ArtsATL > Art+Design > Reaching the next Gandhi: A conversation with Doug Shipman, CEO, National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Reaching the next Gandhi: A conversation with Doug Shipman, CEO, National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Doug Shipman giving a hardhat tour
Doug Shipman giving a hardhat tour
Doug Shipman giving a hardhat tour.

Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, has a webcam mounted in his office on Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard. That means visitors to the center’s website can see what he sees: progress on the new facility’s construction just a couple of blocks in the distance. The building, adjacent to the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola, is scheduled to open in late May.

Trim, articulate and a rapid-fire talker, Shipman, 40, sat down with ArtsATL on a recent afternoon to discuss his journey. He’d spent the morning with fifth-graders at the Westminster Schools and was still animated by the experience. Those kinds of interactions energize him.

“You’re planting the seeds for the future activists and the future politicians that are going to be more open to human rights, that are going to be more empathetic to people who are different from them,” he says. “That’s the point.”

The “Diversity Front”

Shipman has been thinking about these issues from a young age himself. One of three children, he grew up in Bull Shoals, Arkansas. His mother taught second grade; his now 80-year-old father, who regularly tunes in via webcam to view the center’s construction, was a Pentecostal minister who went on to build houses. (Shipman calls him “the reverse Jesus.”) His parents still live in Bull Shoals and talk on FaceTime every morning with his two-year-old daughter.

“The one thing that dawned on me very early on,” Shipman says of his hometown, “was that it was all white, all Protestant, wasn’t any diversity for a hundred miles in any direction.” He tells the story of his older brother bringing an African American friend home from college and there being talk in the community. Shipman, then five years old, had met the young man, admired him, and couldn’t understand why others didn’t seem to love him, too.

“That started this long exploration to try to figure out how people with differences live together, how differences manifest themselves, and specifically for me — I’m a white, straight, Southern, Christian guy — how I can participate in bettering the world on the diversity front, for lack of a better term, because so much of that work is not done by people like me.”

In high school, he says, he wanted to be a civil rights attorney.

Quintessential Generalist

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, in effect, came to Shipman. It was 2005, and he was working for the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), seemingly having made a right turn. He’d gone from northern Arkansas to Emory University, where he studied political science and economics and delved into Atlanta’s civil rights history. He’d done a joint graduate degree at Harvard University in theology and public policy, focusing on religion and social movements, including the American civil rights movement.

How did he end up in the business world?

To Shipman, the move made sense. He describes himself as the “quintessential generalist.” Whether a function of small-town roots or personality, he continually seeks out new experiences, he says, not only in order to learn, “but also to develop the ability to be comfortable and be effective and be a part of a wide array.”

At the time, he thought he might land in the public or nonprofit world and wanted more business skills. His wife, Bijal Shah, whom he met at Emory, was headed to medical school. He needed a path that would work for them.

“Going to BCG was almost like an extended educational move . . . And the great thing about a consulting firm is every three or four months, you get to do something completely different,” he says.

Shipman in India
Shipman in India.

His experiences encompassed working with some of the best-known hotel brands in the world and a stint living in India, where he drank tea in little shops with proprietors, amid their bags of cement.

“And then [Mayor] Shirley Franklin called the firm and said, ‘I need some pro bono help.’”

Shipman’s colleagues knew of his background, and BCG sent him. 

Illuminating the Struggle

Shipman has spent nearly a decade working to bring the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to fruition — first as a consultant, then, since 2007, as its head. “On the front end, the opportunity . . . to take a shot at envisioning what an institution would look like that combined civil and human rights, that talked about a civil rights legacy for those who didn’t live through it . . . to envision how you get fifth-graders excited about this — for somebody who is so interested in this history and who had come to Atlanta in part . . . because of this history and wanted to explore it, I couldn’t say no to being a part of it.”

He remarks on valuable lessons learned from Franklin and others along the way, particularly this one: stick with it. The center’s initial concept linked civil and human rights, he explains. While early consensus seemed to be moving another direction, the team held to the original idea.

“You have to have this perseverance to keep working on it, to let it mature and let folks find their way to it,” he says. “And I think you also have to be willing at times to change what it is to protect the vision of what it is.”

He cites alterations to the building’s physical design, for example, gesturing toward the construction. “It was a different design and 90,000 square feet, and now it’s a phased approach. This is 43,000 square feet, and it will be 65 or 70,000 square feet when we’re all done.”

Two more phases are planned for roughly the next ten years, Shipman says.

“The principles, the stories, look very similar. It hasn’t changed all that much. But the economic realities as well as just the ongoing operations need a different kind of design.”

Despite a few “existential crises” (i.e., the 2008 economic downturn), Shipman says the center has taken less time to complete than most museums, which on average need about 13 years. His commitment hasn’t flagged, though at times he has questioned his own abilities.

“I think it is incumbent on anybody who sits in a leadership role to regularly reevaluate whether or not they’re the right leader if they care about the project more than themselves.”

One of his strengths? He says he can serve as a bridge-builder among various perspectives — partly the fruit of his interest in others’ frameworks and views. A blind spot? He may keep possibilities in play a little too long. Aspirations? His joy is bringing stories of these movements to people who are open.

When asked about personal costs, Shipman is demure. “At the end of the day, no amount of difficulty or toughness . . . can even hold a candle to a week of what the civil rights folks went through or what a human rights advocate for women in Saudi Arabia goes through, right? This is work to illuminate real struggle. This isn’t real struggle.”

He and his spouse, now an emergency medicine doctor (“I always lose the how-was-your-day game”), talk a lot about perspective. His own reflections include “Am I doing something meaningful today, have I connected in some way today?”

“I often remind myself that all of this may be about impacting one person who goes on to do this enormous good. It may not be about the building or 400,000 people a year . . . It may be that the next Gandhi comes through, right, when she’s 12, changes her direction, and that’s it.”

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