Auburn University’s Presidential Task Force for Opportunity and Equity was created to address racial inequities and foster greater inclusion within the university. Included in the task force’s membership is College of Education Professor Dr. Melody Russell. As the task force establishes an enterprise-wide Diversity, Education and Inclusion (DEI) and Training program for students, faculty and staff, Russell’s role will be to review and recommend advanced DEI professional development opportunities throughout the university. Her experiences as both a graduate student and a scholar in her field have given her unique insights into this role.
“I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and attended North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T), an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) which is well-known for its longstanding commitment to activism,” Russell said. “Many of us recall that the Greensboro Four, who in 1960 staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter known for refusing service to African Americans, were all students at A&T. That was a powerful time embedded in our nation’s history and their legacy was deeply rooted in our school and its culture. Astronaut Ron McNair, who was NASA’s second African-American to fly in space, was one of our alumni who also made history, though we sadly lost him in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Another of our famous alums is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a great civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and politician who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Attending an HBCU helped foster and strengthen my identity as a young Black woman and instilled in me the importance of fighting and resisting oppression and standing up for social justice and racial equity. Along with motivation by faculty and peers to be excellent and exceed expectations, this was an integral part of my college experience.”
After receiving her undergraduate degree in Lab Animal Science from NCA&T, Russell moved to a vastly different college setting at a predominantly white institution (PWI) where she pursued and completed her Master’s degree in the Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL). She learned about UNL and opportunities for graduate studies there through a friend of the family, a professor who had visited the institution. Though she was far from home she received tremendous support from family and friends and completed the program in Biological Sciences as a dual student in the food science and technology program. At UNL Russell experienced a great deal of support from her lab mates and faculty in the Cornhusker State. She was admitted to the Ph.D. program but after careful consideration decided to decline the acceptance letter and return to her roots as a research assistant in a hybridoma facility at NCA&T. It was during this time that she realized her driving passion was to conduct educational research on how to get more students that looked like her to pursue degrees and careers in STEM. She particularly focused on the experiences of Black Americans and African Americans in STEM, including strategies that promote STEM persistence and broaden their participation in STEM degree programs and careers. Though her overall experience as a student in STEM was good, there were still a number of barriers and obstacles that she encountered which she knew were attributed solely to her being Black and a woman. Subsequently, she wanted to become a mentor and advocate for others to help them navigate the very white and very male scientific enterprise. This would be her contribution to diversifying the STEM workforce.
“I wanted to see how I could ensure that women and students who looked like me with similar or different backgrounds could have the same opportunities and access that I had,” she said. “Promoting equity and social justice for Black and Brown students and women was where my heart was, along with my love of science, and I saw a great opportunity to pursue my research interest at the University of Georgia, well-known for its strong science education program. My experience there, again, was nothing short of phenomenal, especially since I met my amazing husband Jared Russell there as graduate students working on a research project on multicultural education. To this day I am close to my major professor Dr. Mary Atwater, a phenomenal researcher, mentor, advisor, friend, and pioneer in research on equity and social justice in science education and multicultural education. She is one of my sheros, along with other mentors at UGA who were very influential. In 2000, I received my Ph.D. in Science Education (as the second African American to complete a Ph.D. in this program) and worked as a physics teacher at a military academy and Assistant Professor at Georgia State University for a short while before my husband Jared and I joined the Auburn faculty.”
Science and social justice
Russell is a first-generation college student who grew up in a middle-class, two parent, household with hard-working parents who emphasized the power of education. She also had a great extended family network who were always her cheerleaders and supported her academic achievements. High expectations from her family motivated both Russell and her sister, a graduate of a prestigious law school who is currently an attorney for the federal government, to work hard and cherish education.
Russell was often one of only a few Black students in her advanced courses, particularly during middle school and junior high, and wondered why more students that looked like her were not in her science and math classes (since she was too young to understand tracking and ability grouping as a form of in-school segregation). Subsequently, her life as a science educator gives her the opportunity to promote change and expand the notion of “who can do science,” encouraging students that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM to persist and pursue science despite the hidden curriculum that exists to discourage their engagement in the STEM enterprise. She remembers vividly having counselors automatically place her in general and lower-track courses and her parents immediately contacting the counselors to change them to advanced-level courses and ensuring that she was on the college-preparatory track. This was even the impetus for her dissertation which focused on the hidden curriculum and practice of tracking and ability grouping as de facto in-school segregation. These experiences made Russell concerned about the kids who didn’t have someone to advocate for them. Without this advocacy she may not have continued on her trajectory to pursue degrees in the sciences.
As a result of this experience, Russell works to prepare preservice teachers to be advocates for their students and help them understand the role implicit biases and institutional racism play in how they view their students’ abilities. She is also a part of an initiative to help parents advocate for their children in the school systems. According to Russell, the job of educators is to help all students realize their full potential and identify and cultivate “untapped talent and unlimited potential.” But she also saw – and sees – such sharing as a social justice issue, and as a way to motivate young people to move into the STEM field.
“Here at Auburn, I first strive to help preservice teachers understand the importance of having high expectations for themselves and their students so that we can promote and cultivate STEM excellence in the classroom,” she said. “But as part of that excellence, I want to emphasize how critical it is for our students, who are mostly women and mostly white, to understand the importance of their own lived experiences and the role our life experiences and backgrounds play in how they interact with peers, students, and faculty. I also work to help my colleagues understand the role their lived experiences play in both their teaching and expectations for students from underrepresented groups. Emphasizing the importance of getting to know their students is critical since the majority of our faculty are white and may have also had few experiences and meaningful interactions themselves with people of color (e.g. Black Americans, African Americans). Many of our faculty come into their classroom with their own biases and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, exercise their white privilege in ways that marginalize not just their students but their colleagues of color as well.”
