Angela Russell joined CUNA Mutual as Manager for Diversity and Inclusion after a varied career in state government, as an epidemiologist, policy advisor to Governor Jim Doyle, Division Administrator and Director in the Department of Children and Families. She also served as Health Equity Coordinator for Public Health Madison Dane County and Community Engagement Lead for the national County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Name your top 5 MCs.
- Akua Naru
- Yarah Bravo
- Lauryn Hill
- Missy Elliot
- Jay Smooth, a New York City (NYC) DJ and founder of NYC’s longest running hip hop program
What motivates you more, doubters or supporters? Supporters are more motivating to me than doubters. I am hard on myself. I gain more motivation and energy when I am surrounded by people willing to have honest and sometimes tough conversations.
What does it mean to be Black in Madison? I love living, learning, working and raising my kids in Madison. There are so many wonderful things here that I love: the local music scene, especially the re-emerging jazz music scene, as well as the art, the food, the outdoors and the education system.
That being said, there are few things that are challenging for me, that may be a result of being black. For example, it means that you have moments like this: You are out and a Luther Vandross song comes on and you are the only person in the place that knows the song. And you dance around anyway!
I also feel like people look to me to have the magic answer to reversing centuries of oppression. Spoiler alert: I don’t.
Personally, I do feel like I have had to “prove myself” at nearly every job that I’ve had. I’m not sure if that is a function of the places I’ve worked, a reality of what it means to be black in America, or if it is a form of me trying to mitigate stereotypes. Whatever the actual source, this aspect can be pretty draining.
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? Honestly, I’m impressed by a variety of people every day. It is tough to narrow this down to three, but I am going to have to say Colleen Butler, Erica Nelson and Howard Hayes.
Colleen Butler, the Racial Justice Director at the YWCA of Madison, is an incredible leader we are lucky to have in Madison. She’s worked at the YWCA for 15 years and has trained more than 1,300 people on racial equity and racial justice. If it weren’t for her leadership, I don’t know that we would have the types of conversations we are having today.
Erica Nelson led the way with the Race to Equity report, which was a real game changer in Madison and Dane County. While we, as a community, have talked about the racial disparities in Dane County for years, the report made community, business, and government leaders pause and listen. The launch of the Race to Equity report sparked necessary and more authentic conversations between those who hold power and privilege and those who don’t.
Howard Hayes, the Middle School Youth Programs Coordinator at Goodman Community Center, is simply amazing. I consider him one of my most trusted advisors. There aren’t many people in Madison who can stop me in my tracks and help me think even deeper about racial equity. He asks certain questions that force me really think about the issues, which is what I appreciate most about him.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? I believe it is a combination of aspects including (a) we are still stuck in the grief stage process acknowledging and truly accepting that we have a problem; (b) binary thinking – we tend to distance the issue by over intellectualizing the issue and not connecting it with the shared humanity and impact OR we swing towards too much emotion that paralyze us from taking real action; and (c) we think that we can “solve” this ourselves without recognizing that Madison is just mirroring (granted in a heighted way) what is going on nationally regarding race relations.
I quote Lila Watson from Australia a lot in my work. She says, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.”
In Madison, we often think that we are here to “help those vulnerable people” or “help those people in need.” This concept further separates us from each other and perpetuates a system of power and othering. In order to make real change, we have to see, know, understand and accept the notion and reality that we are all in this together. We need not fear each other because of our differences – but embrace and love knowing that we each have a role to play. It is acknowledging our differences and truly knowing and understanding the notion of shared humanity that we can begin to change. We are not there yet – we are pushing to have the “right answer” and want to be recognized for having that answer. I believe we need to first breathe into, value and live in our mutual connection that we have with each other in our Madison community.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? My kids, my family and friends, and my work.
In an interview, you said, “If you look at some of the conversations going on in Madison today around racial equity, diversity, and inclusion, a lot of times it’s government at the table and not business.” Why do you think business isn’t at the table? How could communities of color engage them into the conversation? That’s a great question. I think traditionally we’ve looked to Madison businesses for philanthropic support as opposed to engaging them in the conversation about racial equity in our community.
I think it takes a shift in perspective, but I believe businesses are open to playing a part. The best way to engage them in the conversation is to ask for their participation and explain why you’d like them to be a part of the conversation.
It’s in the best interest of our entire community, including businesses, to play a role in helping Madison become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place to live, learn, work and play.
You’ve worked in both government and the private sector. Is there a difference on how race is viewed in each sector? I’m not sure if race is viewed differently. One of the things that has impressed me the most about the corporate sector – compared to the public sector – is the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. There is a willingness to show true humility and go on the journey and the commitment to not have this be a “flavor of the month” initiative.
There is a commitment to personal transformation and organizational transformation. At CUNA Mutual Group, I see this commitment starting from and being modeled by Robert Trunzo, CEO & President, and his executive team. I have not seen this level of commitment in a very long time.
How does having an interracial child shape your perspective on race? That’s an interesting question. Having children has helped me to see first-hand how unconscious biases are shaped at a very early age. My kids ask so many questions and they have already formulated many theories. Being available and open to having a variety of different conversations and saying (often times) that I don’t know the answer has been very interesting.
What advice would you give to working parents when it comes to work/life balance? I don’t know that I’m the best person to give advice about work/life balance. It’s a real challenge for me. I can say in all honesty that I am making an effort to eat better, get more sleep and exercise. It is important to me to show by example to my kids how to live a healthy somewhat balanced lifestyle.
Name three things most people don’t know about you.
- I really enjoy public speaking, but it didn’t always come easy to me. While in high school, I attended speech camp at Bradley University with a focus on reading/performing prose. I was terrible – it was hard and emotional, but an incredible learning experience.
- Like many people, I struggle with depression and anxiety. Like other biases, it’s important that we look for ways to have more honest conversations about depression and anxiety and make it something people don’t feel like they have to hide.
- As outgoing as I am, I really cherish and make sure I have a decent amount of quality solitude. It is my way to re-center myself with my thoughts, recalibrate my perspective, and enjoy a sense of peace, freedom and creativity.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? For many years, I wanted to be a Pediatric Oncologist – working with children that had cancer. In high school, I read the book I Want to Grow Hair; I Want to Grow Up; I Want to go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer by Erma Bomback. I was really moved by the topic and would speak on it as part of my high school’s competitive speech team. While I did not pursue a career in Pediatric Oncology, my first internship was with the State Health Department researching mortality disparities between black and white women due to breast cancer. This internship was a key factor that changed the trajectory of my career. I found a passion in epidemiology, public health, community health, and diversity, equity and inclusion.