Taylor to lead conversations, make a difference at BCRI

BCRI CEO Andrea Taylor smiles beside a painting in her office.
BCRI CEO Andrea Taylor smiles beside a painting in her office.

When Andrea Taylor walked into her office at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for the first time last week she opened her blinds and was struck by the view.

“I looked out and realized that I am going to be looking – every single day – at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” said the svelte, finely dressed woman with a petite salt-and-pepper Afro and wide, bright-white smile. “It brought tears to my eyes. It still does.”

“That will remind me every day why I am here and what I need to do,” she said.

Before coming to the Institute to serve as the President and CEO, Taylor served as director of Citizenship and Public Affairs, North America for the Microsoft Corporation. She managed employee engagement and giving and strategic partnerships in the U.S. and Canada with donors, government entities and community-based organizations.

She was also instrumental in the creation and implementation of the Elevate America and Elevate America Veterans technology training programs as well as YouthSpark, an initiative providing education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for 300 million youth worldwide.

“Technically, I am at an age and stage where I could just sit down in a rocking chair or on a beach,” said the 68 year-old grandmother. “I don’t feel inclined to want to do that now. I am open and eager to do something else.”

And there is not much she hasn’t done. Taylor has visited more than 70 countries for her global work building communities and supporting youth. Up until last year she had been to six continents, having worked professionally on five. In her brief break after Microsoft and before coming to BCRI, she decided to visit her seventh continent so this past winter she took a trip to Antarctica.

“I’ve now seen the world,” she said.

Her next step is to help change the world, through her work with BCRI.

“There is still economic disadvantage and civil and human rights that need to be discussed,” she said. “The Institute can be that neutral space. We are a research and educational resource. We have a voice and a role to play.”

“We can learn from the civil rights movement how the community came together as a collective and made a decision that they were going to make a positive change in a different nature,” she said. “The process and the techniques and the tools are still applicable today.”

And what a great time to be in the city to do so, she said.

“The renaissance going on in Birmingham is impressive. There are a lot of people here from somewhere else. A lot of people are coming because they seek to be a part of the rebirth of the city.”

The Massachusetts-born woman may be new to the the city and to BCRI, but she is not new to its mission of supporting civil and human rights through education. The self-proclaimed “child of the 60s” grew up in a home where her family had a long history of civic activism and engagement, said Taylor who attended the 1963 March on Washington.

“I was very fortunate in that I had parents who fostered that and demanded we be part of that,” she said. “It was always an expectation that we would be involved somehow and substantively in community.”

Her father, Francis Taylor, was a violinist, jazzman and administrator for the city of West Virginia. Her mother, Della Hardman, was art professor at West Virginia State University and all around Renaissance woman as well as Taylor’s role model. Hardman ran a college art department for almost 30 years and at age 72 got her Ph.D. in art education.

“My mother’s mantra was, if there is anything you want to do, get started,” Taylor recalled. “She enjoyed learning and she felt there was no limit to it. If you have your faculties you can continue to learn until the day you die. She wanted to demonstrate to her children and grandchildren that it is never too late.”

Taylor lives by that example.

“Nothing really good happens to people if you don’t say yes,” she said. “You will just be regretting the opportunities you may have let pass you by.”

She said “yes” to serving the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and now her journey has begun.

Taylor, who doesn’t own a car, lives downtown and walks to work. She’s an avid runner, having participated in the New York City Marathon in 2009 and this past Saturday served as the ride ambassador for the Third Annual Ride United Birmingham. She’s a three-decade vegetarian and regular swimmer.

Taylor is also what she calls a “culture vulture.” She loves all things art and culture and says she can’t wait to become a member of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

She is, however, open to Alabama’s favorite pastime.

“I am told I will learn a lot more about football than I know now,” she said with a smile. “I am not as knowledgeable in that area.”

When it comes to talking about race, are we all insane? I think we might be.

bma flierWhat do you get when you gather people of all ages, backgrounds and skin tones to talk about the racial climate in Birmingham? Sadly, you get not much more than good intentions.

I went to the Birmingham Museum of Art Friday night hoping to hear locals talk about race and maybe come away inspired and educated. I was attracted to the event’s title, “BMA Speaks to Birmingham: Black Like Who?” and was proud that the museum was leading this conversation. I have been to more events like this than I can count, and each time I hope that we will all leave with our arms locked and singing “Kum ba yah.” Each time, however, that’s not the case.

