For more than 30 years, Deborah Richardson has led nonprofit organizations in advancing transformational social change. She is currently Executive Director of the ACLU Colorado, the state’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. She is the first African American to lead the 70-year-old Affiliate. She has served as Executive Vice President of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta) and Founding Director of its International Human Trafficking Institute; Chief Program Officer, Women’s Funding Network (San Francisco); Chief Executive Officer, Atlanta Women’s Foundation; Founding Executive Director, Fulton County Juvenile Justice Fund (now YouthSpark); Director of Program Development and Evaluation, Fulton County Juvenile Court; Managing Director, National Black Arts Festival; and Branch Director, Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.
As a trailblazer, Richardson founded the International Human Trafficking Institute of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; created, Angela’s House, the first safe house, east of the Mississippi, for sexually exploited girls; and opened the first night shelter and transition home for unhoused women and children in Atlanta.
Her early socio-economic environment and parent role-models informed Deborah’s commitment and path for social justice. Raised in the historic African American middle-class community of Collier Heights, Deborah was surrounded by neighbors who were civil rights icons, professionals, and everyday folks as foot soldiers of the movement, including her parents. “Based on what I experienced for the first fourteen years of my life, I thought all adults were “in the Movement.” Her own engagement began when her parents “volunteered” her to be among the first Black students to integrate Atlanta Public Schools. “Over the course of one weekend, my life was removed from a nurturing environment of adults and lifetime friends to a place where I was directly and indirectly excluded. Every day I came home and begged my parents to bring me back to my neighborhood school. Each day, they had the same response “Deborah, this is not about you, this is about something bigger than you.” That was the foundation from which Richardson has built a lifetime of activism committed to creating the Beloved Community: “a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.”
Richardson is a nationally recognized expert in identifying and dismantling gender and racial injustices. She testified before Congress, advised advocates and elected officials in creating, enacting, and implementing local, state, and federal public policy reform. She was convenor of numerous multi-sector coalitions of grass top, and grassroots groups demonstrating her belief that “in order to advance social change, those most impacted, must have seat at the table.” During her first year as ACLU of Colorado’s Executive Director, she launched a series of statewide listening tours called Expanding the Table for Justice to hear firsthand what issues are of concern to Coloradans, and how ACLU Colorado may address them. The data collected informs the Affiliate’s three-year strategic plan.
Deborah served on the founding team of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (The Center) in Atlanta. Opened in 2014, The Center is the only public institution which displays the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Papers, and interactive exhibits showcases the stories of everyday people engaged in the American Civil Rights Movement and created a footprint that continues to inform modern day movements for global human rights. Richardson led The Center’s $100 million dollars capital campaign and created its community outreach, issue-based programming, and Power to Inspire, The Center’s signature annual recognition of local, national, and global change agents. Previous awardees include: Estela Barnes de Carlotto, Sherrilyn Iffel, Johnathan Greenblatt, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Vernon Jordan, Kerry Kennedy, Hon. Andrew Young, Alina Diaz, Mari Copeny, and Dr. Denis Mukwege. In 2021, Deborah was the 2021 Power to Inspire recipient
Under The Center, Richardson founded the International Human Trafficking Institute (IHTI) in 2014. Her commitment to ending sexual and labor exploitation of children and youth began in 2000 during her tenure as Director of Program Development of Fulton County Juvenile Court. She was among the first advocates to identify this as both a global and local illegal activity and spearheaded the coalition which fought for the passage of the state of Georgia’s first legislation making pimping and pandering a child a felony. During her tenure at the Women’s Funding Network, in 2010 she testified before House Judiciary Committee against Craigslist Adult Services site, which was generating more than $30 million dollars per month advertising and facilitating online transactions selling minors for illegal sexual services. Her testimony, among others led to the shut-down of the site.
In preparation for the 2019 Super Bowl hosted in Atlanta, IHTI launched the “Human Traffick Proof the ATL” campaign. Deborah convened more than two hundred multi-sector stakeholders representing private, public, faith, and community-based partners to commit to a three-year strategy to address strategies to address the socio-economic conditions of vulnerable children, and interrupt market demand for those buying and selling children for exploitation. In partnership with the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, she coordinated efforts to train 50,000 volunteers to “learn something, see something, do something” to end child and labor exploitation. She also lobbied local elected officials and police departments in metro Atlanta jurisdictions to implement sting and deterrent arrests for buyers of sex with young children leading up to and during the sporting event.
At the Women’s Funding Network, Richardson coordinated programmatic and funding investments, advocacy campaigns, and technical assistance to over 110 women’s funds on six continents. She oversaw over $20 million dollars in strategies advancing women economic security, ending violence against women, supporting women leadership, and developing emerging philanthropists. She chaired the planning and implementation of Salzburg Global Seminar, Session 465, Smart Change: Investing in Women and Girls- Leveraging Philanthropy for Global led the Women’s Funding Network’s delegation to the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace, and Security in Monrovia Liberia, co-convened by Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) and Tarja Halonen (Finland).
Deborah is a noted public speaker and scholar-activist. She delivered the commencement address for St. Mary’s College of California School of Graduate and Professional Studies and the University of Georgia School of Social Work; Keynote during the Association for Women's Rights in Development ( AWID ) in Cape Town, South Africa; Lecturer in Education for Sustainability and Human Rights for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) at Kennesaw State University; and the Alonzo F. and Norris B. Herndon Human Rights Expert in Residence at Georgia State University Honors College. Richardson co-authored “Ending Sex Trafficking of Children in Atlanta”.
Recognitions for her work and commitment to social change include a number of awards: Power to Inspire, National Center for Civil and Human Rights; Liberty Bell, Atlanta Bar Association; Grassroots Justice, Georgia Justice Project; Community Service, Spelman College Board of Trustees; Unsung Hero, Atlanta Regional Commission; Beloved Community, Spelman College Social Justice Institute; Trailblazer, The Links Incorporated; Deborah Richardson Day Proclamation, Atlanta City Council; Pathbreaker, Shared Hope USA; Voice For Children, Georgia Voice for Children; and Lives of Commitment, Auburn Theological Seminary.
Deborah is a doctoral candidate at Union Institute & University in Public Policy and Social Change, with specializations in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Women and Gender studies. Richardson holds an M.A. in Leadership (Organizational Development) from St. Mary’s College of California, a B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Women Studies from Georgia State University, and Certificate in Performance Measurement in the Nonprofit Sector from Harvard University, John Kennedy School of Government.
My mission is to leave the world better than I found it.