Our Team - About Us - BUILD Initiative
Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

Our Team

The BUILD Initiative team of early childhood professionals brings a commitment to building and sustaining comprehensive child development systems.

Effective systems emphasize continuous learning, collaboration, diversity and equity, child- and provider-focused reform, and innovation. Our team has decades of high-level experience with state and local early childhood, education reform, human services and political campaign and messaging work. Each team member has a deep understanding of how to engage disparate constituencies and forge common ground to advance a comprehensive policy agenda.

Susan Hibbard, Executive Director

Susan Hibbard, deputy director of the BUILD InitiativeExecutive Director
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Susan Hibbard, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of early learning, early childhood systems, and social change with a focus on research and analysis, strategic planning, project management and skills training. As BUILD’s executive director, she  oversees its daily operations, directs the BUILD staff team, and coordinates governance and financial management with fiscal sponsor Third Sector New England.

Susan also designs a vibrant learning community for state leaders to foster peer-to-peer networking and information sharing on a wide range of early childhood topics. She additionally oversees BUILD’s research and evaluation efforts, and manages the publication and dissemination of the BUILD Initiative’s research and policy briefs.

Susan did her undergraduate work at Bryn Mawr College and received her M.A. from the New School University.

Gretchen Ames, State Services Specialist

Gretchen Ames, EdD joined BUILD as a State Services Specialist in February 2019. In this role, she focuses on QRIS and serves on the state services team. Gretchen has held a variety of roles in the field of early childhood education, including teacher and administrator in several states, subsidy administrator, and grassroots organizer. She also has held multiple professional support positions, including manager of assessment and coaching programs, and faculty member working with early childhood educators in college settings. Her years in the field of early childhood education have informed her passionate belief that all children deserve access to quality early care and education settings that help them thrive.

Gretchen received her BA with a focus on Education and Conflict Resolution from Hampshire College, her MA in Education from the Leadership Program in Early Childhood (LPEC), and her EdD in Educational Leadership from Mills College.

Jenn Bender, Learning Community Project Manager

Learning Community Project Manager

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As the Learning Community Project Manager for the BUILD Initiative, Jenn Bender leads the QRIS conference committee and supervises the Learning Communities team supporting all of BUILD’s learning activities. Before joining BUILD in 2015, she served as the Pennsylvania Registry Manager where she implemented and managed the Early Learning Workforce Registry. 

She has fifteen years’ experience in early childhood education and nearly twenty years in the nonprofit sector with a focus on community education, event planning, and workforce development.

Jenn has a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies with a women’s studies concentration and a Masters degree in Humanities, both from Pennsylvania State University.

Jonathan Chapman, Learning Community Specialist

Learning Community Specialist

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Jonathan Scott Chapman is a Learning Community Specialist for the BUILD Initiative. Prior to his hire, Jonathan worked closely with Sherri Killins Stewart as a consultant in an extensive early care and learning project in Georgia. What initially brought him to the state was Morehouse College, where he earned a B.A. in Drama with a minor in English. To BUILD, Jonathan brings creativity, writing talent, a passion for human rights, and a global perspective acquired through world travel. New Jersey and Connecticut, he fondly calls home, but currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Mariana Florit, Communications Director

Communications Director
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Mariana began consulting with BUILD Initiative in January 2017 and joined full-time in September of that year. She implements the BUILD Initiative social media strategy, editorial calendar and manages overall content marketing. Prior to joining BUILD Initiative, she provided strategic communications consulting to early childhood nonprofits. She has ten years of communications experience in early childhood, with specific expertise in parent engagement campaigns, organizational brand, messaging, and digital marketing.

Jim Gutierrez, Finance and Contracts Manager

Finance and Contracts Manager

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Jim Gutierrez serves as finance and contracts manager for the BUILD Initiative. He brings over 20 years of finance and accounting experience, of which 17 were spent in the non-profit sector. Working together with the BUILD team and its fiscal sponsors, Jim provides financial planning and management, budgeting and analysis, and contract management.

Prior to joining the BUILD team in 2015, Jim worked with a variety of non-profit organizations, holding several positions in finance and fiscal management. His roles included director of finance to chief financial officer. Jim’s experience ranges from local community-based organizations to international NGOs, supporting work from HIV/AIDS prevention to efforts around the world to bring safe, clean drinking water those most in need. He has the unique perspective of working with various types of missions, budgets, funding and cultures. While under his stewardship, these organizations developed sound fiscal foundations and flourished in achieving their organizational goals.

