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New Leaders Council

Advisory Board

Dr. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, University of Nebraska Omaha

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado was named Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of Nebraska Omaha in October 2014. He is the chief student affairs officer with oversight of diversity, inclusion and equity issues on campus. This includes the divisions of veterans and military affairs, multicultural affairs, gender and sexuality resources. He has been instrumental in the creation of scholarship and pathway programs at UNO serving first–generation college students and other under-represented groups.

He is also a Professor of Political Science, with an emphasis on U.S. Foreign Policy, International Development and National Security. He was Treasurer of the American Political Science Association, served as the Interim Director for the UNO Office of Latino and Latin American Studies (OLLAS), and is a Faculty Associate with the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. He was the Director of the UNO Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence Program under the auspices of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado also serves on the Boards of the Nebraska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Chair), Humanities Nebraska (Treasurer), Project Harmony - Connections, the Salvation Army, and Film Streams in Omaha.

Since 1992, he has visited Cuba 31 times for field research on energy and economic development and has conducted interviews with a number of senior government officials in Cuba’s energy and related agencies. He has served as a technical advisor to a number of US delegations to Cuba and Latin America on energy development, national security and strategic (nonproliferation) trade issues and regularly speaks on these issues in Washington, D.C. and across the nation. He is a Senior Economic Energy Advisor with Give Global Energy. He has published numerous articles, monographs and commentaries on these subjects in newspapers, scholarly and policy journals including the Journal of Political Science Education, The Political Science Quarterly, The Nonproliferation Review, Cuba in Transition, and Yaderni Kontrol (Russia). In 2012, he edited Cuba’s Energy Future: Strategic Approaches to Cooperation with the Brookings Institution Press. He is also the author of Power to the People: Energy and the Cuban Nuclear Program (Routledge, Inc.,
2000). A native of California, He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 1997, and M.A. from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) at Monterey in 1992. He also attended University of California Santa Barbara, UCLA, and Harvard University.

Shelley Henderson

Diversity & Inclusion Manager, FIRST

Shelley Henderson is the Diversity & Inclusion Manager for FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology—a global New Hampshire-based nonprofit that offers accessible, innovative programs to motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills. She leads its STEM equity initiative to design and implement strategies that will not only improve the diversity of K-12 program participation but will also embed inclusion within the FIRST organization and field implementation. Shelley has defined and prioritized underrepresented and underserved populations to design laser-focused strategies aligned with metrics for optimal impact. A thought leader in this space, Shelley is a nationally-sought speaker and contributes to Education World, Scholastic and the FIRST Inspire blogs. 

She recently delivered a TEDx Talk called “Is Schooling a Mechanism for Racial Control?”—the story of one minoritized girl educated in the Midwest in the 1970s, the story of a teacher, the story of a mommy, and the story of a social impact leader. Equipping adults to address inequity and advance social justice has always been a priority throughout her professional journey. Shelley has spent over 20 years working as a youth development specialist, certified teacher, nonprofit executive, university program coordinator, community organizer, public policy advocate and volunteer for a number of organizations and initiatives locally and nationally. Because of her commitment to empowering a critical mass of equity-focused change agents, any given semester she is teaching adjunct courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Nebraska Methodist College ensuring that pre-service teachers and health care practitioners are culturally responsive and can create equity.

Shelley earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education and her Master’s Degree in Educational Administration and Supervision of Secondary Schools from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is a student in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Education Policy, Organization & Leadership Department’s Doctor of Education program studying Diversity & Equity in Education with an emphasis in Human Resource Development.

She and her husband Rodney (a police officer) live in Omaha, Nebraska with their five children and two dogs. She spends too much time on social media--sharing professional resources, social justice rants and her personal journey. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Ask her what she’s reading if you come in contact with Shelley as she is an avid reader as well. ​

Senator Sara Howard

Nebraska State Senator, Legislative District 9 & attorney

Sara Howard was born and raised in District 9. She attended public and parochial schools, graduating from Duchesne Academy. After getting her undergraduate degree from Smith College, she received her law degree from Loyola University-Chicago School of Law, with specialty certificates in Tax Law and Child/Family Law.

Sara is a member of several civic organizations including the League of Women Voters. She volunteers for the Friends of the Omaha Public Library, Film Streams Ruth Sokolof Theatre and the Joslyn Castle Trust. Additionally, Sara serves on a number of professional boards, including Omaha Public Schools Foundation, National Conference of State Legislatures, New Leaders Council Omaha Advisory Board, CHI Health Metro Community Board, the UNO-UNMC Transition Advisory Council, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Child Health Research Institute Advisory Board and the Bowhay Institute for Legislative Leadership Development. Sara is a co-chair of the 2019 Heat the Streets Run/Walk. 

Senator Howard was elected to serve in the Nebraska Legislature representing District 9 on November 6, 2012 with 66% of the vote and re-elected in 2016 with 80% of the vote. Sara is committed to protecting Nebraska's working families, seniors and our children. Sara is a devoted cat owner to Murray and Waffles and she enjoys crafting, letterpress, cooking, and spending time with her husband, Doug Schroder.


