Meet the Heartland Fund team

Sarah Jaynes

Executive Director

Sarah grew up in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state and began her career organizing on climate issues in rural communities. Since then, she’s been a trailblazer in the progressive movement. Sarah led the development of one of the first state progressive donor networks—Washington’s Progress Alliance—and has coached emerging donor alliances from Alaska to New Hampshire to Alabama as a senior advisor to Committee on States. Sarah is recognized for her expertise leading innovative campaigns integrating field experiments, digital platforms, and transformative narrative, and manages to stay relentlessly optimistic and obsessed with winning. An organizer at heart, Sarah has dedicated 30 years to working for shared prosperity, democracy, and a healthy environment. When she’s not working, she is raising four teens and enjoying the spectacular Washington mountains.

Josh Ewing

Rural Climate Partnership Director

Josh is a nationally recognized and award-winning conservation leader, who has lived in rural Utah for the last ten years. As Executive Director for Friends of Cedar Mesa, he worked closely with Indigenous tribes from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah to protect Bears Ears National Monument and the culturally rich lands of southeast Utah. Friends of Cedar Mesa’s conservation work was deeply tied to rural economic development and quality of life. Ewing helped establish policies to support good jobs for working families in sustainable industries by forging strong relationships with outdoor-industry leaders, politicians on both sides of the aisle, government land managers, funders, local ranchers, and a host of stakeholders. Josh grew up on a cattle ranch in Nebraska and the rural mountains of Honduras. He is an avid rock climber, and has put up dozens of first ascents in the Utah desert, attempting to model low impact climbing and encouraging climbers to engage in conservation and advocacy work.

Ann Lichter

Director, Resource Rural

Ann is passionate about partnering with rural people and organizations to advance their goals. She has helped rural organizations access federal and philanthropic funding, develop policy proposals, and expand their impact. She has led multiple efforts to design, implement, and scale new programs at the national level. At the Center on Rural Innovation, Ann designed and launched the Rural Innovation Initiative to support rural communities efforts to diversify and strengthen their economies with a focus on tech jobs and startups. As an executive at the U.S. Department of Labor, Ann piloted new approaches to promote labor law compliance, including expanding the use of data to drive enforcement strategy and operational decision-making. Ann grew up in Elkins, West Virginia. She is a Truman Scholar and has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Wellesley College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School.

Linh Tran

Deputy Director

Linh brings a passion for systemic change and collaboration as well as cross-sector experience growing new initiatives to RDI. Most recently, she served as the Collaboration & Strategy Officer for the Water Table, a philanthropic collaborative focused on transformative water solutions. Previously, she launched the California Energy Service Corps to provide workforce development opportunities for youth and weatherize the homes of low-income households. She has also served as an Obama Organizing Fellow, Tom Ford Fellow for Philanthropy at the Compton Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund Climate Corps Fellow with Guitar Center, and sustainability consultant to Ares Management. Linh holds a BA in Human Biology with a concentration in conservation and sustainable development from Stanford University, and a MA in Environmental Management from Yale University. When relaxing, Linh can be found hiking the mountains of Colorado, tending to indoor plants and a backyard garden, and cooking elaborate community meals

Emma Bouton

Advocacy and Organizing Director, Resource Rural

Emma grew up in rural New Hampshire and cares deeply about climate justice and building a world where rural communities have the resources they need to thrive. As a youth climate organizer with the Sunrise Movement, Emma led innovative electoral field programs and campaigns to stop the development of fossil fuel infrastructure. She later served as the Finance Director for a progressive gubernatorial campaign in Rhode Island and most recently worked as Organizing Director for Renew US, supporting dozens of climate, economic, and racial justice organizations across the country. Emma has a BS in Environmental Science from Brown University. In her free time, Emma loves painting, exploring local trails with her dog, and baking.

Michael Chameides

Communications Director

Michael has led successful initiatives to improve public transit, establish affordable housing, and overturn a county-wide ban on college student voting. He is an elected official, serving on the Board of Supervisors as Deputy Minority Leader of Columbia County, NY. Previously, Michael served as the Mayoral Aide in Hudson, NY. He has a Master’s Degree in Media Studies and has received artist grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, Puffin Foundation, and New York Foundation for the Arts. He is the recipient of the 2023 Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation Friend of Labor Award. In 2022, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement recognized his advocacy for immigrants and named him an Anniversary Honoree.

Maria Doerr

Program Officer, Rural Climate Partnership

Maria is a sixth-generation Missourian grateful to continue her long family legacy of land stewardship as a Program Officer at RCP. Her family home is on the same hillside where her great-great-grandfather drove his dairy cattle across the frozen Missouri River many years ago. Growing up low-income, asthmatic, and downwind from a coal-fired power plant informs the equity- and health-centered approach Maria brings to rural-led climate solutions at RCP.

