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Career Spotlight: Diane Russell

Written by: Diane Russell
Published on: Apr 7, 2022

Diane Russell
Diane Russell

This is the first in a series of interviews with anthropologists connected to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to share insights, knowledge and expertise about career opportunities, growth and development. Today we hear from Diane Russell.

Diane Russell is a practicing ecological anthropologist working on the intersection of rural economies, human rights, conservation and agroecology. She received her BA in anthropology from Barnard College, MA/PhD in anthropology from Boston University, and Masters in Environmental Management from the Yale School of the Environment. After undertaking PhD and postdoc fieldwork in Central Africa, she continues to focus on that region, but has also lived and worked in East Africa, West Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Diane’s career spans both international development and research, including positions as Senior Social Scientist in the Forestry and Biodiversity Office at the U.S. Agency for International Development and Theme Leader for Trees and Markets at the World Agroforestry Centre. She is the author, with Camilla Harshbarger, of Groundwork for Community Based Conservation: Strategies for Social Research.

1. What made you decide to choose anthropology as a career path, and specifically your specialty?

I grew up spending many weekends at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with my dad who became an explorer later in life. I wanted to travel and learn about other cultures but not as a tourist. I had a deep love of forests from hiking and playing in the forest in our backyard in Westchester County. During my postdoc fieldwork, these two interests converged in seeking to understand the interplay of forest and farmland management in Cameroon.

2. What does a typical workday look like for you in your chosen career?

I’ve been semi-retired for four years. After retirement I signed on with the USAID Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a consultant. I work remotely typically 2-4 hours a day and travel to DRC 2-3 times a year. Recently I took on another remote consultancy with USAID/Washington to help the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security integrate approaches to natural resource management, agricultural development and food security.

3. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new anthropologist just beginning their career?

Develop saleable skills. For me, those skills include professional level writing and copyediting, analysis and synthesis, project design, evaluation and management. I weave anthropological knowledge into projects, staff training and guidance documents. Some see working for USAID as a “sell out” — I was once accused of that publicly at AAA! — but I am able to influence multimillion dollar investments. Most recently I’ve been supporting efforts to operationalize USAID’s Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in DRC.

4. Is there a unique short story about how you landed in your current career or path?

In 1988, when I finished fieldwork for my PhD, I went to Kinshasa with my then-boyfriend, future husband. We needed money so I went to the USAID office to sell myself as a consultant. Because “gender” had recently become a focus for USAID, they hired me almost immediately to help integrate women into a major agriculture development project (incredible isn’t it that women were not “integrated”!). I was sent off to a very remote area on a road no one had traversed in two decades. Despite numerous challenges, the trip and my report were a success — all recommendations adopted. However, I decided not to continue as a gender specialist. My personal background was as a fighter for Women’s Liberation and this gender focus seemed too watered down.

5. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?

I have been able to maintain an academic presence during my career as a practicing anthropologist. I co-authored a book, several book chapters and papers and participated in AAA and other conferences. I am particularly proud of the book: “Groundwork for Community-Based Conservation,” which has been adopted by a few ecological/environmental anthropology classes. In the mid 1990s, I organized the Conservation and Communities working group within the AAA Anthropology and Environment section and I keep in touch with colleagues who work in “conservation anthropology.” A colleague and I recently co-authored a book chapter on Anthropology and Conservation for a major new textbook.

6. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

Being the only social scientist and/or only woman on most teams I worked with has been the most consistent challenge. I found that many biophysical scientists had little respect for social science, especially anthropology. They had the attitude that “what you do is not science and I can do it myself, no need for expertise.” I overcame this challenge by studying environmental science and creating partnerships and programs with like-minded people across units. In one case, I had to leave the institution because it was too painful to work there due to blatant sexism and lack of respect for anthropology.

7. What impact has the American Anthropological Association had in shaping your career?

Being able to organize and attend sessions at AAA, connect with colleagues.

8. Is there a particular area of anthropology you enjoy working with, such as public, private, or non-governmental sectors? Why?

I have worked for NGOs, research organizations, private sector contractors and the US government. Surprisingly — to myself as a self-described marxist anthropologist — working for the government suits me best. I am able to tolerate the bureaucracy and my colleagues are well-informed, well-educated, kind and hard-working. I have engaged with many colleagues for decades across continents and we have built up a legacy of innovative programming integrating environment, human rights and rural development. We influence NGOs and the private sector through analyses, funding opportunities and policies.

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