Russ Bilderbeck has led an interesting life. As a result, he thinks about what others are going through rather than judge them. Listen in as he gives his perspective on ally-ship and what pride month means to him.
William Krieger: The views and opinions of the guests of the “Me You Us” podcast do not represent the views and opinions of Consumers Energy.
Bill Krieger: Hello everyone and welcome to Me You Us, a well?being podcast. It’s another well?being Wednesday here at Consumers Energy and I’m your host Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Russell Bilderbeck. He is an experience measurement analyst here at Consumers Energy. Russ, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Russell Bilderbeck: My name is Russell Bilderbeck. I’ve been with the company almost five years now. Started with the ASP group. Shoutout to them, they definitely molded to the person I became.
Moved on over to the product experience and performance team, which was then the experience design team under the great and powerful Tobin Williams. Awesome guy and I am so lucky to be working alongside so many geniuses in that space.
I have been with my partner two and a half years. We just got our dog back about a year ago now, so he’s a year and a half old. We got a house in August in Berkeley, Michigan, right outside of Royal Oak, Ferndale area. Those are my stomping grounds.
I’m a middle child. I have two older sisters, a younger brother raised by one of the strongest people I know, my dad who single?handedly raised us all when my mom left super young. I’m just living my life constantly learning and driving and trying to fit the mold that I totally want to be my dad.
Every day is a new day and trying to live up to what I want to do in life.
Bill: I think we all have those heroes in our lives. Nice to hear that your hero is your dad. There’s a lot of stuff there to talk about. I want to back all the way up to your job as an experience measurement analyst. That’s a new one for me. I thought I’d heard all the jobs in my time here at Consumers, but that’s a new one. Could you talk a little bit about what you do for a living?
Russell: Sure. I work really closely with our experience designers on the team. The job itself captures and tries to promote our customer effort score, our net promoter score, our CXI, or C STAT. Trying to dive into our products that we have and what our customers are experiencing through the whole journey of all of our products. We have so many.
Really, it’s just helping them try to make our products the best that they can be and constantly learning and improving them to make it good for them.
Bill: Excellent. You talked about changes. Change is one of the constants around here, but it’s not always bad. You’re right. It seems like no matter what change I’ve gone through, I’ve worked with some great teams with some great people.
When you say geniuses, I immediately think about 10 or 20 people that I’ve worked with over my career. It’s always good to be in that sort of a team.
Russell: Yeah. Working alongside them, in our group, we have so many different people and backgrounds. They made a huge deliberate effort trying to capture as much diversity in the field and just learning from them.
I learn something new every day, and being in the operations group, working alongside visual designers and researchers, you can’t shy away from learning. It’s a great privilege to be able to work alongside them.
Bill: Yeah. As a lifelong learner myself, I get what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been in any given place. There’s always something new to learn.
Now, when we were getting ready to set up for the show, you disclosed that you’re a new homeowner, bought your first house. What’s that experience been like for you?
Russell: It’s been challenging, but rewarding. I never thought I’d be somebody to replace drywall or replace outlets or light switches or try to find the studs on the wall.
I think when you’re in those situations, you have no choice but to, and then you get that desire and that want to learn, especially when you work or you have a partner like mine, who is constantly learning himself and trying to make our home fit both of us, you just want to keep that going. It’s long days, it’s long hours.
I joke, when people say that they buy a house, you cross off three things and you add eight, and it’s constant. I’m a very type?A person. I keep track of everything. I see the projects that are being delayed. It’s just like all of this priority.
What’s going to get us the biggest bank if and when we sell? We have three hours this weekend, what can we knock out? I mean it’s just constant, but it’s so fun. It’s so rewarding. We live downtown on a high rise and we had gotten our dog when we lived down there.
Being able to have a fenced?in yard and just open up the door wall and let him go out is, you can just tell that my dog itself is over the moon having the space and it’s great.
