Speaker Bios

List of 2020 GRITS Conference Speakers:


Amanda Williams | Lilith Fund

Panel: Reproductive Justice: Coupling Litigation and Advocacy

Amanda Beatriz Williams, a proud daughter of an immigrant, is a queer Tejana with more than ten years of experience working in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement. Amanda is originally from Houston, Texas, where she planted her roots as a community organizer. Amanda holds a Master’s in Political Social Work from the University of Houston and has extensive background in nonprofit management, program development, policy, advocacy, and fundraising. She served on the board of the Lilith Fund from 2012-2015 and has been Lilith Fund’s executive director since 2016. Under her leadership, Lilith Fund has supported thousands of Texans seeking abortion care and expanded its programming to include emotional support and organizing. Amanda is a proud storyteller of the National Network of Abortion Fund’s (NNAF) We Testify program, which is dedicated to increasing the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere. Her writing has been published in Glamour Magazine, Rewire, TribTalk, and the Feminist Wire. She is also a board member for Youth Rise Texas, an organization that works to develop the leadership of youth of color who are directly impacted by incarceration and deportation. Amanda lives in Austin with her fiancée, Holly, and cat, Mica.


Beto Mesta, Jr.Texas RioGrande Legal Aid

Breakout Session: People of Color in Public Interest

Beto Mesta, Jr. is the branch manager for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s El Paso office, where he practices a wide range including farmworker employee law. He previously was the chairman of the Texas Bar Association’s Poverty Law Section, and graduated from the University of Texas School of Law.


Bryan Parras | Sierra Club

Panel: Environmental Justice

Bryan is a longtime environmental justice and climate justice advocate born and raised in the Gulf South. Bryan has worked tirelessly in his hometown of Houston to improve the health and safety of residents living in the shadows of oil refineries, chemical plants, storage tanks, rail yards  and pipelines in one of the largest concentrations of this industry in the world. He has seen, firsthand, the devastation that has been wrought on indigenous communities and people of color throughout the continent by the fossil fuel industry. Bryan has participated in the Environmental Justice Movement, the Climate Justice Movement, The Peoples Health Movement, The Immigrant Rights Movement and has always worked to build intersectional movements from the bottom up. Bryan is a trained facilitator of Theater of the Oppressed techniques, a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. He has worked as an organizer, a journalist and as an artist. Bryan Parras is a co-founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), co-founder of the Librotraficantes and now works as an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign.


Catherine Flowers | Center for Earth Ethics

Panel: Environmental Justice

Catherine Coleman Flowers is a Senior Fellow for the Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement at the Center for Earth Ethics. She is also the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE) which seeks to address the root causes of poverty by seeking sustainable solutions. She serves as the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative serving the citizens of Lowndes County, one of the 10 poorest counties in Alabama’s Black Belt. Catherine has been able to bring significant resources to address its many environmental and social injustices. Specifically, her work at ACRE addresses the lack of sewage disposal infrastructure in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, the legacy of racism and neglect stretching back to the time of slavery. Catherine is also an internationally recognized advocate for the human right to water and sanitation and works to make the UN Sustainable Development Agenda accountable to front-line communities.


Chito Vela | Walker Gates Vela

Panel: Immigration Detention and “Crimmigration”

Jose “Chito” Vela III is originally from Laredo, Texas, and currently has his own Austin-based firm, Walker Gates Vela. Chito focuses on litigation, particularly criminal and immigration defense and the relationship between the two.


Christine Valenzuela | National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United

Panel: Labor Organizing in the South and Southwest

Christine Valenzuela has been in healthcare for 12 years and has worked as a registered nurse (RN) for 10 years.  She is currently a nurse representative and a peer-elected negotiator for the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, and she was part of the team that negotiated the first ever union contract at her hospital in Tucson, Arizona.


Donna HowardTexas House of Representatives

Panel: Understanding Texas Legislation

Representative Donna Howard has served in the Texas House of Representatives since 2006. She is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and sits on its Article III Subcommittee which oversees education spending in the state budget. Donna serves as Vice Chair of the House Administration Committee, and is also a longtime member of the Higher Education and House Administration Committees. A native of Austin, Donna earned a Bachelor’s degree in nursing and a Master’s degree in health education from the University of Texas. She worked as a critical care nurse at Brackenridge and Seton hospitals, and served as Austin’s first hospital-based Patient Education Coordinator. Donna is a past president of the Texas Nurses Association (District 5) and was a health education instructor at UT. Donna was elected to the Eanes ISD board in West Austin for the 1996-1999 term. She has served on the boards of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, Common Cause Texas, Texas Freedom Network, and the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She now serves as a board member of the Expanding Horizons Foundation, supporting low-income housing and education.


