CIRCLE is fortunate to have the support and counsel of an advisory board made up of scholars, practitioners, and leaders from diverse fields whose expertise intersects with our work.
The current members of the CIRCLE Advisory Board are:
Keesha Gaskins-Nathan is the director for the Democratic Practice–United States program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the lead for its Racial Justice Initiative. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan is dedicated to advancing measures and ideas that improve democratic systems and engage democratic culture in the United States to support full and fair democratic and economic opportunity for all residents. She is a long-time organizer, lobbyist, and trial attorney. Prior to joining the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, she was senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, serving as the director of the Redistricting and Representation program. Her portfolio included redistricting reform, voting rights, and elections, with a focus on voter suppression issues. Previously, Ms. Gaskins-Nathan served as executive director for the League of Women Voters Minnesota and the executive director for the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus.
Chris Kaneb works as a principal at Catamount Management Corporation and Vice President of Real Estate at HP Hood LLC. He has many years of experience in permitting, leasing, management and construction of numerous commercial and residential real estate projects throughout the northeast. His primary focus has been the redevelopment of former industrial sites and adaptive reuse of historic structures in urban locations. Chris earned a BA and MLA from Harvard University. He lives with his family in the Boston area.
Parissa Jahromi Ballard
Dr. Ballard is an Assistant Professor of Family & Community Medicine in the Wake Forest School of Medicine. Her research focuses on understanding how young people engage with their communities, increasing equitable and meaningful opportunities for youth voice in communities, and understanding how community engagement is related with healthy youth development. In one current project, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, she applies ideas from developmental psychology to increase opportunities fory outh voice in substance misuse prevention efforts. In another current project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she is co-leading a randomized-controlled trial study to understand the effects of a school-based action civics intervention. Outside of work, Parissa spends time exploring mountains, creeks, and playgrounds around North Carolina, with her husband and three young kids.
As an associate at Omidyar Network, Andrew conducts research and analysis to inform the programmatic portfolio, and actively engages across their investment and stakeholder network to reimagine critical systems and the ideas that govern them. Before joining the Omidyar Network, Andrew served as a National Geographic 2020 education fellow, supporting youth-led movements and organizations around the globe. He co-founded the Kentucky Student Voice Team, which helps to amplify and elevate students as partners in improving Kentucky schools including through the successful #PowerballPromise campaign that restored $14 million for low-income student scholarships.
Before that Andrew worked as the national field director for Student Voice, interned at and then consulted for the Obama Foundation’s program team and served in strategic communication roles at APCO Worldwide and Hattaway Communications. Andrew attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Education Policy & Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Dayna Cunningham is Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, CIRCLE's institutional home at Tufts University. Previously she served as Executive Director of the MIT CoLab, where she built large-scale, multi-sector development collaborations that combined sustainability, wellness, and democratic control of economies in marginalized communities. While promoting inclusive economic development that is environmentally sustainable, socially just, and deeply democratic, CoLab applied expertise from disciplines and sectors including urban planning, civil rights advocacy, business, and community and labor organizing. An attorney by training, Dayna has worked throughout her professional career on promoting democratic participation and addressing social marginality. Through the ELIAS Project, an MIT-based collaboration between business, NGOs and government, she worked with leaders using profound innovation processes to create multi-sector initiatives for economic, social and environmental sustainability. Prior to that, Dayna was an Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation supporting efforts to explore changing racial dynamics and new conceptions of race in the U.S., as well as civil rights legal innovation. Prior to the Rockefeller Foundation, Dayna worked as a voting rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, litigating cases in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, and briefly as an officer for the New York City Program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Sofia Gross is Snap's Head of Policy Partnerships and Social Impact working on political, government and non-profit partnerships around the world. Most recently, Sofia led an initiative that helped over 1.3 Million Snapchatters register to vote and she was recognized as a Forbes 30 under 30 for Law & Policy. Sofia completed the Technology and Democracy Fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School where she co-authored a case study on Civic Responsibility: The Power of Companies to Increase Voter Turnout. Sofia studied International Studies and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at The University of Chicago where she was also Captain of the Varsity Swimming & Diving Team. Sofia currently serves as a strategic outreach advisor to The University of Chicago Admissions Office and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Institute of Politics at UChicago. Sofia advises a number of civic organizations including Civic Alliance, 50x2026, Civic Responsibility Project, National Voter Registration Day, Vote Early Day and TurboVote. She also serves as a Public Affairs Officer in the United States Navy Reserve.
