2021-2022 ASPEN INSTITUTE ASCEND FELLOWS
Meet the 2021 class of Aspen Institute Ascend Fellows, a group of extraordinary leaders who are moving ideas to action for children and families in the US.
Senior Director, Opportunity
Gayatri Agnew comes to Walmart having worked in the public sector both in government and non-profits and found her way to business because of her desire to work on impact at scale. She is committed to shared value and believes businesses can be a force for good in society. Raised by a single mom in California she knows firsthand that access to education and good jobs change lives – and she is proud of the way Walmart unlocks opportunity for so many of our associates. Gayatri serves on the leadership team of Walmart’s Global Responsibility division where she leads strategy and philanthropy for Walmart’s efforts on economic mobility. Gayatri’s personal mission is for more people to find purpose through the way they earn a living. She is currently a Presidential Leadership Scholar working on changing corporate culture for working moms. She is active in the local community serving on the Bentonville City Council as well as on the national boards for the Vote Mama Foundation, &Mother, and Path Forward. When not engaged at work or in civic life she can be found hiking, singing karaoke, enjoying the local farmers market and crafting at home – She and her husband, Ryan, live in Bentonville with their two young children, Rohan and Kamala.
That we could be brave enough to fully recognize the human potential and dignity in every person and give one another the gift of being seen in this light.
Christine Norbut Beyer
Christine Norbut Beyer has decades of public/private experience and a visionary’s perspective to child welfare transformation. As Commissioner, she is redefining the agency as a prevention-focused, child and family serving department. Under her leadership, the Department of Children and Families has reduced out of home removals, increased kinship placement and made historic investments in children’s mental health. With a progressive lens, she pioneered including constituent voice and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and healing-centered practice to inform departmental policies and initiated a race equity steering committee to study and correct disparities in reporting, investigating and removing children of color from their families. Prior to her appointment, Ms. Beyer served as Senior Director and Strategic Consultant at Casey Family Programs, a national child welfare foundation, focused on improving outcomes for children and families. In her capacity as a national child welfare consultant, she supported the efforts of public child welfare agencies, the judiciary and governors in creating better outcomes for at-risk children and families and had the opportunity to delve deeply into the areas of brain science, ACEs, and trauma-informed care and the intersection with child welfare. These are policy areas she continues to pursue at the Department of Children and Families.
When we arrive at a time and place where there is a collective understanding that every individual requires love and connection,
that every individual is worthy of love and compassion, that every child deserves to grow up with their family, with love, when this occurs, only then will it be time to rest.
President and CEO
A native of Athens, Alabama, Melanie has dedicated her entire professional career to fighting for equitable systems and sound public policy solutions that create deeper, sustainable change in Alabama. She is a proud graduate of The University of Alabama, where she earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. As President and CEO of Women’s Foundation of Alabama, the state’s only philanthropic foundation investing with a gender focus, Melanie drives strategic direction, fiscal management and accountability of a multi-million dollar budget; and maximizes the value of the organization with a range of state and community stakeholders. Leveraging her decade-long experience in non-profit management and governmental affairs, Melanie has boldly expanded the direction of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham growing targeted philanthropic investments to roughly $800,000 annually, bolstered cutting edge research, and instituted public policy advocacy to secure long-lasting, systemic change for women and communities – a strategic decision that to date has yielded three historic statewide policy wins for women, including passage of Alabama’s first Equal Pay Statute. Previously, Melanie has served as Executive Director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children and as the Government Relations Director for the American Heart Association.
The concept of leadership may often seem elusive and accessible for only the chosen few. I denounce this notion and embrace the brave and startling truth that we are all chosen. I am chosen. Chosen to nurture my own humanity by radically fighting for the humanity of others.
Director for the Division of Mental Health and Addiction
Jay Chaudhary (JD 2009) is the director for the Division of Mental Health and Addiction with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. Prior to joining the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, he served as managing attorney and director of Medical Legal Partnerships for Indiana Legal Services. Chaudhary holds an undergraduate degree from Ball State University. During his time with Indiana Legal Services, Chaudhary developed a medical-legal partnership between Indiana Legal Services and Eskenazi Midtown Community Mental Health Center that began on a part-time basis and later turned it into a full-time, multi-lawyer program. For his dedication to this partnership, Chaudhary received the Innovation Award from ARC of Indiana. In 2015, the partnership between Indiana Legal Services and Eskenazi Midtown Community Mental Health Center received the Outstanding Medical Legal Partnership award from the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership. Chaudhary currently serves as a board member for the Indiana Health Advocacy Coalition and is the chair of the Indiana Behavioral Health Commission. In 2020, Chaudhary was a recipient of the Maurer School of Law’s Young Alumni Distinguished Service Award.
