Russell’s Building Camp
A CNU Midwest Profile of Adrian Russell
Name: Adrian Russell
Title: Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion / Procurement
Company: Shiel Sexton Company, Inc.
Hometown: Indianapolis, IN
Fun Facts: Has played bass guitar for 15 years and his daughter is his mini-me
The Indy Chamber does a very cool awards program every year: The Monumental Awards. This year, I came across a very unique project and story: Russell’s Building Camp (RBC). A 501c3, RBC “provides youth of every age with life-changing experiences through learning to use their hands and minds to create and build.” Hang on, a project built by kids is nominated for awards for Innovative Reuse and Neighborhood Revitalization? We gotta dig into this. Adrian Russell, the program’s founder and fearless leader, sat down with me to tell the story.
The Indy Chamber does a very cool awards program every year: The Monumental Awards. This year, I came across a very unique project and story: Russell’s Building Camp (RBC). A 501c3, RBC “provides youth of every age with life-changing experiences through learning to use their hands and minds to create and build.” Hang On, a project built by kids is nominated for awards for Innovative Reuse and Neighborhood Revitalization? We gotta dig into this. Adrian Russell, the program’s founder and fearless leader, sat down with me to tell the story.
Author’s Note: Hot off the press, at the October 4 Monumental Awards Ceremony, RBC took home a lot of hardware. They placed #1 in the People’s Choice Category, #2 in Neighborhood Revitalization, and #2 in Innovative Reuse.
The Day Job
Adrian Russell is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion / Procurement for Shiel Sexton Company in Indianapolis. “My day to day is spearheading our initiative to bring an altogether different approach to DEI,” Russell shared. “We are fostering a better, more capable Indiana construction market that will ultimately benefit all of us. Our organizational mentorship of minority owned businesses and subcontractors leads to placing them on projects and, beyond that, gives our partners the opportunity to grow and scale their businesses.”
How’d We Get Here?
Russell is no stranger to construction, having spent 10 years leading large-scale commercial construction projects across the US. But how did he get his start? “It’s funny. Coming up in poverty in the inner city of Indianapolis in a very, very large household of 10 (I’m the sixth of eight children), I was introduced to construction as a means of survival and necessity. Things in my house and church were constantly falling apart and I learned to use my hands to keep things together. This introduced me to a love of the trades, love of the industry.”
Russell’s experience working in 13 different states showed him the huge lack of diversity everywhere in the industry. “I’m not from HR or academia - I’m an individual that cut his teeth in construction ops and understands what makes this work tick. That’s unique for someone serving in a DEI leadership role and makes me more effective.”
The Servant Leader and His Mission
So about Russell’s Building Camp - that nonprofit group of kids that are nominated for an innovative reuse and neighborhood revitalization award with the local Chamber of Commerce. “I wanted to start a program where kids could, in a judgment free environment, be introduced to this incredible world of being able to use your hands to build and your imagination to solve problems.” He set up the 501c3, recruited volunteers and sponsors, and built a brand for the mission. At this same time, Russell said yes to leading the first major renovation of the 80-year-old church that sparked his interest in the industry as a kid. Then the pandemic.
“As we were launching, the industry was still figuring out how to handle the shutdowns and delays spurred by the pandemic. We couldn’t take the kids to job sites like we’d planned.”
But Russell had his site. “We held our first workshop, brought kids into the church auditorium which was totally gutted at the early point of renovation. They got to put on their PPE, learn how to identify and use tools from trade professionals, make a ton of noise, have a great time, and look forward to coming back.”
During the course of the renovation, the church offered RBC 1,000 SF of underutilized space to house their administrative offices. The youth participating in RBC were part of every step of their own space’s development - from design to demo to the grand opening.
“The kids are able to say, ‘Hey, I built that! I was part of that!’ Being able to brag on the fact that they had a hand in building part of their community – that is the power of this project. It’s a legacy project. We’re in a legacy industry – success is being able to go back through neighborhoods and have love for them appreciating the fact your hands touched them.”
People ask Russell all the time: How do you keep so many young people coming back consistently? He posed that question back to a young man who emerged as a leader at RBC.
“He was the type of individual other young people gravitated to – 18, lots of friends. He arrived every week with a truck full of guys ready to get after it,” Russell recounted. “When I asked him, he told me, ‘A couple of days ago we were riding in the car and one of the guys randomly brought up how you always tell us, ‘Good job.’ We all talked about that for a while. Man, I don’t think you realize how often you give positive reassurance. Some of them have never really heard that in their lives. I don’t even think my dad tells me he’s proud of me as much as you and the RBC volunteers do.’”
Russell believes the kids keep coming back because they are looking for a place to belong. “If they’re building or framing or whatever in the process of belonging and being appreciated, that’s cool too, but as young people they’re there because they’re being built up. We may not know the challenges they are facing, but we believe in the power of ‘good job.’”
So what’s next for RBC? Russell would love to scale the program to other cities and diversify their programming. “We’ve prioritized bottling up what has made us successful to date and we continue to build a structure that can be replicated. We’re also looking at extending beyond construction and the trades – can we add an architecture and design component, an engineering component? We want to – in every way – introduce the idea of exposing the ACE industries to young people who simply don’t know of the amazing opportunities out there. It’s about imagination and involvement related to the built environment.”
To date, RBC has worked with over 100 kids, placing 10 of them in industry positions. “We have shown that through internships, working directly with industry professionals, and encouraging pursuit of education in this field lead to improvement of our industry and our community.”
Author’s Note: If you would like to donate to the cause and help RBC grow, here’s where you can do that.
The Hot Take
“Diversity works. It absolutely works. Diversity is not just limited to a black or white thing - diversity of thought, approach, experience - I think diversity absolutely works in every way.”
The Content Recommendation
Author’s note: Check out Episode 56: Breaking Barriers in Construction to hear Adrian’s interview.
MK Lindsey is Vice President of Real Estate Development for Crawford Hoying in Columbus, OH. For the last decade, MK's work has centered around creating dynamic destinations - distilleries, museums, corporate visitor centers, parks, and walkable neighborhoods. With a project portfolio of ~$1B across 7 states, her key projects have included the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville, KY, Sagamore Spirit Distillery in Baltimore, MD, the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA, boutique hotels throughout bourbon country, and mixed-use district developments in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Louisville. MK has a unique blend of experience in storytelling, master planning, project management, construction, historic redevelopment, and finance. She works with architects, designers, engineers, municipal staff, builders, bankers, and equity investors to make difficult, multi-year projects happen across the region.