Zoë Jenkins (she/her) is an 18-year-old reimagining education and empathy. Zoë is the founder of the Get Schooled podcast and on the board of the Kentucky Student Voice Team. As a part of her podcasting work, she was named a 2020 National Geographic Young Explorer. Zoë also works with Civics Unplugged to empower Generation Z as civic innovators. She also founded DICCE, which creates curriculum and resources for Generation Z to be more culturally responsive, empathetic, and equity-driven. Zoë has facilitated many workshops including with Stanford's d.school and The Nobel Prize. She has been featured in The Washington Post and NPR’s All Things Considered, and was named a 2021 Aerie Changemaker. She is a second-year student at the University of Virginia.
Zachary Patterson is a high school senior and the first student ever elected to the San Diego Board of Education. Beginning in 7th grade, Zachary spent three years advocating for the creation of a Student Advisory Board and the addition of a student member to the Board of Education. After receiving support from the school board and being elected by fellow students, Zachary quickly got to work on student-centered priorities. Zachary has changed district absence codes to allow excused absences for mental health and successfully passed a requirement for mental health education. He has stressed the urgency of climate change and worked with students to successfully pressure Governor Newsom to phase out offshore oil drilling. Zachary is President and founder of the California Student Board Member Association which works to ensure that all Student Board Members are provided with education and training on how to effectively serve as a student trustee. Under Zachary’s leadership, CSBMA sponsored two bills in the California State Legislature aimed at supporting student mental health and expanding student representation at the local and county level. Zachary works with students across the country, devoting much of his time to ensuring equitable student voice and engagement.
Sanjiv Rao is director of Ford foundation's Civic Engagement and Government program, which seeks to strengthen representation, participation, and leadership in US democracy so that communities have the capacities to shape their futures, animated by principles of dignity, inclusion, and fairness. His grant making has evolved to focus on youth organizing, civic engagement, and leadership development. His work focuses on ideas that are particularly relevant to realizing the promise of democracy: stitching together civil society organizations more effectively with public systems, supporting community-led solutions to systems change, and advancing agendas that center people and their lived experience in shaping inclusive civic spaces and responsive public institutions. Sanjiv began his career as an elementary school teacher in California, Texas, and Mexico. He has also held positions at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and as a member of the research team studying the Ford-funded Leadership for a Changing World program at New York University.
Ranada Robinson is the Research Director at the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund. Ranada is responsible for designing and moving forward NGP and NGPA’s mission-driven research agenda and transforming research findings into strategic insights that inform the organization’s strategic efforts. Ranada’s overarching goal for everything she does is making historically disadvantaged communities better for future generations. Before joining New Georgia Project, Ranada was Senior Project Manager at Market Street Services, a holistic economic development strategic planning firm that has worked in 35 states and over 150 communities, where she worked for over 12 years. Ranada holds a Master of Science in Urban Policy Studies with specializations in policy analysis and economic development and planning and a Master of Science in Risk Management and Insurance from Georgia State University. Ranada is also a graduate of Tougaloo College, where she earned bachelor's degrees in mathematics and computer science.
