Diplomacy at Home

A local leader invests in Indiana communities.

Anna Powell Denton

At first glance, triple-Hoosier Elyssa Campodonico-Barr’s career seems to span continents and contradictions. She’s a powerful executive who puts service first, a lawyer who found different ways to practice advocacy. A trained diplomat, she has traveled far afield, but now she digs into hyperlocal issues back home again in Indiana.

Yet the seeds of Campodonico-Barr’s impulse toward the wider world and high achievement were sown early on by someone very close to her heart.

“My grandmother is the voice in my ear,” says Campodonico-Barr (B.A.’09 Political Science/Philosophy, Spanish). “She was good about setting expectations really high despite what you may be going through at home. She had this beautiful way of putting you in the place where you could be where she saw you.”

Her grandmother “came from very little” in rural Panama, raised four children, survived breast cancer, and became the first female consulate general for Panama to the United States, working between Central America and Chicago.

“She would always ask, ‘When are you going to run for senator?’” Campodonico-Barr recalls with a laugh. “It was always with a very loving undertone, but the message was, ‘You can and will.’ She always asked, ‘What are you doing with your education? What are you doing to grow?’”

What are you doing to grow? is a question that drives Campodonico-Barr’s wide-ranging career as an ethics-minded servant-leader. She’s long been focused on improving the lives of women and girls, whether working with U.N. Women, the Indiana University General Counsel’s office, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis, or her current role as a program director in community development with the Lilly Endowment.

Campodonico-Barr recently began a new role at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, having previously served as CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis.

Though she plans to head back into the office soon, when we spoke over the phone, she was still commanding her personal “situation room” in mid-town Indianapolis, while wrangling “two unruly, large retrievers.”

Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., Campodonico-Barr’s father and grandmother were Panamanian immigrants who “made a lot of sacrifices” to move there. She and her sister attended a fine-arts magnet school before receiving scholarships to attend an elite private school. While her sister, older by 21 months, whom she calls “my everything, my constant,” always aimed to practice medicine — their grandmother even nicknamed her Doctora — Campodonico-Barr’s path was less straightforward.

“Growing up, my mom worked three jobs; we were latchkey kids, but we didn’t know there were some dire financial issues,” Campodonico-Barr recalls. “I think from a superficial standpoint looking at media, the stereotypical version of what ‘success’ looks like is often to be a doctor or a lawyer. And I’ve always been drawn to ethics and political movements. Eventually I found out you can study law, but I didn’t necessarily have to practice.”

Campodonico-Barr traveled with her grandmother to visit family in Panama every year and formed a second home there. Those trips illuminated a deeper drive of hers, encouraging an already burgeoning interest in law, politics, and social justice.

“My grandmother showed me the power of being a matriarch,” Campodonico-Barr says. “The power of what happens when you invest in women, and what that can mean for generations.”

While her prestigious high school provided plenty of opportunity, Campodonico-Barr says she often felt academically behind her classmates, students who had been enrolled in that level of private education and benefitted from those elite resources for their entire lives. By the time she applied to college, she had lost some of her voice.

She describes touring Indiana University’s campus on “you know, one of those magical spring days in Bloomington.” When she had a moment to herself, she found an empty classroom in Woodburn Hall, where political science courses are held, and her gut told her this was the place for her.

She also received support, community, and mentorship through the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program, which supports “high-achieving underrepresented minorities” and emphasizes leadership and engagement.

“I always believed professors when they said we should come to office hours,” she says. “I went all the time and built really meaningful relationships.”

She credits late Professor of Political Science Lawrence Hanks for her introduction to critical race theory, and Professor of Philosophy Sandra Shapshay’s approaching pedagogy of ethics for inspiring her to major in philosophy and political science. Law Professor Kevin Brown, who ran the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program, challenged her to rise to her potential in ways that echoed her grandmother.

“I was really uncomfortable in leadership,” she says, “but he would call me out, question when I would step into the leadership role that I was destined to be in.”

I always believed professors when they said we should come to office hours. I went all the time and built really meaningful relationships.
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It turns out that destiny — and stepping into yours — can lead down unexpected detours. When Campodonico-Barr completed her undergraduate degree, she was all set to travel in international service. However, it was the Great Recession, and the Peace Corps was backlogged with applicants. She worked for Bloomington-based Cook Medical doing international regulatory affairs before taking a volunteer position with a U.N. program in a mining town in the Chilean desert. In Chile, she did community development work with youth and women, who were very involved in the region’s civic life. In her free time, she studied for the LSAT.

After considering law schools in Washington, D.C., and New York, Campodonico-Barr found herself drawn to return to Bloomington. She cites the Maurer School of Law’s distinction of hosting the only center for constitutional democracy in the nation, and the opportunity to complete a simultaneous master’s degree in public administration from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, with her decision to enroll.