Emily Gerrick | Texas Fair Defense Project

Panel: Punishment Without Guilt

Emily Gerrick focuses on Texas Fair Defense Project’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative. Through litigation and legislative advocacy, she works to reduce court costs and stop jurisdictions from incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fees and fines. Emily joined TFDP as a Liman Fellow in 2014. Her past experiences include providing direct legal assistance to prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, drafting motions and writs in federal criminal cases, and investigating inhumane conditions in Alabama, Connecticut, and Texas prisons. Emily is a graduate of Yale Law School and the University of California at Los Angeles. In law school, she was a member of the Capital Punishment Clinic, the student-director of the Detention and Human Rights Clinic, and a convener of the Criminal Justice Theory and Practice Workshop.


ImeIme Umana | Civil Rights Corps

Panel: Punishment Without Guilt

Breakout Session: People of Color in Public Interest

ImeIme is the Soros Justice Fellow at the Civil Rights Corps. Previously, she clerked for Judge Robert Wilkins, US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. ImeIme graduated from Harvard Law, where she was the first black woman to serve as the President of the Harvard Law Review.


Jeffrey Jacoby | Texas Campaign for the Environment

Panel: Understanding Texas Legislation

Jeffrey Jacoby began his career with TCE in 2004 and directed our DFW office from 2005-2011 and our Central Texas office from 2012-2019. After obtaining a Master of Arts from the University of Maryland and living in Washington, D.C. for three years, Jeff found TCE when he returned to his native Texas. Jeff believes that change begins at home, one person at a time. His commitment to grassroots democracy and environmental advocacy stems from a strong desire to transform the mindset of a culture bent on harming the very source of its sustenance.


Jennifer Scarborough | ProBAR

Panel: Immigration Detention and “Crimmigration”

Jennifer Scarborough is a staff attorney with ProBAR’s adult office in Harlingen, Texas where she represents adults detained along the South Texas border. She assists both new arrivals seeking asylum as well as long-time residents of the Rio Grande Valley. Jennifer graduated from DePaul University College of Law. During her four years in law school, she worked full time as a partially accredited DOJ representative with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.


Katrina Black | RAICES

Panel: Immigration Detention and “Crimmigration”

Katrina Black is currently an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow at RAICES. She is a recent graduate from Harvard Law. In law school, she provided legal services to unaccompanied children detained at the border, fought for asylum-seekers in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and challenged police misconduct at a civil rights firm. Before law school, she was a humanitarian aid worker with World Vision and a program coordinator for refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities.


Kiah DeBolt | The Safe Alliance

Breakout Session: People of Color in Public Interest

Kiah DeBolt works with The Safe Alliance in Austin assisting survivors of child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, domestic violence, and commercial exploitation. Kiah graduated from the University of Texas School of Law, where she was active in both the pro bono community and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society.


Linda Rivas | Las Americas

Panel: Immigration Detention and “Crimmigration”

Linda Y. Rivas was born in Mexico and raised in El Paso, Texas.  Linda is currently the Executive Director and Managing Attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a 32-year-old organization dedicated to the legal needs of low-income migrants. Las Americas’ mission is dedicated to asylum seekers, family reunification and advocating for the dignity and rights of all migrants. Linda is also a co-founder of the Borderland Immigration Council (BIC), which was formed to help address the dire situation of due process abuses, family separation and abuse of discretion that immigrants and refugees face during the course of their legal immigration cases.This year, Linda and her Las Americas team are leading the way to fight against the harmful “Remain in Mexico” policy, as they cross the border to help ensure due process for migrants forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings.


Mario Atencio | Diné CARE

Panel: Environmental Justice

Mario Atencio is Háshtł’íishnii; born for Tódichíinii; Táneezháanii are his cheiis and Tłaasch’í’ are his nálís.  He has been involved in oil and gas development issues facing the Diné communities of the far eastern Diné Nation.  Mario became involved with Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment) by starting the work around the Colorado River water rights struggle that the Diné Nation is still facing.


Mike Cartwright | UAW Local 276

Panel: Labor Organizing in the South and Southwest

Mike Cartwright is a Member of the UAW Local 276. Mike was appointed by the UAW Vice President to serve the members of UAW Local 276, where he holds the position of human resource development representative. He was previously the President of UAW Local 276 (2011-2014), representing over 4000 UAW members.

He began his career holding various positions as a UAW member. Since 1985, he has worked as a GM hourly employee, held the positions of alternate committee person, civil and human rights committee chair, Local 276 president, and other positions within the region.


