Southern California Office

Alex Johnson, Executive Director
(213) 355-8787

Alex Johnson is the Executive Director for the Children's Defense Fund-California. In this capacity he leads the organizations statewide advocacy, policy, program and organizing efforts to ensure access to quality affordable health coverage and care for children and low income families, reforming the juvenile justice system, promoting educational equity, and ending child poverty.

Prior to assuming this position, Alex served as Assistant Senior Deputy for Education and Public Safety to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, he is the product of Los Angeles public schools and the son of a retired LAUSD teacher and a retired truck driver. Alex has worked collaboratively with education advocates to increase access to quality early childhood education programs. His work has focused on altering the social dynamic that begins with a student's poor education in childhood, progresses to a high dropout rate during high school and ends with a young person's future irrevocably altered by crime, conviction and incarceration. To change that social dynamic, particularly for young men of color, Alex led the effort to create the first-ever Children Defense Fund Freedom Schools in a California youth probation camp.

Prior to his work in Los Angeles County, Alex worked with school instructional leaders in the New York City Department of Education. He assessed teachers' instructional strengths and provided professional support to teachers to aid their classroom effectiveness. In addition, he provided counsel to school leaders and departmental executives as well as managed complex civil litigation, policy matters and special disciplinary proceedings as part of a teacher quality initiative. He earned a substitute teacher's license and taught constitutional law and civics to high school students as a Fellow with the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project. Additionally, Alex served as an adjunct lecturer at Lehman College, one of 23-colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, he advocated on behalf of indigent defendants at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Alex began his public service experience as an intern in the offices of U.S. Representatives Julian Dixon and Juanita Millender-McDonald. He served as an aide to Georgia State Representative Douglas C. Dean and as a project manager for the 2000 Democratic National Convention Committee in Los Angeles.

Alex worked for the late noted attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a tireless advocate for justice on behalf of people in underserved and underrepresented communities. Alex continued in the tradition of Johnnie Cochran as an Assistant District Attorney in Bronx, New York where he advocated for victims of domestic violence and sought to protect them by helping them secure safe housing and mental health services.

Alex is a graduate of Morehouse College where he earned his Bachelor's degree in Political Science (cum laude). He earned his Juris Doctor from American University, Washington College of Law.

Alex is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the California Alliance for Arts Education and the Wiley Center for Speech and Language Development. He formerly served on the Board of the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Alex sits on the selection committee for the Children's Defense Fund's Beat the Odds® scholarship program.

Alex is the author of Beyond Higher Education: The Need for African-Americans to be "Knowledge Producers."

Saira G. Soto, Program Director
(213) 355-8793

Saira G. Soto is the Program Director for the Children's Defense Fund- California. Saira leads the development, implementation, and expansion of CDF-CA programs for children and youth, including the Beat the Odds® scholarship program, the Young Adult Leadership Training® program, and the CDF Freedom Schools® program.

Saira has a strong background in environmental, labor, and social justice advocacy. She began her career studying clean water access and its impact on the health of migrant farm worker communities. She was compelled to join the labor movement after witnessing the harsh working conditions and constant workers' rights violations suffered by this community. For seven years before joining CDF-CA, Saira was the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, where she fought alongside public service providers and advocates for the preservation of public service programs for at-risk communities. In her current role as Programs Director, Saira is committed to training children and youth to be the next generation of leaders, movement builders, and change makers. 

Saira was awarded the prestigious CDF Beat the Odds® scholarship in 2003, and later earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental Systems-Environmental Chemistry from the University of California, San Diego. She is native of Durango, Mexico and East Los Angeles, and draws inspiration for her work from the many individuals who mentored her in her youth.

Karen E. Frison, National Project Coordinator
(213) 225–8503

Karen E. Frison is the National Project Coordinator for the Children’s Defense Fund. Based out of Los Angeles, Karen works with school districts in California and Texas to identify and enroll uninsured children in free and low cost health coverage programs. 