Jim is a graduate of St. John's University with a M.A. in business administration and a B.S. in accounting.

Danielle Fuentes Johnson, Learning Community Technical Specialist

Learning Community Technical Specialist

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Danielle Fuentes Johnson began consulting with the BUILD Initiative in 2016 and joined full-time in 2018. As BUILD’s Learning Communities Technical Specialist, Danielle supports a variety of projects focused on health equity, family child care, and early childhood trauma.

Prior to joining BUILD, Danielle spent many years providing case management services for Early Intervention programs; Early Head Start; initiatives focused on culturally relevant, bilingual housing for unaccompanied minors; and national and local agencies supporting children and adults with intellectual delays. She has worked closely with parents, early childhood educators, care providers, public school systems, and with professional health care systems, including public and private insurance companies.

Chloe Jordan, Learning Community Manager, NCIT Capacity-Building Hub

Chloe Jordan joined BUILD in July 2019 as the Learning Community Manager of the NCIT Capacity-Building Hub. In this role, she manages the learning community and program planning for the Pritzker Children’s Initiative (PCI) grantee states and communities that provide services for children and families who are furthest from opportunity.

During 2018, Chloe served as a project management consultant for the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI) for policy projects funded by leading advocacy and research foundations that support early learning education systems building across the nation. From 2016-2018, she was a program analyst for the DC Career Academy Network under the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education. She also has been a research fellow for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Title I Funding (Student Achievement and School Accountability), teacher for Communities In Schools, and federal program grants officer for DC public and public charter school school-reform initiatives.

Originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, Chloe earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from The University of Virginia and a master’s degree in public administration, with a dual concentration in budget and public financing/public and private partnerships, from George Washington University.

Debi Mathias, Director, QRIS National Learning Network

Director, QRIS National Learning Network
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Debi Mathias serves as the director of the QRIS (Quality Rating/Recognition Improvement Systems) National Learning Network with the BUILD Initiative. She works with a broad cross-section of partners at the state and national level focused on the development and implementation of high quality cross-sector early learning systems including QRIS.

Previous to her work in with the BUILD Initiative, Debi was the director of early learning services in the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) for the Departments of Education and Public Welfare in Pennsylvania. Her responsibilities included design, implementation and accountability for teams responsible for a variety of programs and initiatives.

These programs included Keystone STARS – QRIS, Family Support programs (NFP, MIECHV, EHS Grantee, PCHP), the state pre-K program, the state Head Start program and the Head Start State Collaboration Office. Debi also oversaw the PA Professional Development system, standards aligned systems (learning standards, etc.), the PELICAN data base system, program evaluation and research.

Debi also served as program director of SUM Child Development Inc. from 1978 to June 2005. She began a child care program that grew into a multi-site NAEYC Accredited early care and education program serving 800+ children from six weeks to 12 years. She also led a talented staff of 95+ at six early learning and 11 school-age sites while collaborating with Head Start and Early Intervention.

Carey McCann, Assistant Director of State Services

Assistant Director of State Services

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Carey McCann is the assistant director of state services for the BUILD Initiative. She supports state leaders to design and develop effective early childhood systems, set policy that guides implementation of services, and advocate for children birth to age five. Carey came to BUILD from more than 12 years at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, where she served as senior manager for the National Policy Team and led its consultation practice and peer learning with 18 states on early childhood policy and advocacy strategies.

Prior to her national work, Carey coordinated the Ounce’s Birth to Five Project, a statewide effort to identify system gaps and barriers, develop solutions, and link the many efforts that were already underway for children birth to five in Illinois. Carey developed expertise in social-emotional development and early childhood mental health policy. She advanced the mental health consultation model developed by the Early Childhood Committee of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership, and managed implementation of the Assuring Better Child Health and Development Initiative with the Illinois Medicaid agency, which focused on primary health care’s role in developmental, social-emotional, and maternal depression screening. 

Carey started her career with six years in child welfare in Rochester, New York. She is a board member of the Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health. Carey has a B.A. in psychology from the University of Rochester, and a M.A. from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration with a concentration in policy and non-profit management, and a family support fellowship.

Karen Ponder, Special Projects

Special Projects
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Karen W. Ponder helps states develop comprehensive early childhood systems with state and local components.