Bill: Your dog’s digging it too. I love what you said there about making your home for both of you. I know my wife and I have done that with our home.
She actually bought the home before we got together. When I moved in, I was the stranger there, but we have really made it our home and it makes a huge difference in a relationship.
Russell: Absolutely. Luckily, we have very similar aesthetic. When we want to get something, we both get the buy?in and there’s many things that I want that he doesn’t, so then that gets vetoed. You have to compromise, which is another opportunity to strengthen our relationship.
Then, you have to create spaces where we both feel safe. We both work from home, so making sure that we both have a space that we feel comfortable in and not have to tidy up if we don’t want to. I mean there’s so many different nuances there really, you can’t help but need to learn if you’re not even there yet.
Bill: Right. It’s funny you said you have the same aesthetic because in my house I’m very Spartan. I would throw everything away if you allow me to. I don’t like clutter and my wife on the other hand would save almost everything if she were allowed to.
We balance each other out very well, but it does make some very interesting conversations because we are very different in how we look at things. If you found some of that at least in what you’re doing with your house?
Russell: Steven and I are that exact same way. I don’t like clutter. I like things being in its right spot. I mean that’s definitely symptom of having ADD because I forget things. It’s easier for me to have a place for something so I don’t have to remember where it’s at.
It’s just always there. Steven will pick something up and just set it down. He’s not the cleanest or tidiest. There’s mess everywhere. I had to give a little bit there and allow him to feel comfortable.
I don’t like things everywhere, but also it’s his house too, so you have to. I’m happy to, but I’m not going to lie. It can be challenging at some times.
Bill: Yeah, I can only imagine. You’re the a?place?for?everything and everything in its place. He’s kind of the place for everything and everything all over the place.
Russell: Yeah, absolutely.
Bill: Got it. You and Steven, you said you’ve been together for two?and?a?half years now. Would you mind talking a little bit about him? Would he mind if you talked a little bit about him?
Russell: I don’t think he’d care. I don’t mind at all. We met pretty much at the start of COVID. It was July 2020, and we met on Bumble. I think he was like the first swipe I had and we just started talking and we went on a date two days later and stayed inseparable ever since.
I mean our anniversary date, we just say is our first date because I mean, it started right there and didn’t really fizzle away.
Bill: There’s truth in the love at first sight.
Russell: Yeah, absolutely. Everything happens for a reason. It’s interesting because I had Tinder and I opened it one day and I was removed from the app, no idea why.
I’m sitting here bitter about, why would that happen? It took like three weeks to download Bumble. My friend told me to, kept pestering me, and that was the first swipe. It’s just funny how things happen and I wouldn’t have met him another way or in a modern way.
Bill: Right. Think about this too, during COVID, you don’t consider people finding love during COVID, but a lot of my friends have through different dating apps, met each other during COVID, and love blossomed from there.
I love your story. What’s Steven like? Other than what we’ve already talked about, what’s he like?
Russell: Steven is a chemical engineer, and for anyone that knows engineers, their brains are impeccably insanely smart. This guy knows everything about everything. I like to say I know a little bit about everything. This guy knows everything about everything.
Super disciplined, the fact that he was able to achieve what he’s able to achieve coming from a broken home, I look up to all the time. Come that is a very scattered brain and he definitely makes it known pretty often. He’s an outstanding guy, wonderful man. Very lucky to know him.
Bill: Sounds a little bit like my brother?in?law. I won’t name names here because I have a couple of brothers?in?law, but he is one of the most brilliant men I know, but sometimes we call him the nutty professor because he can tend to just be out there and doing his thing. I get it. I get it.
I want to talk a little bit too about your childhood and your dad. You did mention that your dad’s your hero, that he raised you and your siblings singlehandedly, which is not a common story, honestly.
I do have to say shout out to middle children though, because I’m a middle child. I think we probably commiserate the whole rest of this podcast about being the middle child. What was it like growing up Russell?
