Eva Hassett, Executive Director
A fiercely loyal Buffalonian, Ms. Hassett is going into her ninth year leading the International Institute of Buffalo in its vision to make Western NY an inclusive, multicultural community that embraces all people.
What can you tell me about your higher education?
[EH]: I have a bachelor’s in Psychology and Social Relations from Harvard University, and a Master’s in Business Administration from Yale University School of Management. I still think about going to law school!
You have a wide array of experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors; in what ways have those experiences prepared you for leading the Institute?
[EH]: I started my career in investment banking, managing borrowings for government. I spent 12 years in local government, worked for real estate developers and business community leadership; I have run numbers my whole life. I am not sure anything prepares you to be Executive Director of a non-profit, but my experience has taught me what to worry about and what not to worry about, how to build and utilize community relationships, how to work with the media, and the importance of visibility to the community. Particularly during my time in government, we dealt with a high degree of uncertainty and change; often, the issues you planned to work in a given week on were not at all the ones with which you ended up dealing. Experience with change and managing people prepare one for executive directorship, but there is a lot you can never prepare for.
What do you feel your role is as the Executive Director at the Institute? In what ways have your position or focus changed?
[EH]: My job is to make sure that the Institute can deliver on our mission: making WNY a better place for, and because of, refugees and immigrants. To do that we need to be financially sustainable, deliver excellent quality programming, be strategic, engage the community, and more. In the last two years my efforts have expanded to include more work on advocacy, both locally and through collaborative relationships across Upstate and around the country. I’ve also increased time in fundraising, and am continuing to work with the Board on a revised strategic plan.
What is it about Buffalo? What makes it the perfect place to integrate immigrants and refugees?
[EH]: Buffalo is affordable; there is capacity in housing, jobs, and educational opportunities. Western New Yorkers are close enough to their own ancestral stories and immigrant backgrounds that they connect easily to the situation of immigrants who are arriving today. And we are friendly – we ARE the City of Good Neighbors! I see that neighborliness happening all the time, in big and little ways, formal and informal ways. This community understands why receiving immigrants and refugees are important, not just morally but for our economy and community. The Institute gets enormous help and support for our clients from this community. WNY lives up to our good reputation. Those of us that have lived here for a long time have seen what happens when population declines, so we intuitively know that people coming here are very important.
What would you say is the most rewarding thing about working at an organization like the Institute?
[EH]: There are many rewarding things: the staff, who are incredible and can do anything; our clients, who teach me what resilience and love are, and how great America is. The biggest change in me has been my understanding of my advantages as a native born, white American. I see my advantages more clearly; I understand how unusual it is to have the rights to vote, to protest, to disagree with my government. My father raised us with a speech I call the ‘accident of birth’: he told us it was an accident that I was born who I was, where I was, when I was; that I could have easily been born somewhere else. He taught me that if I have advantages, it isn’t because I’m better than others; it’s just an accident. I could have easily been born without them. And that if I have advantages, I am obligated to help those who don’t. I’m also a lot more likely to use my rights as a result of knowing so many who had to flee their homes because they didn’t have them.
Since the Institute works with diverse people from all over the world, can you share with us your own heritage?
[EH]: My father was one hundred percent Irish. The Hassetts came to work on the New York Central Railroad in Crittenden, past Alden, NY. In the Hassett family, there were no boys named Michael or Patrick. The reason for that is that Mick and Paddy were slurs -derogatory names – used to describe Irish immigrants at the time. So to protect his family, the Hassett patriarch made sure no boys were given those names. My father’s mother was a McGowan, they ran taverns and some of the early food markets here in Buffalo. On my mother’s side, her father was German and her mother was Italian. My maternal grandfather came to this country as a blacksmith, settling on the East side; eventually the family owned the second largest steel fabricating company in Buffalo. My maternal grandmother’s family, originally from the north of Italy, had to change their Italian sounding surname when they arrived so they wouldn’t be persecuted. America has a long history of hate – I want to help change that.
Given the international nature of the Institute, have you traveled abroad? Any places on your bucket list?
[EH]: I have traveled a lot, beginning as a child. My parents valued travel and understood the importance of perspective. In 2016, as part of an exchange with seven Eastern European countries working on immigrant integration, I went to Slovakia and Slovenia for a conference on migration policy from the European Union’s perspective. It gave me a window into politics in Eastern Europe, but also showed me how valuable relationships are. While migration in Europe looks very different in comparison to America, there is much that we should share with one another to help each other improve overall. Seeing the Northern Lights tops my bucket list.
If you could sit down with any historical figure, who would you choose? What is one question you would ask them?
[EH]: I would begin with Cleopatra and probably take it through Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. They are all strong, experienced and principled female leaders. I would ask their advice on how to use my gifts.
Favorite ethnic food?
[EH]: I eat everything.
[EH]: I read a lot. I have a few books that I read over and over again, books that I go back to. Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, a fictional book based on the theory of relativity, is one. Each chapter tells a story where time behaves differently—it is very thought provoking.
What can you tell me about your life away from the Institute?
[EH]: I have been a Board member for 12 years with the Richardson Center Corporation, which oversees the reuse of the former Buffalo State Asylum complex designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. I am involved in the Children’s Hospital Reuse Advisory Committee. I have always been active in the community. I enjoy hiking, cooking, gardening, skiing, traveling, walking on beaches and spending time with my dog, Daisy. Last fall, I traveled to the Baltic with my 80-year old Mother; it was a priceless adventure.
What traits would you say define you?
[EH]: People say passionate, but I prefer the word enthusiastic, which is one of my favorite words in the English language. I am also persistent and creative.
Anything else you would like to share?
[EH]: When I believe something is important and right, I never stop trying. I am fiercely loyal to my hometown and competitive on its behalf.