ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: So we’ve done a few of these swearing-ins in my nearly two and a half years at USAID, but none brought the rousing greeting for our guest of honor that Michele [Russell] has managed, so, there’s gotta be some backstories there, the relationships forged over the years – I feel like you should have a walk-up song, bringing you to the floor. That was awesome.
And thank you, Ambassador [Claire Pierangelo], for joining us and taking time out of your day, and for your leadership. You know, USAID operates, we have missions in 80 countries around the world and programs in more than 100, but it is rare actually that we get a write-up of a USAID-state relationship that is as strong and seamless as this one. Often it is very, very good, but the rave reviews as to how USAID manages to work with the rest of the country team are really exceptional, and I’m sure we owe a lot to you personally, so thank you for that, thank you for the welcome you are already giving to Michele and to Gayle [Martin], to lure her to visit, so we are really thankful to you. And thanks for your partnership and the team and it’s great to see the team up on the screen – you all are little dots unfortunately but that’s just the time and the force of the power that’s there. There you go! No longer little dots.
We have a few USAID alumni in the house, all with storied careers of their own. Welcome to former Acting USAID Administrator Alonzo Fulgham. A warm welcome to former Mission Directors Ken Yamashita and Mark White, who always answer the call, and I think we have Haven Cruz-Hubbard, current Mission Director of Guatemala, maybe on the screen. Hello Haven, you don’t have a lot going on there in Guatemala, no delicate presidential transition to manage, so thanks for taking the time for Michele. I know it’s a tribute to your relationship. It’s just great to get everyone in the same room to celebrate our colleague.
Michele’s found family is here, I guess as she likes to say, a fierce group of women who met in the halls of Tufts University and have supported each other as sisters ever since.
And of course, last but not least, Gayle. Ever since Gayle and Michele met at Harvard, they’ve been together, traveling the world, most recently with their two dogs while Gayle has built her own really formidable global career with the World Bank. A tremendous life of public service, a tremendous partnership of public service. And apparently, it’s thanks to Gayle that we, at USAID, have gotten to benefit from Michele’s talents – she’s the one who convinced Michele to apply to the Foreign Service, apparently, years ago. So Gayle, huge thanks to you for your powers of persuasion, and honestly given how important both of your careers are, thank you for sharing her with us. I know you’re not always able to overlap and you have to work those shared google calendars with a lot of care, but you’re each giving so much to the communities in which you’re working, and so much to each other.
Michele grew up on the upper West Side of New York City, where both of her parents were doctors. Service to both the country and the community were always in Michele’s family – her father even served in the Second World War as a Tuskegee Airman, no less.
As a child, Michele played sports by day and took in shows at Lincoln Center by night. Weekends were filled with walks through Central Park and tours of the Museum of Modern History.
Michele’s early life impressed upon her a pride in her African American heritage, a love of New York, and an appreciation of art and literature – especially the poetry of E.E. Cummings and Langston Hughes, and the prose of the great James Baldwin.
She attended Tufts and went on to join the Peace Corps in then-Zaire. She started as an English teacher, but found her true calling in what her parents had dedicated their lives to – improving the health of people in the community.
After finishing her Peace Corps tour, she decided to return to New York to work at the Greater Harlem Nursing Home, one of the first Black nursing homes in the city, which her own father had helped to create. But Michele found the New York she returned to very different from the one she had left. AIDS, in just a few short years, had spread across the city, especially in the gay community. In hospitals and apartments across New York, lesbian women in particular were caring for their fading friends, staying with them in the hospital when others would not or could not, saying goodbye when their families refused, and honoring their memories when their true identities were forced to remain hidden.
Nursing homes like the facility where Michele worked started serving as hospices for AIDS patients facing certain death and no available cure. Michele says of this time, “I would leave on a Friday with ten living patients, and return on Monday with three or more having passed away. I was young. And it was too much death.”
But Michele kept serving her patients – doing everything she could to give them the dignity, the respect, and the love they deserved in their last days.
After her work in New York, Michele knew she wanted to pursue public health even more seriously. She attended Harvard’s School of Public Health, where she earned a Doctorate and, it’s not an exaggeration to say, more importantly, met Gayle. They eventually moved to Gayle’s home in South Africa, where Michele’s work with USAID began.
