One year ago, Andrea Taylor assumed the role of president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL. The Boston native had no museum management experience, but her experience in the fields of education, media, philanthropy and community work made her a standout candidate. To say her resume is impressive is an understatement: She was the director of citizenship and public affairs at Microsoft, she founded a media technology firm and the Ford Foundation Media Fund, she’s taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and she served as president of the Benton Foundation. Now at the helm of one of the city’s most famous institutions, Taylor plans to draw upon her experiences to not simply raise money for the institute but also to continue to raise awareness of how far we’ve come regarding race relations — and how far we still have to go.
What are some of the changes you hope to make at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute during your tenure?
There’s always a challenge for a museum — and any institution that’s preserving the past — to remain current and relevant in the present and then contribute to the future; and you can’t take that for granted. So, some of the changes that we anticipate have to do with things as simple as improving the visitor experience. We are thinking about ways that we might incorporate more technology that would make the experience an interactive one.
What changes would you like to see made in Birmingham?
Not unlike many parts of the country, there still are disparities and discrepancies and it trends in some ways with what’s happening all over the nation. The income gap, the education gap, the employment gap, the housing gap, the health gap in many cities in America are quite broad and for certain groups who have perhaps always been challenged to have equal access to opportunities and resources, that gap is widening. The opportunities for employment and for individual development and growth and achievement require a level of education and training that may not be available to the young people in the city proper as in these other surrounding areas.
Do you think the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute can help close those gaps?
We’d like to be a catalyst and a change agent in that regard. I think we are an educational institution first and foremost. We have a real interest in youth leadership development and we’ve had great success over a number of years. I think one of the things the institute is very much looking into is how we can expand these programs so we can reach many more young people.
What role do you believe the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute can play in improving current race relations?
In today’s environment and social climate, there are so many tensions around policing, around race relations, around housing and around inequities in health and education. There are so many problems and challenges to overcome and we’re not going to be able to deal with those issues and address them effectively unless we have dialogue. People from different communities, different perspectives, different points of view about how you approach solutions have to be able to talk. We’re at a place where we think that kind of conversation can take place in this community in a civil and constructive way, so we make our services and our facilities available to do that.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The challenges are making sure that we have the right balance between being stewards of the history and, at the same time, being fully in the present, understanding with some clarity and accuracy what the current needs are — how to take the realities of the present and the history from the past and help propel and move toward an even more constructive and effective future.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
To see people expand their understanding of something that they thought they knew a fair amount about — but then there’s more that they didn’t know and it rounds out their experience. It’s very gratifying to see people absorb that information and that experience and move forward to an even more positive and powerful place.
And to be a steward of a history that’s based on such courage and determination. When you think about what sacrifices people were willing to make when they left their homes to go march and demonstrate and stand for something they believed in — in the face of adversity — that’s pretty remarkable. People were willing to put their lives on the line in order to move forward and make sure everybody had equal access.
Tell us about some of your hobbies and other interests?
I’m an advocate of being active and trying to promote healthy lifestyle choices, so I run, swim, walk and bike. It’s a bit challenging in Birmingham to be a cyclist but the Zyp BikeShare program is exciting.
Other than the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, what are some of your favorite places in Birmingham?
Parks. Because I work all the time with people, when I’m not at work sometimes I just need to be quiet and have moments of centering. Railroad Park is a tremendous asset to the city. Everybody’s there. I assume that was the goal: to make it a place where everybody felt welcome and comfortable and safe. It’s a very diverse place in ways that some other parts of the city are not. And there’s always something going on.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice that I’ve been given was from my mother. She’s no longer alive but we celebrate her memory and her spirit every year at an event in Massachusetts and the theme is “Savor the Moment,” which was her advice to people. Life is very precious. None of us know how long we will be here, so while you are here, you need to fully embrace life in all its richness. Make sure you don’t have regrets. If there are things you want to do, you need to get started. Do them!
Other than friends, family and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
I can’t live without my passport. I carry it with me every day. Somebody might call and say, “Andrea, I have a seat on a plane to Paris. Do you want to go?” I want to be ready.
My camera. I’m constantly trying to capture visually some of the experiences I have, either with people or places or a combination of both.
Public radio. I’m a big fan of public radio. I’ve been a public radio board member in New York for nearly 20 years. So I listen to WNYC on the web and I listen to WBHM here in Birmingham. I listen because that’s a wonderful way to take in voices and vision from all over the country and all over the world.
Thank you, Andrea! Learn more by visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.