Our Team.


Verneé Green

Chief Executive Officer

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Fun Fact: Verneé loves musicals! In fact, when she was a high school junior, she played Sandy in her school’s production of “Grease.”

Verneé joined Mikva Challenge in April 2018. Verneé Green has over 25 years of experience in the education and nonprofit sectors, including three years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, joining Mikva Challenge three years ago as the Chief Program Officer. She most recently served as Executive Director of Mikva’s Illinois chapter. She’s excited to be in this role to advance Mikva’s mission to help youth develop civic knowledge, leadership skills, and transform their engagement in the political process. Verneé holds a Bachelor’s degree from Illinois Wesleyan University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. At the University of Chicago, she was a recipient of the McCormick-Tribune Fellowship in Urban and Community Leadership. Verneé is a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago and Allstate’s Executive Leadership Program.

Jill Bass

Chief Education Officer

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Fun Fact: Jill can sing a mean karaoke.

Jill taught in Chicago and New York City public schools for 13 years and was a Mikva teacher for much of that time. She has a Masters in Instructional Leadership from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been a professional developer, curriculum writer, educational consultant, and instructional coach. At Mikva, Jill is part of the national team, overseeing partner sites, curriculum development, and teacher professional learning.

Robyn Lingo

Chief of Strategy & Impact

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Fun Fact: Robyn loves eating at roadside diners, mostly because of the pie!

Robyn brings almost fifteen years of youth empowerment, non-profit management, curriculum development and youth facilitation experience to her role as Executive Director for Mikva Challenge DC. A native of the Washington, DC area, Robyn is passionate about providing authentic spaces for DC youth to investigate, affect and change the world around them. She looks forward to building more opportunities to bring youth voice into local decision making and to highlight young people’s ability to be engaged citizens and community leaders.

Voncia Monchais

Managing Director of DC Programs

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Fun Fact: Voncia loves to bring the fun and joy wherever she goes! Her most joyful moments are having impromptu dance parties in her living room with her two energetic kiddos and hilarious hubby.

Raised by civil rights activists, this Texas native has always been passionate about social justice, equal opportunity, and empowerment of those on the margin. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in Political Science and African American studies, Voncia began her empowerment work as a high school AP Government and African American history teacher for 8 years in Miami. After obtaining her Masters degree in American History, her desire for inspiring young activists in a more impactful and creative way brought her to Washington DC into the nonprofit youth advocacy world in 2013, where she spent 6 years (with The Future Project) as a creative educator outside of the classroom, Dream Director, life coach, master trainer, and designer and facilitator of transformational experiences – all in service of empowering young people to make a difference in their lives and world by living out their purpose, passion, and power. Prior to being selected as Managing Director of Programs for Mikva DC, Voncia served as Mikva’s Youth Engagement Director in the nation’s capital, igniting the spark of activism in young people across the city!

Linda Platt

Chief Advancement Officer

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Fun Fact: Linda caught the pickleball bug during the pandemic and looks forward to playing as much as she can. She's always up for a game!

Linda serves as Chief Advancement Officer, overseeing efforts to promote and expand Mikva Challenge’s transformational work with schools and communities across the country. She also supervises development and communications outreach to supporters, stakeholders, and investors, ensuring the nationwide impact of Mikva Challenge programming is shared widely with all audiences. 

Linda has 30 years of experience in strategic leadership and fund development. Most recently she served as Chief Philanthropy Officer at Compassion & Choices. She has also managed development initiatives at organizations including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, University of Maryland College Park, and the Jewish Social Service Agency

Carla Rubalcava

Managing Director of Illinois Programs

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As Managing Director of Illinois Programs, Carla sets the vision and direction for Mikva Illinois’ youth-facing programs, elevates the work of the youth program facilitators, and oversees Mikva’s school-based classroom initiatives.

Before joining Mikva Challenge, Carla served as the Director of Enrollment Management at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. As an administrator, she led a college-wide committee that designed an overarching framework for student recruitment and established goal-specific strategies for the college’s strategic 3-year enrollment plan.

Carla began her career as resource coordinator in a CPS elementary school on the city’s northwest side. She then joined the Association for Child Development as the Director of Nutrition Services. Afterwards, she spent the next six years working at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) and Holy Trinity High School, focusing on community engagement and student recruitment initiatives.

Carla earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana.  In addition to her work at Mikva Challenge, Carla serves on the associate board of Erie Family Health Centers. She loves spending time exploring the city with her husband and two sons.


Fatima Afzal

C3 Manager

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Fun Fact: Fatima's favorite activities when she's not working are eating delicious food and desserts, vibing in nature, enjoying the fresh air, watching sunsets, and eating more desserts. She's also a comedy connoisseur! In her wildest dreams, she'd be the next Aparna Nancherla.

