For this recurring feature in eNews, Doug Hoagland, a longtime Fresno Bee reporter, interviews members of our congregation so we can get to know each other better. New profiles run about once a month. In this edition, Elizabeth Davis-Russell tells her story. We will feature her husband, Thomas Russell, next week.
Tell us about yourself, Elizabeth:
I was born in Harper City, Liberia in west Africa. I was in school there until the ninth grade. Then I went to a Baptist mission school in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. From there, my parents sent me to school in England, and then my brother convinced me I could go to a university in the United States.
What university did you attend?
I came to Oakland University near Detroit, Michigan, and graduated with a degree in psychology. Then, I earned a master’s in educational psychology from New York University, a doctorate in counselor education from Yeshiva University in New York, and a PhD in clinical psychology from New York University.
Tell us about your career:
I started as a faculty member at The City University of New York, where I spent 16-17 years and earned tenure. Then Thomas and I moved to Illinois for family reasons. We were there for seven years, but I got tired of the cold. So we moved to California, where I started as an associate professor with the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.
What brought you to Fresno?
Thomas got a job with the Clovis Unified School District as coordinator of community relations. So we moved here, and I got a job as an associate professor at the CSPP campus in Fresno, working there from 1989 until 1999.
What was your next professional step?
In 1999, I was appointed a fellow with the American Council on Education, and I spent my fellowship year working with Dr. Marvalene Hughes, the president at CSU Stanislaus. It was grooming me to become president of a university. From there, I became provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Cortland.
While in New York, I was part of an educational team that visited Liberia to assess that country’s higher education system after 15 years of civil war. During that visit, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asked me to please return and help rebuild their higher education system. In 2008, I retired from Cortland and came home to Clovis for about two months.
Yes. I then went to Liberia and was appointed to rebuild a college that had been totally destroyed. All that was left were some concrete walls and the bare earth. First, we rebuilt facilities, then we accepted students, and finally we turned the school into a comprehensive university, with six colleges.
What was it like to return to the nation of your birth?
I felt like a stranger. Except for some relatives, all of the people with whom I had grown up had left the country or had been killed during the war years.
Returning must have evoked many memories. Could you share one?
One day a man planning to return to the U.S. came to see me and handed me a book he had authored. He told me had it not been for my grandmother and great-grandmother he would not be where he is today. He said they had left the comfort of their homes to go into the hinterland and taught him and many others to read and write.
Rebuilding a university literally from the ground up posed challenges beyond belief. Could you tell us about that?
There were two major challenges: financial and human resources. I spent the first year traveling abroad to recruit faculty, staff, and administrators, and also raising money from international partners. They included various branches of the United Nations and foreign governments in Morocco, China, Egypt and other nations. (I have a Power Point presentation that I made to the Breakfast Group, if anyone is interested in viewing it.)
You stayed in Liberia to see the first three classes graduate. That had to be so gratifying:
It was extremely gratifying, especially to see the pass rates of the nursing classes on the national certification exams those first three years – 100%, 98% and 97%.
What was it like to return to Clovis in 2016?
I had this vision that if I sat still I would vegetate, and that’s not me. There were four things I wanted to do: church; the Tubman University Foundation, which supports Tubman, and particularly women’s education; my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is service oriented: and the National Association of University Women, another service organization. So that’s what keeps me busy.
How did you and Thomas meet?
We were both working at The City University of New York. Thomas was a director of financial aid, and I was a counselor and then a member of the faculty, teaching psychology. When I was a counselor, we had offices in the same building. His office was at the end of a hallway that led to the parking lot. He set his sights on me as I tried to sneak by on my way to the parking lot (laughter).
Tell us about your children:
Our daughter, Allison, is a physician. She and her husband and their three sons live in La Jolla. Our son, Scott, is an artist who supports himself as a waiter. He lives in Tahoe City.
What brought you to Community UCC?
I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Thomas was raised Baptist. We tried both of those churches in Fresno, and neither was right. Then colleagues invited us to People’s Church. The pastor preached a sermon entitled “Woman Is the Root of All Evil.” He took the text from Genesis that Eve tempting Adam was the root of his downfall. I thought, “I can’t sit here and listen to this.” Our friends pleaded with us to give it another try. The next Sunday, the pastor said he was grateful the church could send missionaries to places like Africa “to bring heathens into the light.” (Thomas, chuckling: “I had to pull her back from going up on the stage after that.”).
What happened next?
We almost gave up finding a church. Then I went to a conference and the keynote speaker was Gail McDougle (co-pastor of College Community Congregational Church, as CUCC was then known). Thomas had heard her at another function, and we decided we should visit this church. It felt good – the theology felt right.
What church activities are you involved with?
I am currently chair of the Mission and Social Justice Team. Last year I served as moderator. Prior to that I served in several roles: vice moderator, Elders, Worship Planning, Pastoral Relations, and choir for many years.
What do you find special or different about Community UCC?
Gail’s sermons had a sense of scholarship, and they stimulated me intellectually. There wasn’t any talk of fire and brimstone. I also appreciated the church’s commitment to social justice. Those factors attracted me and have kept me here and made me give my time and money to help enhance those programs.
What’s your vision for the church?
Our emphasis on social justice shouldn’t just be a checklist – such as: “Oh, we’ve done the environmental thing. We now have solar and a xeriscape. Check off that box.” We need to stay true to our commitment so it’s steady, continuous, and long term, rather than doing things episodically.
What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?
I am introverted, and people don’t see that. I’ve worked hard over the years to deal with that. When I get before a class, people see this person who’s engaged in the material. But put me in the midst of a social situation, and it’s different. Cocktail parties are deadly for me. I feel like a fish out of water trying to make small talk.
How would classmates in high school have described you?
One of my classmates told me recently: “You always had your head in a book, and you still do.” Growing up, I read Perry Mason legal thrillers, and professionally, Freud’s original works were important to me. In terms of black literature, two favorite authors are Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. I also love the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and I’ve read almost all the crime thrillers written by James Patterson. I also like romance novels. People look askance when I say that. So you can see I have widespread interests.