Previously, Maria advanced conservation, water, and energy projects with nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies as an independent consultant and with Redstone Strategy Group. Before that, she worked with Conservation International Mexico on watershed conservation and sustainable agriculture. Maria has a technical background in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford University.

Maria also serves as a City Councilmember and is passionate about expanding civic engagement. Outside of work, Maria can be found rock climbing, salsa dancing, and pie-baking.

Stephanie Johnson

Program Officer

Stephanie previously served as Program Manager at NEO Philanthropy, a national funder intermediary, working in the Donor Services and Special Projects Department helping manage projects including state-based civic engagement tables and donor collaboratives. Before NEO, Stephanie served as Program Coordinator for the Kresge Foundation, a national foundation based in Detroit, as program lead on the organization’s Opportunity Fund, stewarding grants on issues of immigration, civic engagement, and racial equity. Before her time in philanthropy, Stephanie was a Venture For America Fellow in Cincinnati, OH where she worked with a variety of technology start-ups and small businesses. Stephanie holds a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up on a farm outside of the small town of Denton, Maryland and is passionate about making change for rural communities.

Benya Kraus

Director of Network Advancement, Resource Rural

Calling home both rural Waseca, Minnesota and Bangkok, Thailand, Benya is committed to strengthening rural-urban interconnectedness through civic leadership development, cultural exchange, and innovative capital reinvestment and financing strategies. Previously, Benya co-founded Lead For America where she launched and grew the American Connection Corps program, an AmeriCorps national service corps that has supported over 400 leaders in returning to and serving their hometowns in rural and small cities. She is a General Partner in her community’s local real estate fund, was previously appointed to the Minnesota Governor’s Workforce Development Board, and most recently led the UChicago Institute of Politics rural programming and national Bridging the Divide inaugural conference.

Benya has an MBA with concentrations in Finance and Entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where she attended as a Neubauer Civic Scholar and was selected as a 2023-24 Obama Foundation Scholar. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Tufts University with a B.A. in International Relations.

Scott Laeser

Senior Working Lands Advisor, Rural Climate Partnership

Scott grew up a block from Lake Michigan in Southeast Wisconsin and spent countless hours on the beach or in the water.  With the Chiwaukee Prairie out his back door, a garden in the backyard, and hunting and fishing taking him outside throughout the year, Scott developed an appreciation of and passion for Wisconsin’s land and water resources.

Scott and his wife run a certified organic vegetable farm in Southwest Wisconsin, putting an array of regenerative agriculture practices to work on their farm.  Canoeing across the flooded stream on his farm to harvest crops and experiencing first hand the complex disease and pest challenges farmers face have driven home the urgency of addressing climate change.

Previously, Scott worked as Water Program Director for Clean Wisconsin, with an emphasis on agriculture, water quality and drinking water protection.  He worked closely with agricultural and environmental groups, state agency officials, and lawmakers from both parties to confront Wisconsin’s water quality challenges. Scott has worked on water, climate change, and natural resources science, policy, and advocacy for 20 years.  He spends his “free time” teaching his two young children about the birds, plants, and animals that call their farm home and occasionally playing in the rivers, lakes, and streams that make Wisconsin special.

Madeline McGill

Communications Director, Resource Rural

Hailing from Colorado, Madeline began her career working on economic justice campaigns with non-profits and labor unions across New England. In 2018, she moved back to the Southwest to help found the Rural Utah Project, bringing their fundraising and communications programs online. After building a storytelling program with the advertising equivalency of $11.1M in the Four Corners, she saw that powerful programs could be built in the most unlikely geographies. In 2021, she founded Western Desk, a rural-based consultancy, to develop storytelling and narrative capacity within small organizations — creating programs that center the contributions of working people. In her free time, you can find Madeline roaming the canyons of the Escalante with her collie, Melon.

Penny Smith Mickey

Senior Advisor, Economic and Workforce Development

Penny Mickey is originally from Danville, Kentucky and has held various senior leadership posts within federal government, state government, and higher education that span multiple policies and programs. Her highest ranking government position was Commissioner of the Office of Employment and Training under former Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher. Her higher education career spans an HBCU and a medical school where she led expansions in distance learning and academic operations.  Most recently, Penny served as the Director of the Future of Learning with edtech unicorn, Guild Education.

While Assistant Provost at Kentucky State University, she designed a workforce development program called, “Bridges to Opportunities.” B2O was a program to educate and train minority and female workers to achieve careers in engineering and construction. A major hallmark of this program was the design of a short-term certificate and pre-apprenticeship program.

Penny holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Fisk University where she played on the women’s basketball team and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.  Additionally, she holds a Master’s Degree and Doctor of Education degree in Administrative Leadership from Vanderbilt University.

