The Century Foundation (TCF), a leading progressive think tank, today announced the addition of six new hires, including experts Rebecca Vallas, Denise A. Smith, and Anna Bernstein, who will expand the 100-year-old organization’s work on economic justice, higher education, and health care equity, respectively. TCF also announced that Lisa Sahulka will take over the role of chief operating officer (COO), Juan Diego Mazuera Arias will support TCF’s growing government affairs program, and Rebekkah Boxt will join TCF’s development team.
“Over the last year, The Century Foundation’s incisive research and analysis has been critical to policymakers and advocates navigating uncertain policy terrain,” said Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation and a former senior staffer in Congress and the White House. “With these new hires, TCF’s dynamic team will gain more expertise and support to inform the key policy decisions that will shape our recovery from COVID-19 and advance a more equal and just country. I am thrilled to welcome them to our growing organization.”
Rebecca Vallas joins TCF as a senior fellow focusing on economic justice, adding her depth of expertise on poverty, the social safety net, and disability policy issues to TCF’s team of experts who are leading critical conversations on unemployment, job growth, child care, and other economic issues. She previously led the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress and spearheaded the organization’s efforts to protect the safety net throughout the bulk of the Trump presidency, working with partners across the country to safeguard SNAP, Medicaid, disability benefits, and other programs from proposed cuts, as well as to center the voices of directly affected communities.
Denise A. Smith will join TCF’s higher education team as a senior fellow, bringing her deep experience working with college campuses and student groups to TCF’s work on expanding college access, affordability, and accountability. She previously served as the director of student engagement and college activism at Truth Initiative, where she led their truth college student leadership programming. She has also worked with more than 200 colleges and universities, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), community colleges, and Women’s Colleges, providing technical assistance and strategic direction to achieve policy change.
In addition, Anna Bernstein joins TCF as a health care policy fellow and will focus on research and policy analysis that advances reproductive and maternal health, as well as equitable access to health care. She comes to TCF from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), where her research focused on the economics of reproductive health and expanding sexual and reproductive health care access for community college students.
“The country is at a moment of great challenge and opportunity to address long-standing inequities in health, economic security, and education,” Zuckerman said. “With these new hires on board, TCF will continue to help policymakers and advocates tackle the most complex policy questions we face.”
Full bios of the new hires are below
Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow, Economic Justice
Rebecca Vallas is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where her work focuses on economic justice. Vallas joins TCF after seven years at the Center for American Progress, during which she helped to build and lead CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program, in a range of roles, including as the program’s first policy director and managing director, and later as vice president. During her time at CAP, Vallas also helped to establish CAP’s Disability Justice Initiative—the first disability policy project at a U.S. think tank—as well as the organization’s criminal justice reform work.
Much of Vallas’s policy and advocacy work flows from her years as a legal aid lawyer. In partnership with her legal aid alma mater, she co-developed the “clean slate” model of automated, automatic criminal record-clearing that is now law in Pennsylvania, Utah, and Michigan and advancing in additional states—while advancing national momentum for removing barriers to economic opportunity for justice-impacted individuals and families. In 2019, she co-founded the Clean Slate Initiative, a national organization supporting state efforts to adopt clean slate policies.
Vallas previously served as the deputy director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, working to protect and strengthen the Social Security disability programs, including as co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Social Security Task Force. Forever a legal aid lawyer at heart, Vallas spent several years representing low-income individuals and families at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, where she began her work as a Skadden Fellow, and was the inaugural recipient of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s New Leaders in Advocacy Award.
Vallas has authored dozens of policy reports on antipoverty policy, income security, disability policy, access to justice, and criminal records/reentry policy; testified before Congress and state legislatures on numerous occasions; and been cited and quoted in media outlets across the country. She is also the creator and host of Off-Kilter, a nationally distributed podcast about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with. Vallas serves on the Board of Directors of the National Academy of Social Insurance and is a member of the Academy’s 2020–2021 Economic Security Study Panel. Vallas was twice named to Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” for law and policy, and later to Emory University’s “40 Under 40.” She received her law degree from the University of Virginia and graduated summa cum laude from Emory University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In a past life, she was an operatically trained mezzo soprano. She’s the proud mother of four rescue kitties.
