Alumnae Profiles: Russlynn Ali C'1991
On May 1, 2009, Russlynn Ali was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as assistant secretary for civil rights, serving as primary adviser to Secretary Arne Duncan and responsible for enforcement of U.S. civil rights laws as they relate to education and for making certain that institutions receiving federal funding do not discriminate based on race, sex, disability or age. A nationally known advocate prior to her nomination to the post by President Obama, Ms. Ali formerly served as a vice president at Education TrustWest
in Oakland, California. Her focus there was on closing the achievement gap in the state, and increasing curriculum and instructional quality. In addition, the former teacher advised legislative and gubernatorial staff.
“Russlynn brings passion for, expertise in and dedication to equality and fairness in education, and her tireless work and commitment have changed the lives of lowincome students from across the nation. I very much look forward to working with her,” said Secretary Duncan, upon the formal announcement of her nomination.
Her background as a lawyer and teacher has prepared her well for her current opportunity. Ms. Ali practiced corporate and civil rights law and served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California School of law prior to entering the nonprofit sector. Although some critics are uncomfortable with the notion of using civil rights laws to deal with the problems of resegregation in American schools, Ms. Ali stands firmly behind the Obama administration’s objective to address the issue of non-enforcement of these laws. “The challenge is to reinvigorate the civil rights office and doing what’s right and fair for America,” she told an audience at the NAACP convention in Kansas City this year. Elaborating in a conversation with Mike Petrilli, which he posted in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper, she added, “It’s about culture change. No one’s ever tried to put robust remedies in place. We have to monitor the districts, enforce the agreement [and] use all the tools at the disposal of the civil rights office.”
Ms. Ali points to Dr. Lois Moreland as one of her most significant mentors, noting her grace and quiet strength as key attributes to emulate. “As I work to mentor young people now, I often reflect on
what Dr. M. would do …and then try to stretch and do it,” said the one-time liaison to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, adding that Spelman values such as “teamwork and teambuilding, loyalty, commitment to public service and a tireless work ethic” are also part of who she has become today. Noting that her days start early in the morning with “too much coffee” and time for meditation and reflection, and ends “late at night by reviewing my next day’s briefing book in preparation for a day packed with meetings and deliverables,” it is clear she stands ready for the challenge.
“Personally, every day I go to bed humbled to sit on this perch at a time when both the President and the Secretary of Education have said education is the civil rights issue of our time. My sense of urgency is great, and my sense of responsibility is greater still.”
*This article can be found in the Fall 2010 edition of the Spelman Messenger*