Karen has been involved in all aspects of early care and education, as a teacher, preschool director, board member, teacher trainer and policymaker. She is the former president of Smart Start, which she helped to create. She worked for the North Carolina Division of Child Development, overseeing programs for children with special needs.

Karen has worked with 46 states in some area of early childhood. She has made presentations to seven state legislatures and the National Governors Association, and has testified before three U.S. Congressional Committees and the National Summit on America’s Children.

Karen is currently a member of the Advisory Board of the McCormick-Tribune Center for Early Childhood Leadership, the Frank Porter Graham Executive Leadership Board, and serves on the National Advisory Panel for the FirstSchool Initiative. She is a recipient of the James and Carolyn Hunt Early Childhood Award, and Governor Mike Easley conferred upon her the Order of the Longleaf Pine, the highest civilian honor in North Carolina.

Upon her retirement from Smart Start, the Karen W. Ponder Leadership Award was created and is given annually to a community early childhood leader. Karen graduated from North Carolina State University and completed studies at Anderson University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Aisha Ray, Distinguished Fellow

Aisha Ray, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Fellow at the BUILD Initiative where she co-leads the Equity Leaders Action Network, a national leadership program. Her BUILD work focuses on racial equity, teaching and learning, and professional development. In addition, Aisha is part of the BUILD team working with the National Center on Early Childhood Quality Assurance. Aisha is also a Professor Emerita of Child Development at Erikson Institute. She is a developmental psychologist with an interest in how social, cultural, and racial factors shape early childhood teacher preparation and the workforce; child-rearing in low-income Black communities and the role of fathers; and racial equity and the elimination of white supremacy in early childhood systems. She is the former Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty (SVP/Dean) at Erikson. 

She serves as a Senior Adviser to the President of the National Black Child Development. Aisha has consulted with numerous groups including the Blue Ribbon Panel on Early Learning of the New York State Board of Regents; Illinois Early Learning Council’s Executive Committee; National Association of State Boards of Education; Ounce of Prevention Fund; Buffett Center at the University of Nebraska; Annie E. Casey Foundation; Chicago Public Schools; Council of Great City Schools; the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative; First School of the University of North Carolina; and Child Trends. 

Currently she is a member of the Power of Fathers Advisory Board, and the board of Children’s Home and Aid Society. In addition, she is a community activist engaged in issues related to Black child development and racial justice in Chicago. She has taught at the University of Michigan, DePaul University, Morehouse College, and Prairie State Community College, and was a research scientist at the University of Chicago Unit on Child Development.

Dr. Ray earned a doctorate and a master’s degree in developmental psychology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; a master’s degree in early education from Erikson Institute/Loyola University of Chicago; and a bachelor’s degree in history from Grinnell College. 

Ruth Trombka, Editor and Writer

Ruth Trombka, Program ManagerEditor and Writer
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Ruth Trombka became the BUILD Initiative's in-house editor and writer in 2015. In addition to drafting various BUILD communication pieces and editing staff and consultant writing, Ruth writes or co-writes BUILD blogs. From 2009 to 2015, Ruth served as BUILD’s program manager. In this capacity, she played a role in grants management and contract oversight and also acted as liaison between BUILD’s fiscal sponsor and the initiative’s consultants, funders, and staff.

Prior to joining BUILD, Ruth was the director of the State Improvement Grant in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in Washington, D.C. There she oversaw the implementation of K-12 reform efforts, supervised or presented workshops aimed at retooling teachers to address student behavior, promoting literacy instruction through strategies based on evidence-based practices, and engaging parents in their children’s education.

Before moving to Washington, D.C., Ruth was the manager of early intervention programs for preschool children with autism in New York City, where she was born and raised. She has a B.A. in Spanish literature and an M.S. in education from the City University of New York.


Deb Stahl, Special Projects

Special Projects
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Deborah Stahl manages a number of BUILD's special projects and learning community activities. In addition to BUILD, her consulting clients have included The Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, The New Jersey Early Years Funders Collaborative, Advocates for Children of New Jersey and she has provided strategic planning support to corporate foundations. Earlier in her career she served as vice president of foundation programs and secretary of the Lucent Technologies Foundation. She was deputy to the foundation president and provided oversight for Lucent's $48 million annual giving programs. She led five foundation program areas, including early childhood education.

