From UM to the White House

Racquel Russell, deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs and economic mobility, delivers keynote address at UM Women's Commission Breakfast.

Coral Gables (March 26, 2013) — Five months into her job as deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs and economic mobility, Racquel Russell was still the silent voice in the room at meetings, sitting against the wall while others did most of the talking.

“When I started at the White House, I felt like the smallest fish in the biggest pond,” Russell recalled on March 21 at the University of Miami Women’s Commission annual breakfast. “I did everything I could not to stand out, to keep my head down, and not step on any toes.”

That behavior changed one day during an important White House briefing, when Russell, sitting in the background, looked down at her BlackBerry and noticed an email message from then-Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle. “You should sit at the table,” it read.

It was then that Russell, a UM alumnus, realized that she was doing a disservice to not only herself, but her boss—President Barack Obama. “We were there to be a voice,” she said, referring to herself and other young female White House staffers who had exhibited similar behavior at meetings. “It wasn’t about us. It was about advancing the agenda of the president.”

Russell took that lesson to heart, realizing that she should “own my strength and take my rightful seat at the table, both figuratively and literally.”

That was just one of the stories and pieces of advice she shared at the recent breakfast, an annual gathering to provide an update on the status of women in the workplace and to honor those who have helped to advance the upward mobility of women.

With some 300 people in attendance, the majority of them women from across the University, Russell described the duties she performs as part of her charge of executing President Obama’s policies.

Since joining the White House Domestic Policy Council in September 2010, she has worked on everything from economic mobility and place-based initiatives to policies related to nutrition, health care, and women’s issues. Russell leads the urban affairs and economic mobility team, focusing on matters important to urban communities across America and policies that create opportunity for struggling families.

“I honestly believes this job was made for me,” said Russell.

Before joining the Obama administration, she played a key role in developing several of the major provisions of the health care reform law while serving as legislative counsel for U.S. Senator Tom Carper.

Russell told the audience that her journey into political life began on a summer day in 1993, when, as a 12-year-old, she watched a U.S. Senate proceeding on C-Span in her uncle’s Bronx, New York, home. Then-U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun was arguing against legislation to continue patenting the Confederate flag as the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“This was really a David vs. Goliath story,” Russell said. “She [Braun] was fighting a good fight, but quite frankly I honestly thought that she was going to lose that fight.”

But Braun prevailed, convincing the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the UDC’s application to renew its patent. It was a victory that made Russell realize someone who looked like her could accomplish something of such importance. Though Russell has never met Braun, she feels that the former Illinois senator, in her fight to defeat the bill, mentored her into the field in which she now works.

At the breakfast, held at the BankUnited Center Fieldhouse, Russell credited other women with helping her succeed. Among them: her mother; Pat Whitely, UM vice president for student affairs; and Rosina Pellerano, a former UM physician.

Russell, a George Washington University Law School graduate, also recalled her days at UM, where she majored in speech communication and political science.

“It was on this campus that I learned how to resolve conflict, manage a crisis while juggling many balls in the air,” she said. “It was on this campus that I learned how to become a good communicator. And each day at the White House I apply these lessons and these skills that I learned here and were nurtured here.”

After her talk, Russell answered questions from the audience. When asked by Debbie Wedderburn, assistant vice president for human resources, to describe her typical workday, Russell said that it usually starts with checking emails at 6:30 a.m., followed by reading news clips, and watching “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC weekday morning talk show. Then, it’s off to the White House.

“Each day is different,” Russell said. Almost every single day there is a crisis. You never know what’s going to hit you when you walk into that office.”

Women’s Commission Awards

The breakfast concluded with the presentations of the commission’s most Louise P. Mills and May Brunson awards as well as the announcement of a new honor: the Rita Deutsch Spirit of Excellence Award.

UM student Caitlin Giles received the Louise P. Mills Award, named for the former dean of women who held a variety of positions during her 26 years at UM and was known for her compassion and work with students. Giles has made the Provost’s Honor Roll every semester for the past four years. She is a member of Iron Arrow, Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Society, and Golden Key International Honor Society. The outgoing vice president for Student Government, Giles is the founder and chair of the newly established Women’s Leadership Symposium that featured workshops and speakers to foster the empowerment of women in leadership roles.

Amy Deem, head women’s track and field coach and director of track and field/cross country at UM, received the May A. Brunson Award, which is named in honor of the University’s second dean of women and presented to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to improving the status of women at the institution. Deem is only the sixth woman to be in charge of both the men’s and women’s track and cross country programs at a Division I school. Deem served as the head women’s track and field coach for Team USA at the Olympic Games in London, guiding the squad to one of the most dominating performances in Olympic track and field history. The team won 14 medals, including six gold, four silver, and four bronze.

Rita Deutsch, associate dean of students in the College of Arts and Sciences, received the inaugural award named in her honor: the Rita Deutsch Spirit of Excellence Award. Deutsch is a three-time past president of the UM Women’s Commission. She has been a part of the College of Arts and Sciences since 1969, when she returned to school as a non-degree-seeking student to complete an English major. She completed the major and did graduate work in the department. In 1985 Deutsch joined the Dean’s Office as director of freshman advising in the Office of Student Academic Services and has been in that office since then. She was on the steering committee of the Foote Fellows program at its inception in 2002. She has taught courses through the Department of English, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Judaic Studies, and American Studies Program. She also has appeared in several Ring Theatre productions.

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