A world where equity is a given and not a goal. That was the message of hope expressed by Elyse Cherry in her 1983 speech that she delivered at our commencement.
At that time, Elyse was one of only a handful of openly gay students in our class. She, along with classmates Richard Burns and Urvashi Vaid, were changemakers at NUSL by raising awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and even fueling the creation of a new course on LGBTQ+ people and our relationship to criminal law.
Holding herself to her aspirations of her commencement speech, Elyse went on to become a successful lawyer, dedicated civic and business leader, ardent supporter of the women’s rights movement, agent of change for the LGBTQ+ community, and advocate for affordable housing and community development.
“In my adult lifetime we’ve gone from living under threat of being fired, being a criminal because of being an LGBTQ+ person, to having same-sex marriage and a public life and a focus on bringing our authentic selves everywhere we g o,” Elyse says. “It’s a gigantic shift.”
The shift did not happen without Elyse’s help. In the early 1990’s Elyse joined the Board of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. Her contribution was significant. “She helped move GLAD from a tiny organization to a stable and consistent force for justice in state and federal courts, in statehouses and the Congress, and in diverse communities all over New England,” says Mary Bonauto ’87, GLAD’s senior director of civil rights and legal strategies who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges that established the freedom for same-sex couples to marry nationwide.
Elyse has been “a rock” for GLAD, Bonauto says, helping the organization in winning a Supreme Court ruling on HIV and nondiscrimination in the 1990s; serving as the first Board Chair for MassEquality (as GLAD’s representative) to make Massachusetts the first state to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in 2003; and nurturing and growing GLAD’s work for transgender, nonbinary and queer people from the 1990s forward.
Elyse Cherry, Northeastern ’83, poses for a portrait in her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University
For the last quarter century, Elyse has been Chief Executive Officer of BlueHub Capital, a nonprofit community development finance organization. The idea to create a community development financial institution was proposed by Elyse’s friends in 1985. “If you could aggregate capital and aggregate expertise, then maybe you could create community-based real estate development projects that had a chance of succeeding,” she says. Starting with a meager $3,500, as of today the Fund has invested $2.6 billion in projects from Boston to Los Angeles and is operating in 39 states and Washington, D.C.
Magnets displayed in Elyse Cherry’s home. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University
Elyse has been named one of 50 most influential Bostonians by the Boston Business Journal, one of the Top 100 LGBT executives in the world by the Financial Times and OUTstanding, and one of 21 leaders for the 21st Century by Women’s eNews. Most recently, the Boston Business Journal selected Elyse for the Business of Pride Trailblazer Award.
Elyse is planning to continue leading BlueHub Capital for several more years, building out the next generation of leadership there.
“I continue my work on various not-for-profit boards,” she says. “ [I am] continuing to travel, and continuing to bike, and to walk, and be embedded in my community. Life feels full and pretty terrific.”