Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Beau Gustafson
When Andrea Taylor, then 16 years old, attended the March on Washington—the political rally where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech—in 1963, she had no way of knowing that more than four decades later, she’d be living in the Deep South, heading up the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in Alabama. “In 2012, I was invited to participate in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage organized by the Faith and Politics Institute, led by Congressmen John Lewis and Steny Hoyer. During that extraordinary journey, I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with a distinguished delegation of elected officials and Mrs. Ethel Kennedy,” Taylor explains. “Unexpectedly, three years later, I was a candidate to lead BCRI at a pivotal juncture that is focused on celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding and developing a strategy for sustainability and growth in the 21st century. I’m excited about the future potential of BCRI as we build on a legacy of excellence and continue to preserve and promote the lessons learned in Birmingham about civil and human rights.”
Taylor, now CEO and president of BCRI, was born in Boston and spent much of her childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but in high school, her family moved to West Virginia. “Education was a high priority in our family, particularly focused on the arts, history, and travel,” Taylor says of her early life. “My family were Civil Rights activists and I always attended desegregated schools.” She went on to receive her bachelor’s in journalism from Boston University and to complete post-graduate work at New York University. “[You might be surprised to know that] my first job after college graduation was working as a staff reporter on the Urban Desk at The Boston Globe covering education and urban affairs, which provided insight into community needs and a desire to pursue a career pathway to help promote social change,” she shares. Her wide career also includes positions leading global and national grant programs at the Ford Foundation and the Benton Foundation, among others.
Prior to her appointment at BCRI, she led Citizenship and Public Affairs, direct corporate giving, and the matching gifts program at Microsoft for nearly a decade. It was a role that challenged her in many ways, some unexpected, and primed her to step into her role at BCRI in September of 2015. “Previously, as a mature staffer at a high tech company, I was challenged to overcome perceptions about older workers and their ability to ‘keep up,’” she says. “In 2007, I began running regularly to get more exercise. As my stamina increased, I made the decision to train and qualify for the NYC Marathon, a process that took two years and forced me to improve my sleep habits and diet, in addition to completing 10–12 competitive races annually, ranging from 5Ks to half-marathons. In 2009, I achieved my goal and was rewarded with renewed confidence and a sense of accomplishment inspired by the mantra ‘impossible is nothing.’”
At BCRI, Taylor aims to provide strong leadership that both champions Birmingham’s overcoming of her past in the Civil Rights Movement and urges her further still. “As the CEO, it’s my job to work with the board and staff to articulate the vision, develop the strategy, and inspire the team to implement our collective goals and objectives. This leadership role allows me to bring all the skills and experiences that I’ve acquired to help advance the mission and gather the resources that we need to achieve success,” Taylor says. “Since assuming this role in September 2015, I’ve been focused on listening and learning about BCRI, the community, and its people. A typical day includes internal and external meetings about collaboration, planning, research, fundraising, presentations, community engagement, and strategic development to provide leadership and help fulfill BCRI’s mission and continue our legacy of service.” As part of her role, she often travels to represent Birmingham and the BCRI mission, which she says is an honor. “This week, I had an opportunity to be in D.C. to support Rep. Terri Sewell’s call for the creation of a Birmingham Civil Rights National Historic Park to preserve the ‘hallowed ground’ where many ordinary citizens stood firm against violent repression to achieve extraordinary social change, equality, and an end to segregation,” she says.
“Overall, my goal is to always be an active, productive member of the community who understands how to ‘savor the moment,’” Taylor continues. “My goal for BCRI is to provide leadership and vision that will contribute to a strategic, sustainable program that honors America’s transformative Civil Rights Movement and continues to educate and inspire new generations. For the future, I also aspire to develop a BCRI succession plan that will build on a legacy of excellence for the next 25 years.” •