Still, I was hopeful.

I climbed the museum’s gorgeous marble stairwell, passed the closed cafe with its sleek white sofas and lime-and-white table and chairs, sauntered along the hallway decorated with iconic civil rights images, walked into the event area and was pleasantly surprised – blown away, even. Sitting, standing and chatting in the room were a number of brown women with cottony afros; petite, perfectly dressed old, white ladies; bright-eyed, curious teenagers; dapper professionals with funky eyeglasses; the whole gamut of tall, skinny, bald, brown, beige and black.

This was different than anything I had experienced. Usually at those “let’s talk about race” events, it’s a mostly black crowd of folks who are preaching to the choir, or a slightly mixed crowd who are too polite to push the issue properly.

My hope continued to build.

After podium pleasantries and introductions, two poets walked to the front. The black men tag teamed each other in verse, talking in an engaging, rhythmic tone about the oppression of African Americans. Their voices rose and fell as the words flowed, peppered with powerful images of struggle in this day and age where blacks are gunned down.

“Black lives matter!”

bma 3Another poet approached. He had the posture of a king and looked the audience square in the eyes as he spoke words and phrases that were shocking, provocative. He questioned how God could allow blacks to, time and time again, face oppression, to be enslaved, hung, shot. He said that he hopes that God is dead because if He isn’t “He hates niggers.”

Then, in another poem, the same man talked about how blacks have amnesia, a trait that allows them to forget their years of being oppressed. This ability to not remember, he says, is convenient because if blacks could, they would want to “slit white people’s throats.”

I didn’t know how to feel. I, too, have questioned God’s plan in the role of the black man’s story. I, too, have grappled with trying not to assume a whole race of people are the same. One of tragedies of racism, I believe, is that it seems to have caused some people to reject Christianity because it is the “white man’s religion.” That is a travesty. We rob ourselves of what I believe is the only hope we have for healing – Christ.

After hearing the last poet’s words, though powerful, I could not help but wonder if it would prohibit an environment where transparent conversations could be had by all. Some of my people would probably say to that, “Who cares?” But, if you want to have a two-sided conversation you have to consider your audience. You have to.

The air was thick.

bma 2Then the panelists came onto the stage. Susan Diane Mitchell, of the Magic City Agriculture Project, was soft-spoken (almost to the point of speaking in a whisper). She talked to the audience about the importance of the woman’s role in today’s justice movement and did so like a mother gently instructing her young. The event’s co-host, poet Sharrif Simmons told his story of being raised in Ethiopia where his “oppressor” did not have white skin, but looked like him. He spoke of how racial identity can be the result of your environment, and how when he moved back to America he had to shift how he saw himself and others. Gwen Ferreti, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, shed tears as she shouted that black lives (and brown lives) matter and talked about her Latino brothers and sisters who share in the struggle to be seen as worthy to breathe air. The very beautiful Shirah Robinson of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, with her flawless nutmeg skin and dark painted lips, spoke of wanting to create a world like the one that exists in her dreams instead of the nightmare she lives every day. Rev. Dave Barnhart, of Saint Junia United Methodist Church, said that the real sin our society commits is creating a world where a little black girl sees herself as inferior.

Things were going well, but then, the floor was opened for questions.

An audience member stood and said that there should have been a “street brother” on the panel to give credibility to the discussion. He had a tense exchange with the sole black man on the stage. It was uncomfortable. It wasn’t fruitful. It was a distraction. But it was familiar. I’ve seen scenes like that before at other conversations about race.

Audience members began to speak. Some tried to be the voice of reason. Others asked questions that diverted to other issues. The line of people who wanted to comment began to grow. A lot of people had something they wanted to say. That, too, was familiar.

When the soundbites ran into each other I began to tune out. Eventually, I just got up and walked away.

Did the attendees, did I, expect one of the panelists or audience members to have some answer, some solution to our race problem? Maybe I did. Foolishly so.

Truth is, we are hungry for conversation. We are starving for community. But, I panels like these are quite common. And, at many of them, I have seen the same folks who were there last night. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right. So, are we insane?

I applaud the museum and its organizers for the attempt. Sadly, though, the race discussion is so complex that it would take a million  intentional, concerted efforts to make a tiny dent. And, more importantly, it is going to take something greater than ourselves. It will take the one who created us, the lover of all men: Jesus Christ.