The first time Christina Baggett met Christian Ragland, she thought he was handsome and charismatic, but didn’t think anything more would come of their brief meeting at a leadership conference. They were from two different parts of the state, and she figured he probably had a girlfriend anyway.
Fast forward seven years and now Christina and Christian are married with three young children, and have become one of the most influential young black couples in Atlantic County. Each is 31 years old and each has a seriously impressive resume.
Christian, a 2007 graduate of Absegami High School, got his undergraduate degree from Penn State, a master’s from Walden University and is working on his doctorate at Stockton University. He’s currently Talent Management and Diversity Partner at AtlantiCare and his wife, a native of Jersey City, graduated from Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School, one of the top academic high schools in New Jersey, and got her undergraduate degree in psychology from Rutgers University before earning a master’s in applied psychology from New York University. She was recently hired to be a counselor at Atlantic Christian School in Egg Harbor Township.
The couple reside in Egg Harbor Township and have three kids under the age of 5 — Moriah, who will turn 4 in October, 2-year-old Morgan and Matthew, who is 1.
“He was very confident and I liked his charisma. We met at a young adult gathering and I ended up sitting across from him,” Christina explained. “He led the discussion and he had jokes, he was very laid back and confident. I thought he probably had a girlfriend, and at the time I was in North Jersey and he was in South Jersey, so I didn’t think anything would come of it. I didn’t even know about this area until I met him.”
Christian said he was a decent athlete during his Absegami days, but gravitated more toward leadership. He was class president for four years in high school and also student body president while at Penn State. At AtlantiCare, he’s tasked with finding the best, most diverse people the healthcare company can hire to continue being a South Jersey industry leader.
“An opportunity came about at AtlantiCare and I’ve been doing a lot with them,” he said. “We’re looking for, No. 1, does a person fit the job description? But again, a lot of it is character and integrity. What’s your story? I’m a big believer in your story. Tell me why you are passionate about healthcare, don’t just tell me you need a job. What separates you? I feel like I can match you better if I know more about your personality. I don’t want to put you in a position you hate when I could have found a better position that matches your passion.”
Both Christian and Christina are passionate about leadership, and in a time of racial strife throughout the country they see their roles as even more important than ever when it comes to promoting diversity and tolerance of other cultures. Not only do they want to set a good example to their young children, but they understand it’s going to take strong black leaders to create better opportunities for others.
“We look at it from a family standpoint — not being the model black family, but being a family that upholds values that encourage people to be passionate about serving their community. As it pertains to the climate now, we were fortunate enough to be part of conversations that allow us to articulate various viewpoints as to how various members of the black community feel. We don’t represent every black person’s emotions. Everyone has different experiences. One thing I tell Christina all the time is that I was fortunate that my parents were able to provide stability for us. We didn’t have a million dollars in the bank, but I had my father teaching me how to be a man and my mother teaching me how to be a man. It doesn’t make me a perfect person, but they provided stability,” Christian said. “Every day I check my privilege. I never look down on anybody. I know that I have a different story and I tell myself to just communicate my story and give people my viewpoint so that we can all come together, collectively, and try to bring solutions to problems we face.”
“I think there are opportunities here for people to have open dialog, those who want to have protests, those who want to have open forums. I’ve seen a lot of companies start to have conversations about diversity, so I’ve seen a lot of people really be open-minded. Of course, there are always going to be exceptions on both sides, but overall I think we’re at a place where we can sit and have conversations. We can agree to disagree and try to formulate solutions that can work for everyone. We want to make sure (South Jersey) is a safe place for everyone. We all have families and we all want to be safe,” Christina added. “I grew up surrounded by different cultures so I always felt comfortable around different types of people no matter what was going on in the world. We try to teach our children to not have that fear (of a different race), especially at their young ages. We don’t want them growing up carrying that subconsciously. They know they are black children, but what makes them different from any other child? I don’t try to tell them to look or feel a certain way. When we go to the park, kids of all races gravitate toward our children and our children gravitate toward them. They have no clue what’s going on in the world and we try to keep that innocence.”
Christian, who was a political science major at Penn State, said the most important thing anyone who wants to promote racial harmony and equality can do is to not only just listen, but value the opinions of others, even if they differ from your own.
“Globally, it’s making sure everyone’s voice is heard, appreciated and valued. The media only shows you the loudest people, but the loudest people might not be the most correct people,” he said. “The real stumbling block is making sure everyone truly has a seat at the table and their voice is heard — and not just heard, but valued. And not devaluing something you may not agree with until you understand why that other person believes what they believe. Until we dismantle those systematic inequalities and things that make people feel like they are beneath somebody else, we have to continue to come to the table and talk about solutions. We have to break down those barriers that are holding people back.”