Denise A. Smith, M.P.H., Senior Fellow, Higher Education
Denise A. Smith is a senior fellow, higher education at The Century Foundation. Prior to joining TCF, Smith was the director of student engagement and college activism at Truth Initiative. She oversaw the College Programs student engagement programming, which focuses on leadership development, advocacy, and mini-campaigns to colleges and universities across the country.
Smith has worked with more than 200 colleges and universities, including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), community colleges, and Women’s Colleges, providing technical assistance and strategic direction to achieve policy change. Additionally, she has worked with nonprofit partners to develop and implement grant programs for prevention, policy, and advocacy. She specializes in strategy development, policy solutions, partnerships, and stakeholder engagement.
With over a decade of experience working with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and higher education institutions, Smith has seen the positive change these institutions can make through community engagement. She has also witnessed that when given access to opportunity, students can achieve positive change when they are empowered through effective student engagement, mentorship, scholarships, and leadership development.
She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in higher education leadership and policy studies at Howard University, and is also the author of several op-ed articles in Diverse Issues in Higher Education about higher education, public health, and student advocacy. She received her master of public health degree from Morehouse School of Medicine and she received her bachelor’s from South Carolina State University and was recently recognized as a member of their inaugural 40 under 40 class.
Anna Bernstein, MPH, Health Care Policy Fellow
Anna Bernstein is the health care policy fellow at The Century Foundation. She brings a range of experience in public health, focusing on maternal and reproductive health. Bernstein comes to TCF from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, where she worked on projects related to the intersection of economics and reproductive health policy, and expanding sexual and reproductive health access for community college students. She received her MPH from the Maternal and Child Health Department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she was a Maternal and Child Health Bureau Training Grant recipient. She completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University, majoring in international relations with a focus on global health. She has previously worked with the maternal health section of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), and Planned Parenthood Global. Outside of work, she volunteers as a case manager with the D.C. Abortion Fund.
Lisa A. Sahulka, Chief Operating Officer
Lisa A. Sahulka joins The Century Foundation as chief operating officer after her role as the national director for the Cahn Fellows Programs at Teachers College, Columbia University. Previous to her role at Cahn Fellows Programs, Sahulka was the chief operating officer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that fights for racial justice in the South and nationwide.
Sahulka is a career-long proponent of administrative effectiveness in mission-driven enterprises. She also served as chief financial officer for the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) of Pinellas County, Florida. During more than fifteen years with JWB, she developed partnerships and grants that supported over sixty external programs serving thousands of children each year.
Prior to moving to Florida, she served in positions with CARE, an international relief and development organization as the divisional administrator; at Covenant House, an organization dedicated to sheltering homeless and runaway children; and at Jacob Riis Settlement House, where she was the deputy director. She also served as an adjunct professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and served abroad at Casa Alianza in Antigua, Guatemala, and the International English Schools in London.
Juan Diego Mazuera Arias, Government Affairs Assistant
Juan Diego Mazuera Arias is the government affairs assistant at The Century Foundation, a new position. He joins TCF after finishing a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, working first at the Aspen Institute’s Latinos and Society Program and then as a legislative fellow in the office of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
Juan Diego was born in Pereira, Risaralda, Colombia, and was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. A son of immigrants who have sacrificed and devoted their lives to allow their children to obtain the American Dream, Juan Diego comes from strong Latino roots and family values. While applying for college, he experienced the struggles associated with being an undocumented DACA recipient. After not qualifying for financial aid and paying an international rate for college applications, he decided to attend Central Piedmont Community College. In his first year, he received the Golden Door Scholarship and a full-ride scholarship at Queens University of Charlotte, where he became the first in his family to graduate from college. Juan Diego was active in campus politics and worked on several political campaigns, as a field organizer and campus organizer.
Rebekkah Boxt, Grants Manager
A proud southerner, after graduating from the University of South Carolina, Rebekkah moved to New York City with hopes of working in public health. Upon completing a master’s degree in public health in New York, she began working for the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, where she served as the agency’s contracts and grants manager. A lifelong nonprofit employee, Rebekkah has ten years of experience working in and across small and large teams, and for agencies that advocate for education in primary and collegiate settings. She currently resides on the upper west side of Manhattan with her six-year-old pup, Benson.