Leadership Bios

National Office Senior Management

MaryLee Allen  
Director of Policy

MaryLee Allen is Director of Policy at the Children's Defense Fund. She is responsible for overseeing CDF’s Policy Team, which includes the research staff, and developing and advancing CDF’s Policy Agenda consistent with CDF’s belief that children don’t come in pieces and action is needed on multiple fronts to ensure children get what they need and deserve. With CDF’s Policy Team, she uses data and effective program and policy approaches that work on the ground to help make the case for promoting positive federal administrative and legislative reforms for children. Ms. Allen and the Policy Team play both defense and offense in ending child poverty, ensuring every child comprehensive health and mental health coverage, giving every young child a quality early childhood experience, leveling the education playing field to promote equity for all, keeping children safely at home with their families and out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and ensuring that when placements are necessary children are in the least restrictive, most family-like setting appropriate to their special needs, and protecting children from guns.

Ms. Allen is a regular contributor to CDF’s signature reports, State of America’s Children and Portrait of Inequality, and in 2015 Ending Child Poverty Now, and has authored and co-authored many other reports and publications throughout her decades at CDF. She co-chairs the National Child Welfare and Mental Health Coalition and works closely with advocates and service providers across the country. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Generations United and has served on many other boards, task forces and advisory committees. Earlier in 2017, she was the recipient of the inaugural Child Welfare Leadership Prize from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Ms. Allen is a graduate of Marquette University and received her MSW from the National Catholic School of Social Service at Catholic University.

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Gijs deLeede
Chief Financial Officer

Gijs deLeede is the Chief Financial Officer for Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). With more than 20 years of experience in public, privately held and non-profit organizations, he brings expertise in developing, streamlining and strengthening financial processes to maximize revenue performance, cost savings and profitability. His track record includes improved financial performance, heightened productivity and enhanced internal controls. Previously, Mr. deLeede served as the Controller for Experience Works, Interim CFO for Phi Delta Kappa International, Director of Finance and Accounting for Atlantic media and held similar positions with National Geographic, AOL and Marriott among other companies.

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Max Lesko
Chief of Staff

Max Lesko joined the Children’s Defense Fund in 2017 as the Director of National Organizing, Intergovernmental Outreach and the CDF Action Council. Previously, Max served as the Chief of Staff for the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education from 2015 through 2017. Prior to the Department, he served in the White House as Assistant Counsel at the Office of the White House Counsel working on oversight and compliance issues and as the Domestic Director with the Presidential Personnel Office handling presidential appointments for domestic focused agencies. In 2012, Max was the Get Out the Vote Director for the President’s campaign in Ohio, drawing from his 19 months with Obama for America in 2007 and 2008. Max has also worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In the first term of the Obama Administration he served at the Department of Homeland Security. Max holds a B.A. in Political Science from The College of Wooster and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.

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Mark Publow
Chief Development Officer

Mark Publow is the Chief Development Officer for Children’s Defense Fund. With over thirty years of experience in helping nonprofits to achieve sustainable revenue growth and diversifying funding sources, Mr. Publow brings valuable experience and a collaborative leadership style to his role at CDF. Mr. Publow has been involved extensively in developing private funding support through individual giving, major gifts and planned giving, as well as with private and public grants. He brings a personal passion around the needs of at-risk children to his work at CDF, as well as an understanding both of the art and the science of fundraising and organizational management. Mr. Publow’s career includes 17 years with World Vision, where he served in a variety of leadership roles, as well as leadership positions and consulting roles with a variety national and community-based nonprofits. His professional work has included travel throughout more than 40 states and 36 countries. Mr. Publow has a B.A. degree from Bethel University (MN) and an MBA from the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University (CA).

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Philippa Smithey 
National Director, CDF Freedom Schools

The CDF Freedom Schools® program seeks to build strong, literate and empowered children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, nation and world today. The CDF Freedom Schools program is proudly rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement and the courageous efforts of college age youth to make a difference. Following the first use of freedom schools during the "Mississippi Freedom Summer Project" of 1964, the program was reborn under the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund's Black Community Crusade for Children® (BCCC®) campaign. The goal was to advance a transforming vision of education for all children!

