March 15, 2021
Kathleen Stauffer

“What does it mean to have democracy? To say every person should have an equal right to vote is only part of it,” says Maryam Elahi, president & CEO of The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. “A lot of what we do at the Community Foundation is democracy-building at the local level.”

After working for 29 years as an international human rights lawyer, Elahi wanted to advance human rights at home. “We don’t teach critical thinking in this country,” she says. “We don’t teach history that is really inclusive, honest and truthful. We gloss over a lot.”

The Community Foundation aims to help people feel more comfortable with the uncomfortable. “We want to believe that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but if you have obstacles placed constantly in front of you and we expect you to do as well as people with privileges, then we are not being honest.”

“Every organization is only as strong as its weakest link,” Elahi notes. “Education is a game-changer, but if you get a great education and doors of employment are closed because of racism or sexism, then that is going to greatly limit your opportunity.”

An Old Saybrook resident, Elahi has played classical guitar since childhood. She enjoys painting and the company of her English cocker spaniels Lucia and Figaro when she’s not championing community wellbeing. Challenging people to do more is part of her job. “We have to change the narrative of Wall Street, that greed is good. If each one of us who is privileged would do just a little to help those who are not, we would all do better.”

“I’m fortunate to live in a community with people who really live this,” she says. “We need to remind each other that selfishness is destructive, and generosity is very important.”

“We need to reject the rhetoric that creates a fear in people that what they have will be taken away if somebody else gains opportunity. In this country, there is vast opportunity for everyone to thrive. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s The Golden Rule.”

Kathleen Stauffer is chief executive officer of The Arc Eastern Connecticut. For information on The Arc, go to For more articles by this author visit