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Penny Smith is a Certified Professional in Talent Development (CPTD®), IDI®(Intercultural Development Instrument) Qualified Administrator, and co-creator of “Decolonizing Data and Language” workshop. She leads the Policy and Leadership Department at Erikson Institute as the director of learning and impact and is focused on developing capacity-building learning models that activate a base of committed Illinois leaders who can protect and increase investments in early childhood; contribute to building back the early childhood system; and amplify awareness of the importance of early childhood locally, statewide and nationally. Using her skillset and nonprofit experience of more than 20 years, she has built programs from the ground up. Stand-out programs such as the Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellows and the Executive Fellows have cultivated a pipeline of diverse leaders who examine racial equity issues and change policy to increase access to the programs and services all children and families need. She also builds partnerships with organizations, both local and across the U.S., seeking consultation on workshops designed with a racial equity lens and based in adult-learning theory. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a Master of Science degree in training and development from the University of St. Francis.

Veronica Vidal is director of content strategy and is responsible for determining communication and fundraising efforts for Erikson’s Policy and Leadership Department. She sets guidelines and processes for content creation and distribution, maintains an editorial calendar, serves as main editor for materials produced as well as leads content creation. This work includes communicating the impact of the department’s programs. Vidal is also the lead for the department’s data initiative, the Illinois Risk and Reach Project, which provides county-by-county data on the risk factors affecting child development. She has a trained eye for applying anti-racist concepts to communication materials– framing complex social issues into accessible language and digestible information. She has more than 20 years of experience in communications and fundraising having worked for the Chicago Community Trust, Prevention First and the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, to name a few. Having graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, she is a writer and performance storyteller. She also served as a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization for seven years. 

Verónica Cortez is Erikson Institute’s new associate director of policy. She is responsible for examining the efficacy of existing statewide early childhood policies and engaging in various policy making tables on behalf of Erikson and connecting policy initiatives and advocacy efforts to the organization.

She previously led the early childhood policy and advocacy work at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law where she worked with community groups and advocates to make Illinois a better place for children. She also worked at the Midwest office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund where she led advocacy work in the areas of education and voting rights and litigated in the areas of employment and immigrant rights.  Through her work at both organizations Verónica focused on bringing equitable outcomes to communities that are often disenfranchised and ignored.

Verónica earned her Juris Doctor from the Chicago-Kent College of Law and her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and Hispanic Studies from Brown University. She is also a 2018-2019 Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellow.

Atena Danner is the associate director of learning and facilitation for Erikson’s Policy and Leadership Department. Applying diverse lenses to intersecting issues, Danner develops content and provides rigorous facilitation, generative collaboration, and radical imagination to adult learning experiences. Her work in Erikson’s Early Childhood Leadership Academy programs helps build the capacity of leaders in early childhood development and racial equity. Having more than 15 years of experience in the early childhood field, Danner is an experienced and responsive facilitator, committed to creating brave spaces for learning that balance challenging reflective practice with joyful engagement. She has served as a professional coach and facilitator for Erikson’s Language & Literacy Partners, Project Connect, and the Next Steps Evanston Anti-Racism Studio. She has also supported coaching and curriculum development/implementation for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and St. Augustine College. Danner is a writer; she holds a Master of Science in child development from Erikson Institute and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Luke Bandyk creates content and manages special projects for Erikson Institute’s Policy and Leadership Department. He develops online content for a variety of early childhood stakeholders with a focus on providing action steps that one can take to support Illinois’s children and families. Bandyk worked on the Illinois Risk and Reach Report, in 2021, providing data quality control and oversaw the development of the Reports’ website. He also provides project management for the Raising Illinois coalition workgroup focused on improving the diversity, compensation, career pathways and professional development of the infant and toddler workforce in addition to efforts to center racial equity across the coalition. He has been involved with multiple organizations that assist children and families such as Hilltop Neighborhood House, a small community-based organization in Valparaiso, Indiana. There, he led the after-school program, KIDREACH, and supported operations of their early childhood education program which provided care for children from ages six weeks through five years. Bandyk holds a master’s degree in social work with a specialization in leadership and development in social services as well as a certificate in philanthropy and nonprofit management from Loyola University Chicago. 

Hannah Kaare is logistics manager for Erikson Institute’s Policy and Leadership Department. She works with the department leadership to lead the logistics for all Early Childhood Leadership Academy activities and Policy and Leadership client-based projects, including project management and implementation. She exercises strong judgment in responding to questions, troubleshooting problems, and flagging issues for other team members as needed. Kaare also builds and maintains relationships with a variety of stakeholders, including other Erikson staff, ECLA alumni, and other partner organizations. She takes projects from the ideation stage through planning and implementation phases. She oversees event management and speaker arrangements, manages vendor contracts and other official agreements. She provides supervision, support, and/or training to interns. Kaare earned a Master of Social Work degree with a specialization in leadership and development in social services from Loyola University Chicago. She also earned a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Luther College and studied parent-child relationships of individuals experiencing incarceration and the impact of family prison visitation on children.