Erikson Institute’s Executive Fellows Program provides Illinois leaders in the legislative, legal, educational, governmental sectors, as well as other sectors connected to early childhood, with a comprehensive understanding of the long-term benefits of quality early childhood experiences.
Building this knowledge informs decision-making in their respective fields and illuminates policy opportunities to improve programs and service for children and families.
Emmanuel Andre is the deputy of policy and strategic litigation in the Office of the Cook County Public Defender. Before joining the office in 2021, Andre spent more than 11 years litigating the most complex types of criminal cases in Cook County, with a focus on cases involving violence. Additionally, in 2010, he co-created Circles and Ciphers, a restorative justice organization that incorporates hip-hop to resolve conflicts independent of the courts and create a path toward healing.
His professional experience sits at a unique intersection of community-based work and expertise in navigating technical systems and criminal cases on behalf of individual clients. In 2021, he was awarded Wesleyan Investive’s inaugural Tom Locke Innovative Leader Award. Andre has called Chicago home for over a decade, and he carries a personal commitment to supporting young Black men in developing healthy emotional expressions and caring relationships.
Nichole Carter currently serves as the chief of staff for Bright Star Community Outreach. Her work has included staff management, program administration, training, and grant writing over her seven years there. She brings over 25 years of experience within the public and private sector, impacting individuals’ and families’ lives through housing, education, and social service initiatives. The last 15 years have focused on the nonprofit space. She has worked in youth development through the Knoxville Area Urban League, and before her current position, she worked to help build infrastructure in small local nonprofits.
Carter graduated from Spelman College, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She also has a Master of Science degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. As a former counseling practitioner, she understands the need to consider the individual and the systems that affect the individual. She applies this understanding when developing and evaluating programs within Bright Star. Carter is also a 2021 fellow of the Civic Leadership Academy through the University of Chicago. Her mantra is “Changing the world, one family at a time.” She is grateful to work toward this through her role at Bright Star Community Outreach.
Director of Division of Early Childhood
Illinois Department of Human Services
Kirstin Chernawsky serves as the inaugural Director for the Illinois Department of Human Services’ (IDHS) newly created Division of Early Childhood, established to strengthen and centralize child care, home visiting, and early intervention services across Illinois. Appointed in October 2022, she is responsible for creating and implementing the vision and strategy for an aligned, cohesive Division to ensure streamlined, transparent, and equitable operating systems for a $1.3 billion program portfolio and additional $1.6 billion federal COVID-19 relief portfolio.
Prior to joining IDHS, Chernawsky was the executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, which provides comprehensive support to families through early childhood education, school age programming, mental health services, adult education, workforce development, and legal services. During her eight-year tenure she led organizational strategy and fundraising.
She oversaw the expansion of mental health and wellness, as well as legal services, through the creation of both the Legal Services and Proyecto Cuidate departments. She stabilized the agency’s financial position, securing the deed to the organization’s historic West Town location, and increasing the budget by more than $3 million.
Under her leadership, Erie house was recognized with the UnidosUS Midwest Affiliate of the Year award, Chicago Run’s Go the Distance award, and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Chicago Social Impact Leaders award. Chernawsky herself was awarded Executive Service Corps’ Executive Director of the Year award, Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management’s 20 Years & 20 Leaders award and was named one of Crain’s Business Chicago’s 40 Under 40.
Prior to her time at Erie House, Chernawsky served as the director of development & external operations at BUILD Chicago. Currently she serves on the Executive Committee of the American Public Human Services Association’s National Association of State Child Care Administrators and as a member of Illinois’ Early Learning Council. Recently Chernawsky served as Board Treasurer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights and as Chair of the Board Development Committee for Susan G. Komen Chicago.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Master of Science degree in Public Service Management from DePaul University as well as certificates from Harvard Business School and +Acumen for Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management and Human-Centered Design, respectively. Chernawsky is a proud breast cancer survivor, avid Cubs fan, and enjoys spending time with her husband, dog and cat.
Representative Edgar Gonzalez, Jr. serves the 21st District in the Illinois State House of Representatives. He serves on the Appropriations-Human Services; Health Care Availability & Access; Higher Education; Labor & Commerce committees. Before taking office in 2020, he was on staff for Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, focusing on immigration, social security, veterans’ affairs, criminal justice, and education.
