THE RISING STARS
Our Rising Stars initiative initially began as an award and, over the years, has developed into an organized program that recognizes an elite group of Houstonians who have contributed to civic life and are poised to do much more.
Through this program, we offer a year of training and volunteer opportunities for these selected leaders of all ages to share their talents and expand their reach as champions of civic engagement. Participants attend a series of monthly class sessions that range from meeting with leaders of active political parties in Houston to learning how to become a VDVR and participating in naturalization ceremonies.
With opportunities to participate in phone banking during the election, work on the Conversations with Candidates and engage at polling locations—we want to help our Rising Stars uncover what aspect of civic engagement they have the greatest affinity for and give them the tools they need to help our community do great things.
MEET THE 2020-2021 COHORT
Alan Modrow he/him/his/el
Timoteo Alan Modrow is currently the Student Government Association President. He is a senior doing a double major in Political Science and Communication Studies. Over the past four years Timoteo has been able to lead and be a part of amazing programs and initiatives. Apart from his involvement in SGA, Timoteo serves on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Mayors Student Leadership Alliance, a Peer Mentor for incoming freshmen, founder of the Blue Coats Program and in other capacities.
Dylan Forbis (he/him/his)
Dylan is a part-time Library Clerk that goes above and beyond on every task with a passion for public service. Currently, he is finishing up his Associate at HCC, with plans to begin the Bachelor of Public Leadership from UHCL next semester. Dylan's goals are continuing to work in the public sector, learning about policy writing, gain experience in HR, and office management so he can pursue his passion for County and State government. In his spare time, he serves as the SDEC 11 Committeeman for the Texas Democratic Party, Treasurer for the Young Democrats of Brazoria County, educating local communities about civics, and advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights.
Elizabeth Bille (she/her)
Elizabeth Bille is the Texas State Director at NALEO Educational Fund. She leads the coordination of civic engagement activities in the area of citizenship, voter engagement and census for the State of Texas. Prior to joining NALEO Educational Fund, Elizabeth worked for one of the largest FQHCs in the nation, AltaMed Health Services as Director of Government Affairs. Elizabeth is a graduate of the University of Houston holding a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Political Science and History. Mrs. Bille was elected as Vice President of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council for the City of Los Angeles from 2014-2018.
Ilhaam “Illy” Jaffer (she/her)
lhaam "Illy" Jaffer is a dynamic professional with over a decade of experience in the public and private sectors in both Washington, DC and Houston, Texas. She is a graduate of political science and certified public management from the University of Houston and attended Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. for the masters in government program. In Texas, Illy worked on local campaigns for city council and the congress, in Mayor Bill White’s international affairs office, and was chosen to be a Mickey Leland Congressional fellow which took her to Washington D.C. In addition, Illy serves on the board of the Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce while continuing her work with Women in Government Relations and the Congressional Asian Pacific Staffers Association.
Katherine Culbert (she/her)
Originally from Upstate NY, Katherine graduated from SUNY ESF with a degree in Paper Science & Engineering. Ms. Culbert earned her MBA at the University at Albany and her MS in Law at Northwestern University. Katherine is a licensed Professional Engineer in New York State, a Six Sigma Green Belt, and a certified Project Management Professional. Since moving to Houston, she has worked with various clients managing Process and Pipeline Safety projects along with ensuring regulatory compliance.
Katherine Summerlin (she/her)
Katherine Summerlin is a first generation immigrant from the island of Trinidad and first in her family to graduate college. She holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science, a minor in Spanish, and a graduate degree in Public Administration with a concentration in management and evaluation, from the University of Houston. Ms. Summerlin currently serves as a Financial Analyst with Harris County and has previously held positions with the City of Houston, as a legislative staffer, and legal analyst. Katherine has a keen interest in leveraging government’s resources to build resilient communities and equitable institutions.
Lourdes Zavaleta (she/her)
Lourdes Zavaleta is a multimedia journalist who works to raise social awareness for underserved communities through her reporting. She currently serves as the managing editor of OutSmart magazine, an LGBTQ publication based in Houston, Texas.
Lourdes is an alumna of the University of Houston, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2018. During her undergraduate studies, she specialized in news reporting, feature writing, and social media marketing. In her spare time, Lourdes is an active volunteer for nonpartisan organizations Baker Ripley, Election Protection, and the Montrose Center.
Norman Harris (he/him)
After personally experiencing the challenges associated with reentry, Norman decided to use his frustrations, setbacks, and disappointments he faced overcoming barriers to fuel his sincere passion to serve and support others during their transition. He adamantly believes that no one should ever feel alone or unsupported as they fight to rebuild their lives and prides himself as a self-proclaimed champion for those society have overlooked, forgotten, or condemned. Norman is fully committed to servitude and civic engagement in hopes to increase participation in the electoral process. He recognizes the change minority communities are demanding is found only through voting, policy changes, and by holding our elected officials accountable. He earned his Bachelors of Science in Political Science from the University of Houston Downtown.
Naomi Williams (she/her)
Naomi earned her B.S. in Biology at the University of Houston with minor studies in Business Administration. She currently studies Radiologic Technology with the Harris Health System of Harris County. In her free time, she likes to stay involved in happenings in the community - specifically around environmental/climate justice. Further, she is a professionally trained dancer with a newfound hobby in music making.
Neha Madhani Agrawal (she/her)
Neha Agrawal is a clinical pharmacist for UTMB Correctional Managed Care, where she has managed chronic disease states in TDCJ for the last 16 years. Her focus is empowering her patients with tools to take better care of themselves in prison and when they are released. Seeing the direct impact of certain policies and elected officials can have in prison has lead Neha to her passion in civic service: the importance of every citizen exercising his/her right to vote and having their voice heard. When she is not galvanizing people to vote as a VDVR or attending rallies, she spends time deepening her yoga practice, gardening and providing discourses to her 12yo and 10yo on dismantling white supremacy and the patriarchy.
