In honor of Women's History Month, Touchmark embarks on a three-year initiative to identify and recognize exceptional female residents who defied the odds in their professional and personal lives to pursue opportunities that were historically off-limits for women. Please enjoy the story of Carol Russell.
Please tell us about your professional background.
I grew up in Minot, North Dakota, and went to obtain my master’s degree in Public Health in Minnesota. In my time, opportunities for women were so limited, but I knew public health and government service was my path, and I just ran for it. You have to recognize your opportunities and go for them.
Eventually, I became the Chief of Program Services for California Tobacco Control for the California Department of Public Health. I wrote a statement that became the California Tobacco Control Grant in the 1990s to take on Big Tobacco.
We created a new social norm that reached the world, and I have traveled the world giving speeches about our work and methods. We started by building a network of united local health departments in three cities, vying against 200 competitive grantees.
We started with only $98 million dollars, which is not much compared to what Big Tobacco spends. One of our biggest accomplishments came when smoking was banned in all public spaces, including bars.
We were breaking down silos of thinking in people, working with local partners, and working with multicultural partners.
The third big piece in dealing with tobacco came when I said we’re not going to do what hasn’t worked for 30 years. We’re going to shut down Big Tobacco at their source: their politically-based efforts. We had to cut them off at their roots.
To get things done, stop beating your head against the legislature; it doesn’t work. You have to work in the local community.
The California Department of Public Health, California Tobacco Control Program (CDPH/CTCP) established the Carol M. Russell Leadership Award in 2001, in recognition of the leadership, vision, passion, and commitment Carol brought during her 10 years with the California Tobacco Control Program.
What advice would you give to women pursuing barrier-breaking careers today?
Work for people you respect. I’ve been so fortunate with that. When a new, big director came in who wouldn’t let me work the way we knew was effective, I left.
Do what you really love. Be confident in your value and advocate to get paid what you deserve.
What are the things you like to do now that you're retired?
I’m finding that out! I’ve been a writer; I’ve had 17 travel articles published in the Bismarck Tribune over the years. I love to travel everywhere in the world. I love Patagonia and the wilderness; it’s so beautiful.
I’ve been through the Arctic on a cruise and I’ve been to Antarctica. It was awesome, but the ice caps were melting before your eyes. In Iceland, I stepped off the bus and a geyser plume drenched me in a gust of wind, exposing me to toxins. Now I’m breaking physical barriers getting healthy again after that incident.
I have a large art collection, mostly from Australia—I’ve been there eight times. I love aboriginal art. When I travel, it is so amazing to see all the different kinds of art people are making. I'm donating the artwork I’ve collected abroad to museums and universities.
Outside of your family, what are the accomplishments in your life of which you are most proud?
My work with multicultural communities and local people is what I am most proud of doing. I didn’t do this by myself; we did this at a local level all across the state. I’m sad for people who haven’t had that experience because they’ve almost been culturally deprived. There are so many wonderful people from different cultures.
I say, be creative on a local level and you can accomplish things you never thought you could.
Your work can affect the rest of the world.
I also worked for the Red Cross in Korea for a year in 1958. The poverty was just so demeaning and the need for health care was astronomical. So, I went home and got my master’s degree. The rest is history. Later, I applied for law schools, but I really wanted to stay in public health, so I did.
After I retired, I went with a friend to volunteer in the Cook Islands, and now I’ve been there four times since. They wanted to meet the requirements of the United Nations Framework Convention for tobacco control, so we came up with a plan with the community to which the local government agreed. They even went a step further and prohibited politicians from taking tobacco money.
Volunteering is an easy and wonderful thing for retired people to do. They can do it on their vacations!
I’m a steward, and I love my life.
Thank you to Carol for sharing her story with us.