Be very cautious about certainty of the rightness of your views. Most people in history have been wrong about almost everything given a long enough time horizon. Humility and a willingness to change course in response to new information is our only path forward.
Janeen Comenote is a citizen of the Quinault Indian Nation. She is Quinault and Oglala on her father’s side and Hesquiaht and Kwakiutl First Nations on her mother’s side. The National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) is a national coalition representing 50 urban Indian centers in 33 cities and more than two million Native Americans living away from their traditional land base. The NUIFC remains one of only a few national organizations dedicated to “Making the Invisible Visible” and providing a platform, funding, and voice for this underrepresented population in America. Janeen is a recipient of the Potlatch Fund Fran James Cultural Preservation award and Eco Trust Indigenous Leadership award for her work with urban Indians and was highlighted in O (Oprah) magazine for her participation in Women Rule: 80 Women Who Could Change America. She has presented at the White House and United Nations, has been a Human Rights Commissioner for the City of Seattle, and is currently a board member for the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and on the External Diversity and Inclusion Council for Charter Communications. She worked for 16 years at the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in child welfare, juvenile justice, and poverty reduction.
My brave and startling truth shouldn’t be either brave or startling. I believe that my leadership journey is guided by the “Four R’s” – core Indigenous cultural values of:
Relationship – the value of Kinship, which is predicated on a worldview that sees all people, all animals, and the earth itself as related and interdependent on one another.
Responsibility – the value of Community that acknowledges we have a Responsibility to care for our kin and relatives
Reciprocity – the value of Interconnectedness, that our roles and responsibilities are reciprocal in nature and cyclical.
Redistribution – the value of Generosity, that we have an obligation to redistribute resources, information, knowledge, and wealth for the good of the community.
Professor of Pediatrics and of Medical Social Sciences
Craig Garfield is a professor at Northwestern University and a practicing pediatrician at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. In 2020, he became the founder and director of the Family and Child Health Innovations Program, which focuses on the notion that “Children thrive when families thrive” and how to support families in all their diversity. Dr. Garfield received his medical degree at Rush Medical College in Chicago, completed his pediatric training at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital, and obtained a Masters in the Art of Public Policy from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy as a Harris Child and Family Scholar. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, his research focuses on improving the health of children and families by understanding the role parents play in the health and well-being of children (in particular the role of fathers) as well as how technology can support parenting. He has partnered with the CDC to pilot and scale the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System for Dads, a unique public health surveillance tool for new fathers. His work has been published in such peer-reviewed journals as JAMA, JAMA Pediatrics, Pediatrics, Academic Pediatrics, and AJPH and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Good Morning America, The Today Show, and the Katie Couric Show.
At the end of the day, every person wants to be — and deserves to be — heard, to be held, and to be loved. There really are no exceptions. That’s it.
UpTogether is an antiracist change organization that trusts and invests in low-income families, allowing them to move themselves out of poverty. Under Jesús’ leadership, UpTogether has quadrupled its revenue, doubled in staff, and expanded its work to all 50 states through the adoption of its strength-based approach and technology platform, UpTogether Community. Prior to joining UpTogether, Jesús worked for the Hyde Square Task Force, where he worked on the Youth First project that helped lay the groundwork for a proposed $250 million urban development project. The Schwab Foundation named Jesús as a 2020 Social Innovator of the Year for leading UpTogether’s work supporting tens of thousands of families across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jesús was included in Care 100’s most influential people in care. A native of Puerto Rico, Jesús is the youngest of three children born to parents who were just nineteen years old when they married. At the age of nine, Jesús moved with his mother and siblings to Amherst, Massachusetts. This community was full of resources, lifting up opportunities for Jesús’ family to achieve their goals. This life experience has shaped Jesús, fueling his desire to eliminate place, race, or economic position as the marker for individual and collective success.
We do not need to help people more; we need to hinder them less. Poverty is not caused by personal failures. It’s rooted in system choices, nurtured by institutional racism, that disinvest and fragment communities. Our people and communities are the solution, let’s invest in them.
Cannon Y. & Lyndia Harvey Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Chair of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute and Professor, Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Division Director of Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw is the Cannon Y. & Lyndia Harvey Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Chair of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Dr. Liaw is a Professor, Vice Chair of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Division Director of Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She will also be serving as the inaugural Mental Health In-Chief at Colorado Children’s Hospital to help shape and oversee child mental health vision and strategy, operations, quality, safety, and workforce development system-wide. Dr. Liaw was previously the Director of the Sala Institute’s Child-Family Services and Resilience Programs and Chief of Service of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. Nationally, Dr. Liaw has served as an expert consultant in design and innovation, family engagement, improvement science, mental health integration, clinician wellbeing, diversity and equity for the American Board of Pediatrics Foundation’s Resilience Roadmap Pilot Collaborative, Greater New York Hospital Association Clinician Wellbeing Advisory Group, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Children’s Hospital Association’s Behavioral Health Leadership Roundtable, and IDEO.
