Karen Ansara strives to create holistic solutions

Karen Keating AnsaraKaren Keating AnsaraKaren Keating Ansara has become one of the leading philanthropists and activists in New England on behalf of the Haitian people. Ansara and her husband Jim created the Haiti Fund through the Boston Foundation last year and travel frequently to Haiti to assist in rebuilding efforts. She has also started an informative blog chronicling her interests in Haitian issues.

BHR: Walk us through the early part of your career.
Karen Keating Ansara: I went to Wellesley College. I was a Political Science major and essentially created an international development concentration. I went to work for Michael Ansara who was the founder of Mass Fair Share, which did political organizing to fight for economic reform on tax rates. I met my husband working there.

My next move was to Planned Parenthood. I worked in development and public affairs on their capital campaign. I really came to understand fundraising. I also worked on pro-choice statewide coalitions for women. I [came to] understand the importance of political advocacy.

In that aspect, I became interested in the role of religion in social change and went to seminary - Andover Newton in Newton Massachusetts. So I come to all of this from a religious, social justice perspective. Once I finished seminary, I worked for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, made up of 13 faith-based orgs which worked with a different perspective - with religious leaders - towards a common social justice call.

BHR: What were some of the early influences that you draw from today in your work?
KA: I attended an all-girls boarding school in the Midwest called the Ferry School. In a girls school, you had so many opportunities to explore and gain understanding of the unique challenges women and girls face. I try to look at philanthropy through that lens, to think of women and girls.

BHR: How did you first get into philanthropy?
KA: After I adopted my first son, I quit political organizing to become a full-time mom. We eventually adopted 3 more girls from Ecuador. I started to teach Spanish at their school and given my background in social justice, we decided to use our resources to address poverty in countries we had personal connections with. Jim had sold his company, Shawmut Construction, through an employee buyout. So we took the money from that and started a small family fund in 1999. We gave grants to fight poverty of parents who had to give up their children. Then in 2006 we went to The Boston Foundation and launched a donor-advised family fund.

BHR: The way you got into this work is quite interesting.
KA: I would not be doing what I do now, in the way I’m doing it, if I had not been a mother. I had to come to terms with the different stages of a woman’s life. You’ll have stages where you’re just nurturing children or parents. I try to appreciate the richness in that. [Women] are the community organizers, we cant just focus always on a career path. There have been times that I feel I have nothing to put on a resume - even though I worked for 7 years,

BHR: How did you first get involved in working in Haiti?
KA: A friend of ours Howard Amadon started working with Partners In Health after the 2008 floods. Then we made a small grant to PIH for flood relief in Cange. Jim was very moved by what he saw on his first trip with PIH. He met David Walton, a PIH volunteer who worked for Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He came to Jim in fall of 2009 and announced that Mirebalais gave some land to build a hospital and Jim said yes, as a volunteer, to oversee the whole [construction] project.

BHR: Describe the creation of The Haiti Fund.
KA: On the day of the earthquake, David called Jim and told him he’s going to Haiti and asked for his help. Jim was able to collect a lot of medical supplies through his connections and went down to Haiti. While Jim traveled back and forth from Haiti, I worked within our networks, including the New England Donors group and The Boston Foundation who helped us create the fund.

BHR: What are the short-term and long-term goals of The Haiti Fund?
KA: Long-term, to help create a model for how to best do philanthropy by funding pilot projects that show ways to address systemic problems. Too many projects are being looked at through a singular [lens]. Poverty is a multidimensional problem and you need multidimensional solutions to make it work. We want to fund Haitian-led organizations - want to partner with them to strengthen their work. We wouldn’t fund a school, but a project that addresses educational system and rural livelihood, education, shelter… What we could fund is one pilot-project that created the ingredients that would attract people from the tent camps to it - something holistic.

BHR: What is your favorite Haitian proverb?
KA: Kreyon pèp pa gen gòm… The people’s pencil has no eraser. So when the people speak, no one can take away their words.