Russell: It was fun. All things considering. My mom left when I was three. When she left, she left my brother two, me three, and my sister six and nine. Coming from that kind of environment, being tossed around a lot, always having my aunts babysit.
We lived with my grandparents for a long time. There was just so much chaos, but even after that, I still don’t think that I didn’t get anything that I wanted. Yes, we probably had a different outlook of the expectations of what we could or couldn’t get, but my dad made every attempt to make sure we had everything.
He worked three jobs. This man would sleep three hours a day for years. It was good. I think it definitely made me the person I am. I think it’s definitely made me the control freak that I am. Now that you’re older, you have a lot more control over the things you can control. Not all, but you have some.
It’s definitely shaped me to be a better person, both professionally and personally. Coming from that, you learn a lot about empathy. You learn a lot about sympathy. It’s one of those things that I feel that because I went through that possibly, it’s made me somebody that allows my friends to come to me and talk to. I never judge.
I never criticize. I’m a forward thinker. I try and think of solutions to help them. I take my shirt off their backs. I think it’s because when I was younger, I wish I had all of that. Even though my dad was able to provide all of that, that emotional support wasn’t really there because he wasn’t there.
I think going through that, it’s made my siblings super, super close. We talk all the time. We’re all five and a half years apart. Because of that, it’s definitely been one of our strengths to be able to lean on each other.
That’s really where my first thought of how I would want to conduct myself with a friendship stem from because I always had their support. I always had their acceptance. Little did they know I’d have quite the journey to follow after that. [laughs]
Bill: Let’s talk a little bit about your journey too. I want to be mindful, but I want to ask some tough questions if that’s OK. I don’t know if these are even tough questions because you seem very open to answering questions.
My first question is, when did you come out to your family? It’s no secret that you’re a gay man. When did you have this conversation with your family and how did that go? If this is the wrong question to ask, please tell me.
Russell: No, I don’t mind. I think over the years, I’ve said this story so many times. It’s like I can read off the palm of my hand. I came out in the end of 2011. It was a very unique time because I had married my childhood sweetheart, who’s a female.
We started dating in middle school, dated all through high school, college. She ended up getting pregnant. That was amazing. I proposed and it was the start of so many things that I just knew I wanted to do. I didn’t really have any inclination of me being gay then at all. It was definitely a late bloomer in that sense.
After a couple of years, I think we were married about three and a half years at that point, eventually, you can’t shy away from who you are. Who you truly are, who you’re supposed to be, how you’re born, no matter how much you try to suppress it, it will come out and it did. It started odd because I knew I was going to do this.
I was so scared to come out to her because what a weird thing to even try to do. That was after we even healed because when she got pregnant, she ended up miscarrying. That brought us even closer. How do you approach a conversation that you don’t even want to have with yourself? It was a lot of back and forth.
I think she got mad at me about something with the dishwasher and I just stayed mad for no reason. I’m not somebody that likes to stay mad at silly things. I just stayed mad because I thought in my mind if I focused on being angry, I would be able to do it.
Came back from work, we talked, I told her. It was a bittersweet thing because I wish I had the ability and the opportunity to come out in a different way. It was relieving, but also, how do you feel relief when you’re completely devastating the love of your life?
Not only are you having to think about how your life is changing, but you now bear the responsibility of negatively affecting how their life trajectory is. That was a really crappy thing for me to overcome. It was hard. It was tough.
We sat there, we cried for hours, took us a couple of days. Eventually, she’s like, “I need to talk to somebody about this, but I know you’re not ready yet.” I’m thinking, “Well, no, I can’t tell you ‘no’. You have to.”
It forced me to start that conversation with my family sooner because she needed to have that conversation with her family. When I did, it was immense support. Again, it’s a unique one because not only am I saying I’m coming out, I’m also disrupting their vision of what my family looks like.