Deb also served as director of the AT&T Family Care Development Fund. She developed a path-breaking grants program, which invested $25 million during its first six years to support community-based child care and elder services available to AT&T employees across the United States. She was recently recognized by the Families and Work Institute as one of ten leaders who shaped the work-life field and was awarded a 2013 Work-Life Legacy Award. 

She currently volunteers with Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey Council. Deb graduated from Ball State University with a B.S. in psychology and journalism.

Sherri Killins Stewart, Director of Systems Alignment and Integration

Sherri Killins Stewart, BUILD Initiative ConsultantDirector of Systems Alignment and Integration
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Sherri Killins Stewart, Ed. D, is the Director of State Systems Alignment and Integration for the BUILD Initiative and an independent consultant. Her consulting clients have included BUILD, W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, New Haven Public School System W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and Pearson Publishing. In her work with BUILD, she works directly with state leaders to advance early childhood systems efforts in health, early learning, and family support. She leads work to define and create intentional practices regarding equity in early childhood systems, policy, and leadership within the work of the BUILD Initiative. Her equity work includes co-leading a network of early childhood leaders to advance racial equity. Dr. Killins Stewart has worked at multiple levels and in a variety of states and/or communities to create targeted action to benefit young children and their families, including Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, New Haven, Connecticut, and Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr. Killins Stewart was the former Commissioner of Early Education and Care for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Vice President of Human Development and Operations at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and CEO of Empower New Haven.

Dr. Killins Stewart is known for crossing organizational boundaries to create a child development lens on the work of informal organizations as well as within other state agencies, including public health and housing.  

Throughout her career, Dr. Killins Stewart has been committed to supporting families, both children and adults, through the use of workforce, housing, health, and education strategies. Her efforts seek to increase access for families and communities to high-quality formal and informal opportunities in health, early learning, and family wellbeing.

Dr. Killins Stewart holds a nursing degree from the University of Pittsburgh, a Masters of Administrative Science from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Sarasota.



Michelle Stover-Wright, Research and Evaluation Manager

Research and Evaluation Partner
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Michelle Stover-Wright came to BUILD with over 16 years at the Child and Family Policy Center (CFPC), leading research and advocacy efforts as well we serving as Interim Executive Director. 

Michelle's work at CFPC focused on the research and synthesizing of policies and strategies related to child health and development, poverty, early childhood, diversity and equity, comprehensive systems development, family strengthening, literacy, K-12 education, immigration and other areas supporting children and families. Michelle led CFPC’s evaluation activities for national, state and community based initiatives and programs utilizing qualitative and quantitative data for outcome identification, quality improvement and systems impact. 

Michelle’s system development efforts focus on improving comprehensive systems supporting children and families while assuring that equity and family engagement are foundational. Michelle continues to co-chair efforts in Iowa focusing on racial equity and family engagement across Iowa’s early childhood system via Early Childhood Iowa.

Michelle is also on the faculty of BUILD’s Equity Leader’s Action Network working with leaders from across the country acting on specific racial inequities in state early childhood systems—in early learning, health, mental health, nutrition, and family support—and especially at the intersection of these systems. 

She currently leads BUILD’s evaluation and documentation efforts conceptualizing, implementing and sharing results to inform BUILD’s early childhood systems development work and the broader systems development field. 

Michelle received her B.A. in sociology with a concentration in women’s studies from Drake University and earned her M.S. in sociology from Iowa State University.

Cynthia Tate, State Liaison/HUB Lead

Dr. Cynthia Tate has always been a fierce advocate for families and young children. She joined the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as the Deputy Director of Clinical Services where she fought tirelessly to assure developmentally appropriate supports were available to child-welfare-involved families. As Deputy Director, Dr. Tate led the Illinois Birth through Three (IB3) Demonstration Project that focused trauma-informed interventions on permanency outcomes for infants, birth through age three. Dr. Tate also created the Office of Child Well-Being within the Department. In this role, Dr. Tate’s work deepened as she directed a team of specialty clinicians who supported families who needed it most. Dr. Tate eventually left the DCFS to become Director of the Governor's Office of Early Child Development where she led strategic partnerships between the Governor’s Office, state agencies, funders, and advocacy organizations. She led the team that was awarded the PDGB-5 Planning and Renewal grants, and the statewide leadership team for implementation of the Pyramid Model for social and emotional development. She was co-lead of the Illinois BUILD Team, which worked with the Early Learning Council to advance the work of racial equity in early childhood in Illinois.