In February, 2020, Road Scholar will launch our inaugural Civil Rights Conference in Montgomery, Alabama. We will welcome expert civil rights speakers, including Bryan Stevenson, civil rights attorney, activist and founder and of the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as more than 100 Road Scholars from across the U.S. eager to learn about civil rights history. 

Elaine Chu, Program Development & Special Projects Director at Road Scholar, has been at the forefront of developing this exceptional new conference program. She takes us behind the scenes in the Trip Lab to share with us how this civil rights conference program came to be.

What sparked the idea for this conference program?

JoAnn Bell, our Senior Vice President of Programs, heard from industry colleagues about a conference in Montgomery that showcased Montgomery’s civil rights history. They spoke about how inspirational the learning experience was. And we had heard such moving testimonials from Road Scholars who had been impacted by our popular “On the Road” civil rights program. It’s a topic that is so relevant today. Adding up those indicators, we thought an intensive conference program with a focus on civil right history could be immensely impactful for our participants.

Tell us a little bit about the process of creating this program. Where do you start with something like this? How did you choose the location?

This program was specifically designed with the civil rights in Montgomery theme. The city is considered to be the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. That focused the “where” and “what” for us. In addition to its history, the Legacy Museum and Memorial that opened just one year ago has made it imperative to visit Montgomery. In this case, I started by reaching out to the state and city entities to assist in introducing us to all the right people.

How do you determine the format?

A conference program, by nature, has a higher concentration of lectures than other Road Scholar program formats. I think about how to balance the lectures with field trips so that we give the background education and reinforce it through personally visiting the actual places and having direct contact with the locals. And then, there is building an experiential pyramid, so that the right information is provided at the right time and the experiences build upon each other. Then, of course, there are limitations as to how one moves through a program based on the driving times, the number of participants, the day of the week and the business hours of museums, etc. These all shape the specific program operation because we have to move through the world, the world does not revolve around us.

Which aspects of the program have you experienced so far, in the process of creating it?

When I create a program, I try to experience every single aspect of it. You can’t know if you don’t go. I spent a week in Montgomery to set up this program. I kept asking myself “how did I not know all this?” I realized that as a child of the 1960s, these events were not in my history books. We never studied civil rights. I’ve lived my entire life in northern US states, and, honestly, there is so much going on in the world, it wasn’t a topic that I really had a personal connection to, beyond media snippets and headlines.

Being there, learning the details, hearing the stories from the activists personally — it all made me understand how real and relevant these topics still are today. I understand now that everyone has a role and responsibility to uphold civil rights for all Americans every day. It’s not a battle that was fought and won in 1968. It’s still going on today, and we all play a part in making it a reality in our country. I don’t see things the same as I did before. It was a truly transformation experience for me, and I hope that every participant who goes on this program will feel the same.  

How has this process impacted you?

Hearing the personal stories of individuals who lived the events themselves was by far the most moving experience, and I think that is what will really impact the participants as well.

Participants will meet Carolyn MicKinstry, bombing survivor and author of “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement,” in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the bombing actually took place. And on Day 6, before we go to Selma the next day, we have a special presentation by Sheyann Webb-Christburg, author of “Selma, Lord, Selma.” Known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Smallest Freedom Fighter,” Sheyann Webb-Christburg attended her first civil rights meeting as a nine-year-old. Two months later, she marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, and was among the protesters beaten and gassed with tear gas on Bloody Sunday. We’ll hear how Sheyann’s life experiences led her to work with underprivileged youth in programs aimed at building self-confidence.

Meeting people like Sheyann and Carolyn, who are both warm, caring, compassionate people, and hearing their stories left an impression on me that will never go away.

Why is it important to offer a program like this?

The key people who were there in the 1960s are growing older. The time is very limited for us to meet them face to face, shake their hands, give them a hug and hear their stories from them, and not from a video. The amazing thing about Road Scholar is that we have a lot of great programs where you learn about some place new. Then we have a lot of great programs where you learn some thing new. Then, we have programs that are transformational — experiences that are combined with education that could possibly change us in unexpected ways. That’s what this is.

Aside from meeting foot soldiers from the civil rights movement, what other highlights of the program are you most excited about?

One of the most special events of this conference, is that Bryan Stevenson will be our keynote speaker. Bryan Stevenson is a public interest lawyer and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others. He has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts and led the creation of the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. A documentary "True Justice: Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality" premieres June 26, 2019 on HBO. In January, 2020, the film “Just Mercy” about Mr. Stevenson’s experiences and a case of a condemned death row prisoner whom he fought to free, will be released just two weeks before our program. We are incredibly thrilled and fortunate that Mr. Stevenson has chosen to be a part of our program. 

Join us in Montgomery, Alabama for our inaugural Civil Rights Conference Program.


Meet the Trip Lab’s Elaine Chu | Road Scholar Class of ‘04

Designing outside the box educational experiences is not just a job for Elaine, it’s who she is. Elaine worked as a professional Group Leader for 28 years before she started designing programs. This year, she celebrates 15 years with Road Scholar. Though she started her career leading and designing international programs, as the Program Development & Special Projects Director, Elaine now draws on various aspects of culture, the local social scene, natural beauty or historical events in the U.S. that make each learning destination unique. “As I make my way around more of this vast country,” she says “I am often astonished by all of the amazing details that form the building blocks of America.”


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