They knew her for years. There were different things, “I want to support him.” “Also, you’re getting a divorce too, so how do I help you there?” It was kind of this oddball of emotions. Growing up the way that I grew up, I knew that the spot was there.
When I did, my brother who’s a tough cookie to crack, he cried. Not because of anything negative. The first thing he said was, “You get to be exactly who you are now.” My sister said the same thing. My dad said the same thing.
My mom, I don’t have much of a relationship with her, but even then she’s like, I knew that this was what your life was going to be. I remembered asking her, “Why didn’t you tell me this?” I could have saved so much heartache, and she’s like, “I can’t.”
No one can tell you that kind of thing because we truly don’t really know, even though mothers, even parents say they know their child before they know themselves. It’s just interesting that who you’re meant to be can really be known and seen by somebody that’s not even around.
It’s interesting. The rest was easy. I mean, the coming out part. I still had a long road of divorce. Who would have thought 23 and divorce would have been in your 20s? I would have.
Bill: Life has a funny way of not turning out the way we think it’s going to.
Bill: I think sometimes it doesn’t turn out at all like you think it’s going to turn out. Certainly, you were finding that out. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but you did mention that you had this conversation with your mother. At some point, were you able to reconcile with her after the years of not having her around? How did that work?
Russell: That’s a tough one because I’m almost 34 and I have not been able to bridge that trust. There’s many times that the relationship is there, but oftentimes it seems forced. I think not by either party intentionally, I just think when you have so much distance, how do you make it not forced?
We would stay committed to talking and catching up for a month and then fall off and then repeat and fall off. She attempted to move back to the State. At that time, my grandparents paid her way to come back up because she lived in Alabama at the time and now does.
Once she moved up here, she started working, started building that relationship and now I was 22. So much lost time to be made up. She had to move again because not only, she said she couldn’t afford it, but child support reared its ugly head. Rightfully so, my dad deserved it, but she couldn’t do it.
She had to go back to where she found home, which is out of state. After that, it’s never been something I’ve fully been able to trust and embrace. It’s interesting. I’ve been going to therapy for a very long time.
It’s one of those things that is…A goal of mine this year is to try to write a letter outlining the mistrust and the fears and the wonder. I hold on to a lot of, “I wonder what that relationship would have been.”
My dad was not emotionally there, so I know for a fact I would have been like the definition of a mama’s boy. Knowing that that’s what you want, but not having it, and knowing that that’s what it could have been and would have been, that’s something that it’s been really tough for me to navigate.
As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve gotten angrier about it. I’m challenging myself to spend a couple of hours a month drafting a letter in my notes app. Hopefully, being able to express it because I don’t know if I would be able to otherwise.
Bill: Well, now you’re in a great relationship committed for the last two and a half years. Do you think that lack of trust impacted your ability to have other relationships?
Russell: I don’t think it prevented me. I think it pushed me in it. I’m a very emotional person and I think not having that relationship that I would have wanted emotionally with my parents, I think made me try and reach for it elsewhere.
I had a relationship before Steven for four and a half years when I lived in Atlanta. It made me hyper?focused of the other person, making sure that they were always happy, making sure that they were satisfied.
You don’t realize how much you lose yourself when you haven’t come to terms with yourself emotionally, maturity?wise. It was something that I was like, “I’m losing myself.” I would have friends tell me like, “You’re not the same person that you used to be.”
It didn’t dawn on me until that relationship ended that when I moved back home in 2018, how much of myself that I had lost. I spent a good chunk the next two and a half years finding myself so many opportunities for relationships, but I have the mindset of, you can’t be happy in a relationship if you’re not happy with yourself.
I was not about to put myself in a situation in a relationship when I wasn’t financially ready, mentally ready, professionally ready. It took a lot of soul?searching to get to the place where I am, but I found love pretty quickly I guess I could say.
I think it was a lack of love for myself that pushed me in the relationships that I probably shouldn’t have been and lost myself. It took some guidance to get me there.