Children grow, thrive, and overcome adversity when they are scaffolded and supported by caring, empowered adults, family, and positive peers. Transforming pain, loss, trauma, and challenge into strength, skill, resiliency, and wisdom is a form of modern-day alchemy powered by science, biologic and socio-cultural evolution, storytelling, and relationships. All children and their families should have equal opportunity and access to the critical resources and relationships they need to grow, heal, and thrive.
Porcupine, South Dakota
Dr. Alicia Mousseau is the daughter of the late John and Vera Mousseau and the granddaughter of the late James and Lena Mousseau from Porcupine, South Dakota. Her hunka parents are Howard Brown and Karen Spoonhunter-Brown of Arapahoe, Wyoming. Her hunka children are Marcella and Alexander Brave Heart and Sarayah, Gia, and Jo Weston. Dr. Mousseau received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wyoming in 2012. Before becoming the Vice President for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she culturally adapted, implemented, and evaluated prevention and intervention programs with American Indian youth and families. Dr. Mousseau’s commitment to her Tribe, community, and Oyate (people) has influenced her Vice Presidential platform to bring trauma/healing informed care as well as a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) Research and Training Center to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Overall, Dr. Mousseau is dedicated to promoting prevention and health equity in American Indian communities through culturally and contextually relevant ways of knowing and capacity building.
When I do what I expect of others, I am living my own truth. I try to live my own truth daily so I can be me and stand confidently in my spirit. It is my hope that modeling this type of courage will inspire others to live their own truth; and it is there where our spirits can meet and the real work can be done.
Aysha E. Schomburg
Associate Commissioner of the United States Children’s Bureau
Aysha E. Schomburg joined the Biden Administration in March 2021 as the Associate Commissioner of the United States Children’s Bureau within the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this role, she advises the Administration on matters related to child welfare, including child abuse and neglect, child protective services, family preservation and support, adoption, foster care, and independent living. The Children’s Bureau recommends legislative and budgetary proposals, operational planning system objectives and initiatives, and projects and issue areas for evaluation, research, and demonstration activities. She previously served as the senior administrator for program oversight for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). There she worked collaboratively with agency leaders to develop and implement plans for the operational infrastructure of ACS. During the COVID-19 public health crisis, she worked closely with New York City’s Department of Education and Department of Homeless Services to create and coordinate guidance for frontline staff. She also provided recommendations to ACS’s Office of Equity Strategies regarding addressing inequities and racism in child welfare. Aysha received her B.A. from the University of Virginia, her M.A. from New York University and her J.D. from New York Law School.
When I think about the persecution Black people have suffered, I also think of our strength and endurance. Our accomplishments are limitless if we harness the persistence of our ancestors.
Round Rock, TX
Rinku Sen is the Executive Director of Narrative Initiative. She is formerly the Executive Director of Race Forward and was Publisher of their award-winning news site Colorlines. Under Sen’s leadership, Race Forward generated some of the most impactful racial justice successes of recent years, including Drop the I-Word, a campaign for media outlets to stop referring to immigrants as “illegal,” resulting in the Associated Press, USA Today, LA Times, and many more outlets changing their practice. She was also the architect of the Shattered Families report, which identified the number of kids in foster care whose parents had been deported. Her books Stir it Up and The Accidental American theorize a model of community organizing that integrates a political analysis of race, gender, class, poverty, sexuality, and other systems. As a consultant, Rinku has worked on narrative and political strategy with numerous organizations and foundations, including PolicyLink, the ACLU and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. She serves on numerous boards, including the Women’s March, where she is Co-President and the Foundation for National Progress, publisher of Mother Jones magazine.
We need to make friends, not allies.
I aim to destroy the notion of racial hierarchy itself, not just shift my own position on the ladder.