Fatima is Mikva Challenge’s C3 (College, Career, and Civic Connections) Manager. In her role, she supports students in their summer programs here at Mikva, encouraging them to apply their change-making skills to get where they want to be in the future, beyond high school. She also supports the incredible Mikva alumni network in staying connected and is actively supportive in encouraging future Mikva cohorts. Fatima found her passion early in working with young people and supporting them in finding and using their civic voices. She’s pretty sure she inherited it from her dad, who was a teacher and studied Political Science back home in Pakistan. She has her BA in Teaching of History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and spent 4 years teaching young people of all different ages and abilities across the Chicagoland area and western suburbs. Three of the four years, she spent teaching Civics and I.B. U.S. History, learning from some of the greatest mentors, and growing professionally, as well as personally, before joining Mikva Challenge. Ram Dass’ quote “we’re all just walking each other home” inspires Fatima personally and professionally to be her best self because we heal in community.

Karla Morin Castilla

Partner Site Director, Delaware

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Fun Fact: At the age of 7, Karla was already lobbying with her mom for bilingual education.

Karla’s passion for social justice and youth voice began when as a teen she met with her alderman to express the need for affordable housing in her quickly changing neighborhood and was part of a group of young people fighting for passage of the Dream Act. At Mikva National, Karla runs the Wilmington, DE partner site. She hopes to create a space where young people know their voice matters and leave feeling empowered.

Kayla Cruz

National Program Administrative Manager

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Fun Fact: Kayla is a sucker for all things medieval fantasy.

As an inner-city kid and the eldest of seven, Kayla developed a passion for positive youth development at a young age. Prior to Mikva, she spent several years working with youth through various educational programs and was also involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for which she became a trained support group facilitator. Kayla holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her role as National Program Administrative Manager, she provides administrative oversight and project support to the National team.

James Fields

Senior Director of Youth Councils

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Fun Fact: James has his own back to school event that helps distribute backpacks and school supplies to kids in his neighborhood.

James is a Mikva alumnus and is extremely passionate about sharing his life experiences to empower young men and women. He started working with young people in his high schools years through a basketball coaching program and has since expanded on his youth work portfolio by being a coach and a mentor at Windy City Hoops. At Mikva, he started out with facilitating the Peace and Leadership Council at Fenger and Hope high schools previously served as the Director for the Juvenile Justice Council. James now leads the Neighborhood Leadership Initiative (NLI), a program which he initiated. The NLI program brings Mikva’s youth-centered approach to community-based decision-making.

Meghan Goldenstein

Managing Director of People and Operations

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Fun Fact: Meghan loves photographing everything from the national parks to her friends’ and cousins’ kids.

Meghan came to Mikva in 2010 following previous work as a children’s librarian, a teacher, and a field organizer during the 2008 presidential campaign. Having been transformed by her own campaign experiences, she loves encouraging and empowering youth to become active participants in elections (much earlier than she did). As the Elections in Action program director, she works with Chicago area teachers and campaign staff to create opportunities for Mikva youth to gain hands-on experience with electoral politics.

Crystal Gordon

Citywide Youth Council Manager - DC

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Fun Fact: She enjoys traveling, history, museums, and making memories with family and friends! 

Crystal Gordon is a native Washingtonian, who has been in the educational arena for 13 years. She attended Benedict College in Columbia, SC and Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC.

Justine Hipsky

Institutional Giving Manager

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Fun Fact: Justine caught a ride in a flower delivery van when running late once. It was the second day of grad school.

With a background in the performing arts, political science, and education, Justine believes that a more just society will arrive when all people have equitable access to the political sphere. For this reason, she is interested in education equity, youth voice, civic engagement, and equitable access to the arts. Justine is a first-generation college student, and was first inspired by people power during her undergraduate studies when she worked with refugees on issues of border politics in Latin America. In her years as a US Government teacher in Washington, DC, her efforts revolved around teaching students to use their knowledge of history, civics, and personal life experience as tools for change. After joining Mikva Challenge in 2016, she spent five years managing DC’s Issues to Action programs and another year leading curriculum research for Mikva’s middle-school argumentative writing work. Now, she is thrilled to use her love for storytelling to continue supporting Mikva Challenge’s mission through grantmaking! Justine is an alumna of the University of Florida, and holds degrees in both Political Science and Secondary Social Studies Education.

Riyan Jones

Citywide Youth Council Manager, Illinois

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Machee Kelly

Communications Manager

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Fun Fact: Machee enjoys creating art and event planning in her spare time, especially kids birthday parties.

