Ithaca, Buffalo, Zambia

Russell’s learning journey leads to Africa
Paul Russell '19
Friday, July 7, 2017

As a high school student in Texas, Paul Russell ’19 had no idea that many of the civil rights leaders he was learning about, people he looked up to, got their start as labor leaders and organizers.

“We rarely learned much about unions and labor,” he said. That changed when Russell began at ILR.

As a first-year student, he served on Cornell’s Student Assembly and during the summer of 2016, he was a High Road fellow, meeting with union and community leaders in Buffalo and researching ways to improve community and police relations in that city.

As the nation erupted around police brutality issues last summer, Russell composed a song about the impact the conflict imposed on community members.

The lyrics drew from his feelings toward the racialized dialogue surrounding the police shooting in Dallas: “They tell me it’s black versus blue, but really we’re all black and blue from the fights that we lose for the people we knew.”

Working with nonprofits through the High Road program, “you get to learn about the social justice infrastructure. It felt good to know about what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other places around the country and how that could be brought to Buffalo.”

Now, one of his goals is to become a lawyer, perhaps working for a nonprofit, as do many lawyers he met in Buffalo, or perhaps serving in politics.

“Right now I’m leaning toward civil rights law,” Russell said. “The goal is to really feel like I’m helping the community around me.”

Russell’s ILR classes are teaching him labor history and employment law, and about organizing. But, his background growing up gave him insight into why those topics are important in the day-to-day lives of individuals and families.

When Russell was in elementary school, his father was laid off from his marketing and merchandising job, and the family was forced to move to the Georgia basement of Russell’s grandmother.

Buffeted by an uncertain economy, the family moved many times before settling outside Dallas.

“It was a difficult time,” Russell recalled. “I sort of feel like I understand where people are coming from.”

This summer, Russell will have the opportunity to get a more global understanding of issues, when he researches legal issues in Zambia through Cornell's Global Health Program.