“And there was a sense of home being back in Bloomington,” she adds.

The return to the familiar, however, held surprises. Soon after moving back to Bloomington, she ran into Matt Barr, a casual friend with whom she had formed a study group in Intro to Buddhism, her first class as a freshman at IU. He had gone directly from undergrad to law school, and they soon began dating. Years later, the couple married in front of the Rose Well House on campus, across from the building where they first met.

During law school, Campodonico-Barr got to pursue her dreams of working with women abroad, taking advantage of school-sponsored opportunities to work in India, Tanzania, and the state department in D.C. Afterward, Campodonico-Barr took a consultant position with U.N. Women in Tanzania.

“I loved it, but the work started to feel colonialist,” she explains. “There are so many amazing women there who were already doing incredible work, and we had the best intentions to be helpful. I could help with certain things, but they had all the answers and should be empowered to do that sustainable work. I felt sometimes that we were getting in their way.”

That’s when Campodonico-Barr wondered whether she had overlooked the place she might most effectively use her skills and energy. “There’s so much to do here in Indiana,” she says. “But I had never framed that as a human rights issue before, but it is.” Why not, she figured, do this work on the ground at home?

According to Campodonico-Barr, she “cut bait, failed fast, and headed home.” That home was Bloomington, where she took a job in the IU General Counsel’s office. One of her main focuses was Title IX policy and litigation, which included investigating cases of sexual misconduct, harassment and discrimination, as well as promoting gender equity through policy, training, and institutional support.

Her mentor relationships at IU continued to open doors and lines of thinking, and she connected with the commissioner of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, who offered her the role of chief of staff. She hesitated to accept, since it was unclear how this organization and executive position suited her skills and objectives. But she realized that this was an opportunity to lead in a highly influential public works organization, the largest revenue generator for the state — and her grandmother’s words echoed in her ear: When will you step into leadership?

"I try to understand what groups are facing, and how philanthropy can fill the gaps. We’re asking, how do we grapple with inequity?"

Campodonico-Barr joined the BMV as the youngest senior staff member of a state organization, the only woman and only Latina. At first, all of this difference made the position intimidating.

“Sometimes in meetings I would have an idea but stay quiet, and then a few days later, someone else would make the same suggestion,” she remembers. “I realized that I had good ideas, and if I’m taking up a seat, it’s my responsibility to exercise my voice.”

The commissioner, Peter Lacy, gave her advice that would shape her next steps: In positions of power in the state, it was their duty to give back. He recommended she check out Girls Inc., and she started volunteering there.

Girls Inc. is a nonprofit focused on girls, offering direct service and advocacy, long-term mentorships, and programs in a network of local affiliates across the U.S. and Canada. Founded in 1864, it’s one of the longest continuously operating organizations for girls-only programming. In 2018, Campodonico-Barr moved from mentor to the president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis. In that role, she brought together her executive capability with her explicit mission of working with girls and women.

During her tenure at Girls Inc., the organization earned the largest grant award in its history: $3.25 million to support a new interactive curriculum and to establish an endowment for the chapter’s future. The organization also changed its strategic plan to a long-term comprehensive-impact model, to make sure they can support girls and their families year-round and over the years.

“Girls Inc. has real impact and measurable outcomes, like graduation rates and girls going on to four-year colleges,” Campodonico-Barr says, “but the qualitative data is the most meaningful to me: just how wonderful and bold these girls are.”

As fulfilling as her work with Girls Inc. was, Campodonico-Barr made the decision to shift roles again — this time, to the other side of the grantmaking process. In early 2021, she joined the Lilly Endowment in her current role, focusing on at-risk populations in Indianapolis.

“Too often we don’t actually ask people being served what they need,” she says. “Those are the voices that need to be lifted up. As I’ve grown more comfortable with myself as a leader, I try to lead with empathy and curiosity.”

In her new role as a grantmaker, she draws from her experience as an applicant.

“I try to understand what groups are facing, and how philanthropy can fill the gaps,” she says. “We’re asking, how do we grapple with inequity? How do we make sure all our neighbors have a chance at a quality life?”

For now, though, Campodonico-Barr is spending much of her time and energy reading, listening, and learning. She reads “a lot of white papers” and rides her bike to mull over the multifaceted issues at hand.

“I’m getting used to the space and luxury of thinking again,” she says with a laugh.

Then she says the words that echo her grandmother’s, the ones that resonate through and connect all the work she’s done and will do: “I know this will push me to grow.”

Katie Moulton

Katie Moulton is a writer, editor, and music critic. Her writing has appeared in Sewanee Review, Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, No Depression, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by fellowships and awards from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Tin House, and Indiana University, where she earned her M.F.A. and was the editor of Indiana Review. Her audio memoir, Dead Dad Club, is forthcoming from Audible. Originally from St. Louis, she makes her home in Baltimore.