Written by Michael Rouleau
Left to right: Ken Bedini, vice president of Student Affairs, student award winner Alex Cross, faculty/staff award winner Sergeant Lisa Hamilton, community award winner Leigh Duffy, keynote speaker Mayor Erin Stewart and Kim Silcox, director of the Center for Community Engagement, at Eastern’s eighth annual Ella Grasso awards ceremony.
Willimantic, Conn. — Eastern Connecticut State University presented its annual Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Awards on March 30. In its eighth year, the awards recognized three individuals who work tirelessly to promote women’s rights and gender equality. The community award went to Leigh Duffy ’06, director of the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center; the staff award went to Sergeant Lisa Hamilton of Eastern’s Department of Public Safety; and the student award went to political science major Alex Cross ’16. The event’s keynote speaker was Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain.
Ella T. Grasso became governor of Connecticut in 1974, and in doing so was the first woman in America to be elected in her own right to that office. Known for her compassion, intelligence and tenacious spirit, Grasso was seen as an effective leader who shattered the “glass ceiling.” She tragically passed away from cancer in 1981.
“I would like to be able to say that through the leadership of people like Ella Grasso, women have no limits today in what they can accomplish,” said Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern. “The fact is, we still have more work to do.” Núñez went on to explain that women outnumber men in college, yet have more difficulty finding employment and get paid less for the same work. “The struggle that Ella Grasso fought for us decades ago continues,” said Núñez, “and the three people we honor this afternoon, as well as our keynote speaker, are part of that good fight.”
Keynote speaker Mayor Erin Stewart
Stewart delivered the event’s keynote speech. The 28-year old mayor is the youngest in New Britain’s history — and among the youngest in the country. She is also the second female mayor in New Britain’s history and the only to be elected to a second term.
Elected first when she was 26 years old, Stewart helped close a $30 million deficit, is making strides to reduce homelessness, and is investing in mass transit and a variety of projects that green the community and increase sustainability. Stewart is also working to beautify the city and make it more pedestrian friendly.
Reflecting on her rise to the mayoral ranks, Stewart said, “I had doors slammed in my face, people said I couldn’t do it, that I was too young, but I kept knocking, kept going, and now I’m in my third year.” She added, “I dealt with all sorts of sexist comments; you need tough skin to be successful in this business.”
Under her leadership, more women are becoming involved in New Britain’s city government. “We’re breaking down barriers and changing perceptions of how government should be run,” she said. Stewart encourages students to be involved, reflecting on her service with the board of education prior to becoming mayor. “You should be active in your hometown and college; you could be surprised where it leads you.”
Duffy ’06, director of the Windham No Freeze Hospitality Center, received the community award. She has been involved with the center since its inception in 2003, but has been working to mitigate issues of poverty and homelessness for 17 years in a variety of capacities.
Community award winner Leigh Duffy
“Leigh and her team are working on creative solutions to housing,” said Kim Silcox, director of Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE). A part of statewide and local groups, Duffy and her colleagues are considering a “tiny house” project and other solutions to end homelessness. “Without Leigh, our town, region and state would not be in the hopeful situation it’s now in,” added Silcox.
Connecticut has a rating of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, and hopes to end “chronic homelessness” for the general population by the end of 2016. Duffy is a proponent of “housing first,” arguing that only when people have safe and secure housing, can they improve other aspects of their life, whether it be drug addiction or unemployment.
Being an Eastern graduate and speaking to her close working relationship with the CCE, Duffy said, “Living in Willimantic, I never left the Eastern community.” She was especially impressed by the event’s keynote speaker and other award recipients. “To see these young people and women in leadership roles is great; that wasn’t common when I was growing up.”
Faculty/staff award winner Sergeant Lisa Hamilton standing beside Provost Dimitrios Pachis
Sergeant Lisa Hamilton of Eastern’s Department of Public Safety received the faculty/staff award. She is a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, with 22 years as an officer with the Glastonbury Police Department. Early in her career, Hamilton recalls being one of two women in the police academy (in a class of 40) as well as one of only two women in the Glastonbury Police Department. “I admire Ella Grasso for being a female in a traditionally male role.”
Hamilton has been with Eastern for eight years. Among her many roles—including the department’s Breathalyzer, first aid and CPR training coordinator—she is also a member of Eastern’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), Sexual Assault and Interpersonal Violence Response Team (SAIV-RT) and Student Intervention Team (SIT).
“I’m an adult survivor of abuse,” said Hamilton, reflecting on growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father. She recalls the day her mother finally took a stand against the abuse. “That inspired me to become an officer and an advocate.”
Hamilton says, “At Eastern it is clear that we won’t accept abuse on any level,” considering the university’s abundance of related programs and initiatives. Speaking of the award, she concluded, “I thank you on behalf of victims past, present and future.”
Cross ’16, a political science major from Watertown, received the student award. Among Cross’ academic research, career aspirations and volunteer efforts, the Eastern senior is committed to the advancement of women’s rights and issues of gender inequality.
Student award winner Alex Cross ’16
“If you’re too big to serve, you’re too small to lead,” said Starsheemar Byrum, director of Eastern’s Women’s Center, quoting her pastor and mentor. Cross does both. Among efforts to increase inclusion for people of all genders and sexualities, Cross interns with Eastern’s Pride Room, is a Peer Diversity Educator, is an assistant for the Writing Program and has instituted “Safe Zone” training within the Writing Center. The training is designed to increase awareness of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community.
“Gender carries on in every social setting,” said Cross. Reflecting on support received from family, friends and Eastern professors, Cross added, “I have never felt stronger and more empowered than I do now.” Cross encourages people to explore and express their gender in any way until they are happy and content with themselves.