The Carole Robertson Center for Learning is expanding and evolving! We are delighted to welcome key leadership hires who will help steer us through this period of organizational growth and greater impact for the children, families and communities we serve.


Tara Harper, Chief Development Officer

Tara is a seasoned and strategic development professional with nearly two decades of experience in the field. Most recently, she served as Senior Director of Institutional Relations, Equity & Inclusion, at Children’s Home & Aid — a leading social service agency providing support for nearly 30,000 children and families throughout Illinois. There, she was responsible for more than $3M in annual revenue from a variety of sources, including private foundation grants, corporate partnerships, online campaigns, and individual giving. She also led the agency’s first-ever Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee with a focus on creating an inclusive work environment. Tara previously worked in advancement and prospect management for Oral Health America and spent nearly a decade as a consultant in grant writing, program development, and evaluation services. She is also an avid runner who has completed multiple marathons!

Tara’s strong track record and strategic, equity-focused approach to all aspects of her work will be a tremendous asset to the Carole Robertson Center as we enter a new phase of dramatic growth. Her leadership will guide our effort to secure the increased corporate, foundation and individual gifts required with the awarding of several major federal grants.



Abigail Ristow, Vice President of People and Culture

People-focused and passionate, Abby brings nearly 20 years of Human Resources experience to our People & Culture Department. Prior to joining the Carole Robertson Center team, Abby led the HR departments at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Her career journey brought her from Las Vegas to Chicago, from unionized to non-unionized organizations, and from for-profit to nonprofit.

With her experiences in talent acquisition, learning & development and building systems and structures, Abby is in the perfect position to lead our People & Culture team during this incredible time of growth and change. With a management style that is open and collaborative, and a focus on fairness and integrity, Abby cultivates workplace culture where people thrive. Her management philosophy is “listen, advise and stay curious.”



Ashley Nazarak, Vice President of Program Scaling & Dissemination

Ashley is the Vice President of Program Scaling and Dissemination. In her role Ashley is primarily responsible for leading, supporting, and implementing assessment, evaluation, and professional learning across all Carole Robertson Center for Learning program models to achieve internally driven and sustained Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI)-based professional development. Ashley holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development from the University of Kansas, School of Applied Behavioral Sciences and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration.

Prior to joining Carole Robertson Center, Ashley was the Vice President of Learning and Evaluation for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago where she was responsible for cultivating high quality, evidence-based programming through program assessment, staff development and professional learning, and curriculum design and implementation. Ashley has held various roles in early childhood classrooms, afterschool programs and social service programs. In the last decade, her work has focused on designing and implementing systems that drive quality programming and continuous improvement practices.



Brenda Berman, Director of Program Marketing & Communications

Brenda brings 20+ years of experience in marketing and communications, largely within educational settings. She has held leadership roles in higher-education institutions such as Illinois Institute of Technology and Columbia College Chicago, where she concentrated in brand marketing and cultural partnerships. Brenda has consulted in the early education, nonprofit and association sectors, specializing in brand strategy, strategic and digital communications. She also has extensive background as an educator, having taught ESL to adults from around the world and communications research to undergrads at Roosevelt University. Brenda holds a B.A. in psychology from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Passionate about our mission, Brenda is ready to lead our new Program Communications & Marketing Department as we drive our strategic priorities forward and continue to broaden our impact in early education and youth services. The Program Communications & Marketing Department holds both our internal and external communications, and partners closely with teams across the organization to tell our compelling story.



Julissa Cruz, Director of Community-Based Advocacy

Julissa has an extensive background in community leadership initiatives and building strong relationships at the family and community level. She was most recently at Chicago Public Schools, where she was responsible for providing support and technical assistance to 70 Local School Councils, the members of which are responsible for driving academic achievement in their local schools. Julissa also has a background in policy work at the federal level, having spent time in Washington, D.C., as a public policy fellow for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and as a communications assistant for the American Civil Liberties Union. Julissa holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from Loyola University Chicago.

Julissa joins our team as we seek to bring community voice to identify, create and implement policies and solutions that address pressing social issues facing our families, staff members, and other stakeholders. In her new role, Julissa will lead all day-to-day planning, organizing, and convening-related advocacy and engagement efforts with various internal and external parties, and she will develop an advocacy strategy based on the overall objectives of the Center and the broader field. This is an exciting opportunity to elevate the voice of early childhood and youth development program providers in the policy environment at all levels of government.


About The Carole Robertson Center for Learning
The Carole Robertson Center for Learning pairs high-quality education for children with one-on-one
support services to open opportunities for the whole family. Serving more than 1,500 children and their families across Chicago, and as one of the city’s largest Head Start and Early Head Start providers, we also partner with families to fortify their role as a child’s first teacher because all children can learn when they have enough to eat, reliable housing and a healthy family. Continuing our founding families’ quest for equity and justice, we deliver the first-rate education denied Carole Robertson and countless others. Robertson was one of four young
girls killed in the racist 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. We honor her, with permission from her family.

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Since 1976, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning has been dedicated to educating, enriching, and empowering children and families through comprehensive child and family development programs.