Jill Savitt, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on May 10, 2019

It’s hard to contain the energy of Jill Savitt, the new CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, who has only been in the role for two months.

“It’s amazing. I’m really thrilled with how well it’s going,” Savitt said. “I can’t tell you how glorious it is. This is so much what I wanted to be part of for my entire career.”

Savitt is not totally new to the Center. She was the curator of the Human Rights portion of the Center, which opened in June 2014.

Jill Savitt, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In an interview, Savitt talked about her vision for the Center, which will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary. It also is holding its major fundraising event – the Power to Inspire dinner – on May 16 at the Georgia Aquarium. And the Center’s staff and board are buying into her vision for the Center’s future.

The Center currently serves as a “museum” destination with exhibits featuring the history of the civil rights movement and spotlighting current human rights issues around the world.

Savitt, however, believes it can play a much larger role in the areas of education, public engagement and helping develop advocacy skills – all geared at creating a more civil and just society.

“We are in a precarious moment,” Savitt said. “There’s not a lot of human solidarity. It feels like we are having the nastiest food fight. The far left and the far right have taken over the public square. What we are missing is a reasonable debate. We are out of practice with how our democracy should work. That’s a conversation I want us to have.”

Savitt, 51, has spent most of her career in the human rights arena. Before moving to Atlanta two months ago, she was the acting director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Since 2010, Savitt has been a special advisor to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She has been a guest curator for the Museum’s Wexner Center, which presents exhibitions about issues with contemporary relevance to the Holocaust.

In 2007, Savitt founded and directed Dream for Darfur, an advocacy campaign that pressed the Chinese government to take specific actions regarding the Darfur crisis in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Games.

She sees her entire career leading to this moment of running the Center for Civil and Human Rights as its third CEO following Doug Shipman and Derreck Kayongo. Savitt credited Brian Tolleson, who served as the interim CEO for nearly a year, for putting the Center on a sound financial and organizational path.

The Center has a $6 million budget, and 60 percent of its funding comes from ticket sales, store revenues and the leasing of the facility. The Power to Inspire raises about $700,000. And the rest of the funding comes from charitable donations and special programs and partnerships. For example, The Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO) gave the Center $1 million before the 2019 Super Bowl so it could offer free admission for a month.

Savitt hopes the Center will do a better job reaching out to students – especially those in K-12 as well as college students. She would like more families to experience the Center by offering family Saturdays. She also would love for the Center to host film premiers, major speakers and different advocacy academies. Currently the International Human Rights Institute and the LGBTQ Institute are affiliated with the Center.

Lastly, Savitt would like to see the Center, which is 100 percent debt-free, expand.

“I don’t think we have room to do all the things we want to do,” said Savitt, mentioning there’s limited space for temporary exhibitions and there’s no auditorium. “If we had a venue that could seat 800 people – that could bring in quite a bit of revenue.”

Power to Inspire event

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young will be one of the honorees at the Power to Inspire dinner on May 16 at the Georgia Aquarium. It is the fifth year the Center has honored individuals and organizations for their notable civil and human rights impact nationally and locally.

The other recipients will be Alina Diaz, a rights advocate for migrant farmworkers; Elana Meyers Taylor, an Olympic gold medalist who also is president of the Women in Sports Foundation; and Christian Fischer, president and CEO of Georgia-Pacific.

Young was an early leader in the civil rights movement. He also was a U.S. Congressman, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, an Atlanta mayor and a tireless advocate to improve international problems of poverty, genocide and conflict. He also was integral conceiving and establishing the Center.

Diaz has served as a founding board member of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, promoting the rights of women farmworkers in the United States who face exploitation and sexual violence but fear reporting this abuse because of their legal status.

Taylor, a native of Douglasville, Ga., will be honored for her leadership as a groundbreaking athlete and a champion of equality for women in sports. She was the first woman to lead a four-person crew to third place in the U.S. Olympic trials, securing a place to compete for the U.S. national team.

Georgia-Pacific will be recognized for its work to address human trafficking by devoting significant financial and employee volunteer support as a shining example of corporate social responsibility.  Fischer will accept the honor on behalf of the company.

Deborah Richardson and human trafficking

The metro Atlanta coalition to end human trafficking in Atlanta and beyond helped in the rescue of 22 children during the first quarter of 2019.

The effort is part of a three-year campaign that leveraged Atlanta’s hosting of Super Bowl LIII to raise awareness to combat human sexual and labor exploitation in metro Atlanta – especially among children.

Deborah Richardson
Deborah Richardson

The campaign is being led by Deborah Richardson, executive director of the International Human Rights Institute, which is part of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

“We have 200 stakeholders that have signed on to be part of the campaign,” Richardson said. “In the first six months of the campaign, we have trained 17,500 people.”

That included the 10,000 Super Bowl volunteers as well as Uber and Lyft drivers. The coalition also printed and distributed 15,000 booklets with profiles of 34 children on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Registry. That helped lead to the recovery of 22 children.

By comparison, during Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, there were 2,500 booklets with 34 profiles of missing children were distributed, and only 14 out of 34 children were located.

Richardson thanked Joe Dye of Trinity Press, printed all the full-color booklets at no cost, agreeing to do so after a five-minute telephone conversation.

The coalition has a goal to raise $1 million so it can train 50,000 people over the next three years. Richardson said it already has raised “a little more than half of that.” It also will soon have a “provocative” billboard campaign to raise awareness.

An essential part of the campaign will be to shift public will from awareness to advancing policies and actions that will eradicate the demand for selling and buying children for sexual and labor exploitation, Richardson said.

Fighting human trafficking has been on her agenda for decades. She credited other “founding mothers” for working on the issue long before it had become a recognized issue. Those “mothers” included: Stephanie Davis, former CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation; Nancy Boxill, former Fulton County Commissioner; Nina Hickson, former Fulton County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge who is now the city attorney of Atlanta; and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

“These results show the power of partnerships,” Richardson said. “By collaborating with all sectors we can accelerate our collective impact to change the conditions of those vulnerable for exploitation and end the demand for buying and selling children.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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