Volunteer Spotlight: Rita Laws
Rita Laws was born in Chicago, IL and grew up in a suburban town about 30 miles south of downtown Chicago. She was the youngest of three children, one sister and one brother. She studied nursing and spent 18 years working at hospitals in psychiatry and management. After getting her Master’s in Nursing Administration, she spent the remaining years of her career working with clinical information systems and project management. She retired in August, 2014.
Q: What inspired you to volunteer at The Center?
A: As I was nearing retirement last year, I knew I wanted to do some volunteer work. I did a lot of soul-searching to understand my passions as they existed at that time. I narrowed it down to two: the elderly and civil rights. The elderly because of my background in nursing, dealing with the elderly over the years, and having elderly people in my life. As I was beginning to research opportunities with the elderly, the issues of voting rights and women’s rights seemed to be growing across the country, increasing my interest in getting involved. At the same time, I was reading more and more about The Center for Civil and Human Rights opening in Atlanta. I checked the website and signed up for Volunteer training. The rest is history!
Q: What was your perception of The Center prior to visiting and how has your perception changed since your experience at The Center?
A: My perception of The Center prior to visiting came totally from the newspaper and the website. I knew it was of interest to me because of the focus and my continuing interest in civil and human rights. I did not have a sense of what a very powerful experience it was going to be. We had a brief tour the night of my Volunteer training. I was absolutely blown away and wanted more time to read and experience! I brought a friend visiting from Raleigh to The Center the following week. We spent several hours taking in everything we could and talking to the staff. From then on, I knew it was not just another museum of interest. It was an extraordinary museum!
Q: What has been your most inspiring moment during you time at The Center?
A: It happened about a month ago. I was volunteering in the Civil Rights galleries when a group of young students started going through the exhibits. There were two little girls, probably 10 or 11 years old, and one of their group leaders standing by the exhibit of the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. I walked up to them and they immediately started asking me questions, good questions, and talking about their reactions to and feelings about what they were learning. They asked me to go with them through the remaining Civil Rights galleries and, of course, I did so. The dialogue with these two girls was amazing. They read the biographies of the SNCC members and were interested in what they were doing now. They recognized a few of the people from seeing them on television and commented on the fact they had been involved in the movement so many years ago. We continued through the remaining galleries and they never stopped reading and talking about what they were seeing. I was sorry to see them leave to go to Human Rights. They were truly inspirational in their interest and their quest for knowledge and understanding! They could easily be the civil rights leaders of the future.
Q: What is your favorite exhibit and why?
A: Wow, there are so many powerful exhibits it is hard to select just one. Walking through all the exhibits in my head as I sit here, I would have to say The March on Washington. Although many bad things happened after the March, it is such a visual and powerful statement of what could be and what should be. People of different backgrounds and races coming together and standing arm in arm to show the world. The history of the March and the people on the walls, the speeches and the music are all so incredibly powerful. It makes me wish I could have been a part of it and it gives me hope for the future.
Q: What do you enjoy most about interacting with visitors of The Center?
A: Hearing their reactions to what they have seen and experienced during their visit. Finding out what country or city they are from and how they heard about The Center. Hearing about Civil Rights Museums they have been to in other US cities and hearing there is no comparison to this one. Hearing the emotion in their voices and to listen to the stories they tell of their experiences from many years ago. Having them say they are speechless about the powerfulness of the exhibits and the museum. Having them say “Thank You” to me on their way out, as if I had anything to do with it, just because they had to say Thank You to someone and I happened to be there sitting at the desk.
Q: If you could spend time with any leader featured in The Center, who would you choose and why?
A: Hands down it would be Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a woman ahead of her time, in a lot of respects, in her advocacy and activism in the United States and around the world. She had the so-called “bully pulpit” through the presidency of her husband and she used it. The plaque by her portrait in Human Rights says she was an advocate for women, minorities, and the poor. All of these continue to be issues today. I would love to hear her perspective about where we are today and what we need to do about it. We need a renewed jumpstart and I’m sure she could provide it. Every time I volunteer in Human Rights I read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights several times. I’m struck by the simplicity of the statements and their forthrightness and that it has been so very hard, if not impossible, for us to universally accept them, support them, and live by them around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the year I was born. That is an awfully long time to make it right.