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Board of Directors

Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, FACP, FACPM

President & Co-founder

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Hope is president and CEO of Phoenix Zones Initiative. Over two decades, as a double board-certified internal medicine and preventive medicine physician, Hope has cared for individuals who have experienced displacement and violence, while she has also worked on policy to address structural inequities and human and animal exploitation. Her work across six continents has included collaboration with the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States and the development of medical, public health, and educational resources for nongovernmental organizations, national governments, and intergovernmental organizations such as the World Health Organization. As a result of her work in these areas, Hope was named a Humanitarian of the Year in the American College of Physicians in 2017.

Hope has authored highly cited publications and spoken at academic institutions and through media outlets across the globe. Her work has been featured through Scientific American, Huffington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, BBC, Voice of America, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), and other international news outlets. Many of her publications, including her book Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives, focus on ethics, global public health, and the link between human and animal rights, health, and wellbeing. In 2019, she co-founded Phoenix Zones Initiative to translate insights in the book into a movement for systemic change.

Hope received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Southern California, a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, and a master’s degree in public health from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She completed a medical internship at Yale University-Griffin Hospital, a preventive medicine residency at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and an internal medicine residency at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She served as an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, an associate professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and she now serves as an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

Nik Kulkarni, MD

Vice President & Co-founder

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Nik is a board-certified anesthesiologist. He has served on several hospital committees throughout his career and has led anesthesiology teams for Operation Walk, a charitable organization that provides joint replacement surgeries for patients in the United States and abroad. He has staffed free back-to-school clinics for children in the northern Virginia area, and he has also volunteered with a national organization that helps military veterans.

Over the years, Nik has provided philanthropic support to a number of organizations focused on the promotion of human rights, animal protection, and compassionate conservation. As a result, he has become increasingly interested in the combination of grassroots action, systems-level change, and measurable impact.

Nik is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and he completed his physician anesthesiology training with an advanced clinical track in pediatrics at the State University of New York Downstate Medical School in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently a partner at an independent anesthesiology practice.



Kavita Rajasekhar, MD, MPH


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Kavita is a board-certified preventive medicine physician. After completing medical school at the University of Florida College of Medicine, she worked in Washington, DC, where she was active in plant-based nutrition research and animal advocacy. Kavita later completed a preventive medicine residency at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and she also practiced occupational medicine for several years at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

After a fellowship in public health practice at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Kavita joined the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment. She works with the Worker Health Protection Program, joining several other Commoner Center physicians in reviewing medical screening results from former and current workers at US Department of Energy nuclear facilities.

Kavita first became aware of the interdependence of animal-human-planetary health as an undergraduate student, and she carried her interest in this area into her medical studies. She has also completed the chef training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, which specializes in plant-based, health-supportive cooking.

Sonia Silva, MPA


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Sonia is director of International Students and Programs at California State University Bakersfield, where she is also on the faculty in the Department of Biology. Her responsibilities include international student and scholar services, cultivation of community partnerships, leadership on campus immigration policies and procedures, and coordination with the US Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security; she also collaborates with the university’s Title IX Coordinator. In addition, Sonia oversees the university’s National Student Exchange Program, and she fosters partnerships around the globe as the institutional liaison for accepting Fulbright scholars.

Prior to her current role, Sonia served as a student programs advisor at the University of Southern California, and as an adult school teacher and substitute teacher for elementary, junior high, and high school students in the Compton Unified School District.

Sonia serves as a member of the Kern County Behavioral Health Board, a founding member and treasurer for the Phi Beta Delta Honor Society, Theta Theta Chapter (for international scholars), and as a board member for the California State University, Bakersfield, Center for Global Outreach, and the Alumni Association. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and she received a master’s degree in public administration from the California State University Bakersfield.

Ayanna Buckner, MD, MPH, FACPM

Board Member

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Ayanna has committed her career to addressing the needs of underserved communities. Trained in preventive medicine, public health, and internal medicine, Ayanna’s professional time is divided between working in an outpatient clinic and serving as the principal of Community Health Cooperative, a consulting firm that assists organizations with program design, implementation, evaluation, and other activities associated with community-based health programming.

Ayanna previously served as chair of the Gulf Region Health Outreach Program Coordinating Committee, which coordinated a five-year, $105 million initiative developed as part of the Deepwater Horizon Medical Settlement and designed to strengthen primary and behavioral healthcare services in oil spill-impacted communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.

Ayanna received a bachelor of science degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and a doctor of medicine degree from Meharry Medical College. She completed a combined residency program in internal medicine and preventive medicine at Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, during which time she received a master’s degree in public health, with an emphasis in health management, from Yale University. Ayanna is a fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine and she was a Marshall Memorial Fellow.

