YWU Staff

Charlene Bencomo, Executive Director

Charlene Bencomo is a native New Mexican, wife, mother, Chicana, and recovering special education teacher.  Her experiences as a former educator have given her in depth knowledge of many of the challenges facing families in New Mexico today and a unique perspective on the supports that help maintain and build resilience.

Charlene is currently serving as Executive Director at Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. As YWU’s Executive Director, she shares her passion for advocacy and positive social change.  Charlene uses her experiences to educate, inspire, and inform others through her writing and public speaking.

She is a proud co-founder of Crossroads City Derby a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization promoting female empowerment and athleticism through the sport of women’s flat track roller derby in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Charlene holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling from New Mexico State University.


Denicia Cadena, Policy Director

Denicia Cadena is a queer Chicana born and raised in Mesilla, New Mexico. Denicia is the Policy Director of Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. Denicia leads the design and implementation of YWU’s change making strategies. She works to make sure the voices and expertise of those most impacted by an issue are centered in decision-making spaces. Denicia has deep experience working on issues of reproductive justice, racial justice, and queer justice.

A proud sister, aunt, daughter, and friend–Denicia couldn’t imagine herself without all the strong women and folks that have shaped her. As a former welder and sculptor, Denicia knows that some ways of knowing and understanding can only be expressed through art. Denicia holds a BA in History with a concentration in Diaspora Studies from Amherst College.




Micaela Cadena, Research Director

Micaela Cadena is a Chicana New Mexican from a family/chosen family of resilient mujeres in the Mesilla Valley.  Micaela is the Research Director at Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. In this position, Micaela facilitates opportunities to learn from the expertise and lived experiences of women and families in New Mexico. For many years, Micaela has worked to improve access to pregnancy related care that New Mexicans may need over their lives, including perinatal care for pregnant people in cycles of substance use and addiction and midwifery care as a respectful model that can positively impact disparities in health outcomes within our communities.

Previously, Micaela worked at the New Mexico Corrections Department as the Bureau Chief of Recidivism Reduction. In her tenure at the Corrections Department, Micaela was responsible for articulating arguments to move the population of female inmates from a privately-operated prison facility where they have been poorly housed for more than two decades, to a pair of state-operated prisons. With the intention of better identifying and serving their risks and needs of women and people in NMCD custody, Micaela worked to build feasible strategies for making the New Mexico prison system gender-responsive, trauma-informed and evidenced-based. Micaela was also responsible for implementing a state law passed in 2015, Medicaid for Incarcerated Individuals, that mandated the Corrections Department to determine Medicaid eligibility of inmates prior to their release from prison.

Micaela has experience leading policy, evaluation, and organizational development efforts in non-profit advocacy and within state government.  Micaela is raising two funny, kind, knowing and bright daughters– with her best friend/partner. Micaela’s graduate thesis research was an analysis of the access low-income women of color have to homebirth in New Mexico. Micaela has a Masters degree in Community and Regional Planning from the University of New Mexico.


Esperanza Dodge, Operations Director

Esperanza began organizing as a community member at the age of 19 with Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. In her role as Operations Director for YWU she works on helping the organization run smoothly in the human resources and internal affairs department. He is proud to work on reproductive justice issues by and for women of color. Esperanza believes birth and parenting justice should include those most impacted, including women and families living through addiction, and young parents. Her greatest adventures are with her 11-yr old son, Julián, who inspires her to continue doing this meaningful work everyday. Esperanza has a MSW in Bilingual/Bicultural Social Work from New Mexico Highlands University.


Kat Sánchez, Policy Associate

Kat Sánchez is a queer Latina working as the Policy Associate at Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. In that role, Kat raises the visibility of YWU’s organizational purpose and work. Originally from El Paso, TX, Kat returned to the Mesilla Valley after spending the better part of a decade in Hollywood and Harlem. Kat’s advocacy roots include policy work for LGBTQ rights, gender justice, and a host of issues with the ACLU of Southern California, The LA Gay and Lesbian Center, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Kat also has extensive experience in the world of radio having worked on the LGBTQ show, IMRU, on KPFK in Los Angeles, and produced two talk shows as well as newscasts for Sirius Satellite Radio’s LGBTQ channel, OutQ. Kat and her partner, whom she met on the roller derby track, have four teenagers and maintain the busy side job of chauffeur for their activities. Kat earned her degree in Journalism & Mass Communications from NMSU.