Karen brings to this position three decades of experience as a teacher and administrator for urban and suburban school districts in Illinois, Ohio, San Francisco, Oakland, West Contra Costa, San Diego and Pasadena. During her career as an educator, Karen worked to make sure her students were high achievers, career-ready, college-bound. She believes that prepared students are able to take advantage of the many opportunities afforded to individuals in this country. She sees health care coverage, for children as both an opportunity and a right. Every child should have access to affordable, comprehensive and stream-lined health and mental health coverage.  

Karen has a Masters of Education in Guidance and Counseling from Miami University and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary and Special Education from the University of Dayton, Ohio. Additionally, she has completed doctoral coursework in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. Karen lives in Los Angeles. 

Michelle Newell, Senior Policy Associate
(213) 355-8790

Michelle Newell is a Senior Policy Associate for the Children’s Defense Fund's Los Angeles office. Through her policy and advocacy work, Michelle specializes in education and juvenile justice reform, and particularly the overlap in the two fields. Michelle uses research, policy analysis and coalition work to advocate for systemic reform that keeps youth out of the juvenile justice system whenever possible — particularly around ending punitive school policies that contribute to the school to prison pipeline — as well as works to reform the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles and California to ensure that we are providing rehabilitative environments that meet the needs of our youth.

Prior to working for CDF-CA, Michelle received her Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she wrote her master’s thesis on juvenile reentry in LA County for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Before receiving her graduate degree, Michelle worked to make our education system more equitable. She completed the Education Pioneers graduate fellowship, worked in research and evaluation for the Long Beach Unified School District, and taught fourth grade through Teach for America. Michelle received her B.A. in Political Science from UC Berkeley and lives in Los Angeles.

Angela M. Chung, Juvenile Justice Policy Associate
(213) 225-8505

Angela M. Chung, Esq., is a Policy Associate with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) – CA in Los Angeles. Angela focuses on juvenile justice reform in Los Angeles County — increasing alternatives to incarceration and promoting access to trauma-informed approaches to serving children & youth.

Prior to joining CDF-CA, Angela was a public defender with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, and previously worked at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), building a new program to provide direct legal services to US adults/minor survivors of human trafficking, as well as provide victim’s rights advocacy in state and federal courts. 

Angela is a graduate of the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy at UCLA School of Law. Before practicing public interest law and policy, Ms. Chung was a community organizer in Oakland and Los Angeles working to establish alternatives to criminal justice solutions to poverty and addressing racial and gender inequalities. 

Angélica Salazar, Senior Policy Associate

Angélica Salazar is a Senior Policy Associate in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Los Angeles office. Angie focuses on advocating for policies that benefit vulnerable children and youth, particularly system-involved youth, and helps move them toward a pathway of school success and productive adulthood.  Angie monitors and promotes reforms in national, state, and local education policies, especially at the intersection of juvenile justice and education.  

Angie previously worked at the Children’s Defense Fund’s headquarters in Washington DC and monitored federal legislation and national policies in juvenile justice. Prior to joining the Children’s Defense Fund, Angélica was a middle school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for three years, where she became committed to working to ensure public systems meet the needs of California’s children and youth.  Angie earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and urban policy and planning at the University of Southern California, master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola Marymount University, and master’s degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Lorena Sanchez, Health Program Coordinator

Lorena Sánchez is the Health Program Coordinator at the Children's Defense Fund's Los Angeles office. Lorena manages a school-based health outreach initiative in Los Angeles County that identifies uninsured students and links them with free and affordable health care insurance. She also supports the work of the 100% Campaign,  a children’s health coverage coalition working to ensure that all of California's children gain access to affordable, comprehensive health coverage.

Lorena has over eight years of experience in community relations, government affairs, and community organizing. Prior to joining CDF-CA, Lorena worked as a Senior Associate for Diverse Strategies for Organizing Inc. where she was the lead project manager of special projects for the Los Angeles Community College District, the City of Los Angeles, SEIU-UHW, the Nielsen Company, and PhRMA. Additionally, she served as Field Deputy for Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and also served as a student worker for retired State Senator Richard Polanco. Lorena has worked in various capacities at the City of Huntington Park's Community Planning Department, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, and for non-profit organizations serving low-income communities.