Given this rich history, it is a pleasure to welcome to Dr. Smithey into this heritage as the next Director. Dr. Philippa N. Smithey is a graduate of Howard University (B.A. and M.A.) and American University (Ph.D.) with a forty-year history of work reflecting her lifelong commitment to education, political participation and social justice. Dr. Smithey has been a staunch supporter of grassroots efforts to close the minority achievement gap and increase college access for minority youth, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Dr. Smithey joined the Children’s Defense Fund in December 2015 as a Senior Education Grants Specialist in Development. In that capacity, Dr. Smithey identified and secured public funding to support CDF Freedom Schools programs, monitored grant-funded programs and assisted in various research and writing assignments associated with CDF Freedom Schools. Dr. Smithey retired from the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in 2016, after 12 years of service as its grants specialist, and held similar positions with the District of Columbia Public Schools and the Alexandria City Public Schools. Furthermore, Dr. Smithey’s work history includes seven years of fulltime and adjunct teaching at several universities—Howard University, American University, Tuskegee University, and Southeastern University. Dr. Smithey also lived and worked in Africa and Central America as a U.S. diplomat and as the administrative manager of a World Bank-funded construction project in Nigeria.

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CDF Regional Contacts

Patrick Bresette 
Executive Director, CDF-TX

A leader in policy and advocacy for more than 23 years, frequent public speaker and national advisor, Patrick Bresette brings a broad understanding of how to work with and within the public sector to create positive social change for children and families. He joined Children's Defense Fund as Texas Executive Director in 2014.

Mr. Bresette was previously the Executive Director of Public Works, where from 2004-2014 he helped to transform and build public will for the common good by engaging more Americans in an active pursuit of a government that works for all. He has traveled to dozens of states to train advocates, nonprofits, community leaders, public officials and organizers on how to defend public programs and the role they play in the lives of children, families and communities. From 1991-2004, Mr. Bresette was Associate Director of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities where he was responsible for launching the Texas Kids Count Initiative and spearheading the Center’s child advocacy work. He has led statewide coalitions in the development of shared legislative priorities and has testified frequently before House and Senate committees and administrative hearings on behalf of low-income Texans, especially children. He is a frequent consultant to the Kids Count network and presenter to funder affinity groups like Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families.

"Patrick made an immeasurable and enduring contribution to Public Works’ mission, having inspired and equipped thousands of leaders and activists around the country to make a compelling case for public systems and structures at the local, state and federal levels…I am delighted that he will be in a position to resume work he has cherished throughout his career—bettering the lives of children." - Public Works President and CEO Diane Stewart.

Mr. Bresette is a devoted husband, father of four, and grandfather to three young grandchildren in a vibrant bi-racial household in central Texas. He holds an MPA from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a BFA in Sculpture from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He works from both our CDF Austin and Houston offices.

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Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald
Southern Regional Director

Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald is Director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office (CDF-SRO), and also serves as the Regional Administrator for the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative for Economic & Social Justice (SRBWI). SRBWI operates in 77 counties across the Black Belts of Alabama, Southwest Georgia and Delta Mississippi. CDF-SRO also serves as the lead for the W.K. Kellogg funded Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) Initiative.

In 1970 she was employed by the Atlanta-based Southeastern Public Education Program of the American Friends Service Committee. In this position she participated in the Children's Defense Fund's Children Out of School in America, a national study of exclusion of children from public elementary and secondary schools; and monitored Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In 1976, she was hired as southern director for the Children's Foundation, which educated citizens and members of Congress about the need for expanded access to federal food programs.

In 1982 Ms. Fitzgerald became a project director for the Southern Regional Council working with rural electric power customers in 12 southern states to increase minority representation on rural electric cooperative boards. Moving back to her native Mississippi, she served as former Congressman Mike Espy's District Director from the beginning of his first term in 1987 until she joined the Clinton for President Campaign in 1992.

Before joining the Children's Defense Fund, Ms. Fitzgerald was appointed White House Liaison and Executive Assistant to then Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy by President Bill Clinton in January 1993. Shortly thereafter, she was named the Department’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, where she worked with local, state and tribal governments; coordinated the Administration’s long-term recovery of midwestern states affected by The Great Flood of 1993; and was a member of USDA's executive review panel selecting rural Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities.

Ms. Fitzgerald serves as a board member for the Mississippi Head Start Association, the Mississippi Children's Museum, the advisory committee for the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, and is a member of the State Children's Welfare Coalition and the Global Women's Action Network for Children. She also received honorary membership to Pi Alpha Alpha, the National Honor Society for Public Affairs & Administration from Mississippi State University in 1999. Ms. Fitzgerald holds a B.A. in sociology from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the proud mother of four children, Rashida, Yusef, Layla and Joi.

