NAACP honors Christian Center board member with the 2021 President’s Award
Byron Russell honored and humbled
Byron Russell, Christian Center of Park City board member, was walking out of Costco on a Saturday when he got a phone call from Jeanetta Williams, NAACP Salt Lake Branch president.
She informed Russell that he was the recipient of the NAACP Salt Lake Chapter President’s Award.
“I said, ‘Jeanetta, Did you really mean to call me?’” Russell said.
Williams assured him that she did mean to call, and that was confirmed when she gave Russell the award during the 103rd Annual Life Membership and Freedom Fund Banquet hosted by the NAACP on Friday, Oct. 22, at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City.
The President’s Award is an honor given to community leaders who are challenging society to end discrimination and embrace diversity, according to the NAACP.
“I was humbled because I have seen so many great leaders receive this award, and I’ve been such an admirer of the NAACP for pretty much my adult life,” said Russell, founder and principal managing partner of Byron Russell LLC, a consulting firm in Salt Lake City. “So to have this honor is truly an amazing gift, to not only me, but to the community that I represent.”
On hand to help Russell celebrate was his husband Monte Caldwell and Russell’s mother, Barbara.
“Kudos to my husband who was very sneaky in bringing my mother in from Maryland,” Russell said with a laugh. “I was sitting in the Little America lobby, and then my 83-year-old mom walked in.”
That was when the award took on a new meaning.
“It was really special for her, because, as you can imagine, she has experienced the amazing work of the NAACP for quite some time,” he said. “It was just an extra layer of honor for her to see her son, me, receive an award from an organization that has made an impact on her history.”
Russell said the award was given to him because of community service, including the work he does with the Christian Center of Park City.
“I tend to deflect things like this, because the people I get to work with are also giving of themselves,” he said. “Sometimes you just find yourself being called upon to act and to lead, and I think that happened to all of us, especially during the (coronavirus) pandemic. We all had some role, great and small, of how we were going to go about saving lives and mitigating pain.”
When COVID-19 hit, Russell knew that much of Utah’s multicultural communities would suffer because of the lack of resources. So he was grateful Gov. Spencer Cox created a multi-cultural advisory committee to respond to the needs of those impacted by the pandemic.
“The governor asked for my participation and to co-chair the committee, and I was willing to do anything for the community,” he said. “It was an opportunity for me to also work with amazing individuals and great community leaders who had a sense of what communities in our state needed to do.”
One of the first things on the list was to meet the needs of people who had little or no access to health care and experienced economic challenges that were magnified by COVID-19.
“We looked at a model that would work with meeting these needs and the model happened to be what the Christian Center of Park City is doing,” Russell said. “This nonprofit meets people at their point of need with food pantries, mental health counseling and its program called Basic Needs.”
So, Russell and the committee, including Cox, who was Lt. Gov. at the time, approached the state Legislature with the Basic Needs Assistance bill, which asked for $5 million for humanitarian organizations across the state.
Russell’s draw to the Christian Center started with his friends Susan and Jim Swartz, the co-directors of the nonprofit’s board.
“I have known them for more than two decades, and they had come from the East, and knew of an organization that was similar to the Christian Center,” Russell said. “I took a tour and was amazed just at the food pantry, because the food that was donated was better than the food I was buying at the grocery store.”
After the tour, which was nearly 13 years ago, the cogs in Russell’s mind began churning.
“I thought we should bring in someone prominent, like Michelle Obama, to see what the Christian Center does,” he said. “Of course, everyone was like, ‘Byron, could you pipe down and just help us with basic ideas of how to let people know who we are?’”
Still Russell followed his instincts and was instrumental in getting the former First Lady to come to Park City and celebrate the Christian Center.
“She loved our model,” he said. “She visited with us. I met her. I cried, and I still have her picture,” Russell said.
Russell founded his LLC 10 years ago, and that’s when he started to work to expand the nonprofit’s donor base.
He came up with the Christian Center of Park City’s Hike 4 Hunger program that raises awareness of food insecurity in Summit and Wasatch counties.
“I bribed all my friends to come to the first one, and since then it has turned into something quite special,” he said. “I have to give hats off to the Sorenson Legacy Foundation for sponsoring it to keep it affordable, which allows us to invite the people whom we serve to participate.”
Russell officially joined the Christian Center’s board of directors two years ago, and he is also the chair of the Christian Center of Park City’s national advisory board.
“The national advisory board allows us to spread out beyond Park City,” he said.
Russell’s interest in philanthropy and social enterprise hit him while he was backpacking in Europe.
“I started off as a kid growing up in Maryland, and I decided I needed to be someplace else,” he said. “I started the backpacking trip in London and wound my way into Egypt. Cairo woke me up to what the world was and what the world wasn’t.”
Russell returned to the States and graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in government politics, journalism and French.
“I ended up going to South Africa during Apartheid to work on an international youth campaign,” he said. “I had invited a member of Parliament from Great Britain to speak and he, in turn, invited me to work in the House of Commons in London, where one of my assignments was to help the last colony in Southwest Africa become Namibia.”
Russell’s degrees then led him into journalism, where he covered the White House and Congress.
“It was so tedious, and I wanted to get away someplace that reminded me of Namibia,” he said. “So I found myself in the Southwest.”
After years of skiing in Utah, Russell relocated to Salt Lake City in 1992, where he dove into the local arts scene.
“I got a job at the Utah Symphony and worked on the Zoo, Arts and Parks campaign, and that led me to an incredible network of community leaders, which got me involved with the community,” he said.
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