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Published on April 21, 2023

Treasurer Russell kicks off Diversity Week calling for an inclusive Connecticut

Russell at podium
State Treasurer Erick Russell speaking at a Diversity Week talk

State Treasurer Erick Russell called on the Eastern Connecticut State University community to maximize opportunities for all as he kicked off Diversity Week at Eastern with a talk that acknowledged his own struggles as a gay Black man in settings where most politicians have a very different profile.

At a recent meeting of state treasurers in Washington, DC, he was asked five times whose staff he worked on, he recalled.  “I stick out like a sore thumb in most rooms I’m in,” he said.

But when he decided on short notice last spring to run for treasurer, “it was critical for me to run as my authentic self,” he said, as an openly gay man. 

He drew support from mentors such as Michael Lawlor, a longtime state representative from New Haven who is now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, where Russell earned his bachelor’s degree. Lawlor, who is openly gay, invited his students to the state capitol and taught them that “you can live your truth” and be successful, Russell said.

It made Russell realize that there were not many people in the legislature that looked like him or came from underprivileged communities like his, but “these are spaces we need more people in.”

Russell described growing up in a tough neighborhood in New Haven, where his parents, a biracial couple, owned a small convenience store that he worked in from age six.

“That perspective has guided me in everything I’ve done,” he said, giving him insight into the challenges that everyone in the community faces.

Russell taking questions
Russell taking questions from the audience

Connecticut is a wealthy state with a large wealth gap, he noted. As treasurer, he has promoted the Baby Bonds program begun under his predecessor, former treasurer Shawn Wooden. The program, which becomes effective July 1 but still has funding issues, will provide a $3,200 trust fund to every Medicaid-eligible baby born in Connecticut. The trustee holder could draw on the fund at ages 18 to 30, if they still live in Connecticut, when it could be worth $11,000 to $24,000, Russell said.

The intent of the program is to provide the children of poverty with a nest egg for education, housing or other needs, but it would also benefit the state by keeping young people in Connecticut where they would contribute to the economy, Russell said.

All 169 towns in the state would benefit, he said, because “there is poverty throughout this state.” Half of the babies born in Connecticut each year are born into poverty, he said.

In response to a question, Russell said one of his biggest challenges has been “imposter syndrome,” or having to prove himself as a first-generation college graduate without a background of privilege. But he has learned to free himself from others’ expectations, he said. “People respect you for being you,” he told the audience. His goal in elected office, he said, is “to make all of Connecticut a diverse and inclusive space.”

Russell’s talk was the first event in Diversity Week, which continues through Thursday when “Take Back the Night” will feature keynote speaker Gina Roch, a wellness facilitator, and a rally, candlelight vigil and march honoring Alyssiah Wiley, an Eastern student who was murdered in 2013.

The purpose of promoting diversity and inclusion is to make sure that “everybody that comes to our campus should feel welcome,” said LaMar Coleman, vice president for equity and diversity.

Written by Lucinda Weiss