Lorena received a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from California State University, Los Angeles. She is a lifelong advocate of strong and healthy communities, and currently serves as a Board member for the South Central Family Health Center, the Huntington Park Family Health Center, and as a volunteer spinning instructor at her local YMCA. 

Omar Cardenas, Youth Organizer

Omar Cardenas is a Youth Organizer at the Children's Defense Fund - California's Los Angeles office. 

Omar has strong background in community organizing and is committed to empowering youth to improve their lives and neighborhoods. Prior to joining the Children's Defense Fund - California, he worked as case manager, family trainer, and youth mentor at schools and non-profits throughout the state, including Jack London Continuation High School, Computers for Youth, and Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. In each of these positions, Omar helped guide youth and families towards a positive self-image and self-efficacy by focusing on culturally relevant, critical conscious, self-reflective mentoring practices.

Omar earned a Bachelor's degree in Chicana and Chicano studies from California State University, Northridge and an Associate’s degree from San Joaquin Delta College. Omar was born and raised in Stockton, and credits his childhood experiences and older brother for inspiring him to devote his professional life to community improvement.

Michelle Jones, Youth Programs Coordinator
(213) 355-8788

Michelle Jones is the Youth Programs Coordinator in the Los Angeles office of the Children’s Defense Fund - California. Michelle coordinates the day-to-day operations of the CDF Beat the Odds® Scholarship program, including providing on-going life coaching and mentorship for scholarship honorees, organizing college and career readiness workshops and activities, identifying resources to help support students’ and their families, and facilitating the production of finalist documentaries. 

Michelle has a strong background in nonprofit counseling and youth-focused program development. Before joining CDF-CA, she spent over three years as a case manager and mental health specialist in Washington, D.C., where she provided preventative, intervention, and crisis counseling services to at-risk populations. Michelle has also successfully organized academic and community enrichment programs that help high school and college-aged youth harness the talent, skills and confidence necessary to realize their full potential and become healthy, productive adults.

Michelle holds a Bachelors of Early and Elementary Education from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Masters of Arts in Community Agency Counseling from Hampton University, where she studied the intersection of community agency and mental health. A native of Virginia, Michelle now lives in Los Angeles and is a committed advocate of living a healthy and active lifestyle.

Hanif Houston, Communications Associate

Hanif Houston is a communications associate for the Children’s Defense Fund's Los Angeles California office. Hanif coordinates media appearances, produces content for CDF-CA’s website, manages its social media platforms, and advises on Legislative communication strategy. 

Hanif has dedicated himself to a career in advocacy work for disadvantaged populations in California. Prior to joining CDF-CA, he worked in the California State Legislature as a press secretary, legislative specialist, and policy adviser for the Senate Committees on Education and Labor and Industrial Relations. In 2012, he developed and successfully negotiated through the Senate and Assembly two bills designed to improve the educational experiences of California's homeless youth and children in foster care; both bills were signed into law by Governor Brown. He has also taught at-risk youth in after-school programs, served as a panelist at college recruitment events for minority high school students, and written for progressive publications.

Hanif received his Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied perceptions of race in the turn-of-the-century American novel. Additionally, as a 2011-2012 Capital Fellow at the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, he has researched and written on a broad range of public policy topics, including K-12 education, child-welfare, public safety, revenue and taxation, and transportation.

Northern California Office

Alison Buist, Director of Health
(510) 663-3780

Alison Buist, Ph.D., is the Health Policy Director at the Children's Defense Fund, leading its efforts to give every child in America a Heathy Start in life, ensuring that all children can get and keep comprehensive, affordable health coverage and care. Alison is responsible for developing and implementing CDF's child health policy recommendations and serves as lead advocate for enhancing child health policy to elected officials and policymakers. After 9 years at CDF's headquarters in Washington D.C., Alison joined the CDF California team, where she continues her role as CDF's national director of child health and now also advocates for California children.

