Define American

Transcending politics through a new conversation

Our Team

Define American was founded in April 2011 by Jose Antonio Vargas with Jake Brewer, Jehmu Greene, and Alicia Menendez.

Today, Define American is led by Vargas and Brewer.

Board Members

Jose Antonio Vargas, Founder and Co-Chair
Jake Brewer, Co-Founder and Co-Chair
Patricia Hyland
Shervin Pishevar
Afshin Pishevar, General Counsel



Rev. Ryan M. Eller, Executive Director
Responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations of Define American. Eller holds a B.S. in Political Science from Appalachian State University, a Masters Degree in Divinity from Wake Forest University, and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Penn State University. Prior to joining Define American, he was the U.S. Campaigns Director at For four years prior to that, he was the Executive Director of CHANGE in North Carolina—the largest broad-based community organizing group in the southern United States (a 501c3). He has extensive experience in the campaign arena as well, having managed political campaigns at both the local and federal level.

Saadia McConville, Chief Communications Officer
Responsible for Define American's strategic communications and media relations. Saadia comes to Define American from Malaria No More, where she headed up communications for the global health NGO. She previously worked at Bloomberg News as a television reporter and producer, covering financial news stories for stations across the country and internationally. In addition to her experience in news, Saadia served as Communications Director for Economic Fairness Oregon, where she helped pass key consumer protection laws in the wake of the financial crisis. She earned a B.A. from the University of Washington and an M.A. from the University of Miami.

Maria Cruz Lee, Strategic Operations Director
Responsible for directing the implementation of Define American's initiatives and developing new programs as needs emerge. Lee holds a B.A. in Media from CUNY Hunter College and served as Special Assistant to former Commissioner Fatima Shama at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs during the Bloomberg administration. She joined MOIA as its first social media intern in 2010, created and implemented the agency's social media strategy on multiple campaigns, including the Blueprints for Immigrant Integration, which are being used in 50+ municipalities and have been internationally awarded as a model. Born in the Philippines, she aims to continually connect, support and celebrate immigrants in all her efforts.

Michael Conti, Digital Production Manager
Responsible for creating original content through all forms of media for Define American. Conti holds a B.F.A. in Photojournalism from Rochester Institute of Technology and has worked both in newsrooms and for custom publishers. Prior to joining Define American, he photographed for national and international non-profits, and documented agricultural and industrial life in small towns throughout the United States. He contributes his passion for meaningful journalism to Define American’s storytelling, and uses his experience in stills, video, writing, and graphics to find inventive ways to reach new audiences.

Hendel Leiva, National Campus Engagement Manager
Responsible for engaging colligate communities and building Define American college chapters. Prior to joining Define American, Hendel was the Welcoming Long Island community organizer at Long Island Wins, working to create a more inclusive region for both immigrant populations and U.S.-born Americans. From Brentwood, NY, the son of immigrant parents from Ecuador and Guatemala, Hendel holds a Master's degree in Public Administration from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, having attended the University at Albany during his undergraduate years.

Heidi Levitt, Senior Media and Entertainment Advisor
Responsible for connecting Define American to the media and entertainment community. Heidi is a graduate of Barnard College, with a degree in American Studies and Political Science, and the American Film Institute, where she now works as adjunct faculty. She has been a casting director in film, television, and theater for the last 25 years. Notable credits include: The Artist, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nurse Jackie, The Rock, Nixon, and The Joy Luck Club. In addition, she collaborates with many of the filmmakers she casts for as an executive producer. Some of her producing credits include: Wayne Wang's The Chinese Box, Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa, and Diego Luna's Chavez. She is currently producing, in partnership with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, Exiles on Main Street, a television series of hour-long films that explore culture clash and the American immigrant experience.

Marin Hope, Media and Entertainment Associate
Responsible for assisting the Senior Media and Entertainment Advisor in connecting Define American to the media and entertainment community. Prior to joining the Define American, Marin studied performing arts at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked extensively as a casting associate in both New York and Los Angeles since 2009.

Karen Lee Willemsen, Education Director
Responsible for mentoring teachers and working with educational organizations to provide them with Define American-created curriculum and tools for engaging school-age students in conversations on citizenship, identity, and immigration. Willemsen earned her B.A. in American Studies at UC Santa Cruz, her teaching certificate from Santa Clara University, and her Ed.M from Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition to her work at Define American, she teaches in the Seattle Public Schools.

Julissa Arce, Public Affairs Director
Responsible for cultivating Define American's public profile. Prior to joining Define American, Arce spent nearly 10 years on Wall Street as a vice president at Goldman Sachs and a director at Merrill Lynch focused on derivative structuring, marketing, and product development. She graduated cum laude with a degree in Finance from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and is chairman of the Ascend Educational Fund, a scholarship and mentorship program for New York City immigrant students.

Jonathan Yu, Operations Manager
Responsible for supporting the staff of Define American and founder Jose Antonio Vargas.

To reach our staff, please use our Contact Us form.

For all media inquiries, please contact
Saadia McConville
(410) 693-5196

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