Kandace Littlefoot, Policy Associate

Kandace L. Littlefoot is a Diné woman from northern Arizona working as a Policy Associate at Young Women United. YWU leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. Kandace is born for Tsenjikini, and born to Kinlichiinii. She comes from a big family, raised partly by her late grandmother, Mabel Kerley, and is one of six siblings, all of whom have made a huge impact on who she is.

Kandace is passionate in the areas of criminal justice reform, and social change. Based on her commitment she has served as a prosecutor for her tribal nation, and is currently a member of the Navajo Nation Bar Association. Her legal experience has led her to her current position at YWU. Kandace holds a baccalaureate of arts from The University of Arizona in Political Science with an emphasis in Law & Public Policy.


Angelique Karnes, Communications Associate

Angelique Karnes is a Latina from the west Texas town of El Paso, and has lived in what she lovingly calls “The Dirty Southwest” her whole life. She has over a decade of experience in design and film. Angelique is currently the Communications Associate at Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico.

In her role, she oversees digital and print media strategies, as well as maintains relationships with the local media and beyond. Angelique loves using these skills at YWU to amplify the voices, expertise, and knowledge of her co-workers and peers. ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room…find a different room!’





Raquel Z. Rivera, Ph.D., Projects Manager

Raquel Z. Rivera, Ph.D. is the Projects Manager at Young Women United.  Raquel is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of New Mexico’s Sociology Department. Her research interests are: reproductive justice, race and ethnicity, and Latino and Caribbean studies. Raquel is Principal Investigator of a YWU-led research project aiming to contribute to knowledge that will inform policy efforts to improve maternal/infant health and promote greater access to the midwifery model of care; the study provides a region-based analysis of experiences and outcomes of maternity care models while centering the experience of the population experiencing the highest maternal and infant health disparities—namely low-income people of color and Indigenous people. Raquel is part of the YWU research team taking part in a pilot study based at the University of New Mexico that offers labor support by trauma- and addiction-trained doulas at no cost to pregnant women receiving care for substance use disorders; the study aims to inform and support policy efforts to secure Medicaid doula coverage in New Mexico. Raquel is also part of the YWU research team collaborating with Giving Voice to Mothers: U.S., based at the University of British Columbia, a national study examining how race, ethnicity, and place of birth interact with the experiences of receiving maternity care in the United States. Raquel was also one of the co-authors of the groundbreaking YWU 2016 policy paper “Dismantling Teen Pregnancy Prevention”—a report lauded by influential funders and scholars in the reproductive justice field. Prior to joining YWU as a staff member, Raquel was part of the research team of the Infant Mortality Pilot study by the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs—a pilot whose mission was to identify interventions that could successfully reduce the extremely high and disproportionate infant mortality experienced by the U.S.-based black community.


Victoria Torres, Programs Assistant

Victoria Torres is from Los Lunas, New Mexico and the proud mama of three.  Victoria is the Programs Assistant with Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. In that role she provides support for YWU programs and campaigns.  She works hard to ensure that YWU is a safe and welcoming space for everyone who walks through doors.  In her spare time, she loves to watch and play soccer.



Sonia M. Chavira, Accounting/Grants Manager

Sonia Chavira was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is a wife and mother of two who are her pride and joy. She considers herself Mexican-American as she is the grateful daughter of Mexican immigrants who arrived to New Mexico several decades ago in search of a better future for their family.

Sonia graduated Cum Laude from The University of New Mexico with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a Concentration in Accounting and a minor in Spanish. She is fluent in two languages, English and Spanish, and is a strong advocate of multilingualism. She began her Accounting career in Public Accounting as an Auditor of mostly Non Profit and Government Financial Statements. She also assisted in the area of Tax Accounting and Small Business Accounting. Currently Sonia is the Accounting/Grants Manager of Young Women United (YWU), an organization that leads policy change, research, place-based community organizing, and culture shift by and for women and people of color in New Mexico. She is tremendously grateful to be a part of an organization where she can work closely with her love of Accounting as well as her passion for advocacy and community involvement.

Sonia would love to help more women reach their career goals and recruit more women of color into the areas of Business and Accounting. She would also like to be a good role model for women, especially women of color, that if you dream it and put your mind to it, you can achieve it. You just need to work hard, don’t give up, find the right mentors and surround yourself with positive people. But most importantly, you must believe in yourself!