At USAID, two of Michele’s many accomplishments particularly stand out, improving HIV/AIDS programs, and empowering FSNs to become leaders in their fields and their communities.
In South Africa, Michele worked on the first Regional HIV/AIDS Program for southern Africa, the predecessor to what would become the PEPFAR we know of today. Across eight countries in southern Africa, the region worst-hit by HIV/AIDS, Michele coordinated the first USAID HIV/AIDS response. Janean Davis, a former coworker, tells a story of how Michele did something few others were willing to do at the time. She met with sex workers and LGBTQI+ individuals, insisting that the people receiving treatment should be part of the decision-making process. Janean says, “Michele treats everyone as real people, with important opinions, sincerely.”
Over the next few decades, Michele helped lead PEPFAR work in countries around the world. Just before COVID, Michele was stationed in Nigeria, a country with one of the highest HIV/AIDS burdens globally, to this day. Michele was supposed to be there for just three months. But when COVID arrived, and her colleagues began returning home, she volunteered to stay – remaining in Nigeria for a full year. At one point, Michele was one of only two foreign service officers who remained at Post.
Under her leadership, the Nigeria program became one of USAID’s top PEPFAR performers. Remarkably, thanks to her efforts, Nigeria did not have any treatment failure for HIV-AIDS during the COVID pandemic. That’s just extraordinary. She also helped take on the COVID crisis itself. During the peak three-month period at the beginning of the pandemic, Michele developed Emergency Operations Centers in nine states to monitor and respond to COVID outbreaks. These Centers still exist, and have grown to monitor and respond to all emerging diseases, like Tuberculosis and, when it strikes, Ebola. And Michele? She refused to leave for her next post until every single ventilator that had been promised was delivered.
Michele accomplished all of this by giving local staff, Nigerian staff in this instance, opportunities to lead and build an incredibly high-performing team. One FSN, Tunji Odelola, shares that he once asked Michele if she regretted not returning home during the COVID emergency. Michele responded, “What? And miss working with you guys?!”
At every Mission, Michele has empowered her staff – whether that was sending her team members to Washington, DC to receive manager certification, or advocating to create FSN-13 positions, the highest level of employment for non-US citizens at USAID. In South Sudan, indeed she helped create the first FS-13 position at the Mission.
Everywhere she went, she showed a keen ability to draw out the best in people and to bring people together – often over one of Michele’s famous home-cooked meals.
We couldn’t ask for a better person to help us build our team in Madagascar as it stands at an important crossroads. The fourth-largest island in the world, it boasts extraordinary biodiversity and natural resources. Real GDP is increasing, boosted by growth of the mining industry and an increase in tourism. Yet Madagascar’s poverty rate remains one of the highest in the world, and it grapples with frequent climate disasters, an underinvestment in infrastructure, and unsustainable agricultural practices. Today, after several consecutive years of drought, the south of the country is on the verge of famine, with over a million people estimated to be experiencing food insecurity.
In response, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance is surging support, committing an additional $100 million over five years to help target malnutrition and help farmers produce food more reliably and more sustainably.
Madagascar’s people have shown an extraordinary commitment to taking on the challenges they face, and USAID is partnering alongside them to improve the health system, strengthen the economy, and build more resilient food systems. In fact, last summer Madagascar was named a new Feed the Future target country.
With Presidential elections taking place in two months, this is a moment of opportunity for USAID and Michele to form new relationships and to work alongside Madagascar’s people as they shape the future they want for their country.
And there is no one better to meet this opportunity than Michele.
Now, I mentioned earlier that James Baldwin is Michele’s favorite author. He once wrote, “Those who say it can’t be done, are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
Michele, I think back to where you started your career during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York. If only your patients from that time could see how people like you have taken on AIDS in ways that would have seemed impossible in those dark days, and how the care and compassion that you showed them all those years ago have helped you achieve such extraordinary things with teams around the world, helping hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. The USAID Mission in Madagascar could have no one better to lead them through these next pivotal years. And we are so thankful to you and Gayle for taking on yet another challenge.
Thank you so much, and congratulations.