Celebrating Russatta Buford as DataKind’s Interim Executive Director

February 10, 2021

As we celebrate a new year with new leadership, let’s first reflect on the many ways that 2020 was a year like no other.

COVID-19 reshaped the world. As countries went in and out of lockdowns, the global economy faltered and poverty rates spiked. George Floyd's tragic death followed literally hundreds of similar police killings of Black Americans and triggered protests not only in our nation, but across the globe, sparking a long overdue conversation about systemic racism. It was a year of multiple pandemics.

At DataKind, we pivoted projects in response to COVID-19 and in support of our partners. We committed to defining inclusion and equity within our organization and hosted foundational DEI sessions. We completed our first cohort of projects in our Frontline Health Systems Impact Practice. We served as the technical partner to data.org’s Inclusive Growth & Recovery Challenge. We doubled in size. We set up home offices. We launched our Center of Excellence. We produced a Chapters summit and staff retreat, all virtually. We also bid adieu to our fearless co-founder.

In 2021, we ushered in a new era at DataKind. Our esteemed COO, Russatta Buford, stepped up as our Interim Executive Director, marking the first time DataKind has been female- and Black-led. In the 18 months that Russatta’s served as our COO, she’s brought a fresh perspective and brilliant balance of vision and operational excellence. As Interim Executive Director, she’ll ensure continued execution of our mission, working closely with the Board (including our new Board Chair, Elizabeth Grossman, from whom you’ll be hearing soon!), staff, and other key stakeholders. 

Russatta will be instrumental in strengthening the processes that make DataKind an effective organization and a great place to work, and we’re thrilled to have her in this new role. Now, let’s take a moment to celebrate her and the next chapter for DataKind. Read on for more! 

You’re picking up the torch and leading DataKind’s next chapter. What’s important to know about you?

As you may know, I’m not a data scientist or an AI engineer. However, I’m passionate about amplifying the work of others. Since leaving the private sector, I’ve been honored to do work that supports teachers in improving educational outcomes or that increases the diversity and pipeline of health leaders around the globe. The DataKind mission compels me because our interventions are force multipliers, and I’m energized because of it. 

You’re coming in as the Interim Executive Director during a critical time for the organization, but also right in the middle of a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a resurgence in energy around racial equity. What’s your vision for the organization?

Not only does the pandemic require our immediate attention, but the response to the pandemic is making attention to other ongoing, critical issues – failures and biases in our systems, lack of leadership, and growing inequities – even more imperative. There’s an awakening happening, and it’s possible for us to accelerate the great work being done by high-impact social change organizations that have been on the frontlines from the start. Not only do we need to widen the tent in our volunteer community, but it’s also important that we expand the types of organizations with which we’re in partnership, especially those that are led by members of the communities they serve. This is a moment in which we can mobilize more people who are driven to solve problems with social impact, and I’m excited to demonstrate the power of data and AI to the world. The scale and unpredictability of global challenges to come will only accelerate over time, and I want DataKind working with those partners who are meeting them. 

What’s on the horizon for DataKind in the next year?

During this past year and while physically (but not socially) distanced, we doubled our staff size. That makes for creative and intentional onboarding and requires that we ensure a shared, comprehensive understanding of our model across all staff members. Even though we want everyone to understand how DataKind has worked to-date, it’s very exciting to see how we shift and respond to emerging needs given the new infusion of perspectives, experiences, and expertise. I’m very excited to see how we can leverage and improve upon various elements of our model. Last, but certainly not least, we’re transitioning from being founder-led. That represents yet another infusion of leadership to our movement, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us.

What kind of projects would you like DataKind to do more of?

I’m passionate about a number of social issues. I’d like to see us working together with partners to: 

  • Support racial and economic justice
  • Help mitigate harm and biases caused by AI
  • Draw attention to disparate outcomes for different groups (as seen with COVID-19), which may be indicative of systemic issues
  • Lead community-centered, equity-focused responses to the pandemic and economic issues 
  • Partner with think tanks and other changemakers to influence policy changes 

How do you see more people getting involved?

In order to inspire others in our respective communities, it’s important that we tell our stories of impact. I’d like to see more volunteers with varied expertise outside of data science. Perhaps you love explaining, writing, or documenting key milestones. Perhaps you get jazzed about ensuring that systems are set up, contracts are signed, and documents are filed. Perhaps your experience in public policy or marketing or nutrition brings just the added perspective our projects need. The movement grows stronger when we widen the tent and welcome more people and organizations who care about harnessing the power of data science and AI in the service of humanity.  

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