Russell Marsh

25 Jul 2019
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

From his inner office, Russell Marsh overhears an animated discussion about a particularly thorny topic: Israel and Palestine. Students had gathered in his outer office — where they frequently do homework or congregate for similar conversations — and the discussion is getting heated, but not hostile. “They were really, really listening. No one was ever disrespectful. That loudness came from passion.” The conversation was entirely self-directed: “I was just a fly on the wall,” Marsh recalls.

This moment typifies what inspires the most pride in Marsh, Fieldston’s Upper School Diversity Coordinator since 2017. The students had absorbed and independently engaged with what they learned in class. “Those kinds of things make me extremely happy,” he says.

Marsh laughs often and has a relaxed tone that immediately makes students feel comfortable confiding in him. In his position at the school, Marsh helps shape every diversity, equity, and inclusion program and policy at ECFS. While the role is far-reaching, it is also nebulous: Along with the team of four other diversity coordinators, Marsh works with the school’s Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and parents. “I can’t even name all the stuff that we do,” he says. Marsh is on a mission to make the school “an equitable place for everyone,” where everyone can be successful. “It’s a 20,000-foot view of the whole entire Upper School,” touching every part of the community experience.

Marsh is also an advisor to a dozen tenth graders, overseeing their personal growth and development. He has guided them since their freshman year and they will continue to be his advisees until graduation. “I tell my students: ‘I’m your number one cheerleader.’” While the minimum advising duties involve meeting students in the morning for twenty minutes to take attendance, Marsh goes well beyond that. He teaches study skills and engages the students in often difficult conversations about current events, relationships, or anything they want to get off their chest. The goal is to make them better people, both as students and as friends to each other. “I want them to get to know themselves as a student and as a person, and I think maybe more so as a person,” he says. He teaches them to recognize healthy relationships, to set goals, and to be an engaged citizen. And, he brings in mini donuts for his famous Munchkin Mondays.

In the four years he spends with each advisory cohort, Marsh hopes to see each student reach a new maturity level, and to find confident individuality, too. “I always say, I want you to be your own Eagle when you walk out of here.” Finally, he wants his students to find their sense of power over their world — to take charge and affect change, even at a young age. “This is your world. So by the time you leave here, the Eagles should be equipped to change the world,” he tells them.

Marsh is conscious of his position as a role model — both at school, and at home, where he’s a parent to one six-year-old son, Rusty, and two foster sons, aged three. (“I can talk about my babies all day long. It’s a very interesting, very smelly environment,” he laughs.) Marsh and his wife became foster parents out of a desire to give Rusty siblings, and a drive to help their community. “We have a home, we have love, and we have resources. So why not help someone out?” Fatherhood has a symbiotic relationship with teaching and advising: “Being a teacher prepared me for being a father and being a father made me be a better teacher,” he says. Having the education background gives him the language to advocate for his sons — all three of whom have special needs — especially in their schools. And fatherhood gives a new perspective to his work in diversity and equity, he says. “If you really want to know who the real diversity practitioners are, it’s three- and four-year-old kids. They are very clear about what’s wrong and what’s right and they have a hard line.”

Figurines of the Green Lantern, the Black Panther’s starting lineup, Luke Cage, and X-Men’s Storm line Marsh’s desk. “They’re my advisors,” he laughs. Marsh got into Marvel comic books as a ten-year-old, and even then, he saw them through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. “It was like: ‘You guys are saying something about being othered.’ I was sitting there as a kid, thinking ‘This feels very much like Malcolm X and Dr. King. I was reading these comics and I’m really thinking about the larger world.”

That attention to social justice came from his parents, who instilled in their kids a commitment to equity. His father was a minister whose faith had a liberal bent, focusing on Jesus as a social justice figure. Marsh’s mother was a former Black Panther, and the combined energies of his parents led to “a lot of passion.” He calls his parents “soul hippies,” and remembers family activities that set them apart from their neighbors, including gay rights rallies and marching in the African American parade. His family protested apartheid by attending demonstrations, not wearing gold, and withholding support from businesses with ties to apartheid. “That social justice stuff — I don’t know any other way.”

Russell Marsh in his office

After attending kindergarten through fourth grade at his struggling local public school, Marsh transferred to the Newark Boys Chorus School. (“My mom sent us to private school for survival and education,” he says.) It was an immersive musical experience, with rigorous rehearsal and music theory instruction, as well as performances in far-flung locales, including Tokyo Disneyland and a White House performance for then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. It was an all-boys school of predominantly black and brown students, a “great thing for me, identity-wise,” Marsh says.

Instead of attending a high school that specializes in music like his middle school, Marsh opted to focus on academics at St. Benedict’s School in Newark. He threw himself into extracurriculars: drama, choir, the school newspaper, the yearbook, the literary society, and managing the soccer team. “I was all types of artsy and nerdy,” he laughs.

But the music bug hadn’t left him. Marsh moved on to Montclair State University, where he studied music and humanities. “I was the only black guy in the music department,” he says. “If you come from predominantly brown environments for 18 years and then you go to being the only chip in the cookie, that’s a culture shock.” Still, Marsh excelled, crediting the strong foundation in music education he found at the Newark Boys Chorus School. And his connection to his past ran deep: when he graduated from college, he returned to St. Benedict’s to start a musical education program.

Marsh spent nine years leading St. Benedict’s music program, teaching the choir, music theory, and music history. Notably, his choir was an early example of an affinity space — something he’d further delve into at his next two posts — the queer boys and their allies made chorus a center of community, discussing the issues they faced and learning from each other.

After almost a decade, Marsh felt that he’d accomplished what he set out to do at St. Benedict’s (“If I do say so myself,” he laughs), and, wanting to grow in his social justice work, transitioned to Brooklyn Friends School. There, he started as a music teacher and taught choir for seven years. He worked his way up to Music Department Coordinator and then to Associate Director of Equity and Inclusion, where he helped to design curriculum and created affinity spaces based on identity. Nine years later, Marsh felt the pull to push himself further, and so he left Brooklyn Friends to join ECFS.

“Once you give them that authority and that confidence that they can do this, they soar. They soar, and I love it.”

Marsh brings with him a career dedicated to inclusion and continues to build on his success at previous schools. He will teach an interdisciplinary music and ethics course called the Soundtrack for a Revolution beginning in the 2019–20 school year. He also oversees an affinity group for boys of color, started at the students’ request. The group, called Invictus (from the poem by William Ernest Henley), meets to discuss a wide range of issues that affect the students, everything from consent through a racial lens to affirmative action to male privilege.

When the group meets, Marsh steps back and lets the students take charge. Watching students self-organize, question each other, and listen to each other is “one of my joys,” he says. He acknowledges that these conversations aren’t always easy and he hopes for a “beautiful struggle.” It’s what Marsh loves best: empowering kids to find their own voices and to muddle through on their own. “Once you give them that authority and that confidence that they can do this, they soar. They soar, and I love it.”