"Evaluation and learning can be applied anywhere. Once that clicked, I got really excited, because whether you’re talking to someone about out-of-school funding or third grade reading or national security, you can help people sit at the table and learn to make their thinking visible and push for change in an effective way. That’s how I view evaluation and learning — it’s a tool to drive systems change.”
Ammara Ansari (MPP ‘19) never imagined working on youth education and wellness policy or conducting evaluations—but in a joint fellowship with The Skillman Foundation and the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), that is exactly what she’s doing. Specifically, through program evaluation, data visualization, and communicating about the education landscape in Detroit, Ansari helps philanthropic organizations better serve Detroit communities.
“When foundations are thriving and investing in bettering themselves, then they can better serve the community they intend to,” she said. “Building more efficiency and advocacy within philanthropy can help to upend many of the injustices that institutions have perpetuated.”
In her role with CMF, Ansari uses surveys to gauge what kind of support the member foundations need, a key goal for the organization. She is building a forward-looking evaluation plan and facilitating learning conversations that improve evaluation of CMF surveys and services.
At The Skillman Foundation, Ansari is part of a team that is grappling with how to improve the out-of-school youth programming in the city of Detroit. One program group member at the Foundation decided to fund the current out-of-school funders group whose goals are to build better “active listening, transparency, and partnership” in the out-of-school space for the sake of providing high quality programming to youth. While Ansari’s team members focus on the work of convening and leading meetings, she works behind the scenes on improving the efficacy of the meetings and to think about how to achieve those goals effectively.
“Together, funders have been exploring how to keep kids happy and engaged and fulfilled in a virtual setting and post-COVID-19,” explained Ansari. "The Foundation has also been working in other strategy areas with grant partners to shift to think more about wellness and culturally responsive education, because these are the things that are really going to help children feel like they belong.”
“People are thinking more deeply and more intentionally about what they’re doing,” Ansari said. “These Emergent Learning tools that I gained through my fellowship and the course at Fourth Quadrant Partners (4QP) help me to make other people’s thinking visible and put everything on the table so there aren’t any assumptions.”
One thing Ansari loves about her work is the different roles she gets to play and applying her skills to different contexts.
“What I’m learning is that facilitation, evaluation, and learning can mean different things to different people. For me, it's a set of skills rather than a subject matter,” she said. “I love that I can apply it in different settings. On one hand, I'm working with CMF to survey our members, and at the same time, for The Skillman Foundation, I’m also figuring out how funders can build further alignment in the out-of-school space in order to improve experiences for youth in Detroit. They are vastly different worlds for me but I’m using a lot of the same skills.”
Ansari has also been thinking about how to use these tools to promote social justice and advocacy in community: "As someone with a background as a woman of color in organizing and advocacy, I’m figuring out how to use these tools to push for positive change. What would it take to turn evaluation on its head so that it benefits historically marginalized communities instead of the status quo? It's powerful to be a person of color and use the same tools that have upheld racism and to work on shifting those traditional power dynamics.”
Ansari credits her experiences at the Ford School with allowing her to be open minded about her career.
“The Ford School was a MPP program that didn’t force you to go into policy. I could choose the direction of my career,” she said. “I got to engage in lots of different policy conversations, which meant that I wasn’t siloed into one specific thing, and working at a place like The Skillman Foundation and CMF, you have to be able to focus on different things and be able to see the bigger picture and zoom in when you need to.”
Ansari chose the Ford School because she knew it would push her out of her comfort zone as well as arm her with the skills she needed to drive change.
“It was going to make me uncomfortable, in the sense that I didn’t come with a strong quantitative background,” she said. “I really wanted to challenge myself and be able to do a different kind of writing that wasn’t just academic papers, but papers that helped drive change. Policy papers are supposed to give people options, leave facts on the table, and to offer solutions to really tough challenges.”
Ansari had advice for other Fordies who are people of color.
“Look for community where you can. Stand up for principle, and don’t back down just because things are difficult. Look for opportunities where you can, find your own space and your own niche, whatever that looks like.”
Ansari served as the chair of the Student Advisory Committee, which helped her find a home at the Ford School.
“Being SAC Chair taught me how to work with other people, make decisions, and figure out how to get what other members of the community need,” she said. “Advocating was an important part of being SAC Chair. It was a really cool opportunity to work for and with your fellow students.”
Ansari emphasized the importance of finding a workplace that accepts you for who you are: “To see that there are women of color and Black women in the field of evaluation and learning was so inspiring because that’s kind of rare. (The Skillman Foundation) is a place where I felt like I wasn’t going to be judged for who I am—I was going to be valued for who I was.”