Bill: This is one of those moments where I wish that we were doing video because when you said you found love like your face lights up, you’re smiling. It’s an amazing thing to see.
I’m sure people can hear it, but to actually see it is pretty incredible. I can see where this is something that’s very good for you and you’re enjoying it. That’s really all sometimes we can hope for.
Russell: Yeah. I’m very passionate about self?love only because it took me so long to get here, and positivity and understanding, empathy, and sympathy and really realizing that we’re all fighting this life.
I think we’re so used to having comparison, and really comparison is the killer of joy. I mean there’s always a new thing. There’s always a hotter person.
There’s always a better job, but when we sit here and compare where we’re at with other people and other things, it really teaches that we’re not good enough, and me realizing that made me push deeper and harder to not only love myself but to make sure that people feel loved, belonged, seen, heard, all of the things that here at Pace we really push for.
Really, it is something that is so important to me, and making sure that people are respected. All of this crazy stuff that’s happening, we don’t have to go into politics or anything. The fact that everyone is just so quick to say, you’re wrong because you don’t agree with me.
It’s like, take a step back. I mean we’re human beings. We’re all trying to walk the same life. We all want the same things. We want to be happy. We want to be financially secured. We want to find love.
We want our family around and healthy and our friends around and healthy. People often forget how much more we have in common than we think. It really is centered around just love and treating people like human beings.
It’s one of those crazy things that I can’t even try to understand how people have a difficult time understanding that. I have some reasons, but it’s definitely a huge priority of mine to focus on those kinds of things.
Bill: You said some very important things there, for all of our differences, we are a lot alike. Also, I’m not going to dive into politics because that’s not what this show is all about.
Russell: [laughs] .
Bill: The truth of the matter is, we’ve spent a long time over the last few years trying to get people to bend to our way of thinking rather than saying we think differently and being OK with that.
It really goes to dialogue over debate. I’m not going to change your mind about certain things, and you’re not going to change my mind about certain things, but let’s find those things that we agree on. We can certainly go a long way from there. You mentioned PACE.
For the folks in the audience that don’t know what PACE is, that’s the Pride Alliance of Consumers Energy. Let’s talk a little bit about PACE and some of the things that they’re doing. We are going to be airing this in Pride Month. What’s coming up?
Russell: What’s coming up? We have our signature event in June every year where we put a lot of our resources building that affinity towards not only the LGBTQIA plus community showing representation to our coworkers here but also our allies who are really our biggest strength in the community.
There’s way more allies than there are members of our community, and pushing them to see the light and help us have our voices stronger is a huge push. We’re really pushing a ally program, which is going to be ideally teaching all of us how to be better allies.
Not only for those in the community, but also for allies across the board, whether it’s race, religions.
William: I don’t want to interrupt you. What’s an ally? For someone who doesn’t understand what that term really means, what is an ally?
Russell: An ally to me…I think there’s different ways that people can see it, but I think an ally to me is looking over to a minority, or really anybody I guess, but looking over and saying, “I stand with you. I stand behind you. I hear your cause. I’m fighting for your cause. I might not be a member of that community, but whatever I can do to help you have a stronger voice, I’m here.”
Our allies are our biggest asset in our community. Allies across the board, religions, gender, equality, color of your skin. The allies for the underrepresented minorities are anyone’s strengths.
William: Just for clarification, when you use the term minority, you’re really talking about underrepresented populations.
William: We look at the diversity wheel, that could be socioeconomic. That could be, as you said, religious. That could be this color of your skin. That could be your gender, all kinds of different ways that that word can and is used today.
As we talk about ally programs and PACE, again, we are in Pride Month, and so, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, “Russ, what does Pride Month mean to you? Like what do you get out of this?”
Russell: Pride Month to me every year is a reminder of how hard I fought to be the person I am. I didn’t learn who I was until later in life, and I feel like there’s a lot of upset in my wake of identifying and coming to terms with who I am. Every year, it’s just a reminder of how far I came.
