Erikson's Annual Luncheon honored Heckman and Lawrence-Lightfoot for putting children first

On October 1, more than 500 luncheon guests — including civic, business, and early childhood leaders, alumni, and students — joined Erikson to place children and families first.

They left Erikson’s first-ever Children at the Forefront Luncheon buzzing about what putting children first would mean for our youngest and most vulnerable, as well as for the future of our nation.

Erikson president Geoffrey Nagle summed it up, saying, “You can understand the urgency that we feel at Erikson, as the clock is ticking for children. We have just 1,825 days until a child’s 5th birthday. That’s not a lot of time to prepare them to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, especially when the odds aren’t always in kids’ favor.”

Early childhood leaders

Several special guests spoke at the luncheon: University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman, renowned Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and First Lady Michelle Obama, who provided a special video message welcoming guests to the luncheon.

[img_caption align=”right” caption=”Sacks and Gracias” alt=”Sacks and Gracias”]“I want you to know how grateful I am for everything you have done for our children,” said Obama in the video. “And I look forward to all that you will continue to contribute in the years ahead.”

Trustees Sabrina Gracias and Cari Sacks, ’91, chaired the luncheon, and Michelle L. Collins, chair of Erikson’s Board of Trustees, served as the master of ceremonies.

Watch the luncheon video
See event photos
Read coverage of the event in Crain’s Chicago Business
View event photos in Splash

Research in the service of children

Each year, Erikson presents the Spirit of Erikson Award to an individual or organization whose leadership on behalf of children and families has made a significant and lasting change in our communities.

[img_caption src=”×150.jpg” align=”right” alt=”Heckman receiving award” caption=”Heckman and Nagle”]Barbara T. Bowman, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development, presented the 2014 award to University of Chicago professor James Heckman in recognition of his groundbreaking research proving the great economic gains of investing in early childhood development.

One of Heckman’s key findings is that the estimated return on investment in early childhood programs is $7 for every dollar invested. Heckman also found that quality early childhood development heavily influences health, economic, and social outcomes for individuals and society at large.

In accepting the award, Heckman recalled how Erikson inspired him to focus his research on early childhood development. In 1998, Heckman attended an Erikson conference showing how children’s early experiences affect brain development.

“At the time, I remembered being staggered [by the talk]. This to me provided the ‘aha moment’ that I didn’t understand something,” said Heckman. “I began to realize as I followed this trail that began here at Erikson that the early years were so fundamentally important. Of course, Barbara Bowman had known this at least 50 to 60 years, and Erikson Institute had been teaching it here in Chicago.”

Heckman concluded, saying, “In some sense, Erikson is honoring themselves for engaging me in this enterprise, and I hope to continue to further work with Erikson Institute in pursuit of understanding and wise policy with children.”

View, voices, and visible

[img_caption src=”×147.jpg” align=”right” alt=”Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot” caption=”Lawrence-Lightfoot”]Following the award presentation, Harvard University professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot delivered the keynote address. She challenged luncheon guests to look beyond public discourse that can “distort and compromise our ability to see, hear, attend to, and serve our children first.” She offered three suggestions, which she called view, voices, and visible.

Lawrence-Lightfoot began by asking luncheon guests to reframe their view of schools—to look for the positive, instead of the negative. “We will discover a different reality; we may even uncover a lever for change, a spark of promise that had been formerly obscured by our well-worn negative prophecies,” said Lawrence-Lightfoot.

She then encouraged guests to listen for and honor all voices in education, including teachers, researchers, and students. “The notion of ‘children at the forefront’ captures the need to amplify the voices of even the youngest of them,” said Lawrence-Lightfoot, “and attentively listen to the text and subtext of their words as they give us clues about how we might best support their learning and growth.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot concluded by encouraging guests to ensure that everyone is visible. She argued that fostering diversity and authentic inclusivity strongly relates to visibility. “Visibility is about everyone feeling seen, everyone feeling acknowledged, and everyone being seen as worthy,” she said.

Lawrence-Lightfoot’s remarks deeply resonated with luncheon guests. As she left the podium, she received an extended standing ovation.

Supporting children and families

The Children at the Forefront Luncheon wasn’t just a social gathering of civic, business, and early childhood leaders. The event raised more than $800,000 in support of Erikson initiatives in Chicago and around the country, due in part to a challenge grant from the Sun-Times Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. See the full list of Partners at the Forefront — the generous individuals and organizations who supported the luncheon.

The luncheon also got people talking about the importance of early childhood. “After you leave here today, please have at least one conversation with someone about what you learned here and remind people about the urgency — 1,825 days is all we have,” said President Nagle. “This will help our society place ‘Children at the Forefront.’ We can’t do it alone — we all have to do it together.”

Watch the luncheon video produced by AdelsteinListon and see more event photos at