Born and raised in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on the Southwest Side, Gonzalez is the son of immigrants from Monterrey, Mexico. His father is an operating engineer and a member of IUOE Local 399, and his mother is a former member of SEIU Local 73. He attended Chicago Public Schools, including John Spry Community School and Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, in Little Village, and Whitney Young Magnet High School. He graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in government.
Research Assistant Professor
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
Dr. Stacy Grundy is a research assistant professor in the Department of Population Science and Policy at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the interim director for the Office of Community Engagement Director for the Southern Illinois University System. A respected public health practitioner, community-based researcher, and social entrepreneur, she has devoted her career to improving healthcare access and quality for historically excluded communities (people of color; people with disabilities; LGBTQ+, etc.).
For the past 15 years, Dr. Grundy has committed herself to health systems integration with the goal of improving outcomes for patients, providers, and health systems. She has a distinguished career that reflects continual advancement, a depth of valuable and diversified experience, and consistent achievements in driving innovative, cost-effective population health strategies within healthcare systems and diverse communities.
In June 2020, Dr. Grundy directed a regional assessment that determined community barriers to healthcare access and
developed recommendations for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Healthcare Transformation Plan. This work was used to inform legislation that created the Healthcare Transformation Collaboratives Program. This new law created an annual $150 million fund to increase the quality of care for adult Medicaid beneficiaries with behavioral health, substance use disorder, and physical health needs.
Building on her public health work, Dr. Grundy is the vice president and co-owner of Route History, Inc., a Black history museum that highlights the experiences, tragedies, resiliency, and excellence of Black people along the Historic Route 66 and in the city of Springfield, Illinois. These experiences serve as a reminder of struggles and consistent perseverance towards excellence, despite overwhelming systemic racism and injustices. Through this work, she uses local Black history and assets to introduce minority youth to entrepreneurship and museum careers, as well as spur local economic development. In 2021, she was recognized as an influencer by Landmarks Illinois for her profound impact on the state of Illinois’ historic preservation movement.
Dr. Grundy has over 15 years of community service experience as a member of local, state, and national organizations. She currently serves on the Illinois Governor’s appointed Health Facilities and Services Review Board, the Medics First (Advanced Medical Transport) Board, Landmarks Illinois Board, Route 66 Green Book Taskforce, Hometown Connect, the Alexander-Pulaski Counties Branch of the National Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) and is a member of the Epsilon Lambda Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.
She earned a Bachelor of Science in human nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Master of Public Health in health promotion and behavioral sciences, with a concentration in health disparities, from the University of Texas Health Science Center, and a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of South Florida College of Public Health. Dr. Grundy is the daughter of Kenneth and Shirley Grundy of Hodges Park, IL.
Illinois State House of Representatives, 79th District
Representative Jackie Haas serves the 79th District in the Illinois State House of Representatives, serving residents in Kankakee, Will, and Grundy counties.
Prior to her current position, she served as a social worker for more than 30 years, advocating for individuals and families and connecting them to the resources they need. In 1994, Haas joined the Helen Wheeler Center for Community Mental Health and became the organizations CEO in 2000, pushing to expand health care, economic opportunity, and early childhood development throughout her community. She also served on the Kankakee County Board from 2018 to 2020.
She attended St. Patrick’s Grade School in Momence and Bishop McNamara High School. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in social work from Valparaiso University and received her master’s degree in social work with a specialization in mental health from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jane Addams School of Social Work. Haas and her husband of 28 years, Bill, live in Bourbonnais where they raised their two children. She continues to serve at the Helen Wheeler Center today and is actively involved in several community-based coalitions, local board of directors, and community collaborations.
Chief of Staff and Chief Strategy Officer
City Colleges of Chicago
Veronica Herrero currently serves as the chief of staff and chief strategy officer at the City Colleges of Chicago. In her capacity, she supports the chancellor and partners with the seven presidents of the City Colleges in the successful execution of the district’s five-year strategic framework and college strategic plans. She provides strategic leadership and oversight for the district in the areas of equity, advancement, community and government relations,
and continuous improvement initiatives.
Prior to joining the City Colleges of Chicago, Herrero was chief program officer of One Million Degrees (OMD), a non-profit organization partnering with community colleges in the Chicagoland area and committed to empowering community college students to succeed in school, work, and life. She brings over 15 years of cross-sector leadership experience in strategy, design, student success, and education management through her previous roles at OMD, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, and Chicago Public Schools.