I would think often about the person I was coming out and how hard it was and just trying to remember in 10 years, you are going to be who you really want to be. You just can’t be that person yet because you’re fighting like hell to get there.
Now, looking back at it and remembering the pain, acknowledging my pain, that’s another thing that’s important to me. We’re so quick to be like, “OK, yep, I moved on. Let’s forget about it.” That is difficult to do. I will say that.
I’ve been fortunate enough to know tools to fight through that, but acknowledging the pain only allows me to increase my understanding and sympathy for others in that situation. I go full circle in Pride Month because it’s celebrating who I am, celebrating the life I’ve created, the diversity I fought through to get to where I am.
It’s also acknowledging that there’s so many people that can’t be who they are. There’s so many people who have lost their lives because they couldn’t be who they are, whether it’s family members not accepting, religions that are not accepting, themselves not accepting.
I think there’s a notion that everyone that’s out is out and proud, but there’s still a lot of shame in society that we put that on ourselves and a lot of people can’t do that. It’s celebrating the fact that I was able…It’s remembering the people who couldn’t or still with us today that just can’t.
It’s constant learning of how I can even be a better ally for my community as well. You don’t have to be a straight person to be an ally. I can be an ally for things that I am still learning about.
Bill: Absolutely. You said something in there that really struck me and that is on the one hand, it was a struggle for you to get to be who you are, but I heard you acknowledge the fact that in doing that, there were people that were hurt. You used the term in my wake.
I think that’s important too, is that sometimes those things are going to happen and you readily acknowledge it. It wasn’t a, “I need to do this for me and everyone else be darned.” It was, “I need to do this for me and I know that this is not going to be easy for everyone, and I acknowledge that.” I think that’s just so important as well.
Russell: Yeah. It’s important to remember. And I know, my ex?wife, she’s super happy now, has a child and married, but I know that there…It affected her and I know it affected her long?term. I know it affected friendships and I know it affected so many. I just like to remind myself that it’s a challenge and it will always be a challenge.
We really create normalcy around the fact that we all have the same heartbeat. We all have that same exact feeling when we hold hands with somebody that is our person, our partner, I love. It’s the same feeling, and we have to break through the uncomfortable and the notions and the idea that it’s something that it’s not.
William: I could probably in the podcast right here. That was very profound. I think a lot of the folks in the audience are going to get something from that. That really brings me to the point that we are coming close to the end of the podcast and you’ve said so much in this short period of time, but I want to make sure that your message gets out as well.
Before we close, is there anything else that you would really like this audience to take away from our conversation today?
Russell: That’s a good one. Of course, leave it to me to talk your ear off, Bill. I’ll be a broken record. I think it’s just coming back to self?love, acceptance, look around. There’s more people out there struggling than you think. The last thing that we should do as human beings is make their life worse or more difficult.
People are already dealing enough. Whether it’s juggling kids, juggling struggles with their job, their family, maybe they’re not in the ideal situation. It’s just why add unnecessary trauma and discourse to somebody already struggling?
Bring people up, be positive, be happy, try and be that person. Smile at one person and that might be the first time they’ve seen a smile in three weeks. Tip that extra dollar because maybe that extra dollar was something. Try and get back to just loving people for being alive. I think that’s the important thing because it’s already a struggle. Celebrate that, celebrate that in everybody.
Bill: All right. Well, thank you for that, and thanks for coming on today. I really appreciate it. You and I will be seeing each other, I know, throughout the rest of the year, and would love to have you come back on and do a little more talking. It’s just been a pleasure, so thanks for coming on.
Russell: Sure. Happy to be here. Thank you for your time.
William: And thank you to the audience for listening in today. The Me You Us podcast is proudly sponsored by Consumers Energy, leaving Michigan better than we found it. Remember, you can find the Me You Us podcast on all major podcasting platforms, so be sure to go out, find us, and subscribe.
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