Allan E. Kornberg, MD, MBA

Board Member

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Allan is a pediatrician who has practiced primary care and emergency pediatrics. He is medical director and executive director for Physicians Association for Nutrition USA, an international nongovernmental organization committed to educating health professionals and students, the general public, and policymakers about the value of whole-food, plant-based nutrition in promoting good health, and in preventing and treating disease.

Allan has held a number of healthcare leadership roles, including CEO of Network Health, a health plan in Massachusetts serving individuals living with poverty. Allan has also advocated on behalf of survivors of child abuse and sexual assault. He co-edited the textbook Child Abuse: A Medical Reference, and he has authored peer-reviewed articles on child abuse and on emergency pediatrics. Additionally, Allan has led animal protection organizations, serving as executive director for both World Animal Protection-USA and Farm Sanctuary. In addition to serving on the board of Phoenix Zones Initiative, Allan is a hands-on board member with Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries; Animal Defense Partnership, which provides pro bono legal consulting services to animal charities; and Dharma Voices for Animals.

Allan received a bachelor of science degree from MIT, a doctor of medicine degree from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a master’s degree in business from the University of Rochester. He has served as vice chair of Pediatrics, associate professor of Pediatrics, and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Buffalo, and as associate professor of Pediatrics at Brown University.

Meet More Members of the Team

Elan Abrell, JD, PhD

Vice President of Programs

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Elan is a cultural anthropologist whose research, writing, and practice focus on human-animal-environment interactions, scientific knowledge production, and food-related technological innovation. His work has also explored the socially constructed and historically shifting dividing line between who does and does not count as human, and how economic processes have reinforced this dividing line to rationalize the exploitation and mistreatment of both people and animals.

Elan has written about systemic discrimination associated with the sanctioning of torture and other anti-civil rights policies, and his book, Saving Animals: Practices of Care and Rescue in the US Animal Sanctuary Movement, examines how sanctuary caregivers respond to a range of ethical dilemmas and material constraints while attempting to meet the various and sometimes conflicting needs of rescued animals. The book examines animal sanctuaries as a model for creating a positive vision of the future for both people and animals.

Elan is currently a visiting assistant professor in the Animal Studies Program at Wesleyan University and an adjunct assistant professor in the Animal Studies MA Program and the Anthropology Department at New York University. He was formerly a 2017-18 Farmed Animal Law and Policy Fellow at the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard University, a visiting assistant professor in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College, CUNY, and a senior regulatory specialist at the Good Food Institute.

Miguel Arias

Miguel Arias

Research Assistant

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Miguel is an economist from El Salvador, with experience in research applied to social sciences and public health using mixed qualitative and quantitative methods. He has assisted research projects working with Tilburg University and his alma mater, Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas.

Miguel has mostly been involved in studies regarding Salvadoran history (especially civil war), memory, and migration. His work has focused on studying rural and vulnerable populations; collecting remembrances, stories, and opinions; and comparing oral histories with history books, newspapers, official documents, and data. He has also worked on analyses of the effectiveness of aid programs paid with international funds in El Salvador, and on collecting, organizing, and preparing financial data from large, medium, and small companies in El Salvador for the Salvadoran General Directorate of Statistics.

Since 2015, Miguel has volunteered at Centro Monseñor Romero, an institution dedicated to the preservation of Salvadoran historical memory. After a couple of years in this role, he began visiting communities to help small development initiatives focused on education and subsistence. He developed further experience in social entrepreneurship during an Erasmus+ exchange at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University in Lithuania in 2017, and in São Paulo, Brazil, during a volunteer exchange program in 2018.


Ignacio Betancourt

Ignacio Betancourt

Multimedia Artist & Designer

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Ignacio is a multimedia artist undergraduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design (Vancouver, Canada) and a teacher. He is passionate about taking complex ideas and data and finding the best way of delivering them to bigger audiences. In El Salvador, Ignacio’s focus has been on making ideas and information of democracy, anti-corruption, gender equality, and social and environmental issues more accessible through various platforms including independent newspapers, drag queen art history talk shows, as well as animation and video work for nonprofits. He has recently become a partner at, a platform designed to contribute to the creation of a healthy and sustainable creative industry in El Salvador.

Michelle Blake

Michelle Blake, MA

Director of Policy

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Michelle Blake has worked for three decades as an advocate, nonprofit consultant, journalist, writer, and editor in the fields of social justice, education, animal protection, and conservation. She has drafted and promoted successful legislation in her home state of Oregon and in multiple western states.

As an advocate for diverse social and environmental issues, Michelle has taught mindfulness meditation for incarcerated men, served on the founding boards of two successful animal protection nonprofits, and served on the board of her local chapter of the NAACP. She currently serves on the board of the Humane Voters Oregon PAC, is VP of a farmed animal sanctuary, and serves on the Racial Justice Coordinating Committee. Coming from a family of two-time gun violence survivors, she’s also an active gun safety advocate. Michelle holds a BA in Communications from California State University at Chico and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Marylhurst University.

