Office of Alumni Relations

Announcing the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award Recipients

The Heller School is pleased to announce the recipients of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award, created in 2020 to honor the 60th anniversary of the Heller School. The following 15 awardees (listed in alphabetical order) live a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work.

Sukia Akiba, MS’18is a social activist, environmentalist and the founder of United Children of Nigeria (UCN).

Wafaa Arbash, MA COEX/MA SID’17, is the founder of WorkAround, striving to provide sustainable income solutions for refugees and displaced people.

Ruth Brandwein, PhD’78is a leader, author, scholar and advocate who has served as Commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services and Dean and Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare.

Elisa Trotta Gamus, MA COEX/MA SID’11is a lawyer and diplomat specializing in international law and politics. She is an outspoken advocate for democracy and human rights in Venezuela and has also led initiatives to alleviate hard living conditions of Venezuelan refugees in Latin America. In 2019 she was appointed Venezuela's ambassador to Argentina by Juan Guaidó.

Andrew Hahn, PhD’78,  is a nationally recognized youth policy researcher and advocate. He taught at the Heller School for over 35 years and established two of Heller's major research centers: the Center for Youth and Communities and the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy. He is currently a professor emeritus at the Heller School.

Otis Johnson, PhD’80, served as two-term mayor of Savannah, Georgia and led initiatives on poverty reduction and healthy living, including diabetes and heart disease prevention and smoking bans. Most recently he was a scholar in residence at Savannah State University. 

Marsha Mailick, PhD’78, is the emeritus vice chancellor for research and graduate education at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Her research offers insights about developmental disabilities across the life course, and the impacts on families. 

Heather McMann, MBA’12is executive director of Groundwork Lawrence where she leads community-driven initiatives focused on building a healthier, stronger, more vibrant and equitable community in greater Lawrence, Massachusetts. 

Barbara E. Mawn, PhD’93, is professor emeritus and former PhD program director at the Solomont School of Nursing at UMass Lowell and has conducted groundbreaking research on health disparities among children living with HIV, health care workers and refugee populations.

Elizabeth Petheo, MA SID’06, is the Asia-Pacific regional representative of Miyamoto International. She has over 15 years of global experience in a range of disaster response and resiliency programming from work in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Europe.

Alexandra Piñeros-Shields, PhD’07, is adjunct senior lecturer at the Heller School and executive director of the Essex County Community Organization, an interfaith, interracial and interclass network of 40 congregations whose mission is racial and economic justice.

Brian Schon ’06, MBA/MPP’11, co-founded Cannúa and True Colombia promoting responsible travel and economic development in rural and impacted Colombian communities. He is an active fellow in the Eli J. & Phyllis N. Segal Citizen Leadership Program.

Van Ngoc Ta, MA SID’12, is chief lawyer at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, working to provide care to Vietnamese children and families in crisis while creating long-term change for a better world.

Fernando Torres-Gil, MSW’72, PhD’76, is director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging and professor of social welfare and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He has been appointed to public service roles by multiple U.S. presidents as an expert on aging and disability policy. 

Bill Traynor, MMHS’84, is a co-founder of Trusted Space Partners, supporting collaborative community change initiatives all over the United States.


You will learn more about each awardee over the coming year as we conduct interviews with each of them and share them on the Heller website.

Nominations were submitted by the Heller community and winners were selected in a multi-step voting process with contributions from the Heller Alumni Board and the 60th Anniversary Steering Committee.

Recipients were chosen based on the rigor of their work and/or their creative and innovative thinking about social systems. Additional criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.

Florence G. Heller

About Florence G. Heller

The Heller School’s namesake, Florence G. Heller (1897-1966) was committed to social welfare throughout her life. She served as the first female president of the National Jewish Welfare Board, and her philanthropy extended to a wide range of organizations, including the USO, Chicago Women’s Aid, Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital, United Jewish Charities, and of course Brandeis University. We continue to remember Florence as we work each day to improve the well being of all members of society.