Why I Serve: Racquel Russell

Obama's deputy assistant for Urban Affairs and Economic Mobility is committed to helping others enjoy the same opportunities she's had.

Posted: 05/02/2013 08:30 AM EDT

It's not unusual for people at various stages in their careers to pay a few dues in the public sector, make some great contacts and then move on to more lucrative pastures. But Racquel Russell, who has worked with some of Washington's biggest power brokers – from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to President Barack Obama – has never viewed her professional trajectory through that lens.

A native of Bronx, New York, Russell currently serves as Obama's deputy assistant for Urban Affairs and Economic Mobility. Her mission is to help create ladders of opportunity for struggling families in such areas as housing, transportation and anti-poverty and nutrition programs.

In Obama's first term, she helped expand Promise Neighborhoods which replicates the success of programs already in existence like the Harlem Children's Zone that provide an educational and career pipeline for parents and children in high-poverty neighborhoods. Previously, she helped craft key portions of Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

Russell was bitten by the political bug at a very young age, and a favorite uncle was the carrier.

"I saw him as somewhat of a Renaissance man who instilled in me a love for music, literature and politics," she said in an interview with BET.com. "I remember times when he would pull me, a 12-year-old, from playing outside in the street and he, his son and I would watch a Senate or House floor debate on C-SPAN. He nurtured this love of public service and politics from a very young age and it's something that stuck with me."

While a sophomore at the University of Miami, Russell earned an "amazing" internship opportunity to work with James Rubin, right-hand man to then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright. She initially thought she would have to turn it down, however.

"After I'd applied for and gotten the internship, it became very clear that I didn't have the resources to come to D.C.," she recalled. "My mom couldn't pay for a flight and she certainly couldn't pay for the room and board."

Russell explained her situation to a professor, Dr. Robert Moore, and he helped secure university funds to pay for her expenses. Suddenly she realized that getting into politics and working in public service is a luxury that most people from backgrounds like hers cannot afford.

"I started to think about how many people from my socio-economic background, who had experiences like mine, worked in public service. How many of us can really afford that kind of experience and opportunity?" she said.

That first experience was a stepping stone to a career built on being a voice for communities like her Bronx neighborhood and solidified her determination to have a seat at the table to ensure that their perspectives are heard when policy is made.

"My experience growing up in a family that struggled financially, with a single mom who was intensely focused on my education but also had to work sometimes two or three jobs to make ends meet – all of that impacts my work, my drive and my passion and the policies we put forth," Russell said.

That's not to say she didn't have a Plan B. As an undergraduate Russell double-majored in speech communication and political science. She also earned a law degree from George Washington University, but doesn't see law firms in her future. If she weren't working in policy, Russell says she'd be a teacher, perhaps one of the most important ways to give back.

A life in public service isn't for everyone, she concedes, but she urges young African-Americans to find some way to give back either through their work or in some other area to which their passion leads them.

"They have something to add to this dialogue and a perspective and experiences that all policymakers need to be made aware of and that need to be represented when decisions are being made," Russell said.

Memories of her uncle and the professor who helped her secure the funds for that first internship are reminders that she's been blessed and of her responsibility to give back. Hopefully, other young adults who've been given similar opportunities, she adds, feel that responsibility, too.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Racquel Russell)

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