Prior to coming to CDF, Alison served as a staffer in the U.S. Senate on domestic and international health and social policy, worked on child health issues for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and taught health policy at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Alison has conducted research in areas such as health coverage for childhood asthma, and immunization rates within different health service delivery systems. She has also worked with health planners, both domestically and internationally, on priority setting and resource allocation within their health care systems.

Alison received her Ph.D. in health policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, her M.A. in health policy and development from Yale University and a B.A. in government from Pomona College. When she's not pursuing health and social justice for all children, she spends every minute with her own young children.

Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, Senior Policy and Communications Associate
(510) 663-1294

Michele Stillwell-Parvensky is a Senior Policy and Communications Associate in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Oakland office. Michele leads CDF-CA's End Child Poverty campaign and advocates to ensure that every child has access to quality health care and that California children are protected in the state budget. Michele also manages and directs strategy for CDF-CA’s communications efforts.

Prior to joining the Children's Defense Fund, Michele worked on advocacy and communications for Preschool California, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to quality early learning for California’s children.  Michele served as a Dukakis Fellow in Colorado Governor Bill’s Ritter’s office, where she worked closely on issues of homelessness and childhood hunger. Raised by community organizers in inner-city Denver, Michele is a lifelong social justice activist and an avid proponent of public schools.

Michele has a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. During her time at Harvard, Michele co-founded the Massachusetts Cradle to Prison Pipeline Coalition, which brought together community and policy leaders to focus on challenges facing at-risk children and youth, starting with reforming school discipline policies.

Kisha Jackson, Community Outreach Associate
(510) 663-2984

Kisha Jackson is a Community Outreach Associate based out of Children's Defense Fund - California's Oakland office. Kisha is responsible for developing and strengthening strategic relationships with key individuals, organizations, and target constituencies in Oakland and the surrounding communities to further the goals and activities of CDF-CA's policy and programmatic work. 

For the past 12 years, Kisha has worked for nonprofits in the Bay Area and Sacramento in a variety of functions, including serving as the Executive Manager of the California State Conference of the NAACP, where she managed civil rights issues with their 52 branches and 37 youth and college divisions. Kisha also has extensive experience in working with Food Banks. She managed projects for the California Association of Food Banks, the statewide trade association for California’s food banks, as well as oversaw agency services at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland.

Kisha attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA and is a California native. In addition to serving underserved populations, Kisha is passionate about the Oakland Raiders and has been a season ticket holder most of her life.

Janis Lambert Connallon, Policy Associate
(510) 663-3780

Janis Lambert Connallon is a Health Policy Associate in the Children’s Defense Fund’s Oakland office. Janis works to improve the health care delivery system for California’s most vulnerable children and coordinates CDF-CA’s work with the California children’s health coverage coalition. 

Prior to joining the Children’s Defense Fund, Janis worked to strengthen health care programs for children with special health care needs at the state and county-levels at the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. She also represented the interests of children with special health care needs in Washington DC for Family Voices. She was instrumental, along with other advocates, in securing the passage of the Family Opportunity Act in 2005.

Janis volunteers on the executive committee of the family partnerships network with American Academy of Pediatrics. She began her public health career working on state immunization campaigns with former first lady, Rosalyn Carter, and Senate spouse, Betty Bumpers.

Alex Puchniarz, Operations Assistant
(213) 355-8787

Alex Puchniarz is the Operations Assistant in the Los Angeles office of the Children's Defense Fund - California. Alex provides administrative, program and other support to the various initiatives of the office.

Alex brings to his position a deep passion for social justice and a strong background in office management and human resources. Prior to joining the Children's Defense Fund - California, Alex served in an administrative capacity at a wide range of non-profit and community-based organizations in Los Angeles, including Silverado Hospice and the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Alex is passionate about leveraging his networks and skills to advance opportunities for youth locally and statewide to access quality programs that promote educational and health equity today so they can succeed in the labor market of tomorrow.

Born and raised in Southern California, Alex studied at Pasadena City College before transitioning to California State University, Northridge where he majored in Sociology: Work and Society.