Meet the 2017 Victory Empowerment Fellows

The Victory Institute is proud to announce the 2017 Victory Empowerment Fellows. These 12 individuals are change-makers who are destined to lead the LGBTQ community as public officials and political operatives.

Since the Victory Empowerment Fellowship was launched in 2015, we’ve helped 20 LGBTQ leaders expand their skill sets and cultivate invaluable relationships. These individuals have taken the tools obtained through the program back to their communities and they’re currently working to change the current landscape of LGBTQ inequality. Phillipe Cunningham, ’15, Andrea Jenkins, ’16, and Lisa Middleton, ’16, are currently running for city council in Minneapolis and Palm Springs respectively. Whether it’s running for office, working in local and city government, developing civil society organizations, or leading in the private sector – the alumni of the Victory Empowerment Fellowship are leading the fight for LGBTQ equality.

As participants in the Victory Empowerment Fellowship, the 2017 cohort will attend Victory’s Candidate & Campaign Training, the 2017 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, and will work with 2 mentors who will guide them in their path to Victory.

Vangie Castro

Vangie Castro is the Education Program Manager at the Diversity Council and has lived in Rochester, Minnesota for eight years. They grew up in Hayward, California. Vangie has an Associate’s degree in liberal arts from Chabot Community College and Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from California State University, East Bay. They are completing their Master’s in Public Administration at the University of San Francisco through an online program. They were the Board Chairperson for Gay, Lesbian Community Services of Southeast, Minnesota from 2011-2013, and a member of Governor Dayton’s Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying, from 2012-2014.


Alex Deering

Alex Deering is a community leader who has dedicated his life to community empowerment, economic development and innovative education initiatives. He has a passion to change the face of leadership across the country and become a voice for others. Born in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, Alex moved to Philadelphia with a vision to move the city forward, not as individuals, but as a community with a unified plan for a better tomorrow. He was voted in as the Democratic Committeeman on the 6th Division, 16th Ward in Philadelphia, PA.


Shanta Franco-Clausen

Shanta is a mother, community healer, change-maker, nonprofit founder, advocate and wife where she finds ways to serve as a voice for those who can’t. She serves on the SCC Status of Women and Human Trafficking Commissions, NorCal Representative ACCW, President of the SV African American Democratic Coalition, BAYME and many other boards and committees – fighting for socioeconomic, racial, and gender equity throughout the Bay Area and taking her rightful seat at the decision-making table.


Charon Gaskins

Charon is a labor organizer who was born and raised in the south. She is currently organizing with Fight for 15, an international movement in over 300 cities and on six continents. The coalition consists of fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees and underpaid workers everywhere. She is also a board member with Atlanta Jobs with Justice, an organization which is dedicated to fighting for the right to organize, defend public services, protect workers’ rights, and enact progressive legislation.

Octavia Lewis

Octavia is an activist, advocate, mother and scholar. She works at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center in the Department of Family Medicine as a Project Manager. She holds an Associate Degree from Atlanta Metropolitan College, a Bachelor’s Degree from Georgia Gwinnett College, a Masters from Keller Graduate School of Management/DeVry University, and is a Doctoral Candidate at Walden University. She is focused on her professional development through scholarly practice and engagement with industry leaders who are willing to not only address the disparities of the disenfranchised and impoverished but are willing to allow them a space to create solutions toward sustainability.


Brian Garcia

Brian, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, began his political involvement during Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema’s first run in 2012 – later serving as the Outreach Coordinator for her office. Brian holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Global Studies from Arizona State University. Recently, he completed a Master’s of Legal Studies from Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He worked and studied in London, Paris, Milan, and Cuba. Brian is a Child Advocate for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and an AVID Facilitator with the Tempe Union High School District. He represented Arizona at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and was the Political Co-Chair for HRC-AZ.


Eric Paulk

Eric is an advocate focused on Black LGBTQ communities. He is the Tyron Garner Fellow at Lambda Legal where his advocacy and policy work are focused on advancing a racial justice lens for the LGBTQ and HIV movements. Eric has a deep commitment to educational justice, and in 2012, was selected as a Semifinalist for the Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellowship. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and Pace Law School. Eric served on the Advisory Board of the Counter Narrative Project and is a member of the Southern HIV Decriminalization Network.


Marissa Moore

Marissa is a homegrown LGBTQ advocate and communications specialist from Indianapolis. Passionate about community building and grassroot initiatives she studied Urban Planning and Development at Ball State University’s College of Architecture & Planning. In addition to her studies, Marissa has volunteered with LGBTQ organizations conducting outreach and participating in advocacy campaigns. Marissa specializes in communications and media for non-profit organizations. She hopes to build non-profit power to activate political change through the agency of people power.


Andrew Demirchyan

Andrew is a civic minded progressive advocate, passionate about housing, immigration, education and infrastructure. A champion of peoples’ unlimited potential, he uses constructive dialogue as a means of bringing people together. No stranger to overcoming obstacles, Andrew is the first in his immigrant family to successfully obtain a degree in higher education. His many paths exposed him to real estate, law, and politics, leading to the Obama White House. While there, Andrew vetted presidential appointees on national security matters, and served as the Deputy White House Liaison for HUD. Andrew currently practices law in San Francisco and is an active community organizer.


Rehana Mohammed

Rehana is a passionate public servant, interested in the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. Rehana currently serves as a policy analyst at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), focusing on financial data and transparency. She is on the board of OMB’s LGBTQ employee resource group. Rehana earned her MS in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University and her BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife and their two cats.


Vernetta Alston

Vernetta is a Durham, North Carolina native who is eager to bring progressive leadership to Durham’s City Council. Vernetta received her law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 2009 and her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from NC State in 2004. Vernetta is committed to progressive values that matter to her community and hopes to bring that commitment and action to her hometown.


Elias Rojas

Elias Rojas is a communication and marketing professional who founded and owns a digital marketing firm in Anchorage, Alaska. Beyond his professional career, he has worked as a community organizer across the country building an extensive background in issue-based campaigns, coalition building, public relations, and all forms of media communications. Elias has been involved in politics and progressive causes for over two decades. He currently serves as the board president of Alaskans Together For Equality, Alaska’s statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, is a board member of the Pride Foundation, and is the Democratic Party LGBTQ+ Caucus chair. He earned a Master’s in Business Administration from Alaska Pacific University.

Fellows & Interns