April 14, 2020

Ned Russell – Read Ahead board member, mentor, runner, and champion extraordinaire

Interview by Kelly Dolan 

Today’s blog is an incredible window into Read Ahead’s history, with one of our strongest advocates: Ned Russell. As someone who has volunteered with Read Ahead in a myriad of ways and helped transform the organization into what it is today, Ned has a unique perspective on the program.

Ned with his mentee

 As one of Read Ahead’s longest serving Board members, how did you originally get involved?

Our next door neighbor in Connecticut, Randy Paulson, served on the Board; at that time the Board’s composition was primarily financial and legal people – people whom the Founder, Arthur Tannenbaum, had worked with in his career (Arthur started Read Ahead as a pet project after he retired). I work in advertising, which was very foreign to most of the Board, and Randy realized they needed some printed materials every now and then, so he probably thought ‘I’ve got an ad guy right here!’ – and so I was recruited to the Board. I thought ‘These are nice people, let’s see how it goes . . .’ – that was 18 years ago.

 How did Read Ahead grow to become what it is today? In what ways have you seen Read Ahead evolve and grow over the years?

When I joined the Board, the organization was called “Everybody Wins.” The concept was basically the same – volunteer/mentor and student, paired together for lunch once a week…Then one night I woke up at about 3AM and literally sprung out of bed – and I thought to myself ‘The thing ought to be called Read Ahead’ – because that captures what we’re trying to do. The important thing is to define your value proposition clearly & succinctly (e.g., The Robin Hood Foundation, Meals on Wheels, etc.).

Then – most important – we got serious about our program and our staff – but to be clear, it was mostly getting the staff right that allowed everything else to fall into place. So we developed a highly professional program with targets and metrics and feedback loops in place. And then the staff developed believers (it’s funny, but I am always reminded of the famous quote of one of the founders of the modern Italian state, Massimo d’Azeglio: “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians”) – the point being that we had a mission and a value proposition and a really good program – but we needed believers, we needed supporters, we needed participants.

And then we just got really lucky. Kristen Baldwin; Ariel Grace; Julie North; Julie Allen; Sandy Haas; Ariela Rosenberg-Brafman (and I could keep going). You could drop any one of those names into a not-for-profit and you’d wind up being really good; you put all of those people together, and boom! You are on to something great.

“The most important impact Read Ahead has on a student’s development is realizing that endless possibilities (literally) are within reach – and this happens via the relationship and through the knowledge gained via the reading.”

Ned Russell, on why Read Ahead matters

What is your favorite part about being on the Board of Directors for Read Ahead?

Working with the people – the staff, the Board, our lovely program coordinator at P.S. 33, my guy Sam-the-Man. . . My favorite part is working with these very special people doing something that makes a difference to a young person’s life.

You have been a consistent participant in the NYC Marathon running for Team Read Ahead. How many marathons have you run to date? What is the best part of the race?

I had run five marathons before I got married & had kids, and pretty much thought it was over. Ten years ago Read Ahead secured a few numbers for the race, so I convinced my wife to let me do it and that was sort of it – I was in, and plan to keep doing these for as long as I can. This year will be my 15th marathon that I have trained for; Super Storm Sandy cancelled one and last year I was injured eight days before the race and could not finish (highly disappointing!). So if it goes according to plan, this year will be my 13th time crossing the finish line. My favorite part is the training, the rigor of the training, and the best part of the marathon – for me – happens before you even step off in Staten Island: it is when you have completed your last training run, because it is at that point that you know you have done the very best that you can to prepare – and now running the race is the easy part. Your body just executes what it has prepared itself to do.

 What do you think is the most important impact that Read Ahead has on a student’s development?

The most important impact Read Ahead has on a student’s development is realizing that endless possibilities (literally) are within reach – and this happens via the relationship and through the knowledge gained via the reading. The student makes a connection with an adult, and they become friends – and we cannot underestimate what this connection does for the child’s own self-esteem and confidence. (How many 2nd graders can say they have a friend, outside of their family or school, who’s in their 30’s/40’s/50’s?). And the reason this is so critical is that the ability to navigate among possibilities is really important for young people today – there was a statistic about six years ago that said the five most popular jobs at that moment (UX designer, social media analyst, whatever they were) didn’t exist ten years before. So a young student today needs to be able to believe that anything is possible, and be confident in their ability to adapt themselves to do the things their heart is telling them to do.

As we adjust to current school closures and social distancing measures, Read Ahead will be continuing to share great stories from our community – we hope they bring a smile to your face! Do you have a story to share, or an idea for something you’d like to see on our blog? We’d love to hear from you! Contact us at communications@readahead.org