Saryn Chorney

Saryn Chorney

Public and Media Relations Specialist

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Saryn has worked for more than two decades as a journalist, content strategist, and media consultant specializing in women’s health, animal advocacy, internet trends, lifestyle, and culture. She is currently a freelance contributor to Insider, People, and Reader’s Digest. Previously, she was the founding managing editor of MSN’s, founding editor-in-chief of AOL’s, senior features editor at Us Weekly, editor at the New York Post, video correspondent at Condé Nast, and more.

Saryn has a BA in Communications and Film from the University of Pennsylvania, and she is currently in the master’s program for Animal Studies at New York University (NYU). Her research at NYU has focused on lion welfare and conservation in South Africa, representations of endangered species in media, wildlife ecotourism, creative arts expression, and the human-animal bond.

Saryn is on the board of the Grove School, a therapeutic residential program for adolescents in Connecticut. She is a multimedia artist, creative writer, and storyteller based in Brooklyn.

Elena Contreras

Elena Contreras, DVM, MS, PhD


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Elena is a veterinarian with a focus in animal welfare, shelter animal populations, veterinary ethics, and animal behavior. She is a faculty member at Long Island University College of Veterinary Medicine where she is an assistant professor of animal welfare and behavior. She also serves on the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Elena also assists in teaching veterinary ethics to second year veterinary students at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

In 2007, Elena made a career change into veterinary medicine, and specifically shelter medicine. She received a doctor of veterinary medicine degree in 2013 from Ross University in Saint Kitts, where she received Ross University’s Eliza Anna Grier full tuition diversity scholarship. She was also one of the inaugural recipients to earn Maddie’s Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine from the University of Florida’s online certification program in 2013.

After vet school, Elena completed a Small Animal Shelter Medicine and Surgery Internship and a Shelter Research Fellowship at Colorado State University (CSU). Elena then received her PhD in Veterinary Clinical Sciences from CSU in 2019. Elena is also the 2017 recipient of the first Winn Feline Foundation (now EveryCat Health Foundation) and Miller Trust New Feline Investigator Award, which supported her grant to assess novel non-invasive methods of measuring chronic stress in cats. While Elena resided in Colorado, she was the medical director and veterinarian at a feline nonprofit organization that focused on trap-neuter-return (TNR), the care and sterilization of community cats, and the provision of feline veterinary services to low-income communities.

Prior to veterinary school, Elena worked and volunteered with nonprofit, conservation, and healthcare organizations for marginalized populations. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in art photography, she worked at various inpatient and other psychiatric facilities in New York City. After moving to Colorado, she switched gears and worked for a large international conservation organization and subsequently obtained a master of science degree in ecology from CSU where she studied the effects of rural development on grassland bird populations.

Elena has authored and co-authored numerous publications in the veterinary and psychology fields. She has also received multiple scholarships and awards to support her shelter medicine work, including the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) scholarship in 2013 and a Michael Lopez Ferlin Memorial Scholarship from Best Friends Animal Society in 2012.

She is currently pursuing board certification in the American College of Animal Welfare (ACAW). Elena has spent many hours, days, and weeks volunteering at shelters, at spay and neuter clinics—including feral cat clinics—and at low-cost or no-cost veterinary clinics in Mexico, Montana, and Colorado.

Clark Curtis

Clark Curtis

Public and Media Relations Specialist

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Clark has over 30 years of experience in the communications business. He has served as a director of communications in higher education and the private sector, and as a broadcast and print journalist. He has provided extensive communications support within the nonprofit sector, and he co-founded his own communications business and nonprofit organization.

Clark has dedicated himself to supporting the voices of those trying to make positive impact in the world and to serving as a voice for the disparaged who have no voices of their own. His work has included documenting the ongoing democratic movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina through podcasts, media outreach, and a book to be published in mid 2021; an oral histories project devoted to documenting and archiving the stories of the survivors of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and communications support for the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Through his communications work within the nonprofit sector he has been involved with anti-human trafficking efforts; support for immigrant and refugee families in Charlotte, North Carolina; humanitarian efforts for children in Honduras; a global peace education program for young people; opportunities to introduce children to the science of nature; and free communications services for animal rescue organizations in Charlotte.

Clark received his BS in Telecommunications from Indiana University.  He resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, Yvonne, and their six rescued dogs and cats.

Silke Feltz

Silke Feltz, PhD

Research Assistant

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Silke earned her PhD in Rhetoric, Theory, and Culture at Michigan Technological University. Her research interests focus on the rhetoric of veganism and food ethics. She is also the founder of StreetKnits, an international humanitarian knitting charity that provides knitwear to individuals experiencing homelessness.


