The Dorothy Cotton Institute is a project of the Center for Transformative Action.

The Dorothy Cotton Institute was first conceived in 2007 by Dorothy and a small group of her colleagues. Originally envisioned as a Dorothy Cotton Fellowship, this idea quickly expanded to imagining a small independent institute offering popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation.

Given our desire to bring Dorothy’s legacy of civil rights leadership into our work, we began by working on a vision, values and mission focused through the wider lens of global human rights. One of our goals was to develop a curriculum to facilitate the integration of human rights education throughout our public schools and teach education programs. We visited a number of museums and institutes in other states, dedicated to the history and pursuit of civil and human rights. We did an environmental scan of other organizations with similar missions, but found that there are few if any in the Northeastern region. We want to offer inspiring interactive exhibits about past and current civil and human rights struggles, movements and campaigns, as well as education and training that encourage leadership, scholarship and active engagement. We learned of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota and made a strong connection with their director Kristie Rudelius Palmer and lead curriculum developer, Natela Jordan, both fierce advocates for global human rights education and training. They invited us to a training workshop in Minneapolis, and we quickly developed a partnership with them. We brought them to Ithaca and introduce their training and curriculum, This Is My Home (TIMH), to teams of public school educators and youth workers. So it was that in 2010 we began offering TIMH as our first programming in human rights education, and since then, we have had over 400 teachers, students, community educators and activists participate and use the TIMH toolkit and lesson plans with their students and colleagues, and to consider developing their buildings as Human Rights Friendly Schools.

Working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for eight years during the Freedom Movement, Dorothy F. Cotton led countless sessions of a courageous 5-day popular education intensive called the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) for thousands of activists throughout all of the southern states. DCI has adapted the original design for relevance to contemporary activists. Read more about human rights education and the CEP…(Read more at: dci-human-rights-citizenship-education-program.

We envision the full realization of a just and peaceful beloved community in which all people understand, respect, protect and exercise full human rights. We believe that with a global community of human rights leadership, and a well-informed, inspired and motivated population, in the United States and elsewhere, the goal of human rights for all can be achieved.

Our Mission:

  • To develop, nurture and train leaders for a global human rights movement
  • To build a network and community of civil and human rights leadership
  • To explore, share and promote practices that transform individuals and communities, opening new pathways to peace, justice and healing.

DCI Overview (powerpoint)


Dorothy Cotton is one of the most important unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and her accomplishments are a testament to the essential but often overlooked role of women in that and other liberation struggles. As Education Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) her leadership contributed significantly to a movement that has altered the course of social and political life in the United States and transformed the place of African Americans and all people of color in civic engagement and leadership.

The Citizenship Education Program (CEP) led by Dorothy Cotton (with a team including Andrew Young, Bernice Robinson, Ben Mack, Victoria Gray Adams BJ Johnson, Annell Ponder and Septima Clark), was a critical component of the SCLC’s overall organizing strategy. The CEP helped ordinary people identify what was intolerable in their circumstances, envision the changes they desired, learn their civil rights, prepare for democratic engagement, and craft courageous strategies for organizing communities and speaking truth to power. It fostered the transformation of often poorly educated and disenfranchised people from “victims” to full “citizens.” The victories won as a result of this work and the systemic and social changes attained through the growing power of the African American electorate and its emerging leadership ultimately led to state and federal protections against discrimination in voting, access to public accommodations, housing and employment throughout the nation.

Ms. Cotton’s lifework – based on the philosophy and practices of nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development – offers valuable models for human rights education, practice, and leadership, upon which the Dorothy Cotton Institute will build.


The Dorothy Cotton Institute builds on four major opportunities in securing full human rights for all:

The world-wide economic and environmental crises have made the imperatives for change more visible than ever; large numbers of people are open to – and even eager for – new solutions that can offer hope and a sense of belonging to a diverse global community.

There is more widespread activity to achieve human rights and sustainability than at any time in history, yet these efforts are largely disconnected. Integrating these disparate efforts into a popular movement on a global scale is a critical element of successfully addressing many of the major issues facing humanity.

In the United States, human rights tend to be narrowly understood as voting rights, non-discrimination, free speech and freedom from torture. A full understanding must include the political, civil, economic, cultural, social and environmental and survival rights to which all people are also entitled under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Bringing the United States back into alliance with the global community will better enable our nation and its citizens to secure and exercise full human rights here at home and to provide credible, effective global leadership. When people are equipped with a working knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as global citizens, they have critical tools with which to insist on a just and life-sustaining political, environmental, economic and social landscape.

The links between academically-based human rights education and practice on the ground can be strengthened, so that law, theory, the best practices of veteran activists and the lessons learned in past struggles are preserved, taught and adapted to the needs of current situations. It is now more possible than ever to create diverse learning communities, to gather and organize the lessons from contemporary social change efforts, and to share them widely with current and developing leaders so that the most promising, tested strategies may be applied to their own efforts to claim and realize full human rights.