She is the proud daughter of two Mexican immigrants and mother to two young boys. She has dedicated her career to ensuring equitable paths to economic mobility, in service of first-generation students and communities of color. Herrero serves on the Illinois Board of Higher Education as vice chair, the Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees, and the Girls, Inc of Chicago Board of Directors.She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Master in Business Administration from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and is an alumna of the University of Chicago Civic Leadership Academy.
Superintendent, Lindop School District 92
Dr. Janiece Jackson has been the superintendent for Lindop School District 92 in Broadview, Illinois since 2015. She served as the executive director of the Educational Foundation for the Children of Fiji from 2014 to 2016, as well as the board president of Leaders in Transformational Education from 2014 to 2020. She attributes her success to perseverance, commitment and several incredible female mentors who taught her different methodologies of teaching and leadership.
Fostering a love of learning and education, Dr. Jackson attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, where her interest in academia first blossomed.
At the inception of her career in 1989, she served as a training and development coordinator for Sargent & Lundy LLC for five years. From there, she worked at her former high school as a business teacher from 1994 to 2001, teaching both accounting and computer information systems to children from grades seven through 12. As her career progressed, she became director of curriculum and instruction and director of personnel at Bellwood School District 88, as well as an assistant principal, principal, and grant administrator at Matteson School District 162.
She is a member of the American Societies for Curriculum Development, American Society of Training and Development, Society for Human Resource Management Professionals and Kappa Delta Phi, among other organizations. Dr. Jackson holds an MSEd in adult and continuing education from Northern Illinois University, an MEd in educational administration from the University of Illinois in Chicago. After several years of teaching and academic administration, she enrolled in Aurora University where she earned an EdD.
Dr. Jackson is recognized for her academic prowess by the Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Broadview Business Association as Community Leader of the Year in 2021. She intends to begin mentoring new superintendents in the future and lives by the mantra: “It is our reasonable duty to educate all children and act as though it were impossible to fail because good enough never is.”
Assistant Regional Superintendent
Lake County Schools
Dr. William E. Johnson is currently the assistant regional superintendent of Lake County Schools. Having more than three decades of experience and knowledge in the field of education, he cultivated his personal philosophy that acknowledges that society is ever-changing and diverse and requires differentiated instruction tailored to meet the needs of all students.
He believes this must be done with the expectation that all children can achieve at a high level when challenged and that equity is not an option.
Dr. Johnson began his career as a classroom teacher at C.H. Wacker Elementary school. He started his administrative career as an assistant principal at the elementary level. From there, he transitioned into high school administration and soon became a principal. He served a total of four years as a teacher, seven years as an assistant principal and 12 years as a principal at both the elementary and high school levels within the Chicago Public School system. Johnson served as the deputy chief of Network 7, which serves both the Little Village and Pilsen communities within the Chicago Public School System. Prior to his current position, he was the assistant superintendent in Elementary School District 159 in Matteson, Illinois.
Dr. Johnson was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago where he is still resides and is a proud Kenwood Academy High School alumnus. He holds a Doctor of Education degree from Loyola University Chicago, a Master of Administration & Supervision from Roosevelt University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from Alcorn State University. He is happily married to Janice Johnson and the father of four children (three being triplets).
In July 2022, Judge Marlow A. Jones was appointed to residential circuit judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit, which serves Iroquois and Kankakee counties. He was the county’s former assistant state’s attorney and criminal division chief since 2016, where he supervised 12 prosecutors, oversaw the office’s criminal prosecutions, and served as a member of the 3rd District’s Committee on Character and Fitness. He is a graduate of The John Marshall Law School, where he earned a Juris Doctor and an LL.M. in Privacy and Technology Law. Marlow is fully engaged in the community of Kankakee County. He has mentored youth for the Lincoln’s Challenge Academy in Rantoul and Circle Urban Ministries in Chicago. Jones coaches a team in the ACBA Champions League, a non-competitive baseball league for boys and girls with special abilities. He is also a board member and volunteer for Camp Shaw-Waw-Nas-See in Manteno.
