If there’s something that needs to be started from scratch—be it a new state cabinet agency, or a corporate diversity program—there’s one person who comes to mind for a large cross-section of leaders and influencers in the state of Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from the public or private sector, they know who to recruit: Angela Moten Russell’99.
“There’s a theme,” she says, when relaying the timeline of her career and accomplishments. “Creating things.”
As a person who is no stranger to leading others into uncharted territories, Russell keeps a keen eye on her own personal compass, knowing that in order to successfully create and propel a new program or department, her initiatives have to speak to her core personal values of promoting social justice and seeking out parity for the various populations of a given community.
That need for an alignment of her personal and professional values is something that made her pause when she was approached about her current role as vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at CUNA Mutual Group. The company provides insurance and insurance products to credit unions and credit union customers.
“Honestly, I was a little skeptical, because I’d never been in the corporate world—I’m a Beloit College grad, we don’t do corporate,” she jokes. “I had to think about it, and think about how this organization was going to be consistent with my values in terms of social justice. Because that’s a big deal for me.”
If she needs a wayfinder, though—a map of her own personal credo—she doesn’t have to look further than her own forearm, where last year she inked the words “shared humanity” in a cursive script.
“Having this is a reminder to me,” she says, holding out her arm to display the tattoo. “As long as we are so divided, all we see is the shield of how ‘you’re bad,’ without connecting it to how we all experience brokenness, how we all experience shame, and how we all actually need each other.”
Many in the business world are starting to recognize the need for expertise like Russell’s.
“CUNA really didn’t have a diversity and inclusion program before Angela started,” says fellow alumna Diana Lievsay’11, a content consultant at the organization. “As much as D&I was recognized as something that was important and something we should do, Angela’s work brought it to the forefront of the company.”
She’s had such influence in a short amount of time—she’s only been with CUNA Mutual Group for a few years—that at last year’s all-employee forum, the company’s CEO cited diversity and inclusion as one of his top two personal priorities for 2017.
“Structural and institutional racism hadn’t been deeply examined at CUNA Mutual before Angela came, and now people are starting to look for it and see it,” Lievsay says. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re on the road for change because of Angela’s work.”
From Chamberlin to Doyle’s Cabinet to CUNA Mutual
A self-described “Chamberlin rat,” a term used to describe students who
hunkered down in Beloit’s former science building, Russell took a path to founding a corporate diversity and inclusion program that was not at all what she had imagined for herself. As an undergraduate, she studied biochemistry, was involved in an AIDS education task force, and Black Students United, served as a peer career advisor, and planned on becoming a pediatrician.
“I used to think, ‘I’m gonna do this and this and this and this, and it turns out life doesn’t work that way,’” she says.
“Who I am today, and my interests in things like the social determinants of health, that started at Beloit. That was ground zero.”
What the Peoria, Ill., native instantly did know, however, was that Beloit was the place for her.
“When I went to Beloit College, I felt at home,” she recalls. “And you know what it was? I saw this person walking somewhere with a purple mohawk and I was like, ‘Yes! This is where I need to be. These are my people.’”
Between her sophomore and junior years, she had an internship with the state health department in Madison, focusing on the disparity in mortality between black and white women with breast cancer, which ignited her interest in public health and epidemiology. Instead of applying to medical school, she earned a master’s degree in population health sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Marion Field Fass, one of Russell’s Beloit professors, says her drive was always apparent. “She excels at ‘attacking’ a new area and developing expertise, and then devising an organized plan for intervention or study,” Fass says. “Angela, as a college student, was amazingly organized. I still remember her little red notebook, in which she kept her lists, and carefully crossed off her accomplishments.”
Besides creating things, her Beloit education and critical-thinking approach to problem-solving has been another through-line in her professional experiences.
“The value of a liberal arts education has come in handy throughout my entire career,” Russell says. “Those classes that I took outside of Chamberlin, like economics, medical anthropology, sociology—have helped me immensely, just being able to dig deeply into other subjects, and quickly learn things that you need to learn in order to do your job effectively.”
Prior to CUNA Mutual Group, her career included stints in local and state government, including a role in former Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton’s office, and eventually the administration of former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.
“He (Doyle) wanted to create a new state department, the first department in the state’s history to have an exclusive focus on the well-being of children and families in Wisconsin. So I was a member of this small team he appointed to create it,” Russell says. Her purview was the department’s external affairs arm: communications, government relations, congressional relations, constituent relations. This all occurred in 2008, in a matter of months, while she was preparing to give birth to the first of her two children. She later earned a commendation from the governor for her work.
Dan Schooff, chief of staff and secretary for Beloit College, was working with the Doyle administration as secretary of the Department of Administration, the same time as Russell. He describes her as “a star.” It’s a common refrain; in 2016, the publication Madison365 named her one of the “44 Most Influential African-Americans in the State of Wisconsin.”
“Angela and the team she led tackled difficult issues while staying true to their mission—better outcomes for children and families,” Schooff says. “To know Angela is to know an extremely talented individual, and someone who uses those talents to help others.”
Transformation versus Transaction
With experience in county, municipal, and state government under her belt, Russell is in a unique position to compare and contrast efforts at achieving equity and diversity between the public and private sectors.
“In the government setting, it was really about racial equity, and looking at the difference between equity and equality, and getting a real sense of having an understanding of the history of how we got here,” she says. “In the corporate world … it’s really about the bottom line, profit and loss. So for me, the way that I’m approaching the work is: How can I marry the two? I want to be able to help CUNA Mutual, the company, in terms of its overall business, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of exploiting communities, which is sometimes that happens.”
It boils down to doing work that is transactional—“Here are the things you need to do to have a diverse and inclusive organization. Check these boxes and you’re good to go, do these trainings, and blah blah blah”—versus transformational. The transformational will take more time and heartache, she says, and will be extremely challenging at times, but it’s the way that these values get truly woven into the fabric of an organization. She has worked hard to give people the historical context of systemic racism, delving into issues like redlining mortgage practices.
“I remember our CEO saying: ‘I know you’re going to tell me there’s no code, but what’s the code?’ And I said here’s the deal, Bob, there’s no code for undoing centuries worth of oppression. You’ve got to understand the context of the world we live in,’” she says. “We can make a lot of great movement here at CUNA Mutual, and we are and we continue to, but it’s really important to understand how and why we got to where we are.”
Maybe there’s no code, but there are some key ingredients for any organization looking to really work, transformatively, on its inclusive practices, she says: curiosity, humility, and commitment.
“I feel like that’s the secret sauce,” she says, especially for those in leadership positions. “For folks willing to say ‘OK, I don’t know, I’m willing to be uncomfortable.’ It’s fascinating. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. It’s amazing, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.”
By all accounts, those who have had the opportunity to work with and learn from Russell feel the same way.
Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is the business development and marketing manager for Community Health Systems, Inc. in Beloit where she also has a freelance writing practice.