Deputy Director for Youth and Families
Little Rock, AR
Keesa M. Smith currently serves as the Deputy Director for Youth and Families with the Arkansas Department of Human Services. In this capacity, she has oversight of the child welfare, juvenile justice, childcare and early childhood education divisions. She also manages the agency’s Human Resources, Procurement and Appeals offices. Prior to joining DHS, Ms. Smith served as the Chairman of the Arkansas Board of Review, a position to which she was appointed by Governor Mike Beebe. Ms. Smith also served as Deputy Legal Counsel and State Implementation Director for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Governor Beebe. Before serving in this capacity, Ms. Smith held positions in the Governor’s Communication and External Affairs team. She began her legal career as a Staff Attorney for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. Ms. Smith received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002. She also earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law in 2005. She has one daughter, Afiya, who is a Junior Nursing major at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
What guides my leadership and work is never forgetting that every person has value. Those in need often find themselves marginalized and undervalued, especially when we overgeneralize how a person ended up where they currently find themselves. My truth is to always remember that, in creating and administering programs, we have the ability to change the trajectory of someone’s path if we truly see them for who they are as opposed to what their current position looks like.
Floral Park, NY
As Executive Director of the NBA Foundation, Greg Taylor is responsible for the strategic development, creation and implementation of programs and partnerships that advance the Foundation’s efforts to increase access and support for high school, college-aged, job-ready and mid-career Black men and women. Additionally, Taylor oversees the administration of grants to national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and pipeline development. Working closely with the NBA Foundation Board of Directors, Program Officers, National Basketball Players Association and all 30 NBA teams, he forms impactful partnerships and oversees support for national and local organizations in NBA markets and communities across the United States and Canada. Previously, Taylor served as Senior Vice President of Player Development for the NBA, leading the league’s initiatives to assist players in their personal, professional and social development by building innovative programs in the areas of continuing education, financial management and mental health and wellness. Prior to joining the NBA in 2013, Taylor served as President and CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future and as Vice President of Programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, where he established strong relationships with local and national organizations and led a series of economic, education and youth development initiatives that supported youth and families of color.
Finding the courage to speak my truth on a daily basis is akin to a street fight. Aggressions (micro or otherwise), societal inequity, or just the fatigue that I experience in altering my being just enough to make whatever audience I am addressing comfortable enough to hear ME all weigh heavily on my ability to authentically share my perspective with people outside of my immediate circle. As an African American man, I am constantly evaluating how I chose to show up in big and small interactions with the world around me. I reconcile this relentless battle by remembering to always speak my truth to those who ask for my opinion or express interest in my lived experience. The startling truth that guides my work and leadership is that I believe that in order to realize equitable communities for all I must complete these daily courageous acts: speak truth; authentically learn about divergent points of view; embrace the “uncomfortable”; and seek proximity to the inequity that I strive to eradicate.
Founder & CEO
New York, NY
WE GOT US NOW is a national advocacy organization built by, led by and about children and young adults impacted by parental incarceration with the mission to engage, educate, elevate, and empower this historically invisible population. As a social entrepreneur, content creator and Soros Justice fellow, Ebony’s interest in this advocacy work is personal and pivotal. Traumatized and emotionally devastated by her father’s incarceration, she silently suffered for years. In 2014, Ebony began to speak publicly and share her story through film, television, and social media advocacy. Since 2016, she has spearheaded and produced three iterations of the Google-initiated digital campaign, #LoveLetters, to demonstrate the unbreakable bond between a child & their incarcerated parent on Mothers and Fathers Day. In 2017, she received a Proclamation from the City of NY for her advocacy work highlighting the issue of children with incarcerated parents. She co-authored the chapter, About Us, For Us, With Us: Collaboration as a Key to Progress in Research, Practice & Policy in the 2nd Edition Handbook on Children with Incarcerated Parents and published op-ed articles In Mic, Huffington Post, Vibe, and The Appeal. She was awarded the Arizona State University’s Champion of Child Well-Being and currently sits on the Board of Directors at the Sentencing Project. #WEGOTUSNOW
My ability to be bold and courageous enough to wear my heart on my sleeve and reveal to the world that my dad was incarcerated with a life sentence. In the process, I learned how extremely harsh his sentence actually was, how deeply traumatized I had been due to his physical absence, and how necessary it is to engage, educate, elevate and empower the vast population of children and young adults longing for the transformative experience of a community filled with understanding, trust, advocacy, justice and love ~ #WEGOTUSNOW.
Co-Founder and CEO
Joe Waters is the co-founder and CEO of Capita. Capita is a think tank dedicated to exploring how the cultural and social transformations of our day affect young children and their families, and fostering new ideas and policies to ensure a future in which all people flourish. Under Joe’s leadership, Capita has launched initiatives focused on supporting the development of more worker-owned child care businesses, helping policymakers and systems leaders better meet the needs of Gen Z parents and their families, and bringing strategic foresight tools to policy and program planning for child-serving systems. His commentary on issues facing families has been published by Investor’s Business Daily, The Hill, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit Quarterly and other outlets. He has served as a long-time member of the Board of Directors of the Felician Center, which helps those who struggle to meet their basic needs in South Carolina’s rural Pee Dee region and of the Greenville Chorale. He graduated from Furman University (BA, history) and earned a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University. He and his wife Molly Benedum, a family physician, live with their family in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
A brave and startling truth that guides my work is that social justice can only be achieved through an appreciation and affirmation of the inherent, equal, and sublime dignity of the human person. Guarantee every child, as much as humanly possible, the security, stability, and development that their dignity requires, and support the family as the first guarantor of that security, stability, and development, and you can transform the world.
