By Maria Saporta
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights has named Jill Savitt as its CEO – succeeding Brian Tolleson, who has been serving as the interim CEO for nearly a year. Tolleson will return to serving on the center’s board once Savitt begins her new role on March 11.
Savitt is no stranger to the center.
From 2010 to 2014, Savitt curated the center’s human rights exhibition – the Spark of Conviction – in a gallery that tells the contemporary global human rights story.
“I think the center is a sacred place,” Savitt said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “In our times right now, we need people to understand how civil society operates. The center tells that story in a compelling and dynamic way.”
Savitt, 51, is a genocide prevention expert who has been working in the human rights field for 20 years. Most recently, she has been serving as acting director for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Jill Savitt has the distinct caliber and experience to lead the center,” Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta who serves as the center’s board chair, said in a statement. “Over the last year, Brian has helped catapult the operational and financial health of the center, and Jill begins her tenure at a fantastic moment for us.”
The search for a permanent CEO began nearly a year ago following the resignation of Derreck Kayongo. Kayongo was the center’s second executive, who succeeded founding CEO Doug Shipman, now president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center. The center opened in June 2014 on the same block as the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.
The Russell Reynolds firm assisted the search committee in looking for a new CEO. The committee included: Chair Johnita P. Due, who is vice president and assistant general counsel of Turner Broadcasting; Richard Deane, partner-in-charge of Jones Day; Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation; A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress; Michelle Taylor, a community volunteer; and Tolleson.
Franklin described Savitt as a “strategic visionary” and someone who is a “skilled, incisive communicator” on human rights issues.
“In this time of global uncertainty, the center is poised for a watershed moment,” Franklin said. “We need exceptional leadership to implement our work. A confident and collaborative leader, Jill understands the importance of uniting corporate, faith-based, public-sector and university communities to nurture this unique institution.”
Savitt will be moving to Atlanta from New York, and her goal is for the center to live up to its name – the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. She wants to build on existing partnerships and explore new ways to have the center be engaged on current civil and human rights issues.
“I feel this is a moment when the center can make a difference in people’s lives,” Savitt said. “It is important for the center to be both a place for powerful exhibitions but to also play a role in the civil and human rights movement.”
She said she will be working with the board to figure out how to continue to develop the center.
“There is a huge desire to build out the center physically,” Savitt said. “If the center is going to be a convening place, the building needs to reflect that purpose. We are going to grow, and we are going to build, but it’s got to be very related to the contributions we decide the center can make.”
Savitt has received the support of several people close to the center.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said her organization has been a partner of the center since it opened nearly five years ago.
“With a CEO like Jill Savitt who has led in the trenches as a human rights advocate, curator, and national authority on genocide, the center is surely headed for major new impact, profile and achievements,” Worden said in a statement.
Tolleson also expressed confidence in the future leadership.
“Jill’s tireless work for justice, her connection with both civil and human rights scholarship and her history with the Center make her ideal to lead our organization,” Tolleson said. “I’m thrilled with the board’s decision and confident that Jill will drive the center’s mission forward.”
The center has just launched four simultaneous exhibits – Fragments; Meaning of Hope: the Best of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection; Breaking Barriers: Sports for Change; and the display of the Aids Memorial Quilt. Also a $1 million grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation and a contribution from FedEx will offer visitors free admission through Feb. 28.
Savitt has visited the center several times since it opened. Last May, she led a tour of the center for three student leaders from Parkland, Fla. and members of the Atlanta March for our Lives – young leaders who have been advocating for stricter gun control laws.
“That to me is the essence and the future of the center,” Savitt said. “I think the city understands the center expresses something about Atlanta that is real and meaningful and profound. There is a magnetic quality to the place. It’s a natural gathering place for celebrations and protests. This is our place. This is a symbol of our city.”