The most important elements of acquiring professional real estate are Networking, Networking, Networking. As a woman and a minority in her field, Dr. Christien Russell knew that her determination and skills alone would only get her so far in the structure of today’s world. The lack of inclusivity in professional spaces creates a barrier for networks to be established; thus contributing to minorities being left behind in fields like Agriculture. When her experiences and passions collided, she found herself in a position to help change this. She would “have to lead courageously and be bold”, not taking "no" for an answer if she were to make the professional world better for others like herself.
Finding her mission was not a clear path but in hindsight she was able to take risks and keep an open mind that would lead her to opportunities. She studied Community and Leadership Development (2010-2014) at the University of Kentucky and then went to Auburn University in Alabama to receive her Masters in Public Administration (2014-2016). She finished her Ph.D. in Agricultural Sciences and Extension Education at Mississippi State University (2016-2020), where she studied culturally responsive teaching. Being a Black woman in spaces that have not traditionally looked like her, and being one of the first Black women to graduate from her department with a Ph.D. in the last 20 years, Dr. Russell experienced barriers that her white counterparts did not. Regardless,“In true fashion and with diplomacy I was able to overcome these barriers by addressing them with the imposers and having difficult conversations that ultimately led to learning opportunities” she explains. She was also thankful to have the support of MANRRS and those like Dean Scott Willard, Dr. Stacy Vincent, and Dr. T.J Bradford. When challenges arose, she had to be willing to find common ground and lean into finding an understanding even when it was uncomfortable. Dr. Russell advises students experiencing barriers to remember their “why?”. For her, after losing both parents while working on her Ph.D., her “why?” was and is to be an example to her younger sister and make it possible for those who come after her to “dream big and do the unthinkable."
She Initially, became involved with MANRRS while studying at the University of Kentucky (UK). The impact of Dr. Tyler, Natasha Sanders, and Erica Flores helped her fall in love with MANRRS and quickly find her place. As a student at three different universities she always found a home and family within the MANRRS Chapters no matter where she was. She went on to join the chapters at Auburn and Mississippi State. At Mississippi State University, she served 3 terms as the Region 3 Graduate Vice President. In her leadership role, she wanted to develop a program that connected her love for policy, government, and agriculture that would expose minority students to the inner connectedness and career opportunities within the area. This resulted in the Inaugural NASDA-MANRRS Ag Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., hosting 12 minority students from around the nation for 3-day all paid expenses. Her other roles included National Conference Planning Committee (2019- 2020), National Committee on Diversity Summit (2018 – 2021), National Committee on Alumni (2017 – 2020), Mississippi State Chapter Parliamentarian (2016 – 2017), and National Committee on Public Relations (2014 – 2015). She is currently doing work with the UK MANRRS chapter and serves as a guest speaker and volunteer with the Jr. MANRRS Institute.
Everything came together for her when she served an appointment with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Having a framework of law and government and training by Lawyers allowed her to thrive at all levels; her then supervisor, Deputy Sec. Naomi Earp was an attorney along with her entire staff. Having the skill set of a Ph.D. set Dr. Russell apart from groupthink and provided her the space to propose solutions based on past legal training, research background, and exposure to agriculture. She felt like everything she had experienced up until her opportunity with the USDA prepared her to work at such a large and influential institution on civil rights issues.
As a D&I Talent Culture and University Relations at Thrivent and Sr. DEI Researcher and Strategy Consultant her goal now is simply to connect people with opportunities and coach leaders to be the most inclusive leader they can be. Her work holds organizations accountable to adopt DEIB practices that can change the makeup of the traditional workforce; thus, impacting careers that are accessible to disenfranchised groups who have been shut out of specific industries such as agriculture, banking, and technology. She states that, “Ultimately my lived experiences as a triple minority, law training, time with MANRRS, and research background have led me into the work of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion space. Being able to advise leaders on how to create inclusive spaces and develop equitable practices that enable equality, helps me live out my purpose in the workspace.” Her boldness and persistence through all the “no’s” she received throughout her career have given her the opportunity to travel the world, work for President Obama, tackle Civil Rights Issues for the second-largest federal agency, earn her Ph.D., and now achieve her goals of making space for minorities through her work.
By Brooklyn Schumaker March 3, 2022