Explore Atlanta

Fighting for Rights: Doug Shipman

Meet the CEO of Atlanta's National Center for Civil and Human Rights

With degrees from Emory University, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Harvard Divinity School, Doug Shipman is a perfect fit for his role as CEO of the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, he was hand-picked by (then) Mayor Shirley Franklin for the job. We sit down with the smart, engaging and passionate leader to talk about the center and what it means for the city.

Q: The center (finally) opens this month. Let’s talk a little about what it took to get here ...

A: I’ve been in the job seven years. I did the feasibility work as a pro bono project for a year and a half. The King Papers had been purchased at the end of 2006 and Coke offered the land at the end of 2006, so when I came on full time at the beginning of 2007 is was really to start the process of making it a reality. That year and the first half of 2008, everything went pretty well, we had a lot of support. We had a group of storytellers who were starting to define the story, we were about to pick an architect and then Lehman Brothers fell at the end of ‘08. And it was a very tough time between the end of 2008 and all of 2009. Nobody wanted to do anything. They didn’t want to give money, they didn’t really want to make commitments. It was very tough to move the whole project ahead just because everyone was scared about what was going to happen next. And then in 2010 the clouds started to part a little bit.

A rendering of the Center at Pemberton Place (Courtesy National Center for Civil and Human Rights)

Q: And then what happened?

A: We had an architect and we really started the process. Overall, two really big things have driven this. One is the storytelling. We had a group of academics and storytellers who defined what we should talk about. Then, of course, we got George C. Wolfe to really be the creative designer. He comes from the world of film and the stage world, so he really has a notion for how to tell stories. And we wanted someone we could collaborate with so that the building itself told a story, it wasn’t just a box. And then the other is financial stability long term. We’re going to open without long-term debt, we have an endowment in place and one of the reasons why we phased the project is to make sure it’s financially viable in every step. So everything is really designed to get the maximum revenue at the least cost. For example, the event space can be used day or night.

Q: What kind of events are you booking?

Such an interesting array. We have national conferences that are coming to Atlanta and they want to use us for receptions. We have corporations that want to do training with all their managers across the country. We have academic conferences that are coming. We have family reunions; they want to have the whole family come have lunch and tour the facility. We have civil and human rights-oriented events. We really have an array.

Q: What about programming?

From our own programming side, CNN Dialogues is going to move into the Center. We’re going to have two of them this year in the fall. We’re going to continue our relationship with HBO Documentary Films where we do premieres of human rights films. We’ll do book launches, we’ll host signings and speakers, other documentary film premieres. Then we’ll have a whole education piece. We’ll be hosting school groups and have a whole curriculum that we’ll give to them before they arrive. And then what we’re seeing is that there are some foundations that want to fund us to do educational issues around certain topics. We’re going to focus on women's and girl's issues, especially women’s rights issues around the world. We’re going to have a whole series of programs centered around human trafficking, which is obviously such a huge issue here in Atlanta, but also nationally and internationally as well. 2015 is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’re going to have a series of programs around that anniversary and the disabilities act and issues. And, of course, the Nobel Peace Laureat Prize, which is coming. So there are also these topical elements that you’ll see us really speak to over time that we’ve already set up.

Q: How many employees are there now?

A: Twenty-five full-time employees—give or take—is where we are now. We’ll have another cadre of about 30 part-time employees. And then we’ll have a trained cadre of about 100 volunteers when we open and that will grow over time.

Q: What will they do?

A: They’ll lead tours, they’ll be docents, they’ll be greeters for special events and programs, they'll take tickets—all of that kind of thing. It’s very similar to the aquarium model where a lot of their floor folk are actually volunteers.

Q: Are you trying to get people connected with the Civil Rights movement?

A: Yes! We’re working with Hands on Atlanta. Obviously the ideal volunteer is someone who has a connection to one of our stories. They were in the Civil Rights movement, their family is from Rwanda, or they've done mission work in Guatemala ... any of those kind of things. We encourage volunteers to have their own stories. But then again, there’s nothing better than a 17-year-old volunteer who cares about civil and human rights. Because every school group that comes in, to have a 17-year-old engaging them changes the way they think about it. So it’s both the expected and the unexpected, which is what you want with volunteers.

Q: In all your interviews you’ve said “it’s not a museum, but a living, breathing attraction.” I guess that all goes together.

A: Absolutely. Everything is a part of it. As well as the fact that every four months we’ll rotate The King Papers that are on display. So for the most part, you’ll see a new set of documents and items when you come in. And then a lot of the human rights exhibitions are very flexible so that we can actually update those as things happen. So as issues come up, we can actually change the people that we highlight and the issues that we highlight in those exhibitions. I’ll give you another example. Both civil and human rights end up in the same gallery, called "Shared Accomplishments.” We really wanted people to go through that from both exhibitions to get that the sense that civil and human rights are the same thing. It’s an oval room with six towers of LED screens. We can literally make that last room like an epicenter of an event or issue that is happening today. And that was an important part of the picture.

Rendering of The Center (Courtesy The National Center for Civil and Human Rights)

Q: And you aren't done yet. What are the expansion plans?

It’s a 3-phase plan, so two additional wings. We envision one wing as additional exhibit space, both permanent and temporary. Because one of the things we’d love to be able to do is host big exhibitions form the Smithsonian, or around the world. And there would be an accessible plaza on top of the roof, which is great because the view of Midtown and Downtown is really spectacular. Then we envision additional event space; it could be a seated auditorium or flat event space where we could host plays and events and speakers.

Q: The topic and the city are well matched. So what took so long?

A: We are spoiled. We see Joseph Lowery and John Lewis and Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian—who just won the presidential Medal of Freedom—all the time. We see them at Home Depot and the store. And you just kind of take it all for granted that we have all of these icons. This LBJ conference just happened at the LBJ library in Austin and there were so many Atlnatans that were a part of it. Shirley Franklin was there and Andrew Young was there. Bernice King was there. There was just this whole list of Altan a people who were there speaking. So part of it is that we’re so familiar with it that we kind of forget what a big deal that is. The other part is we’re now at the 50-year anniversary mark of the civil rights movement and it makes you consider how it is relevant to today. 

Q: And how is it relevant?

A: It’s not that you need to know it just because it’s an important point in history, you ought to know it because it will help you as you think about contemporary issues … about a growing Latino population in Atlanta, about women’s rights around the world. I think that’s the move, that’s what happens going forward.

Q: What do you want people to take away from their visit?

A: The number one thing that I want people to take away from their visit is to be inspired by the individuals. The history is important but the truth is, this is a place where you can literally meet and come face to face with and understand these incredible individuals.

Q: As global as we are, people do seem to have a narrow world view ...

A: Until they travel and then they go, “Holy moley, I touched this. I saw this, I heard this story.” We’re trying to bring some of those stories directly to people here. We like to say that we’re giving them an itch that they’re going to have to scratch later.

Q: Speaking of travel, you’re entitled to a vacation. Where would you go?

A:The one place that would feel very good to go is Australia and New Zealand. I love to scuba dive and I’ve never been down there. i would love to go down there and go scuba diving and eat their wonderful seafood on the beach there.

Q: Have you had any downtime at all or has it just been nonstop?

A: It’s been a lot of nonstop. I have a 2-year-old and my wife is an ER physician at Grady Hospital. So we work our calendars extremely hard. A lot of days I go home at 5:30 pm, and I’ll have spend time with my daughter until she goes to bed, and then work again. I try pretty hard to protect those times with her, so that’s my down time.