“My journey has been a crooked and ever-winding path; I would not change my course for anything, including my living with AIDS,” wrote Russelle Miller-Hill, affectionately known to her vast community as “Rusti,” on the occasion of her 50th birthday, in 2011. “I can say that because if ever there was a question about why I was placed here on this earth, it was to be of good service to my fellow woman and man.” On Aug. 20, that life of extraordinary service and passion ended when Rusti passed away, suddenly though peacefully, of heart complications. She would have turned 59 on Oct. 25.
It is impossible to quantify the number of lives Rusti touched, and transformed, through nearly 30 years working on behalf of Black and brown women; people living with HIV; people currently incarcerated and those returning home; families affected by the correctional system; women in recovery; and people, like Rusti herself, at the intersections of those and many other experiences. Tracie Gardner, one of her closest friends and collaborators for more than 20 years, saw in Rusti’s life “the chronicling of the evolution of HIV and how it played out for women.
“She was involved at every step,” noted Gardner, “and also always bringing in the people who were easily forgotten.”
As Rusti wrote in 2010 for her blog on TheBody, she first found her life’s work while behind the walls of Albion Correctional Facility, a women’s prison not far from where New York borders Canada. She was diagnosed with HIV on Jan. 1, 1991. She told the prison health magazine Turn It Up! in 2015 that before being sentenced and sent to Albion, she had attended a support group for women with HIV at New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Iris De La Cruz, whose activism would inspire the 1992 founding of Iris House, was a speaker. “She was a heroin user, she had cervical cancer and an AIDS diagnosis,” Rusti remembered Cruz sharing during the group. "She was a prostitute and everybody knew that.” She asked Cruz: “Why would you put yourself out there like that?” Cruz impressed upon young Rusti the need to speak up about her experience to fight for her rights. “She lit the fire for me," Rusti recalled.
Rusti also passed through Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, birthplace of the groundbreaking ACE (AIDS Counseling and Education) program, cofounded by legendary activist Katrina Haslip while she was incarcerated at Bedford. Haslip was also instrumental in the successful struggle to expand the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of AIDS to include conditions predominantly affecting women. “[Haslip] was the mother of the criminal justice movement; she helped to bring our voices outside of the walls,” said Rusti in a 2019 radio interview for Metanoia, an exhibit highlighting the activism of women with HIV in prison. “She made our vaginas powerful.”
Rusti visited the ACE office while at Bedford; at that time, she remembered, she was gathering tools she was not yet ready to use. “I feared [for] my life. … I had not fully accepted my diagnosis,” she said. “I chose not to say much, but to absorb the information.” But once at Albion, she saw the brutal neglect women with HIV suffered. “We would see women [with AIDS] being wheelbarrowed to the medical building and never coming back,” she remembered. “Other women were taking care of them; they were creating their own schedules in support of these women who were being hospitalized and not being tended to. Nobody was changing them; nobody was feeding them; their food was being left at the cell door; they were being isolated.”
Then Rusti got sick herself and needed to disclose her HIV status in order to be cared for by her community. “I was waiting, holding my breath, so afraid that somebody would lash out at me. … Instead, they gave me hugs,” she said. “We became a family during the time that we were there, and we took care of each other.”
Galvanized by their support, Rusti became a peer educator. She also began speaking out about the horrible care women with HIV received at Albion. Her efforts led to a class-action suit against the prison medical system, which was settled favorably years after her release. “She was part of a lineage of women [including Haslip, Kathy Boudin, Donna Hylton, and others] who had been in Bedford and Albion who founded and grew these programs for women at risk for HIV, grew the peer learning and education piece that happened on the inside, and then were invested in growing it on the outside,” Gardner explained. In 2014, Rusti returned to Albion to provide the services she once fought for, as deputy director of their HIV/AIDS Prison Program.
On June 10, 1993, Rusti returned home from Albion into a New York City HIV activist scene marked by urgency and driven by fierce, committed women. “There are women who have done so many amazing things over the course of the HIV epidemic that people just don’t know about,” said Gardner. “There is a whole Black and brown HIV/AIDS story that nobody knows … a whole parallel world.” Iris House emerged in 1992 to continue Cruz’s legacy. Black women worked to grow the still-new Housing Works, and fought within and outside ACT UP to widen that direct-action lens to encompass their communities. Programs like Arrive Exponents and Pioneers and Friends wed HIV treatment and care with advocacy by participants to preserve their own lives. Rusti was part of many of these programs and initiatives for women.
“An all-around renaissance woman—that’s what she was,” said Antionettea “Dreadie” Etienne, another longtime advocate and long-term HIV survivor, in a recent conversation. Etienne and Rusti first became friends when they were both incarcerated at Albion; Etienne had also been at Bedford Hills, was active with ACE, and is part of that lineage. Etienne was released after Rusti, and they both ended up working at the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). “I was hired by WPA to be a receptionist,” Etienne laughed. “I hadn’t touched a phone with all them digits in over 16 years. … Rusti was one of the people who helped me get the hang of it.” The two stayed in each other’s orbit over the years, sometimes collaborating, often supporting one another. “Even through bad times or disagreements or estranged times,” recalled Etienne of their decades of connection, “we kept each other lifted up no matter what was going on.”
It was around this time that Rusti married her husband, Kevin, and made the decision to become a mom again in her 30s. Her daughter had been born when Rusti was 15—long before she acquired HIV. During her pregnancy with her son, she received an AIDS diagnosis. She spoke of her birth experiences in a 2012 roundtable discussion with four women with HIV who had all had children before as well as after their diagnosis. “When it was found out that I was pregnant, there was a big family disruption,” she said of her first pregnancy. “Becoming pregnant with my son and being HIV positive sort of repeated the first pregnancy, as far as the family disruption, at first.” Her mother didn’t think she ought to have a baby; neither did the first four medical providers she and her husband consulted.
At 10 weeks of pregnancy, they found a great doctor—and became part of the pioneering ACTG 076 study on preventing perinatal HIV acquisition. Rusti’s and Kevin’s families were eventually supportive; Rusti’s son, Brandon, was born HIV negative in 1995.
“The pregnancy itself ended up being a beautiful experience,” she concluded in the roundtable. “I was able to garner from it what I didn’t get the first time around, and what I needed in order to be positive and for us to have a positive outcome.”
At the time she and Rusti first connected, Gardner also had a young son. A chance collaboration led to attending the historic Million Women March in Philadelphia together in 1997. “That cemented the deal; I’m like, ‘I never want to be apart from this woman,’” Gardner said. They would become mainstays of one another’s personal and professional lives.
“She was looking for the perfect job to do the work that she wanted to do with … women like herself,” said Gardner. Rusti worked on many levels to advance the notion that women’s reentry experiences were very different from those of men, at a time when the link between correctional health and community health was not widely discussed. In the early 2000s, Rusti worked with Gardner on a mapping project that revealed connections between HIV acquisition and involvement in the criminal legal system in certain New York City communities.
Rusti had a vision for creating residential programming to support women who had children and were returning from prison; for a brief period, Rusti and Etienne operated a transitional housing space in Brooklyn. “Transitional housing is a challenge to establish and maintain,” a blog from Citizens Against Recidivism wrote about her work, upon her receipt of their Advocate of the Year Award in 2009. “Rusti’s commitment to making her dream real is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Among other roles, Rusti also directed reentry services at New Hour for Women and Children and was primary educational facilitator at the Riverhead Correctional Facility on Long Island. “On some level, she just thought she wasn’t doing enough,” Gardner marveled. “You couldn’t tell her: ‘Every time you talk to somebody, every time you talk somebody down off a ledge. …’ She just didn’t know how many people she touched, and helped, and made feel good.”
Around 2015, Rusti was part of a project to develop the abandoned Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, where she also did time, into a building to house service and advocacy organizations for women and families called the Women’s Building. “We are not broken people, we are just a little bruised and battered,” Rusti told HuffPo in 2015, speaking of incarcerated women. “In fact, we are extremely strong to be able to survive the sentences imposed on us.” (The Women’s Building project has since been halted).
Most recently, Rusti brought her commitment to supporting people returning to their communities following incarceration to the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, as reentry coordinator for its Community Partnership Unit. Some might have considered this a risky move for someone with decades of community-grounded experience to begin working for a law-enforcement body; but, as Gardner put it: “If people had issues about the DA’s office, they didn’t have it about Rusti.”
While raising her daughter as a teenager, Rusti dreamed of going to college. Drugs and incarceration interrupted that trajectory, but upon her release she connected with College and Community Fellowship (CCF), an organization working at the intersection of higher education, criminal justice, and women’s issues. She achieved her bachelor’s degree and eventually her master’s in Organizational Management and Leadership, which she completed in 2019. She also brought CCF programming to the women she worked with through New Hour. “If we were going to be the only reentry agency available to women in that area,” Rusti stated in a CCF publication, “we needed to provide more opportunities for their advancement.”
Rusti received many awards for her advocacy and brought her passion to service on numerous committees. As co-chair of the Conditions on the Inside and Re-Entry Committee of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, Rusti was instrumental in securing landmark 2009 legislation granting the New York State Department of Health oversight of HIV and hepatitis C care in state correctional facilities. She wrote about the win for her first blog entry on TheBody:
“For all the women who are not here to be a part of this process, please know that you are not forgotten. Your courage is what gives strength to my fight, in turn bringing voice to our lives. It is in your spirit that I continue to live another day to fight for the rights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women living with HIV/AIDS.”
This author was honored to be the editor of that blog during the two years that Rusti submitted entries and participated in several other collaborations with TheBody. By the time Rusti and I met, and I asked her if she’d consider writing, she had already contributed so much to her communities. In the next 10 years, each time we crossed paths, the updates she’d share showed a legacy actively taking shape. She’d returned to Albion, then gone to Riverhead and New Hour, continuing to connect her work with people behind the walls and those returning home. She was at Hunter College working on her master’s. Her son was thriving in high school, then at college. Her daughter and grandkids were a joy. Her husband was a steadfast companion. And anytime we spoke, no matter what this unbelievably busy woman had going on, it was like we were the only two people in the world.
Gardner agreed. “If you’ve met her: She’s always gonna put you at ease, the laugh is easy, and she’ll tell a story!” she said. Friends recalled the pleasure she took in cooking, eating, shopping, talking for hours with those she loved. “There was nothing I couldn’t tell her—and she never, ever said no to me. Ever. Always available. Always there when I called her.”
In 2014, Rusti attended the inaugural SPEAK UP! Leadership Summit for Women Living with HIV in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, convened by the national advocacy organization Positive Women’s Network–USA (PWN, where I was communications director at the time). “Her spirit got lifted; she came back to New York, called me, Antionettea, Pat [Shelton], Nancy [Duncan]—she called a lot of us,” said Yolanda Diaz, another New York-based advocate who had known Rusti for many years. “It was so inspirational to her that she came back and she said, ‘We need to do PWN! You’re a founding member—come on!’” Rusti, Diaz, and Etienne had all tried on different occasions over the years, since the group’s founding in 2008 by 28 diverse women living with HIV (including Diaz), to start a New York chapter. “We started PWN for the third time—and this time it kicked off,” said Etienne, who was an early co-chair along with Rusti and remains in that role today.
Connie Dukes joined the chapter and eventually became a co-chair, with Rusti’s guidance. “I think we had kindred spirits; right away we connected,” Dukes remembered. Rusti walked Dukes through the process of facilitating chapter meetings, and would check in with her at crowded conferences to make sure she was feeling alright. “She was always willing to share, and to hear what was going on with you. ... She was a beautiful person.”
Recently, Rusti had joined the board of Legal Action Center (LAC), where Gardner is vice president of policy advocacy. LAC fights discrimination against people with criminal records, addiction histories, and/or living with HIV, and advocates for sound public policy related to these experiences. Longtime advocate Ed Shaw had been a dedicated, engaged member of LAC’s board since 2003; his unfortunate passing in April due to COVID-19 complications left an opening on the board that Gardner immediately thought of Rusti to fill. She was thrilled to carry on Shaw’s legacy there. Her first board meeting was via Zoom. “My assistant handles all the board stuff, and she was like, ‘Rusti was a riot! She was raucous’—because she was happy! It was an achievement,” Gardner laughed. That meeting was on a Wednesday; the next morning, Thursday, Gardner was the first person Rusti’s husband called to share the news that she had died.
“I anticipate living the second half of life as a carefree, responsible adult without the baggage of yesterday or the uncertainty of tomorrow, and enjoying all that today has to offer me,” Rusti wrote in that 50th birthday reflection. “Today I am grateful and as I look to the legacy I will pass on, I have the knowledge I did my best to be a positive influence on the lives I have crossed paths with.” For those who had the pleasure of experiencing her presence, the loss of her warm, expansive spirit is profound. But through the depth of Rusti’s work, and the grace and compassion she modeled in doing it, that positive impact she hoped for will continue to grow for generations to come.
Rusti’s daughter, Brandi Miller, wishes to thank Rusti’s community: “for every text, phone call, social media post ... honoring my mother. It’s been really comforting to know how many people loved and appreciated her the way we do.” For anyone who would like to contribute funds to Rusti’s family, they can do so through her son Brandon’s CashApp: $Astoldbybhill.