brian teaches in the areas of Privacy law, Ethics, Copyright and Information Policy.  Brian has worked for Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, the Washington State Access to Justice Board, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast, and Disability Rights Washington. He is also a social media expert and has a following on YouTube.  Chat with him @Sarterus on Twitter or Instagram.

Chalia Stallings-Ala’ilima has been an Assistant Attorney General at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office since 2008. She works in the Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit. Previously, Chalia represented DSHS in child welfare cases, with particular emphasis in Indian child welfare, treatment court for parents with substance abuse disorders, and addressing bias and racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. Chalia earned her BA degree in Philosophy from the University of Washington in 2005 and her JD from the University of Washington School of Law in 2008. She is the 2016–17 president of the Loren Miller Bar Association and serves as the AGO’s liaison to the organization and helps lead the AGO’s Diversity Advisory Committee. She also served for several years on the WSBA Committee for Diversity. As part of her participation in these programs, Chalia is a mentor for law students and new attorneys and provides pro bono legal services through the KCBA’s Loren Miller Bar Association Neighborhood Legal Clinic. Chalia has received the Attorney General’s Office William V. Tanner Award for outstanding achievements early in her career, the Attorney General’s Office Excellence Award, and the WSBA’s Excellence in Diversity APEX award.

Brenda Tausch Lapora is a Staff Attorney with Wayfind, a nonprofit that improves the quality of life in Washington communities by providing access to free business legal services for nonprofits and microenterprises. Brenda has a background in civil legal aid, veterans law, and assisting nonprofits with transactional matters. Prior to joining Wayfind, Brenda launched the military Discharge Upgrade Clinic for the Urban Justice Center’s Veteran Advocacy Project in New York City, and she represented veterans in veterans’ benefits and military discharge upgrade cases. She first started assisting low-income individuals and communities as an attorney on the Northwest Justice Project’s CLEAR legal hotline. Brenda also has experience teaching Ethiopian law students at Haramaya University in rural east Ethiopia, where she lived for six months. She has served on the Board of Directors of six nonprofits, and is currently on the Seattle Globalist’s Board. Brenda is also a part-time faculty member for the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership graduate program.

Angeline Thomas joined Washington Appleseed as the Executive Director in May of 2016. She began her legal career as non-partisan Session Counsel for Washington State’s Senate Committee Services where she served on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Eager to put public policy into action, Angeline joined the Access to Justice Institute at her alma mater, Seattle University School of Law, where she developed and managed the Foreclosure Mediation and Outreach Project. She became a regional expert on Washington State’s newly implemented Foreclosure Mediation Program, where she trained more than 100 law students, started an advice and referral legal clinic in Tacoma, founded the Pierce County Foreclosure Prevention Roundtable, consulted with city government and state agencies on outreach efforts, oversaw the production of a widely praised YouTube video about the law, and implemented two robust door-to-door canvassing campaigns to reach homeowners. Angeline graduated from Seattle University School of Law in 2011. She is currently a member of the Pro Bono and Public Service Committee of the Washington State Bar Association and has served as a volunteer with the Housing Justice Project.

Vanessa Torres Hernandez is the Youth Policy Director with the ACLU of Washington, where she fights to protect and advance the rights of young people in education and juvenile justice systems. Her current work focuses on eliminating the school to prison pipeline and supporting the parents and students working on these issues. Vanessa came to the ACLU on an Equal Justice Works fellowship in 2011, and previously ran the ACLU-WA Second Chances Project, representing individual clients and litigating impact cases on behalf of people with criminal history. She is a former law clerk to Judge Betty Fletcher on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and a recipient of the Gates Public Interest Law Scholarship. Vanessa is a former seventh grade teacher, voracious reader, cook, and  parent to two fabulous children in elementary school.

Elizabeth Yost Neidzwski is a public defender in Skagit County. She got the public defender bug while working in a capital defense clinic, Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, in law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. After a brief stint at a civil litigation law firm in San Diego Elizabeth worked at the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, Northwest Defender’s Division of the King County Department of Public Defense, and finally moved back home to Skagit County. Seeing the way her indigent clients struggle with access to justice in the civil arena, and the impact that has on their daily survival, Elizabeth joined the board of the Northwest Justice Project in January 2016. When she’s not working, Elizabeth soaks up every extra minute of life that she can with her toddler son Mack, husband Nick, and dogs Gaby the bulldog and Wrinkle the pug.