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Shimica Gaskins 
Executive Director, CDF-CA

Shimica Gaskins is the Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund–California. She has worked in law and public policy specializing in legislative, regulatory, and policy issues associated with criminal justice reform and children’s rights. She formerly served as the Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy of the U.S. Department of Justice. At OLP, Shimica worked to develop and implement innovative policy initiatives of the Department and Administration in areas such as Smart on Crime, law enforcement and emerging technologies, prison reform, reentry, and issues affecting children with incarcerated parents. Prior to joining DOJ, she was in private practice at Covington & Burling LLP where she managed complex civil litigation. She clerked for the Honorable Roger L. Gregory on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and the Honorable Victoria Roberts on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. She received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center and graduated cum laude with BA in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. Most recently, Shimica served as the Director of Policy and Outreach for The Fair and Just Prosecution Project – a project that supports newly elected prosecutors committed to innovative criminal justice reform policies.

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Naomi Post 
Executive Director, CDF-NY

Naomi Post serves as the Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund – New York office, and brings nearly 30 years of professional experience in advocacy and community organizing; executive level policy work; budget development and fiscal oversight; program design, development and implementation; data analysis and evaluation; organizational assessments, strategic plan development, and executive coaching. Prior to joining CDF-NY, Ms. Post served as a Senior Fellow at the United Way of New York City supporting its partnership with the Department of Education Office of Community Schools to expand community schools throughout the school district. Previously, she was the Head of Community Based Programmer at The Atlantic Philanthropies where she managed a portfolio of over $100 million in grants supporting community schools and school-based health centers in four diverse jurisdictions, and also developed and managed strategic investments in a high school reform effort which created health and technology career pathways for students. For more than a decade before joining Atlantic, she led a consulting business providing project management and strategic planning services to a variety of nonprofit agencies and several national and local foundations. Ms. Post has held executive level positions in both government and community based organizations, including Managing Attorney, East Central Legal Services; Deputy Chief, Philadelphia Juvenile Probation; Executive Director, Support Center for Child Advocates; and Chief Executive Officer, Philadelphia Safe and Sound. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from SUNY Binghamton and a Juris Doctorate from Cornell University Law School.

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Bharti Wahi 
Executive Director, CDF-MN

As the Executive Director of Children’s Defense Fund–Minnesota office Bharti Wahi brings 20 years of professional experience as an advocate in the nonprofit world and more than a decade of experience in education. Prior to joining Children’s Defense Fund, Ms. Wahi spent three years with Greater Twin Cities United Way where she oversaw several grant portfolios related to early childhood education, two-generation interventions and literacy. Previously, she led the Children and Family Program for the Minnesota Literacy Council for five years, building the home visiting program and overseeing two early learning centers.

As an active community member Ms. Wahi serves on the Board of Directors of the Hale-Field Schools Foundation and Women Organizing Women. In addition she sits on the McKnight Foundation’s PreK-Third Grade Design Team and is currently serving on the Minnesota Department of Education’s ESSA Accountability Advisory Committee and the Department of Human Services Parent Aware Advisory Council.

Ms. Wahi holds a Bachelor of Arts from the Saint Catherine University and a Master of Arts in public policy and nonprofit management from the University of Chicago.

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Tracy Nájera
Executive Director, CDF-OH

Tracy has committed her professional career to improving the lives of children and their families. Tracy comes to CDF most recently as a Senior Consultant for Education First Consulting where she supported school districts and education partners to improve education outcomes for children. Previously, Tracy spent six years as a Senior Director of the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative at Battelle for Kids where her responsibilities included managing a $54 million federal project with the state of Ohio to improve the efficacy of teachers serving students in Appalachian Ohio. Additionally, she spent eight years at the State Office of Budget and Management a majority of which she served as the Section Chief for Education under three Governors. Earlier in her career, Tracy was an Education Policy Analyst with KidsOhio.org where she worked with public school systems to close the achievement gaps in urban education settings. And, notably, launched her career with CDF-Ohio as a Research Fellow. Tracy holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters in Public Administration and a Doctor of Philosophy all from The Ohio State University. Tracy was born in San Antonio, Texas and raised near Dayton, Ohio.

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