This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Building a community of learners.” More from this issue

Before she starts group sessions with parents or child care providers, Jill Bradley, M.Ed. ’81, covers the table with a piece of colorful, African-patterned fabric. “It draws people into the room and makes it a special place,” she says. “It helps break the ice.”

Knowing how to encourage people — and programs — to move to a higher level is the hallmark of Bradley’s 32-year career. And it’s what makes her so effective in her work with Illinois Action for Children.

“At the heart of everything I do is building community,” Bradley says. “It’s connecting people with people, and people with resources — all aimed at improving the quality of life for families and children.”

Supporting families from children to grandparents

As a member of the agency’s Family/Neighborhood Partnerships Department management team, Bradley helped build social networks and programs to support families in Chicago communities like Chatham and North Lawndale.

She moved into a new role March 1, focusing more specifically on parent engagement, but she still has a hand in many areas. On any given day, you might find her running a parental leadership engagement group, training child care providers, or speaking to a local business association about community resources and childcare referral programs.

Supporting license-exempt childcare providers who are eager to improve their practices is a particular strength of Illinois Action for Children, and a goal Bradley is passionate about. She guides them in group discussions, works with them in model classroom and home care settings, and connects them with resources. Her work with the Chatham Cluster Caregiver Group, for example, incorporates literacy activities, professional story-telling workshops, and family scrapbooking.

“We might be these providers’ first foray into trying to improve their quality of care or seeking out activities to keep their children engaged,” Bradley says. “It gives them a tremendous boost to be heard and to be treated as serious professionals.”

Another major focus of Illinois Action for Children is boosting parent engagement and leadership. Bradley’s team partners with organizations like the Chicago Housing Authority and the Department of Family Support Services to help parents take a more active role in their children’s development. Besides acting as a sounding board, Bradley’s team nudges participants out of their comfort zone. For example, parents are challenged to seek out affordable learning opportunities within a two-mile radius of home, such as the beach and the library.

Other workshops empower parents to become leaders in their families and in their communities. The curriculum covers everything from management of family relationships to strategies for seeking leadership in their children’s schools.

And parental engagement efforts don’t end there. A new focus is on what are being called grandfamilies — grandparents who find themselves raising their children’s kids. They face a range of unique issues, from social to legal. “Often our main message is to tell them they’re not alone; others are grappling with the same issues,” she says.

Last year, the Illinois AfterSchool Network recognized Bradley with its Richard Scofield Award — presented annually to an outstanding afterschool professional — for her personal excellence, leadership, and contribution to the field. “Jill has that uncommon ability to connect with anyone,” wrote her nominator, “to inspire them to do their very best.”

Three decades of making a difference

After graduating from Erikson in 1981, Bradley ran the early childhood center at Olive-Harvey College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. State-of-the art classrooms with two-way mirrors and sound wiring meant that students doing their practicum could be observed at any time unawares. “This held them to a higher standard of quality and accountability,” Bradley says.

In 1990, she moved to the Chicago Housing Authority, which ran a handful of childcare centers in some of the roughest public housing complexes in the city. “Parents there didn’t value their children any less,” Bradley says. “They wanted the best for them.”

In often-difficult conditions, she and her team worked to raise the quality of the childcare staff. Many went back to school at Bradley’s urging; others stepped down when they realized they weren’t right for their roles. “The transition took years,” Bradley says. “I can’t claim better outcomes for the students, but the centers were held in higher regard; they were no longer places of last resort.”

Before joining Illinois Action for Children, Bradley served for 10 years as chief program officer for the Carole Robertson Center, working with parents and childcare providers in the North Lawndale, Little Village, and Near West Side communities. During her tenure, the agency tripled in size, began serving infants and toddlers, developed staff in innovative ways, and reached out to more diverse constituents.

Erikson: A seminal force

As Bradley reflects on her professional path, she is quick to trace it back to Erikson. “Everything I’ve done has in some way been shaped by my experience there,” she says.

Bradley started out teaching high school, but soon she began thinking more broadly about what would make her a better teacher and how she best fit into the education field. After taking a job as director of a child care center, she was encouraged to enroll at Erikson to get the knowledge she needed to be effective in her role.

“It opened an entire world to me,” she says. As an African-American woman, she didn’t have many role models in graduate programs. The Institute’s supportive yet practical approach was a big draw.

“I knew sitting around a big wooden table talking about Socrates wasn’t going to work for me,” she laughs. “At Erikson, we were able to pose real questions and get real answers. We were seeking education that was relevant to our work, and that’s what we got — knowledge that could be applied right away.”