Senator Mike McDonnell

Nebraska State Senator, Legislative District 5 & President, Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

Mike McDonnell is a second-generation Omaha firefighter who understands and promotes public safety. He served as a firefighter with the Omaha Fire Department for 24 years as well as six years as Fire Chief for the City of Omaha. He was the President of the Omaha Fire Union, International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 385, for 10 years. Mike also served as President of the Nebraska Professional Firefighters for four years. In 2007, Mike became the President Emeritus of the Omaha Firefighters' Local 385. Mike is the second of only two individuals with such status in the history of Local 385. In 2015, Mike received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Mike has a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Bellevue University, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and an Associate Degree in Fire Protection Technology from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Mike previously taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies for three years as a Labor Educator.

Currently, Mike is serving as the President of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Mike also serves the State of Nebraska as a state senator, elected in 2016. He represents South Omaha's District 5 and serves on the Appropriations Committee.

A native of Omaha, Mike resides in Omaha with his wife, Amy, and his son, Ryan.

Dr. Palma Strand

Professor, Creighton Graduate School

Palma Strand is Professor of Law in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NCR) Program in Creighton University’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.  Before joining the NCR faculty, she was a Professor at the Creighton School of Law and taught at Georgetown University, where she was a Hewlett Fellow, and the University of Maryland.

Strand began her legal career clerking for Judge J. Skelly Wright on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Justice Byron R. White on the United States Supreme Court. Since then, she has combined her academic work with community engagement.  She was Co-Founder and Principal of The Arlington Forum, a civic organizing initiative based in Arlington, Virginia. She also co-founded Challenging Racism Through Stories and Conversation, also based in Arlington, Virginia.  She is currently Co-Founder and Research Director of Civity, a national non-profit that supports individuals and communities in building authentic relationships across social differences. Her research and teaching focus on the nexus of legal structures, culture, and equity.

Strand is Director of Creighton’s 2040 Initiative, which facilitates exploration of and conversation about the ways in which changing demographics are affecting current law and politics.  She is Affiliated Faculty at Stanford University's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and she has served as Chair of the University Network for Collaborative Governance.  She has a J.D. from Stanford Law School and an LL.M. from the Georgetown University Law Center.

Senator Tony Vargas

Nebraska State Senator, Legislative District 7 & Director of Marketing and Communications, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance

Tony Vargas has devoted his career to public service and advocacy. Currently a member of the Nebraska Legislature representing District 7, he serves more than 40,000 downtown and South Omahans. Vargas is also a former member of the Omaha Public Schools Board, where he was an advocate for closing the achievement gap, addressing systemic inequities, and for increasing parent and community engagement.

Vargas's experience growing up in New York City as the son of Peruvian immigrants who worked in manufacturing shaped his perspectives on jobs, education, and opportunity. Because of these experiences, Tony has always stood up for working families and fought to protect the American Dream.

Tony began his career as a public school teacher in New York City, where he was named “Most Outstanding Teacher” by the New York City Council in 2008 and “Teacher of the Year” by the local Lions Club.  Vargas went on to become an instructional and leadership development coach and serve on the New York State Board of Education Professional Teacher Standards and Practices Board before moving to Nebraska with his wife, Lauren Micek Vargas.

Vargas is the Director of Marketing and Communications for Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance and is also proud to have served as a founding board member for New Leaders Council-Omaha. A first generation college student, Tony earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at University of Rochester and a Masters in Education at Pace University. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Little Italy neighborhood of South Omaha and are proud Catholic parishioners of St. Frances Cabrini Church.

Dr. Katie Weitz

Executive Director, The Weitz Family Foundation

This is Dr. Weitz’s third year at the helm of the foundation bearing her family name.  The Weitz Family Foundation has an annual giving budget of over $15 million across the Omaha area. The focus of the foundation is to break the cycle of poverty, develop servant leaders, seek justice and peaceful solutions to our community’s ills.  

Katie received her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College, Northfield MN, in political science and a Master’s degree from DePaul in education, as well as one from Northwestern University from the School of Education and Social Policy. She received a Doctorate degree from Northwestern University in Human Development and Social Policy.

Katie is actively involved as a board member of many charitable organizations throughout the community including Omaha Community Foundation, College of St. Mary, Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Voices for Children and Nebraska Civic Engagement Table.  Nationally, she serves as a trustee for the United States Artists, and serves as an advisor for the DePaul College of Education.


Patty Zeig

Democratic National Committee Woman & Attorney

Patricia “Patty” Zieg is an attorney who focuses on health care law and Indian law.  While listed as one of the best health care lawyers in America in several publications, she believes that one of the best moments of her practice was in March 2016 when her team won Nebraska et al vs. Parker et al, for the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska in the United States Supreme Court.

Electoral politics is another passion and Patty is the Nebraska Democratic National Committeewoman and the Secretary of the Midwest Caucus of the Democratic National Committee. (“DNC”) In these roles, she hopes to convince the DNC that “the Midwest is not the problem, it is the solution.”  

Patty serves on the Board of Directors of Nebraska Appleseed Law in the Public Interest and Community Alliance, both 501 (c) (3) entities.


*Please note, political affiliations are listed for biographical purposes only 

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