Molly Bursey | Moms Demand Action

Panel: Understanding Texas Legislation

Molly Bursey is the volunteer Legislative Lead for the Texas Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Shortly after moving to New Braunfels in early 2016, she founded the first Moms Demand Action group outside of a major city in Texas and has served as a local group leader and local group manager for Central Texas. During her first semester of teaching middle school special education, Molly watched helplessly as the shooting at Columbine High School unfolded. As a new mom, despair overwhelmed her when 20 first graders and six educators were murdered inside their school in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, she has learned about the toll of daily gun violence in our cities, gun violence at the hands of domestic abusers, and the lethality of suicide attempts with a gun, which has driven a compulsion to change gun laws and the culture in Texas and the nation.


Montserrat Garibay | AFL-CIO

Panel: Labor Organizing in the South and Southwest

Montserrat Garibay is the Secretary-Treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO. Previously, she served as Vice President for Certified Employees with Education Austin. An activist on education and immigration issues, Garibay came to the U.S. from Mexico City as an undocumented immigrant and became a citizen 20 years later. She has been instrumental in promoting opportunities for all students, including those from immigrant families. She promoted passage of the Texas version of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. A bilingual pre-kindergarten teacher for eight years, Garibay has strongly supported early childhood education. Among her other roles: former President of LULAC Council 4859, Texas AFT “Super Advocate” in 2011 and member of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International. Garibay is a UT-Austin graduate.


Renee Bracey Sherman | Writer, Organizer, Activist

Friday’s Keynote Speaker

Renee Bracey Sherman is the Beyoncé of Abortion Storytelling. She’s a Chicago-born, midwest-raised writer and activist committed to the visibility and representation of people who have had abortions in media and pop culture. She is founder and executive director of We Testify, the only national and intersectional leadership organization for people who’ve had abortions in the United States, created by and for people who’ve had abortions, centering race, class, and gender identity. She has trained hundreds of abortion storytellers, including elected officials, and mentored over 60 We Testify storytellers through the fellowship, whose voices have been featured in articles, interviews, books, media, comics, events, and legislative testimony. Most recently, We Testify launched We Testify Texas, a program elevating the voices of people who navigated the financial and logistical barriers to abortion access in Texas. She’s also coined phrases like ‘Everyone Loves Someone Who Had An Abortion’ and started the #AskAboutAbortion campaign demanding presidential debate moderators ask candidates questions about abortion. Renee’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Playboy, and the Washington Post. In 2015 she co-authored Speak Up & Stay Safe(r), a multi-lingual digital guide on handling online harassment.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics and sociology from Northeastern Illinois University and a Master’s degree in public administration from Cornell University.


Rosann Mariappuram | Jane’s Due Process

Panel: Reproductive Justice: Coupling Litigation and Advocacy

Rosann Mariappuram (she/her) is a lawyer and advocate, as well as Executive Director of Jane’s Due Process. She is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, was a legal intern with Jane’s Due Process and the Center for Reproductive Rights and served on the boards of the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity and NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. Prior to joining Jane’s Due Process, Rosann was an If/When/How Reproductive Justice Fellow with Surge Reproductive Justice and Legal Voice in Seattle, WA. Before law school, Rosann worked at the Reproductive Health Access Project in New York, NY where she helped expand access to contraception, miscarriage care and abortion in primary care settings. Rosann received her M.A. in international relations from the City College of New York and her B.A. from New York University. She is originally from Cleveland, OH and is the proud daughter of immigrant parents.


Steve Vladeck | Professor at The University of Texas School of Law

Lunch & Discussion: Judicial Nominations in the Trump Era

Stephen I. Vladeck (@steve_vladeck) is the A. Dalton Cross Professor in Law at the University of Texas School of Law. His teaching and research focus on federal jurisdiction, constitutional law, national security law, and military justice. A nationally recognized expert on the role of the federal courts in the war on terrorism, Vladeck’s prolific and widely cited scholarship has appeared in an array of legal publications — including the Harvard Law Review and the Yale Law Journal — and his popular writing has been published in forums ranging from the New York Times to BuzzFeed.


Wendy Shang | Pretrial Justice Institute

Panel: Punishment Without Guilt

Breakout Session: People of Color in Public Interest

As the research and communications associate at Pretrial Justice Institute, Wendy Shang uses her legal and writing background to research and create reports, blogs, and other communications materials for a broad range of audiences. While working as an attorney for the American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, Wendy identified ways to improve access to counsel and the quality of representation of juveniles. She helped produce several reports, including “A Call for Justice: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings”; “More Than Meets the Eye: Rethinking Assessment, Competency and Sentencing for a Harsher Era of Juvenile Justice”; and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention bulletin “Innovative Approaches to Juvenile Indigent Defense.” Wendy is also an award-winning author of children’s books. She received a bachelor of arts in psychology and a juris doctor degree from the University of Virginia.