Machee is a native Washingtonian who both graduated from and worked for DC Public Schools. For five years she worked with students with special needs as well as at risk youth. During that time, she developed a love for helping young people discover their individual passions. While Machee’s professional experience is in education, she pursued Fine Art and Graphic Design in college. Oftentimes she used art as a liaison to keep students motivated. During summer she’s taught art and design classes to children in local summer programs. With her background in youth, art, and education, Machee is enthused to contribute her experience and skills to take the Mikva DC team to new heights.

Lori Kessler

Finance Manager

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Fun Fact: Lori comes from a musical family and plays the guitar (although not terribly well). She knows the chords to 19 Taylor Swift songs!

Lori joined the Mikva Challenge team after a decade working in operations and finance with advocacy and civic engagement organizations in Seattle. She is from the Chicago area originally, and is excited to be back in Chicago to work with Mikva Challenge. She holds a BA in international studies from American University, where she focused on the Middle East and Islamic Studies, and a certificate in Nonprofit Management from the University of Washington. During her undergraduate studies, she spent a semester abroad studying Arabic language and culture in Cairo.

Gabrielle Lamplugh

Communications Director

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Fun Fact: Gabrielle loves camping & hiking - her favorite trip so far has been to Denali National Park in Alaska.

Gabrielle joined the team as Communications Director in the fall of 2021. Before her time at Mikva, she served as Education Director at the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Alabama, where she developed programming that engaged students, teachers, and communities in deliberative dialogue and place-based civic learning. She is a two-time graduate of Auburn University (War Eagle!) where she studies English and Community and Civic Engagement before earning her Master’s in Communication.

Elly Leman

Director of Institutional and Corporate Giving

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Fun Fact: Elly loves reading sci-fi, and writing fiction and poetry. She also makes jewelry in her spare time!

Elly joined Mikva Challenge in 2022 as the Director of Institutional and Corporate Giving. Elly has a bachelors in Urban Planning from Bryn Mawr College and a masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago. She is also a proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools, and a current Local School Council member. Elly brings more than a decade of experience in education and youth development, as well grantmaking and national program management.

Amanda Maguire

Partner Site Director, New Hampshire

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Fun Fact: Amanda often drives to Cambridge Mass to attend public lectures at Harvard and MIT for fun.

Amanda is a (nearly) lifelong resident of New Hampshire and comes to Mikva with a background in Social Studies Education. After graduating from Plymouth State University, Amanda taught high school social studies in her hometown for four years before moving on to an alternative high school teaching at-risk youth and later becoming Assistant Director. Passionate about providing opportunities to the students in her community, Amanda started a non-profit afterschool program specifically for teenaged youth. As a teacher, her favorite lessons included teaching kids about their rights and tracing root causes of current issues. Amanda is equally passionate about science and combining humanities and science education.

Mark Muniz

Data & Stewardship Manager

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Fun Fact: Mark earned his first driver's license driving on the left side of the road, in Japan

Mark joined Mikva Challenge in 2018 as its data and stewardship coordinator, after several years in the nonprofit sector. As an Air Force ‘brat,’ Mark moved between several states and countries for most of his life before moving to the Midwest for college. After graduating from Knox College with a degree in International Relations, Mark spent 2 years of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, at locations in Galesburg, IL and Chicago, IL. During that time he gained experience organizing student interest groups, building and running volunteer service programs, implementing systems change, and leveraging data. Mark is passionate about civic engagement and he is excited to continue learning more about and getting more involved in Chicago and the work at Mikva Challenge.

Cristina Perez

Senior Director of Partner Sites

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Fun Fact: Cristina is a biking enthusiast. She's won a prize in an alleycat bike race, participated in the Chicago Sprint Triathlon, was featured in WBEZ's Curious City radio show regarding her question about bikes, and biked in NYC into her 8th month of pregnancy.

In 2009, Cristina joined Mikva Challenge supporting teachers in the Elections in Action program and facilitating Mikva Summer Fellows program. Now on the National team, she directs Mikva Challenge’s work in NYC and supports our partnership with NYCDOE’s Civics for All Initiative. Cristina holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy and a master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago.

Maddie Poole

Citywide Youth Council Manager, Illinois

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Fun Fact: Maddie was really into unicycling in middle school.

Maddie was born and raised on the Southwest side of Chicago and is an alumnus of the Chicago Public Schools Student Advisory Council (SAC) at Mikva Challenge. Maddie first became passionate about youth advocacy and educational policy during her time at Mikva and through her career and technical education she received at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. She received a Bachelors of Science in Crop Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Masters in Teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education.
Previous to joining the Mikva team, Maddie spent two years within Chicago Public Schools as a middle school teacher and completed fellowships at Chicago Public Schools’ Central Office, Leadership for Educational Equity, and the United States Department of Agriculture. It was her time in the classroom, specifically as a student voice program facilitator and civics educator that further solidified her passion for elevating youth voice in the civic arena.