He says he senses a change not only in the younger generation, but with the people he grew up with as well; people who are now entering leadership positions and grew up with perhaps more diversity than their parents’ generation.
“I sense a change, just from my own peers. When I was growing up, I had all types of friends. The big thing is, if you can show humanity it’s easier to have those tough conversations. I always say this at work — diversity is not easy and it’s not comfortable. There are uncomfortable things we have to unlearn, but if you see people from a humanity point of view we can get a lot closer,” Christian said. “I have a lot of confidence that through mechanisms like sports, careers and colleges — that force people to work together — we can make a difference. My college roommate was from Jersey Shore, Pa., and that’s probably the whitest part of Pennsylvania, but we clicked from Day One. We both loved football, we went to the gym every night. And we never had the race conversation, we just thought it was a cool experience (getting to know each other). I didn’t have any preconceived notions about him, it was just a cool experience learning about each other’s cultures.”
Christian also knows, however, that the hurdles minorities face can’t be leaped in a single bound, and that it’s going to take time and dedication, and great leadership everywhere, not just in South Jersey, to close the racial divide.
“But we’re not naive,” he explained. “We know our history, and if you really want to affect change in your community you have to understand your history. And our history has sometimes been very brutal, but the key is not to remain in a place of anger for what happened to our ancestors. I don’t think they would want us to stay angry, they would want us to use their experiences to make sure our people progress. It’s tough, Juneteeth (the commemoration of the emancipation of slaves) was a popular holiday this year — and it was awesome because people were unified and celebrating our black history — and when I prayed with my children that night I thanked God that I didn’t have the experience of being a slave where your children are taken from you. I can’t imagine someone taking me from my family. This year, that holiday was special for me, as a father, because I took time to appreciate all that my ancestors went through. I’m going to raise my children to contribute to their community and try to change this world if we can.”
Setting the example
Both Christian and Christina hope they can ignite new conversations about how to make things better in their community, and not necessarily be the “model black family” that you might have seen in 1990s sit-coms, but at least be an example for people to follow when it comes to character and integrity. Christian said he believes it’s important for young students to come back to their communities after high school or college and get involved to try to make a difference.
“Come back to your community. My grandfather, his sister was Sister Jean Webster who fed the homeless in Atlantic City for all those years. My punishment growing up — particularly if I was ungrateful about something — my job was to go to the soup kitchen and help out. I would wonder why people were there, then I’d wonder what we could do to help them. From that experience, it’s not just telling people to look around and see what’s wrong with your community, but how are you going to help? I’ve been able to come back home and help, whether it’s been through leadership academies or AtlantiCare,” Christian said. “We can talk about social injustice all we want, but if we’re not empowering people economically, if we’re not helping to sustain jobs in their own community, then I’m just talking. We highlight to young people to come back to their community and help.”
Added Christina, “I grew up in an urban area where there were drugs and things like that. My mom used to always say, ‘this is where you live, but this is not your life. Even though you see these things around you, you know how we’re raising you and you have dreams and goals.’ There’s a whole world out there to explore, so (kids) shouldn’t feel stuck and there are so many resources out there now. Kids can do anything they want to do. Have a plan, have mentors and if you know what you want to do, try to reach out to people who are doing it now and build those relationships.”
Showing the way
The most important thing for the couple these days is setting a good example for their kids, and let their kids decide who they are going to be, what they will value, and who they will eventually want to surround themselves with.
“We’re very blessed, we have both sets of parents helping us out and our daycare provider is somebody I went to high school with. We balance each other out, she’s North Jersey so she’s a little tougher than I am. We’re still learning. We’ve been married five years and in the beginning it was tough because she’s a psychologist so she would psychoanalyze me. We’re still growing and developing and have much more ahead of us, but we always remain humble. We’re not better than anybody. I believe we’re placed on this Earth to be an example to our black community, which I’m passionate about. We just try to be a good family. We’re not the model family, but we just want to be a good example morally and have good integrity and character,” Christian said. “We have three different kids and we’re not too far removed from being parented ourselves. We don’t want to break their spirit. We had two girls first and that’s the best thing that could have happened because it really softened me up from the standpoint of how to parent. My oldest is very sweet, she notices my haircut and things like that; my middle child, she’s a Jersey City type of kid. She’ll come up and punch you in the stomach. And my son is only 1, but he’s a typical boy, rolling around and wrestling. They are showing us who they are, and I don’t want to break their spirit. My preacher once said to me, ‘Christian, the people you see today are the same as they were in kindergarten, they just have drivers licenses.’ We want to be self aware enough to know what they need and where they are going.
“I think the most important thing is we have not made it to anything, we are just finding our voice. We just want to help no matter what, and be an example to some extent.”