“I am often challenged as to why I put so much emphasis on equity, social justice, and culturally responsive teaching. Many of our students and teachers feel they are colorblind, which is a term that we know only perpetuates white privilege and racism. Subsequently, I just feel it is my responsibility to help my students understand the role their whiteness plays in how they interact with their students while equipping them with strategies for confronting their own biases, which often play out in microaggressions, macroaggressions, and the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’ Listening to each other’s stories and sharing our voices helps us realize we all have different experiences that must be valued and acknowledged.”
“My life story is by no means unusual because there are a number of Black Americans and African Americans with similar stories. However, because of the cultural deficit model or lens often used by researchers on equity and social justice, stories like mine are not seen as glamorous, particularly since my story didn’t promote the ‘white savior industrial complex.’ It is unfortunate that the Black experience is often viewed through a monolithic lens, marred with stereotypes and misconceptions often perpetuated by people who have very few meaningful experiences with Black Americans and African Americans. It is important that we not allow the fight for equity and social justice to be treated as ‘missionary work.’ No group is monolithic and to reach people it is important to understand the diversity of lived experiences, even within racial/ethnic groups, and the role that our own lived experiences play in how we interact with others. This kind of exploration also helps us learn about ourselves and understand the value and necessity of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Russell said her methodologies in teaching equity are constantly being retooled, but the rewards are there. She is especially gratified when students come back and explain how they did not realize how equity and social justice were so critical to how they taught and interacted with their colleagues and students until they actually led their own classrooms.
Classroom methods align with task force’s goals
“There are a number of white students at Auburn who have not engaged or encountered faculty, staff, or other students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in meaningful ways, and this is especially true for those studying to become teachers. Much of what the task force is addressing is what my research and teaching in the classroom has been about for decades. It is critical that Auburn address the concerns and issues of faculty, staff, students, and administrators from traditionally underrepresented groups (e.g. Black Americans) particularly regarding their experiences at Auburn. Auburn must take bold steps to ensure that this institution is an empowering space for all and more authentically reflects the demographics of this state. This is particularly critical given the racial and civil unrest, as well as the polarizing political climate that we are living in. This brings the goals of the task force into sharp focus with an emphasis on recruiting and retaining more Black American and African American faculty, students, and staff, particularly since Auburn is a land-grant institution.”
Russell understands that these conversations and intentional actions can be uncomfortable to talk about and address.
“But they are more uncomfortable for some than others, since to be honest Black folks have been having these discussions, while fighting and resisting oppression for hundreds of years,” she said. “My role on the task force is to provide insight on advanced diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professional development opportunities for our leadership and faculty members that can help improve our recruitment and retention efforts, better prepare faculty and administrators when recruiting and interviewing, and of course this includes making sure the leadership and faculty understand the role we as individuals play in this. We are nowhere close to where we should be in terms of representation of Black American and African American faculty, students, and staff, and to grow as an institution we must be intentional, radical, and bold with implementing strategies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in a way that is sustainable.”
“It goes without saying that if students see faculty members who look like them it brings more students. I recently spoke with an African-American alumnus who said she felt confident sending her daughter to Auburn because she had seen how the campus has more Black faculty and students since the days when she attended years ago. Though progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion is slower than it should be, this was promising to hear. It was timely and necessary for President Gogue and the university’s leadership to organize this group to make recommendations based on the task that we were given. The great civil rights leader Congressman John Robert Lewis reminds us that systemic change takes time. We must continue to resist, persist, and not get distracted from our goals because dismantling racism and white supremacy is the struggle of a lifetime. In the words of Frederick Douglass, ‘if there is no struggle there is no progress.’”
College of Education making strong strides
Closer to home, Russell said she has seen positive changes within the College of Education since coming here 18 years ago.
“We have grown quite a bit in our college,” she said. “It has been more intentional as time has gone on. I am excited about our new dean coming in and working with us on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Having a vision is critical, yes, but reaching those goals is another thing entirely. James Baldwin famously said, ‘I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.’ It is with these words that we must hold our institutions and campus leadership accountable.”
“Our college is doing more and more. Our strategic plan emphasizes inclusion. We have a lot of great people working toward this goal. Hearing the voices of our students and seeing their challenges will continue to help us push back against systemic barriers. And of course I want everyone involved, not just pockets of individuals, so we must unify across the college. We have been fragmented and hopefully we are moving into a unified space. We must be in this together as this fight against injustice requires all hands on deck.”
In conclusion, Russell said these efforts must also be part of ensuring a culture and climate that transcends traditional Southern racial/ethnic categories. We must also be intentional and ensure an environment that is inclusive for women, our LGBTQ community, persons with disabilities, and religious affiliations.
“We know that not everyone will think alike or agree, which is good, and the way it should be,” she said. “And no matter what, we must always speak truth to power. We must listen to others’ stories and voices and see ways to work together.”
“I hope that we can expand the vision of the task force so that this becomes a permanent committee to continue its work and ensure implementation of its recommendations. Our work must not stop here since the movement we are experiencing is not to be ignored. In my opinion, we are living in historic times similar to the Reconstruction era and the Civil Rights Movement. The Presidential Task Force for Opportunity and Equity is one of many initiatives being taken here on campus to address the racism, inequities, and injustices that many Black American and African Americans experience daily. In the words of the great poet, author, and civil activist Maya Angelou, who I am proud to say lived in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC before she passed, ‘We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated,’ and with these words I remain hopeful during these challenging and difficult times.”