Shannon Holder

Shannon Holder, MS

Managing Coordinator of Programs

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Shannon coordinates programs, including the Just One Health Project ECHO, for Phoenix Zones Initiative. She is energized by working with teams that are focused on creating a more equitable world. Shannon has worked with an Indigenous nonprofit improving community health by helping people self-manage chronic illnesses, cultivate healthy relationships, and practice emotional and mental health, and she served as a research consultant for a UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women grant. Through her work with Phoenix Zones Initiative and a National Institutes of Health-funded grant, Shannon continues to prioritize community-led research and policy initiatives. Shannon earned a Master of Science in Community Health from Montana State University.



Gabby Mora

Gabby Mora, MS, MS, MEd

Manager of Development

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Prior to joining Phoenix Zones Initiative, Gabby has served in diverse fundraising and development roles in a number of political and animal protection nonprofits. Her experiences in fundraising include developing a fundraising program for a small farmed animal sanctuary, managing donor relations for the largest farmed animal sanctuary in North America, writing grants for a food sovereignty organization, and managing legacy gifts for the largest animal rights organization in the world.

Gabby has also served in other administrative and communications roles for nonprofits working to lift people out of poverty, end human trafficking, improve working conditions for farm workers, and protect human personhood in the United States Constitution.

Before entering the nonprofit sector, Gabby worked in higher education for more than 12 years. Her work focused on assisting students in residential education, developing leadership programs, and conducting diversity and social justice education at primarily white institutions across the country.

Gabby is originally from Venezuela, and she came to the US to complete her dual bachelor’s degrees in business administration and mass media from Tusculum College in Tennessee. In addition, Gabby holds an MS in advertising from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; an MEd in educational leadership from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and an MS in community development and public policy from Rutgers University at Camden.

Marsha Rakestraw

Marsha Rakestraw, MLS

Director of Digital Communications

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Marsha has been involved with nonprofits for more than two decades, including as a co-founder and board member for several organizations. Her work for nonprofits has included writing and editing, curriculum and resource development, social media and content marketing, program and event development and administration, and education and outreach. Before coming to Phoenix Zones Initiative, Marsha worked for 12 years in a variety of roles for the Institute for Humane Education.

In addition to her nonprofit work, Marsha has extensive experience as an educator, having taught at the PreK-graduate levels and in adult education, including online courses for social-change educators and advocates. She also has been a humane educator for more than 15 years and has more than 20 years’ experience working in school and public libraries.

In addition to undergraduate degrees in dance and English and teaching certificates in secondary education and K-12 library media—all from Wichita State University, Marsha has an MLS in library and information management from Emporia State University and a humane education certificate through the Institute for Humane Education.

Linda Robertson

Communications and Outreach Specialist

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Linda is a 25-year public relations veteran who has managed communications, media relations, and branding for three top-tier national universities, a for-profit education company, one of the country’s largest energy providers, and a leading animal advocacy organization. Linda earned a BA in Broadcast Journalism and Communications from the University of Dayton and began her career as a journalist in television news focused on health and medical coverage. She has reported on stories for the American Medical Association and wrote and produced news packages on product launches for industry-leading brands, such as Pfizer, Pharmacia & Upjohn, P&G, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, and others. While working in local news, she also covered stories regarding child and animal welfare—including legal and court proceedings, circus and rodeo protests, BLM wild horse roundups, and several abuse cases—to bring awareness to the plight of those most vulnerable in our society and elevate their voices. She has received an Emmy Award nomination for local news coverage and several awards from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Linda has a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at Cornell University, and she has been an animal rights advocate most of her life by participating in protests, promoting animal welfare reform measures, and supporting animal rescue and adoption.

Kris Weller, JD, PhD


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After studying psychology as an undergraduate at the Johns Hopkins University, Kris spent several years working in direct care, administrative, and management positions with organizations serving children and adults diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, adults with cognitive differences, educationally-disadvantaged urban youth, and politically- and economically-neglected urban communities. Seeking to understand the systemic causes of the symptoms addressed by social service projects and to learn about more comprehensive solutions, she returned to school.

Kris completed a JD/MA program in Law and Women’s Studies at the University of Cincinnati, with an emphasis in Law and Psychiatry that included a specialized academic track and externships in legal services and rights defense work on behalf of individuals with diagnoses of psychiatric difference. She received a PhD in the history of consciousness with a parenthetical citation in feminist studies from the University of California Santa Cruz. Her dissertation examined the legal, cultural, and discursive barriers to full legal personhood for nonhuman animals and for humans with atypical psychiatric and cognitive abilities, and the barriers to full social equality for members of historically marginalized groups.

Kris has completed postdoctoral fellowships at Duke University and Penn State University, and she has taught undergraduate courses in animal studies and gender studies, focusing on the intersectionality of categorizations used to justify oppression and discrimination.

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