Deborah S. Smolover
Deborah S. Smolover is a Managing Partner of the venture philanthropy firm New Profit, and the Executive Director of America Forward, a national nonpartisan policy initiative. Deborah also leads the America Forward Coalition, a network of 100 social innovation organizations that advocate for public policies that advance equity, foster innovation, and reward results in education, workforce development, poverty alleviation, and criminal justice reform. Deborah served as Associate Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, and Counsel to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. She has served in leadership roles and on the boards of numerous organizations, including: Turnaround for Children, the Yale University Child Study Center/National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, the I Am Your Child Foundation, the We Are Family Foundation, Third Sector Capital Partners, and the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation. Deborah has taught at law schools throughout the DC area. She is an honors graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
Ashley Spillane is the Founder and President of Impactual LLC, a powerhouse social impact firm that supports brands, nonprofits, and philanthropists that want to see positive social change in the world. She is a nationally recognized civic engagement expert, featured in publications and media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Glamour, and Marie Claire. Her focus at Impactual is on creating innovative programs to engage people where they are, producing engaging and educational resources, and facilitating trusted partnerships among hundreds of brands, nonprofits, and influencers. Under Ashley’s leadership, Impactual has quickly become an award-winning agency that has helped architect some of the country’s most visible civic engagement programs, such as Power the Polls, a project that set out to recruit young poll workers in 2020 to address shortages caused by COVID-19. With an initial recruitment goal of 250K, the program successfully recruited over 700K poll workers with help from celebrities like Lady Gaga, Dan Levy, Trevor Noah, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kerry Washington. Ashley served at the helm of leading civic engagement organizations like Rock the Vote, The Atlas Project, and Democratic GAIN. During her tenure at Rock the Vote, she was credited with “reviving the 90s-era voter registration juggernaut,” partnering with heavy hitting brands like iHeartMedia, Tinder, and Verizon and cultural leaders like Young Thug, Kendall Jenner, and Lil Jon. Ashley holds a degree in International Affairs from The George Washington University and a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Janet Tran serves as the Director of the Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. She helped design the Foundation's non-partisan civic learning portfolio answering President Reagan's call for an "informed patriotism." In 2015, she established the Reagan Institute offices in Washington, DC with the launch of Leadership and the American Presidency (LTAP) and is the founder of the inaugural Reagan Institute Summit on Education (RISE), a bipartisan education policy convening. Janet serves on the Board of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), as a Senior Advisor to the Campus Election Engagement Project. Janet’s civic mission began serving as a teacher-leader in Los Angeles. Janet earned her BA from The University of California, Los Angeles, and her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction at California State University, Northridge. She earned her Doctorate in Education Learning Technologies at Pepperdine University studying the identity development of citizen leaders.
Andy X. Vargas
State Representative Andy X. Vargas represents the 3rd Essex District (Haverhill) in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He serves as the Vice-Chair of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee. He also serves on the following committees: Ways & Means, Education, Public Health, and Redistricting. He is a member of the MA Black & Latino Caucus. Rep. Vargas was previously elected to the Haverhill City Council, where he served as the city's first Latino elected official. He is a proud graduate of Haverhill High and Boston University. Rep. Vargas is also an alumnus of the Obama White House and previously worked for Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll). Some of his legislation successfully signed into law include: boosting housing production, mandating civics education, expanding school breakfast participation, and creating a new gun violence prevention program within the Department of Public Health.
Ben Wessel is an organizer and political activist passionate about mobilizing young people to vote. Ben spent seven years at NextGen America, the nation's largest youth vote organization which works to electing progressive candidates by turning out young voters, including two years as Executive Director. Before joining NextGen in 2014, Ben worked for Cory Booker’s campaign for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, as the Political Campaigns Manager for 350.org Action, and as the Youth Vote Director for President Obama’s reelection campaign in New Hampshire. His work in the youth climate movement has taken him from a Russian research vessel in the Norwegian Arctic to the halls of Congress and state capitols across the country. He is a board member of the Alliance for Youth Action and a native of the District of Columbia.
Alicia Wilson-Ahlstrom is a nationally recognized expert in youth development and youth organizing, and building systems that reflect the human-centered needs of children, youth and families. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant for the Forum for Youth Investment, Readiness Projects team on national and regional projects supporting youth, families, and organizations in advocating and organizing around their own community and social supports; advancing the work of research-practice partnerships to promote equity and improve community institutions; and strengthening community-driven work to ensure that the social and community ecosystem supports all youth. Alicia has completed fellowships with the Coro Foundation for Public Affairs, the New Leaders Academy and the Moody Exchange Fellowship for Professional Study in South Africa. She holds Master of Public Policy and Master of Social Work degrees from the University of Michigan.