Andrea Taylor: A Truthteller on the Frontlines of Social Change

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

Andrea L. Taylor started traveling early. In 1958, when she was 11, Andrea traveled to Europe with her mother, Della, and a few other female academics to view up-close the origins of the Western canon of art and literature. During the day, Andrea was given freedom to roam.

My mother let me go out. We’d go check into a hotel in Bruges or somewhere and she’d say, ‘Okay, here’s a matchbook and this is the name of the hotel. Here’s your camera, here’s a few dollars,’ you know, spend the afternoon and go. I would leave and walk around by myself, and take pictures and just exploring and that was a pretty bold thing because mostly they didn’t see people of African descent traveling in these places.

Since then, Ms. Taylor has traveled to over 80 countries and every continent, including Antarctica. She famously carries her passport with her every day in case an opportunity comes along to drop everything and go.

For Taylor, travel is a spiritual exercise. It opens up the eyes, heart, and mind to new ways of seeing and understanding the world. It is also a way to learn storytelling.

I’ve been hooked on travel and gathering stories for a very long time. Travel informs you in ways that you can’t even imagine because you begin to understand that you’re part of a universe that’s much bigger than a block in Charleston, WV, or even Harvard Square. You start to realize that the world is a very interesting place, very complex, and it opens your mind, you know, and it makes you want to tell the story. You want to share with other people what you’re learning, what you’re seeing. It makes you want to tell the story. You want to share with other people what you’re learning, what you’re seeing.

On April 26th, Taylor will make yet another trip, this time to New York City where she will be honored by Auburn Seminary at the Annual Lives of Commitment Benefit Breakfast & Awards for her wide-ranging professional and personal accomplishments.

Andrea Taylor’s career has taken her all across the United States. She was a writer and journalist in San Francisco and in Cleveland at the Plain Dealer, then moved to New York City to work at The Ford Foundation to manage their Global Media Fund. Taylor wrote for the Boston Globe, taught at Harvard University in the Graduate School of Education and then moved back out to Seattle to Microsoft to manage their global corporate program. She is also a trustee of New York Public Radio.

Just when her career should have been ending, she decided to embark on another adventure, this time to Birmingham, Alabama, to assume the role of president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) that was celebrating its 25th year.

Nothing could compare to Auburn’s 200 years of service to the community, but 25 years for a civil rights museum in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed pretty significant. This is a moment in time to both reflect and look back, and then look ahead at what else the museum could be and how it could impact civic dialogue.

Two momentous events occurred since Taylor arrived. The first is that President Obama, in his last year in office, designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument, making BCRI the institutional anchor. The second was the election of President Trump and the divisions in society that the election revealed. To Taylor, that makes the mission of BCRI even more important.

The state of the nation, the mood, the lack of discourse, the tribalism, the tensions, the increase in racial violence and all of that has made the work of a place like BCRI even more important. The issue of civil and human rights is really affecting all of us, and in different ways.

The need for truthtelling as well as dialogue is where Taylor’s journalistic and storytelling bonafides prove invaluable.

When I was training as a journalist you learn that nothing is pure. You have a point of view. You don’t operate in a vacuum. Facts are what they are. But they’re always being processed by people in some context. My context may be very different from your context, but the facts don’t change. But the way you respond to the facts is quite different, perhaps because of what you already know or what you don’t know.

So in this time and place, what you want to do is tell stories and give exposure and visibility to different narratives by different people with different voices and different points of view.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is one-way people can become educated—sometimes about the very community in which they live—and learn a history and hear voices that they might not otherwise hear, which for some people they had no idea existed. According to Taylor, visitors from the local community often think they can breeze through the museum, but what they find there shakes them.

By the end, they’re weeping and disoriented. Whatever reality they had about the history, if they had any, when they came and bought their ticket, two hours later, they’re realizing it’s like a Harry Potter movie. You walk through door nine-and-a-half or whatever it is and then you see there’s a whole other world out there that you had no idea that it existed that calls into question all the assumptions that you’ve had about people and about community, about race, about yourself. And depending on how deeply you’re affected by it, it’s really just disconcerting because, you know, it’s challenging every belief system that you were taught.

This year, Taylor and BCRI will be opening an exhibit commemorating the Children’s March in 1963 known as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, in which thousands of young people, all under 18, were trained in nonviolence, and protested segregation by demonstrating across the city. Taylor feels the historic success of The Children’s March is an opportunity to connect with the young people leading the anti-gun violence movement, March for our Lives.

We’re trying to connect with the young people in Florida to say that this is exactly the kind of activity that Dr. King was leading and it was the children who were able to make the difference. The children were the courageous ones who didn’t feel they had anything to lose. They knew something was wrong with the system, they couldn’t fully participate in the community, and they decided to take action.

So, even as Andrea Taylor accepts being honored at Auburn’s Lives of Commitment it does not mean that she is slowing down. In fact, she has yet another role that she loves: grandmother.

I have five grandchildren and that’s a source of real joy. But I’m not the grandmother who babysits and changes the diapers because I’m running an organization or I’m traveling around the world. But my grandchildren are getting to the age where I can hopefully be the grandmother that says, “Hey, get a passport. We’re going to Paris this weekend.” You know? “I’ll pick you up and meet you at JFK.”

Now that’s our kind of grandmother.

Meet Andrea Taylor and join Auburn in its 200th at Lives of Commitment in NYC on April 26th, 2018 as we honor these women of moral courage, who are dedicating their lives to advance justice in our time.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President and Editor of Voices.

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