Confluence of upbringing, education, and in-the-trenches experiences cements alumnus’ passion for women’s rights advocacy and activism
Matthew Rullo ’08, B. A. Political Science, Music
by Mary Denny
“Being the youngest child and the only son in a family of strong, independent, progressive women (single mom and three sisters) shaped me as both a man and a human being,” says Matthew Rullo, “and I believe that laid the groundwork for my career.”
When it came time for college, the native San Antonian knew he would require a scholarship and financial aid. While in high school Matthew was active in various music programs: choir, a capella groups, theater, and state competitions, so he drew on his vocal talent when applying to college. This included a self-recorded CD, which led to a call from Scott MacPherson, Trinity choir director, who invited him to audition and attend a rehearsal with the Trinity Chamber Singers. “I remember how incredible they sounded and how at home I felt singing among their bass section,” he says, “and that was a tremendous driver of my decision to attend Trinity. Some students who would become my life-long friends were sitting in that same rehearsal.”
Once on campus Matthew spread himself very thin—maybe a bit too much, he admits in retrospect. He sang in the Trinity Choir and the Chamber Singers, was a founding member of the Trinitones, and regularly acted in theater productions. In addition, he anchored Newswave every Friday, served as a TU Ambassador, and worked as an RM and RA during his junior and senior years.
Unsure of a career path, Matthew also welcomed the opportunity to be exposed to different majors and “try on different hats.” “Mathematics? Nope! Psychology? Nice Try!”
Then it happened. Matthew’s first class with political science professor Mary Ann Tétreault hooked him. In Tétreault he found “a fierce, progressive, feminist thinker”— like those women who had shaped his early years— “who was challenging the patriarchy, busting through gender norms, and embracing ideas of equal dignity and globalism.” He credits class discussions on civil liberties, diplomacy, and human rights with enabling him to “finally learn how to articulate my progressive values and passion for movement building, gender equality, and women’s rights advocacy.”
After graduation, Matthew was drawn to the Peace Corps. His assignment—and first ever trip to southeast Asia—was in Cambodia, a country whose tragic history included the horrific genocide under the brutal Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The program was relatively new—his was in the second group of Peace Corps volunteers to enter the country—and after some training in language and cross-cultural skills, the young recruits were “literally thrown into the deep end of the pool and you sank or swam.” Half the cohort left before their two-year stint was up. Matthew was placed in the small village of Chhouk as a teacher trainer and youth development advisor and was required to live with a Cambodian host family with no air conditioning or running water. Similar to his own upbringing, his host family – who he grew to love and respect as his own - was composed of all women, this time three generations of them. Through them he witnessed the extreme patriarchy of Cambodian society and saw up close just how much his male gender shaped and privileged his everyday life experiences. “Little did I know that the lessons I learned from the women in my host family and the people in my rural community would change me much more than I would change them.
With renewed purpose, Matthew expanded his community projects. In addition to training English teachers, he started an after school enrichment program, a girls’ empowerment camp, and worked with local organizations to bring genocide education to the people of his community. His vocal talent came into play as well. While attending a Khmer wedding he was invited onstage to sing at the reception. “When the guests of my village saw the awkward foreigner performing, they went wild. After that, I was quickly known as the local Khmer wedding singer and was invited to pretty much every wedding in my village for the next two years.”
Fresh from Cambodia, Matthew moved to New York City, crashed on the couch of a close friend from Trinity, and began interning with Human Rights Watch (HRW) by day and working odd jobs at night. Two months later he landed an associate job in the Women’s Rights Division of HRW, moved into his “matchbox apartment” in Brooklyn, and worked alongside researchers investigating rights abuses against women around the world.
Ultimately, he led a small team in digital and direct response marketing to build audiences, diversify funding streams, and widen the reach and visibility of the organization’s work. Matthew’s time at HRW cemented his passion for women’s rights advocacy and activism for gender equality. He also spent three years earning a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University at night, focusing on women’s economic rights and global economic justice.
“The resilience of the women and girls in places I’ve worked at such as Cambodia, Burundi, and South Sudan has inspired me to be a better advocate in so many ways. These women have faced unspeakable abuses—child marriage, forced labor and sexual violence, and are bravely standing up and speaking out to forge a better world. I learn from their resiliency and willingness to face and rise above adversity every day.”
Recently, Matthew took a major step towards his ultimate career goal: to work for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. On June 17, he joined the UN Women’s Peace and Security team to lead communications and advocacy for a UN-civil society partnership that supports grassroots women’s organizations working on the frontlines of conflict and crisis. Its mission is to empower women in fragile contexts to meaningfully participate in conflict prevention, respond to humanitarian emergencies, and build lasting peace in their communities from the ground up.
“I’ve always believed in the agency and power of human beings to do good in the world,” Matthew says. “I’m humbled and privileged to be a part of this movement every day.”
You can contact Matthew at matthew.rullo [at] gmail.com.