Q&A with New National Civil Rights Museum President 

Terri Lee Freeman talks about her former role at the Community Foundation.

When long-time National Civil Rights Museum President Beverly Robertson ends her 16-year tenure this fall, she's leaving big shoes to fill. But after a seven-month search, the museum's board has selected the woman they believe can meet that challenge.

click to enlarge flyby_terrileefreeman.jpg

Her name is Terri Lee Freeman, and she's spent the past 18 years running the Washington, D.C.-based Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, a public foundation serving the District of Columbia metro area.

Freeman focused her time at the Community Foundation on helping to provide economic stability for the region's residents. She started a successful September 11th fund for victims of the attack on the Pentagon, and she led a series studying the impact of race on education.

She paid her first visit to the National Civil Rights Museum shortly after the grand reopening following the $27.5 million renovation.

"I come from a town where there are a lot of museums. I've never had the experience of being physically moved by a museum like I was the first time I came here," Freeman said. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: How did your role at the Community Foundation prepare you for this?

Freeman: Part of what I did at the Community Foundation was to create an agenda around issues of economic security for folks in the metropolitan Washington region. I'm not fully aware of the stats around Memphis' community yet. But I have a feeling that they aren't that different from what we see in metropolitan Washington, where we have a bit of a gap between those who have and those who don't.

The current-day civil rights issues stem around education, economic justice, and voting rights. We want to use this beautiful asset of a museum to elevate that conversation. Part of what I did while I was at the Community Foundation was to raise a dialogue on issues related to economic injustices and racial injustices.

At the Community Foundation, you led a series called "Putting Race on the Table." Can you tell me about it?

We looked at issues affecting the achievement gap in metropolitan Washington. We knew the achievement issues were falling on race and ethnicity. Those brown and black kids were not doing well, whereas the white kids and the Asian kids were. We wanted to find out what was going on, and we wanted to talk about it from a national perspective and bring it down to a local level. It lead to us creating a council that looks at education from preschool all the way through college.

And you also started a September 11th fund?

We worked in collaboration with a private foundation to establish a survivor's fund at the Community Foundation. We were able to put some monies in trusts for educational purposes for some of the youngest survivors whose parents perished in the incident. We ended up distributing between $25 million or $26 million to hundreds of individuals, from those who were in the Pentagon or those who were related to people who were on the plane, to those who were first responders and those who worked for the airline.

What are your initial goals for the museum?

My immediate goals are to meet the team and get to know who they are and what they do, to get to know the board and hear about their priorities for the organization, and to get to know the community. I have been in one place for more than 30 years. I have to learn a whole new place to call home. If I came here and said, I have a 10-point strategy of what I want to do, you should be wondering what's going on.

What role does the Civil Rights Museum play in current-day civil rights struggles for LGBT equality and immigrant rights?

I was really happy to see those pieces incorporated into the museum's [redesign]. Civil rights are civil rights, and while it was racial in the time the museum's history covers, the gender, culture, and sexual orientation issues that have cropped up are really important, and they are teaching moments. Ultimately, as you look at civil and human rights, which is what the museum is all about, it's the human-ness that we are trying to convey. I think for young people now, however it comes to them, the connection between what that movement did in the '50s and '60s and how people can mobilize and organize and be proactive in protecting their rights is important.


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