Why I Serve: HUD Assistant Secretary Melanie Roussell

Helping the nation's most vulnerable is the New Orleans native's passion.

Posted: 02/18/2014 08:07 AM EST

A month before civil rights activists prepared to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, demonstrators marched through the city of Selma, Alabama, to protest the decision of the city's white majority school board to not renew the contract of Norward Roussell, the first African-American to serve as school superintendent. Other protests included a school boycott and picketing by Black parents and students.

According to one local Black attorney who initially did not support Dr. Roussell, but came around, he had "done more for Blacks than all of Selma's previous superintendents put together," The New York Times reported at the time of the incidents.

Melanie Roussell, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was just nine or ten at the time, but the experience had an indelible impact.

"I remember vividly feeling immense pride that my father was doing something that meant everybody was going to have an opportunity," she says of his efforts to dismantle a system that had disproportionately adverse effect on Black school children. "That's all you need. All we need is the opportunity to do well."

Throughout her career, which includes working in the Washington, D.C., office of former Louisiana Rep. Bill Jefferson, being national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee and the position she now holds, Roussell, a native of New Orleans, has strived to do the same.

She was not initially interested in politics, but had a political awakening in 2000 after the controversial presidential election count in Florida which led to questions about whether George W. Bush or then-Vice President Al Gore had won the key swing state.

Roussell, who was studying broadcast journalism at Florida A&M University and communications director for the student government, joined hundreds of students for days of protest at the state capitol against efforts by election officials to disenfranchise them.

"I didn't want to work in politics, but I lived through what seemed to be such an egregious infringement of a vital American right that I couldn't ignore it," she told BET.com. "I then wanted to be a part of the political process to make sure it didn't happen again."

Roussell spent the following summer as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation intern in Jefferson's office, where she was able to "do real work" in the legislative process.

"I was so struck by what had happened in Tallahassee in 2000 that my reaction was to be much more engaged in the political process at the root and heart of it. That's what I found here in Washington," she recalls.

When she returned to Washington the following year to work as a staff assistant in Jefferson's office, Sept. 11 had happened and the city had changed. It was a terrifying time because everyone was worried about the prospect of another attack. Roussell left 10 months later to work as the public information officer for New Orleans' first Black district attorney, who also was the city's first new DA in more than 30 years.

Promoting crime fighting efforts and statistics was an eye-opening experience, but the lure of Washington, "where politics lives," was irresistible. A year later, Roussell returned to the nation's capital to serve as Jefferson's communications director.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck, ravishing Louisiana, where her parents had returned to live, and much of the Gulf Coast. It also was an opportunity for Roussell to make a real difference.

With district offices rendered nonexistent, she was tasked with educating media producers, turning their focus from the looting to the real devastation the state and its residents had to endure. Duties also included leading congressional committee delegations surveying the damage, reporting missing persons to the Red Cross, dealing with FEMA registrations and complaints – the gamut.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was facing a corruption investigation, which had begun just a few weeks before the storm hit when the FBI raided his offices. Despite the scandal, he wrote some very significant legislation that to this day aids communities recovering from disaster.

"In the months after, people would ask why I stayed or come out and say, 'I found a new job for you,' but I didn't feel like I was working for him," Roussell says, "I was working for the second congressional district of New Orleans which very much needed solid representation at the time."

After working for Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), then-head of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, and being in involved in negotiations for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and hate crimes legislation, Roussell left Washington to work on another chapter of history – Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. She was the southern regional communications director, which gave her an opportunity to manage staff for the first time.

"I don't know if there are words to describe working to elect the first Black president, being a part of it when people didn't think he would win and proving them wrong," Roussell marvels. "It was a remarkable experience."

It was rewarding in other ways, as well. Roussell worked as HUD press secretary for the first two years of Obama's administration and then went on to become national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee during his re-election campaign. She returned to HUD last May after being appointed an assistant secretary.

"It's interesting how each of my experiences are linked in some way," she says, especially the opportunity to continue playing a role in helping to rebuild New Orleans.

"Now we're working on cities across the country, like Detroit, using the lessons we learned from Katrina and applying them to the Hurricane Sandy region and other disasters" she says.  

Today she is responsible for HUD's public profile and manages a staff of about 30 and a budget of more than $3 million.

HUD administers a wide range of policies and activities beyond disaster recovery, that includes housing finance reform, affordable rentals, homelessness, climate change and energy efficiency, and of course, urban and community development. It takes a holistic approach to rebuilding communities that coordinates efforts between other key agencies, including Justice, Education and Health and Human Services.

"This administration is changing the way we view development and it's locally driven. We are looking for ways to support the plans of local communities instead of a top-down approach. That's something I think we don’t get enough credit for," Roussell says.

She firmly disagrees with calls for less government in Americans' lives because it is so crucial to the survival of the nation's most vulnerable. In a perfect world, more people, especially young African-Americans, would become more involved in some sort of public service, but at the very least, she says, they must always vote.

"For me, helping the most vulnerable among us is what reaches me at my core and passion. But voting is the simplest way to ensure that the things you believe in are represented, that your voice is heard in some way," Roussell says. "I serve because I believe that government is here to support the most vulnerable among us and I want to be a part of that work, but in order for me to do that work, people who agree with me need to be elected."

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(Photo: David Grossman/DNC) 

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