My mother has lived with lupus for nearly 40 years. With her diagnosis and required care, I grew up with a front-row seat to hospitals and the health care system. As a child, I had an uneasy comfort in hospitals that grew into a fascination with health and disease. I learned that lupus was an illness that mostly impacted women of color, and I wanted to understand why. Motivated by learning more about my mom’s illness and fueled by my interests in health, disease and science, I thought I wanted to be a doctor.
While I did not become a doctor, I have dedicated most of my education and career path to understanding population health. I’ve learned that while access to health care is vitally important, access alone is not the primary solution to improving the health of our communities. There are other drivers, including education, income, wealth, public safety and community connections.
My personal mission in my career is to help create healthy communities. Growing up, I explicitly remember telling my parents that I would never join the corporate sector. My interest was in creating social and economic solutions to improve the overall health in our communities, particularly for people of color. I didn’t see how working for a corporation would help achieve those goals. However, in May 2015, I took a significant turn and joined corporate America by accepting a role within CUNA Mutual Group. That move allowed me to see how financial success is an integral part of creating a healthy community.
It is well known that Madison and Dane County are great places to live. Similarly, it is also well known that the prosperity and greatness of Madison are not shared equally between whites and our communities of color.
For years, there have been numerous stories, conversations and reports highlighting the disparities that exist in our own backyard. They’ve been documented over the years by such sources as Madison Times (founded by Betty Franklin-Hammonds), the city of Madison Study Circles on Race, the State of Black Madison (published by the Urban League of Greater Madison) and the Race to Equity report (by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families). All of them have highlighted the fact that opportunities for economic success and achieving overall health and well-being are not as accessible to blacks in our community as they are to whites. For example, according to the Race to Equity Report, the rate of black folks living in poverty in Dane County is 54 percent compared to 9 percent for whites—that is a sixfold difference. These types of disparities between blacks and whites affect the overall health of our community.
These inequalities are not a result of individual failings of communities of color. They are, in fact, a result of the way that we’ve created our systems and structures, not only in our local institutions but across the country. There is a history and current reality of structures that benefit whites rather than communities of color. Take, for example, the history of redlining, a practice that limits financial services—such as housing loans—to blacks. Redlining has had a direct impact on the wealth and health of communities of color. To improve the overall economic and health well-being of people of color, we need to examine structural and systemic solutions. We need to work to create environments where everyone has equal opportunity to live their fullest, healthiest and most prosperous lives.
So, the natural question that you may be asking is: “Why are you, Angela Russell, working at an insurance company if you are interested in creating structural solutions to improving health?”
Before joining CUNA Mutual, I didn’t know that companies in the financial services industry like this existed. I work for a company that was born from the credit union movement. Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives, committed to social responsibility and work to help their members build financial stability. One motto of credit unions is: “Not for profit, not for charity, but for service.”
While CUNA Mutual is a for-profit institution, it is a key part of the credit union system and is committed to the core goal of people helping people. We work to help people and families across our country achieve financial success.
My job is to help my company become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization. In this role, I work in tandem with a colleague who executes our overarching multicultural market strategy—with the goal of increasing access to our products and services by people of color. We know that we are not going to be successful in improving access to our products and services by people of color unless we have a much more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization.
I now understand that you can be true to your personal vocation no matter where you are working. For a child who saw the world through her mother’s illness and wanted to create a healthy community for all, I’ve gained a much broader definition of health and wellness — one that includes financial security as an essential part of it, but also one that is equitable and just.