Atiya Weiss leads efforts to invest in the most promising and transformative programs and policies to foster the health, well-being, and resilience of New Jersey children and families. She oversees development and execution of the Burke Foundation’s strategies to pursue targeted initiatives and partnerships that promote healthy pregnancies, births and parent-child relationships, as well as high-quality early learning and care. Atiya previously served as a senior advisor in JP Morgan’s Philanthropy Center, providing clients with insights and services to meet their philanthropic objectives through innovative advice, thought leadership, and opportunities for learning and collaboration. At JP Morgan, she supported the creation and launch of the Global Health Investment Fund, a $100 million social impact fund to advance development of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics in partnership with the Gates Foundation. Atiya began her career at Pfizer and the Pfizer Foundation, where she managed a global health grantmaking portfolio and led flagship programs, including Pfizer Global Health Fellows and Mobilize Against Malaria. As an Aspen Ascend Fellow, she will continue to champion birth equity by expanding the perinatal community workforce to deliver enhanced care to women and families and create new employment opportunities. Atiya received a BA from Brown University and an MPH in epidemiology from Columbia University.
I believe that real movement toward equity requires the willingness to shift power and place decision-making and resources closer to those endangered most by our country’s maternal mortality crisis. I lead through building circles of trust that involve intense listening and asking deep questions so everyone committed to change learns together. True partnership involves vulnerability and courage on all sides. By engaging with women of color to better understand the challenges and barriers they face during pregnancy and postpartum – and, importantly, the solutions they wish to see — we can repair broken bonds of trust and make lasting change. Working together, we can boldly reimagine a new community-driven, inclusive, and responsive maternity health system that delivers better care for women and families.
President and CEO
Grand Rapids, MI
A leader in education and equity-centered design, Daniel works to advance justice through education & community engagement. Prior to his role as president and CEO of the Steelcase Foundation, he led the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology where he worked towards equity and innovation throughout Michigan. Prior to that, he was co-founder and principal of Grand Rapids University Prep Academy, the first “Centers of Innovation” School in Grand Rapids Public Schools. In 2020 he was elected to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees for Grand Rapids Community College. In 2018, Daniel was appointed by then-Governor Rick Snyder to join the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks, and in 2019, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed him as vice-chairperson of the MI-STEM Council. Daniel has served on many local boards and statewide committees, as well as a number of national initiatives. He believes deeply in the innate brilliance of community and the importance of centering the voices of those so often ignored. These beliefs and his passion for liberation and justice drive his work with community.
Justice work is a never-ending journey of persistence, tension, and balance. Doing this work means wrestling with the uncomfortable space between valuing diverse perspectives and refusing to validate oppressive ideology. It means relentlessly moving forward in the face of sorrow and exhaustion while giving yourself grace. It calls for both peacemaking and disruption, discomfort and joy. It is so hard, and it is so necessary.
Dr. Daria J. Willis serves as the 17th president of Everett Community College, in Everett, Washington. As the first African American in this role in its 80-year history, Dr. Willis is focused on ending generational poverty for college students and their families. She was raised in a single-parent household with values rooted in faith, perseverance, and excellence. Dr. Willis was a first-generation student to college who became pregnant at nineteen years old, so she understands the vagaries of life as a student parent struggling for a better livelihood. She is a tireless advocate for the voiceless, she is a believer in social justice and equity, and her life’s mission is to disrupt the traditional norms of higher education to provide creative and innovative pathways to success. Dr. Willis earned her BA and MA degrees in history from Florida A&M University. She earned a PhD in the field of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century African American history from Florida State University. She has demonstrated her commitment to the mission of community colleges, serving in a variety of roles as an adjunct and full-time faculty member, faculty senate president, department chair, dean, and provost in Florida, Texas, New York, and Washington.
My father died of HIV in 1991 leaving my mother to raise two children alone. She was a single parent, without a formal education, but she sacrificed everything so that I could have access to the opportunities she was denied. It is because of her courage and perseverance that I exist, so I have dedicated my life to serving others, the same way my mother gave to me.