Nikki Suarez (she/her)
Nikki currently serves as an Assistant Director of Development for the Texas A&M Foundation helping unite donor generosity with the university’s vision to create a brighter future. Her passion for serving others has led her to pursue a career in the charitable sector with a focus on fundraising for individuals with special needs, underserved youth and students. Nikki is an alumna of Leadership Houston- Class XXXVIII and the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Emerging Leaders program. She is also a proud volunteer of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Texan-French Alliance for the Arts, and the Harris County Medical Reserve Corp.
Mariah Grayson (she/her)
I’m Mariah Grayson, born and raised in Dallas, Texas. Made Houston my home after attending the University of Houston. I’ve spent time in Congress, the Texas State Senate, and in the City of Houston’s government where I’ve developed a passion for public service. I now spend my time as an attorney for the Texas Workforce Commission.
Niliza Ali (she/her)
A first generation college student, Niliza graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Advertising and Business Foundations Certificate. She's currently an Account Manager at The Black Sheep Agency where she leads projects for cause-driven organizations like UTHealth School of Public Health, Houston Parks Board, Downtown District and League of Women Voters of Houston.
Stephani-Nicole Leota (she/they)
Stephani will graduate in May 2021 from the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston. She is the president of the GCSW Student Association and has assisted in the college’s efforts to increase voter registration and civic engagement among students and their communities. Stephani was honored to serve as a delegate at the 2020 Democratic National Convention and hopes to continue working within political spaces to make a more equitable society. A native Texan, she is committed to advancing social justice wherever she goes.
Taylor Ballard (she/her)
A native Houstonian, Taylor has been committed to volunteerism and service since she was a child. As a teenager, she worked as a fundraising intern for a political campaign. Although she figured out that a career in politics was not for her, she developed a passion for grassroots advocacy and outreach. She has dedicated her career to fundraising for worthy non-profit causes and volunteers with various social service organizations as well.
Tonya Richardson (she/her)
Tonya is a Professional Geologist with Chevron who works to characterize the subsurface and to development plans to safely and efficiently extract hydrocarbons from the Permian Basin. She received her Bachelor’s (2008) from Vanderbilt in Earth Science with a minor in Spanish, and her Master’s (2011) in Geology from Purdue. In her spare time, she likes to volunteer with community groups to support housing, food, and career development needs. In the Rising Stars program, Tonya is increasing her exposure to local climate issues, environmental justice concerns, and political and social engagement.
Zach McKenzie (he/him)
Zach McKenzie is the Assistant Manager for Marketing and Communications at Theatre Under The Stars. He is also a freelance writer for CityBook Magazine and OutSmart Magazine, covering topics such as entertainment, politics, nonprofits, and leaders in the community. Zach graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in kinesiology with a specialization in disability studies. With a passion for working with people with different abilities, Zach has used his educational background and applied it to professional opportunities, including his current job role. In his spare time, Zach volunteers as a big brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Houston.
Julia Ossemi-Seied (she/her)
Julia is the Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director for Houston City Council Member Sallie Alcorn. Beyond her communications work, Julia focuses on transportation policy at the local and regional levels, while keeping the rest of the team updated on technology. She began her career at the city as the communications director for former Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Jerry Davis, where she was heavily involved in the educational events and initiatives VMPT Davis spearheaded.
Frances Castaneda Dyess (she/her)
Frances Castañeda Dyess, a native Houstonian, is President of the Houston East End Chamber of Commerce, and is driven by passion for her community and championing the advancement of businesses as the engines of economic progress. Prior to joining the East End Chamber, Ms. Castañeda Dyess was Director of Corporate Services for the Houston Rockets. She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and believes deeply in the power of community and she supports numerous community causes and sits on several boards throughout Houston.
Daniel Meza (he/him)
Daniel Meza is from Spring, TX. He is a first generation American and college graduate from UH. He studied political science and has worked as a community engagement manager for BakerRipley and as an ESL teacher for Spring ISD. Daniel enjoys long distance running in his free time. He also enjoys visiting his family in Costa Rica and Él Salvador. Daniel enjoys giving back through volunteering at community and running events as well as educating the community.
Valerie R. Luna-Pena (she/her)
I am a Community Outreach Coordinator for Houston Public Works Department’s Transportation & Drainage Operations Service Line. My main function is to serve as a community liaison between the Department, outside agencies, and the public. I am responsible for implementing and communicating departmental policies, procedures, and programming. I have a civic responsibility to help deliver infrastructure projects that improve the quality of life for the City of Houston.
Irene Nuñez is the Communications Specialist for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Houston-Downtown. She has served in both the education and communication fields.
Irene is passionate about educating the public about the importance of voting. She is a volunteer deputy voter registrar and is always willing to share her knowledge and experience about elections. She considers it an honor to help people in the Hispanic/Latinx community that may not understand the electoral process and advocates educating younger generations about exercising their right to vote.
Shari Hunt is a digital literacy advocate dedicated to volunteering with organizations that support women and girls in technology. As a reviewer, events volunteer, community builder, instructor and community leader she has seen from different viewpoints the effect encouragement and assistance can have on women and girls entering and staying in the technology field. While she is passionate about sharing her love for technology, she also understands the importance of being equally as vocal about the negative impacts it can have on communities of color. Technology and tech policy shape our daily lives in obvious and subtle ways. As a Rising Stars participant, Shari looks forward to learning more about the political process, applying the knowledge to tech policy and sharing what she learns.