Francesca Santos

Program Officer, Rural Climate Partnership

A Mojave High Desert native, Francesca’s passion for sustainability stems from her witnessing the damaging effects of extreme heat, drought, and flooding in her rural desert community. With roots in Northern Mexico, where her family owns a small ranch, Francesca understands the importance of protecting both the environment and livelihoods of rural workers, families and their communities.

Francesca is a dedicated advocate for rural communities, with a rich and varied background in economic justice and community development. Prior to joining RCP, Francesca served as a Program Officer on the Rural Economic Development team at LISC, where she implemented workforce initiatives that championed quality jobs, worker voice, and accessible benefits. Francesca’s unique perspective as a Chicana, formerly homeless youth, and daughter of a single-parent and immigrant household informs her work in building diverse, equitable, and inclusive rural economies.

In addition to her professional work, Francesca is a PhD student studying solidarity economies and a National Park enthusiast with a deep appreciation for disco music.

Daniel Diaz

Program Manager, Rural Youth Voter Fund

Born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, much of Danny’s organizing and advocacy work has focused on the Texas-Mexico border, where he previously served as the Director of Organizing at LUPE (La Union Del Pueblo Entero). At LUPE, Danny led a team of organizers who won millions in drainage and housing improvements, organized working-class immigrant families for fair immigration policies, and helped build a training pipeline for future leaders. Danny also has a background in electoral campaigns, managing and advising congressional and state senatorial campaigns in South Texas. Danny holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Arkansas. He lives in South Texas and enjoys spending time at nearby South Padre Island, listening to live music, and going for long runs in the South Texas sub-tropical trails.

Ariel Santillan

Grants and Operations Manager

Ariel joins RDI with experience in nonprofit fundraising and operations. She previously served as Development and Special Projects Manager at Quality Care for Children, a Georgia nonprofit, leading annual fundraising campaigns, events, and grants management. Prior to her role at Quality Care for Children, she served as Executive Assistant at the Public Religion Research Institute, supporting strategic engagement initiatives and administration. Ariel earned a B.S. in International Affairs and Modern Languages from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Having spent much of her childhood summers in the small towns and rural communities surrounding Athens, GA, she is dedicated to the creation of robust civic and political infrastructure for rural America.

Ralph Jean

Communications Manager, Resource Rural

Ralph Jean started his strategic communications career as a congressional intern for Congressman David Scott in Jonesboro, Georgia where he grew up. Later, he attended Morehouse College, studying psychology and journalism and eventually earned a Master of Science degree from Columbia University. Ralph Jean is a public affairs and strategic communications expert with experience managing projects for a diverse range of causes. A former journalist and a storyteller at heart, Ralph’s passion is producing stories about communities and the people who make them unique, supporting campaigns for public good and community development. He’s supported digital communications for advocacy efforts like Keep LA Housed and the 2023 Farm Bill. He has collaborated with many organizations including: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, GlobeMed, and the Center for Humane Technology. When he’s not chasing leads or writing emails, Ralph likes to enjoy the outdoors hiking, biking, and paddle boarding parks across Georgia.

Bret Serbin

Communications Manager

Bret is a former local journalist living in Western Montana. Her coverage has included topics like sexism in local government, extensive reporting on housing issues, and the shutdown of an abusive religious cult. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Bret attended Swarthmore College where she studied English, Spanish, and Peace and Conflict Studies. Her deep appreciation for the outdoors drives her commitment to serving rural communities.

Katie Wiggins

Grants & Operations Manager

Katie originally hails from the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a proud rural Arkansan since 2004. She brings long experience in holistic systems thinking and love for rural communities to the Heartland Fund. Outside of philanthropy, she is best known as a pioneer in the ethically-grown local food industry in Central Arkansas as the founder of Farm Girl Meats. Katie’s work in strategic operations has included Director of Marketing at the Arkansas Goat Festival and Chief of Operations at Loblolly Creamery. Most recently, Katie served as Grants & Learning Officer at The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, where she reoriented grantmaking and learning practices to center community needs and advocated for shifting power across Philanthropic spaces. She holds degrees and certifications in Agricultural Business, Emergent Learning, and Collective Impact Framework Design. She finds joy in exploring wild spaces with her family, making ceramics from foraged clay, and teaching silly tricks to her dog

Hallen Phung

Strategic Partnerships Associate

Hallen grew up in small town Iowa and has dedicated the majority of her life to serving Midwest communities. Before joining the world of development full time as a Grants Manager at Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City, MO, she was an advocate, organizer, trainer, and program associate. Most recently before joining RDI and putting down roots in Nebraska, she was the Development Director of Colorado People’s Alliance and Colorado People’s Action in Denver, CO. Today, she joins her professional and personal experiences to connect RDI’s diverse leaders and funders to build powerful civic and political infrastructure, solutions, and justice. Outside of work, Hallen advises young college women in their leadership roles, pushes her elderly cat around in a stroller, and finds new opportunities to support local restaurants instead of cooking.