Ken Porter

Partner Site Director, Rochester, NY & Jefferson County, KY

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Fun Fact: Ken builds and salvages computers in his spare time.

Ken comes to Mikva Challenge with a convergent media background and has served over seven years in the Navy as a Logistics Specialist. He’s an alumnus of the Democracy in Action curriculum and helped win a grant for an anti-violence campaign at his school. Ken cares most about issues facing low-income communities, and has participated in community campaigns that have targeted education issues, the environment, and housing. He now runs the Rochester, NY partner site.

Amari Roberts

Neighborhood Leadership Initiative Coordinator

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Fun Fact: I love to create in different forms of media, especially digital media. I also enjoy reading Urban Fiction. I can read an entire book in as short as two days!

Amari has been a part of Mikva Challenge’s community for almost four years now! In high school, she was a participant in the Chicago Housing Authority Council and a Mikva Summer Fellow. Most recently she served as an intern/support staff on the NLI Team. Through the role she had the opportunity to build great relationships with young people across all three councils: North Lawndale, New City/Back of the Yards, and Gage Park.

As the NLI Council Lead, Amari is looking forward to continuing to work with amazing young people and uplift their voices. Very soon she will be receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in Human Development and Learning (HDL). As long as she can remember she has always been passionate about empowering, advocating, and supporting young people and she is looking forward to continuing to do so at Mikva Challenge.

Barbara Rykaczewski

Evaluations and Data Director

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Fun Fact: Barbara once interviewed one-on-one with Mayor Richard M. Daley for an open Aldermanic position.

Barbara joined the Chicago Mikva team in July 2019. She is deeply inspired by the work of Jane Addams, and joined AmeriCorps after college to carry on Addams’ work in the modern day. As an AmeriCorps VISTA, Barbara was stationed in the immigrant port of entry neighborhood in which she grew up. Her experiences there solidified her passion for striving for social justice, and recognizing the power of all voices in a community. To date, her nearly two-decade nonprofit career includes work with youth, immigrants, domestic violence survivors, job seekers, and mature workers, all of whom have stories and voices integral to the Chicago tapestry.

Mia Salamone

Partner Site Director, NYC

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Fun Fact: Mia can cut up a pineapple in less than a minute!

In 2013, Mia began her work at Mikva Challenge facilitating youth counsels and supporting teachers in Chicago. Now on the National Teacher Based Team, she partners with educators in New York City and facilitates Soapbox Nation. Mia holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and loves using her creativity to support young people, teachers and schools in creating opportunities for youth to take authentic, informed action on community issues.

Juleny Santa Cruz

Neighborhood Leadership Initiative Manager

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Fun Fact: Juleny speaks three languages and has visited eight countries (and counting).

Juleny joined Mikva Challenge in May 2018 as the Juvenile Justice Council Manager. She is born and raised in the southwest side of Chicago and began engaging in community work during high school. Juleny received her Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology from Loyola University Chicago and completed her Master of Education degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Cook County Probation Department and the Juvenile Intervention and Support Center. Juleny’s excited to support young people in their growth and development as catalysts for equitable change.

Leah Brown Schneck

Elections in Action Manager

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Fun Fact: As a member of her high school choir, Leah was an extra on the NBC drama, "Crisis."

Leah is a Mikva Challenge and Chicago Public Schools alum. She was a student organizer in college and built her skills on various local electoral campaigns before successfully managing a competitive state house race in 2020. She is thrilled to rejoin Mikva Challenge as the Elections in Action Manager, supporting elections work in IL, nationally, and leading special projects. Leah has also worked in youth development, mentorship, and career coaching.

Nikki Williams

Senior Director of Professional Learning and Partnerships

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Nikki is a 17-year teaching veteran with a dual Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Secondary Education. She has spoken at conferences all over the U.S. on culturally responsive pedagogy, classroom management, program development, and engaging classroom practices that increase academic achievement. She is also a wife and mom to two amazing kids.

While the majority of her time has been spent in the classroom, she also founded a nonprofit organization focusing on the social-emotional wellbeing of girls in underserved areas. Her teaching experiences span across every school setting and demographic; from private school to urban school districts. Her expertise aligns with inquiry-based learning and culturally responsive pedagogy that reflects academic achievement, community building, and real-world learning.

Lexii Wilson

Citywide Youth Council Manager, DC

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Fun Fact: Lexii is short for Alexiya!

Lexii loves to travel in her free time and tries to visit at least two countries a year! In addition to being in the education field for six years, Lexii also coaches gymnastics and competitive cheer and enjoys helping children grow and reach their maximum capacities in all aspects of life! Born and raised in Washington, DC, Lexii finds every opportunity to give back to the DC community.