19th Judicial Circuit Court
Judge Reginald C. Mathews has served as a judge in Lake County, Illinois for nearly four years. He was initially appointed to the Office of Associate Judge by the Circuit Judges of the 19th Judicial Circuit
Court in June 2018 and later, appointed to the Office of Circuit Judge by the Supreme Court of Illinois in March 2020. Mathews presides over the domestic violence and protective order cases.
In addition, Mathews is the co-chairperson of the community outreach committee for the 19th Judicial Circuit Court and is heavily involved in youth development activities in the community. Prior to his judicial appointments, he served as an assistant state’s attorney in Lake County for 17 years. The last 6 years of his prosecutorial career, he served as supervisor of the Gangs and Narcotics prosecution division. During his days as a prosecutor, he tried numerous homicide and violent crime jury and bench trials. Prior to his career as a prosecutor, Mathews served Lake County as a probation officer for several years.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and a juris doctorate degree from the Paul M. Herbert Law Center on the campus of Louisiana State University.
Jennifer Payne is an associate judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County, presiding in the Child Protection Division. Before taking the bench in January 2020, she was the chief litigation officer at Legal Aid Chicago, the largest provider of free civil legal services to residents in Cook County. Payne worked at Legal Aid Chicago for 30 years, supervising a neighborhood office in the North Lawndale neighborhood most of that time. She litigated in state and federal court, managed new attorney training, pro bono projects, and an appellate court project.
Illinois State Senate, 13th District
State Senator Robert Peters has a deep passion for public service cultivated by numerous events throughout his life that left a profound impact on him and the people he cares about. He was born in 1985 deaf and with a massive speech impediment. His biological mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and his adopted mother and father were a social worker and a civil rights lawyer, respectively. He is a proud South Sider and an even prouder Chicagoan and still resides in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Peters began his career in community advocacy as an organizer, where he successfully fought to require Cook County judges to set affordable bail amounts for all defendants, leading to a substantial reduction in the Cook County Jail population since it took effect in July 2017.
As a state senator, Peters plans to continue advocating for public safety for all. He has helped pass several key pieces of public safety legislation including the Reimagine Public Safety Act as well as authoring the component of a larger package that ended the system of wealth-based detention in Illinois. He is also committed to holding big corporations accountable, continuing his focus on reforming the criminal legal system, creating clean energy jobs, fighting for housing, health care justice and fighting for democracy in public education. He is passionate about his work and his community and intends to be the best public servant he can be.
Peters currently serves as the chair of the Public Safety Committee. He also serves as a member of the Criminal Law, Environment and Conservation, Health, Human Rights, Labor, and Revenue Committees.
Services Employee International Union (SEIU) Healthcare
Tommie L. Robinson III (he/him) is currently a legislative coordinator at Services Employee International Union (SEIU) Healthcare, which represents 90,000 healthcare, childcare, nursing home, and home healthcare workers across Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas.
In his role, he elevates the voices of hospital workers and childcare workers in Springfield, Illinois. He also serves as the point person between SEIU members and elected officials. He also is a part-time community researcher with New America where he conducts research on consumers’ experiences with different financial products, to educate the public and politicians about the dangers of these products.
Robinson is a product of Chicago, where he developed his passion in advocacy. Throughout the years, he has advocated for equitable and quality childcare, education, and systematic support of Black and Brown children and other children of color. In staying true to his passion, he is the public policy and advocacy chair of the Black Child Development Institute Affiliate in Chicago, where he leads the affiliate’s policy priorities for elevating Black children and family voices. Robinson plans to continue his calling of addressing equitable policies facing children and families of color in Illinois. He has a bachelor of liberal arts and social science degree and a masters in urban schooling: policy, practice, and curriculum from the University of Concordia in Chicago.
Director of Communications and Public Affairs
Office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Nick Shields is an award-winning public relations professional currently serving as director of communications and public affairs for the Office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
During COVID, Shields created and spearheaded the early childhood and family-oriented initiative Project Rainbow, which seeks to inform, inspire and impact Cook County residents.
He previously served as communications director for Cook County Clerk David Orr and Navy Pier, Inc. Before joining Navy Pier’s leadership team, Shields worked for WTTW as a producer and reporter for the weeknight newsmagazine program, “Chicago Tonight,” where he won a local Emmy.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a degree in print journalism, he cut his teeth as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. He would later receive his master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois in Springfield, where he also covered the Illinois General Assembly and the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions. He currently lives on Chicago’s South Side with his wife, 5-year-old son, and 3-year-old twin daughters.
