For the past eight years, Russell has directed a U.S. Department of State-funded initiative to bring peace to a conflict-torn region of the Philippines.
Each year, she and Lina Ong, co-director of the project and director of NIU’s International Training Office, have run month-long institutes on campus in DeKalb for adult leaders and youth activists from the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines.
The institutes aim to promote partnerships between U.S. and Filipino groups, strengthen understanding of democratic values, develop an appreciation for American government and cultural diversity, and strengthen participant skills in methods of citizen participation. Last year, of 24 Filipino participants, 12 came from indigenous tribes in the country.
A contingent of NIU representatives visited Mindanao in January as part of a State Department-supported “follow-on” program. The NIU representatives heard how each institute participant’s community project was progressing and offered advice on communicating their messages, working with other communities and working to resolve conflicts.
At the closing event, Russell was caught by surprise when she was called up on stage to be honored for her work in promoting peace. She was given a blessing by a shaman and inducted into the ancient Manobo tribe, the only non-Filipino ever granted such a privilege.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Russell says. “I was called forward and suddenly realized I was going to be the center of this ritual. I had no idea what was going to take place. I was stunned.”
Russell was presented with gifts and given the title of “bai,” meaning female tribal leader. Manobo leaders also gave her a new name, roughly Borje Manunggud, which translates to provider.
“It was a huge honor,” Russell said. “There’s an emotional connection with these people. It’s hard to explain.”
Also present during the ceremony were members of the group from NIU who, as part of the follow-on program, presented lectures and workshops during the trip.
They included sociology professor Kay Forest, Center for Black Studies Director LaVerne Gyant, Center for P–20 Engagement Executive Director Lemuel Watson and anthropology professors Winifred Creamer, Katharine Wiegele and Giovanni Bennardo.
“It was a very impressive honor for Sue,” Creamer said. “This was a carefully planned and organized ceremony.
“Participants from the NIU program took leadership positions, deciding that this was how they wanted to show Dr. Sue their appreciation,” Creamer added. “The NIU program teaches young people to take charge. It was deeply gratifying to see those lessons put into practice and witness a ceremony celebrating such a strong bond of friendship.”