Long before joining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a senior program officer, Amber Banks (PhD ‘17) was a special education teacher in Los Angeles.
While Banks loved the work, she became increasingly aware of how classroom perspectives seemed lacking from policies impacting students and teachers across school systems.
That understanding brought Banks to the University of Washington College of Education and its doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies in 2010. Her goal: to combine a research and policy lens with a classroom perspective to create more equitable policies and opportunities for children furthest from opportunity.
At the UW, Banks worked closely with faculty members Michael Knapp and Ann Ishimaru, who helped her analyze policies, build evidence-based arguments and broaden her thinking about equity and the role of families and partnerships in education.
“They both helped me center on a [dissertation] topic that I’m very passionate about,” she added. “Because I had the freedom to explore issues that are important to me, I was able to focus on a topic that is at the core of what I care about.”
Banks’ doctoral research explored cross-sector collaboration in education, focusing on cross-cultural trust building and the role of trust and relationships in advancing equity in education.
Her focus on trust and relationships extended from her experience as a teacher, where she noticed the quality of adult relationships often had a profound impact on student’s experiences and opportunities.
In that process, Banks noticed that families of color, those who did not speak English as their primary language and those who were impacted by poverty had different relationships with school staff.
“Families of color are often treated differently,” she explained. “They often do not trust schools and teachers to do what is in the best interest of their child due to a history of exclusionary and inequitable practices.”
Similarly, while working part-time at Oakland Unified School District during her doctoral studies, Banks observed that a lack of “positive adult relationships were one of the things that often stood in the way of people being able to move forward to a unified vision.”
While focusing on trust, relationships and social capital in her doctoral research, Banks applied critical race and social network theory, as she previously found that the literature on trust in education lacked an explicit focus on race, power and equity.
Banks’ research on trust is critical to her work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she is currently a senior program officer of measurement, learning and evaluation on its national early learning team.
In this role, Banks focuses on measuring impact and monitoring the evidence base for the foundation's early learning strategy, which seeks to improve Pre-K quality for kids ages 3 to 4 in Washington, Oregon and Tennessee and support best practices to support the national early learning workforce.
Throughout her work as a senior program officer, Banks also helps describe the impact of investments and what the foundation and its partners are learning in the process.
“My focus is on how I can be a good steward of the generous philanthropic resources of the Gates Foundation and make decisions every day that will get these dollars in the hands of people who have the expertise and lived experience of the folks we want to benefit from our investments.”
Ultimately, “What we’re doing is catalyzing change and being good thought partners,” Banks pointed out. “What our partners are doing is making positive change a reality.”
Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications