Elisa Massimino ’82

The Rights Way

By Donna Parker

Elisa Massimino, who received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Trinity in 1982, is “on vacation” when we speak, but she’s still very much focused on her new position as CEO and executive director of Human Rights First.  Based in New York and Washington D.C., the mission of the organization is to advance justice, human dignity, and respect for the rule of the law. 

“I am deeply honored to take on this new role in an organization that has been my professional home for 17 years.  It’s a great privilege to be able to devote my time and talent to working on issues I care so deeply about and to do so with a team of talented and dedicated people intent on making a difference.  Many people feel frustrated by problems in the world.  I do, too, but feel lucky to be in a position where I can devote my work life to trying to solve some of those problems,” says this industrious alumna.

“Being a human rights lawyer in the U.S. has become much more challenging since 9-11.  The persuasive power of the U.S. example on human rights has been undermined by our policies in the so-called ‘war on terror.’  The perception of the U.S. internationally has also changed, making advancing a human rights agenda abroad much more difficult.”

Elisa, who has three children, will have plenty of time to reflect on these challenges as she commutes between her permanent family home in D.C. and her headquarters in New York.

“My office in NYC is by Penn Station and my D.C. office is by Union Station,” she laughs.  “Maybe I should buy stock in Amtrak!”

Elisa and her family spend weekends bicycling along Rock Creek Park and taking care of their new Lab puppy, for which the kids had been clamoring.   She spends any spare time – which isn’t much – reading, which is still her favorite “luxury.” She is concentrating now on advice books for new CEOs.

“Reading became my avocation at Trinity.  I was a philosophy major and read a lot.  That course of study really taught me how to think about problems.  It’s a field in which you persistently ask questions and must be open to learning answers which differ from your preconceptions.”

“Dr. Larry Kimmel and Dr. John Murphy, both in the department of philosophy, challenged us to think about what we could do to change the world post-graduation.  They gave me the confidence to think big about what I could do.  Of course, Coleen Grissom, department of English, taught by example and fueled a lifelong hunger for learning about the world and understanding the people in it, through literature.  That’s something that has stayed with me and has enriched my life.”

Elisa, whose two sisters also graduated from Trinity, had not been back to campus in 15 years before last October when she walked around, basking in memories of a place that shaped her in so many ways.  Elisa says it felt like “her place,” that it had seeped into her very pores. 

“An experience like mine at Trinity is the very thing I want for my own kids—an absolute love of learning and a hunger for exposure to new ideas.  Flexibility and resilience, to me, are the keys to life.  So many people are afraid of new ideas that disrupt their carefully constructed worldview.  Trinity provided an environment that nurtured and appreciated new ideas and kept me very connected to the world.”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Elisa’s 14-year-old son, Conor, has already educated himself on world issues, recently writing his congressional representatives about the abolition of the death penalty. 

“My children are much more aware of and engaged in the world around them than I was at their age.  They have a strong sense that they can have an impact…that their actions connect with change.”

“I’ve done a lot of things in my career that feel important and momentous, such as helping refugees find a safe haven from persecution, but I would have to say that raising thoughtful, mindful, and kind citizens of the world has been my biggest challenge.  So far, I like how that is turning out.”

You may contact Elisa at massiminoe@humanrightsfirst.org.