Judge Levander Smith, Jr. has been assigned to Cook County Circuit Court’s Child Protection Division of Juvenile Court since 2020. Prior to that, Judge Smith presided over a Domestic Violence call (civil) in 2019-2020 and a Traffic Division call in 2019 after being appointed to the bench by the Illinois Supreme Court. Before being elected to the bench as a full circuit judge, Smith was chosen as an associate judge. As an attorney of 26 years, mostly in the public sector, he practiced law in child welfare law, domestic relations, and workers’ compensation.
Illinois State Senate, 11th District
Born in Chicago and raised in Little Village, Celina Villanueva is currently the State Senator for Illinois’ 11th District. Villanueva began organizing and advocating for her community as a teenager, and is committed to building immigrant power, developing young leaders, expanding voting rights and engaging immigrant communities and allies.
During her time at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), she organized her community to pressure lawmakers to pass online, same-day and automatic voter registration – all of which are now law. There, she also ran the largest immigrant civic engagement program in the state, registering over 200,000 new American voters.
Prior to joining ICIRR, Villanueva served as the director of organizing at Chicago Votes where she engaged young voters to participate in democracy. When she was appointed to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2018, she brought the voices of her community with her to continue the work they had started. In the House, she led the effort to include strong social equity measures in the state’s cannabis laws so that communities harmed by failed drug policies would not be abandoned. She also worked with immigrant advocates to pass the Keep Illinois Families Together Act, prohibiting law enforcement from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE).
Villanueva was sworn into the Illinois Senate in 2020 and currently sits on the Appropriations I, Higher Education, Public Safety and Transportation Committees. She remains a community organizer at heart and will continue to uplift marginalized voices in Springfield.
Illinois State Senate, 8th District
State Senator Ram Villivalam was raised on the northwest side of Chicago. He is the son of Indian immigrants who came to Chicago in the 1970s. Though his father and mother were a civil engineer and a teacher in India respectively, they had to work minimum-wage jobs, go back to school, and work their way to more than 25 years each of public service. He will always remember their struggles and the middle-class values he grew up with.
Prior to being sworn into the Illinois General Assembly, Villivalam spent four years advocating on behalf of home care for seniors and people with disabilities, childcare for working families, and Medicaid for those in need. He also worked at the federal level of government for U.S. Congressman Brad Schneider as his outreach director. In this role, he was responsible for outreach on a variety of policy issues and had duties that ranged from signing people up for the Affordable Care Act to organizing Job Fairs.
He is honored to be an effective, proactive, and progressive voice for the people of the 8th District and will continue to be focused on issues such as income equality, reducing gun violence, providing a quality education to children regardless of the zip code they reside in, and advancing immigrant, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. Additionally, he is incredibly proud to be the first Asian American elected to the Illinois State Senate and the first Indian American elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
He is currently the Chair of the Transportation Committee and sits on the Energy and Public Utilities, Health Care Access and Availability, Human Rights, Licensed Activities and Pensions Committees. Villivalam serves his community in other roles that include being a past president of the Indo-American Democratic Organization (IADO) and previous director on the Board of Gun Violence Prevention PAC. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and his sons, Rohan and Lokesh, in the North Mayfair neighborhood in the City of Chicago.
Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
Dr. Wendi Wills El-Amin is the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion and faculty at Southern Illinois University School (SIU) of Medicine and provides care at the Center for Family Medicine in Springfield. She is also dually appointed to the SIU’s Department of Medical Education.
El-Amin served as assistant dean of medical education at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville (2007-10). Also, at the University of Virginia, she served as director of outreach at the Center on Health Disparities and director of the UVA Cancer Center Health Disparity Initiative (2006-10) and as an assistant professor of Family Medicine and public health (2005-10). She was in private practice at Wills Diagnostic Clinic in Houston (2001-03) and completed her residency in family practice and community medicine as chief resident at the University of Texas-Houston (2001).
El-Amin earned her medical degree at Georgetown Medical School (1998) and a bachelor’s degree in biology at Hampton University in Virginia (1993). She is board certified in family medicine and is a member of the National Medical Association, where she chaired the Women’s Health Section (2008 – 2019). The proud mother of three girls, she is also a community health advocate and activist with a passion for addressing health disparities and inequities.