Standing on the Shoulders of Many

The 2008 Metro Detroit General Election Obama Staff.

The 2008 Metro Detroit General Election Obama Staff.

With regards to August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Denzel Washington referenced their short but impactful time on this earth as “concentrated dose[s] of life” going on to say that “these people didn’t have water added to their lives…they were here and they were intense for a short period of time…but they live on…for generations, for centuries hopefully…”

This is what working for the Obama administration has felt like to me and so many Black appointees: an intense and purposeful eight years of work done for the betterment of our future generations.

I am a first generation college graduate who was a Head Start student and a Pell grant recipient. When I completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the first time and saw my “expected family contribution (EFC)” would be $0, my resolve to receive a college education was solidified. From the time of my birth until my first job after graduating from Howard University, I lived in a household at or near the poverty line, which qualified me for financial aid and allowed me to have a better chance to achieve the American Dream. Had it not been for the opportunity a college education afforded me, there is a real possibility that my own children would have been born into that same generational cycle of having the talent and will, but not the financial way.

Of the many incredible memories I have of serving this President, my favorite involves my nephew, Drake. Drake was four years old and spending part of the summer with my husband and me in 2013. While watching Independence Day, I noticed a confused look on his face. I asked him what was wrong. “Tee-Tee that is not the President.” “And how do you know?” “The President is Marack O’Momma”.

The author's nephew, Drake, at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

The author’s nephew, Drake, at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Now eight, Drake can accurately pronounce the President’s name, but I will forever treasure that memory. The realization that there is a whole generation of young boys and girls whose only reality has been one where Barack Obama is the “real” President of the United States, has affected me deeply.What a mighty concentrated dose of life witnessed by young Drake and children all over the world.

There have been many historical celebrations during President Obama’s administration. In 2014, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the 60th Anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Ruling. And in 2015, while celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights act-we also witnessed the passing of our beloved national treasure Julian Bond.

From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” blossomed Barack Obama who planted seeds for Acting Secretary John King, Tia Borders, Saba Bireda, De’Rell Bonner, Tenicka Boyd, Casimir Peters, Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Raymonde Charles, Denise Horn, Alise Marshall, Chris Robinson, Aketa Williams, James Cole, Kimberly Morton, Angela Tennison, Michael Brown, Ursula Wright, Monae White, Jim Shelton, Christina Cue, Tyra Mariani, Stephanie Sprow, Michael Smith, myself and countless other Black Appointees to grow. We dared to join the North Star journey of electing and serving the first Black President. We all started in different parts of this country. Some of us began this journey during the South Carolina primary in 2007, while others of us joined the “Obama” train further up the Ohio River in Kentucky.

As a field organizer working in my home city of Detroit in 2008, I welcomed neighbors from Canada that were eager to volunteer for the campaign even though they could not vote in our election to ensure Barack’s ascendency to the highest job in all the land. And when Barack Obama was elected President, we all made it to the White House. Not just those of us who had volunteered and mobilized to make history …but also those who came before us. The humanity of an invitation to work for the first Black president granted honor to our great grandmothers and grandfathers, and the spirits of our ancestors, whose shoulders we had to climb upon in order to make it to this extraordinary moment in time. And our humble service in the birth of this nation granted dignity to those who once served, unwillingly, building this country on their backs with their blood, sweat, tears and lives.

It has been an incalculable privilege to be of service to this President and our incredible First Family. I am forever grateful for this intense opportunity; this concentrated dose of time in my own life that I will one day share with my own children and their children as well.

Russella Davis-Rogers is Chief of Staff of the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. I’m 69 years with only a GED degree and never thought I’d live to see this day! Thank God to all of you for the work that you put in to get our beloved President Barack Obama elected. Thanks Russella Davis-Rogers for your inspiring article

  2. we all stand on the shoulders of others. i can not claim to be from an impoverished background my father worked at the chicago post office but my parents did not go to a civil rights activist and lawyer i have crossed paths with many civil rights and political leaders including the president.the struggle continues.

  3. I was from a family of 12 in rural SC, and the first of my immediate family to attend and graduate from college, thanks in large part to Pell grants. (I think they are now called Perkins Grants). My first professional job was with Upward Bound, a Title IV program, where i achieved from a summer tutor-counselor to a 12-year Director.

    Because all students in Upward Bound, a precollege program, were required to be low-income or first-generation college students, I experienced several students that had been Head Start participants.
    I had the unique opportunity of helping young people achieve both in their personal and professional lives. As a result, you have a Viola Davis
    and a former Congressman Ford (TN), who were both Upward Bound students. Living proof that these programs work.
    President Obama has continued these successful initiatives, and added new ones, such as free tuition to continue these legacies.

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