From Soap to Civil Rights

“When you open your eyes, what do you see? What events in your life can you use to inspire hope in the world? Mine has been a very simple thing. Soap.”   – Derreck Kayongo, TED Talk, May 2014

On December 4, The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Inc. in downtown Atlanta announced a new chief executive officer: Derreck Kayongo, a 45-year-old former refugee from Uganda. If you have a chance to hear him personally tell his story, take it.

As a child, Kayongo found inspiration in watching his parents reinvent themselves – working from being teachers to being entrepreneurs. But, everything changed when civil war broke out during the Idi Amin regime and Kayongo and his family were forced to become refugees in Kenya. His parents became teachers once again.

Kayongo immigrated to the U.S. several years later as an international student in 1995. Having lived in extremely unsanitary conditions in Kenya and having witnessed the fatal diseases too often associated with those conditions, Kayongo was struck by the bounty – and waste – of soap in the hotel industry in the United States. The American hotel industry throws away 800 million bars of soap a year – that’s 2.6 million bars a day.

Of the 2.4 million children that die globally due to lack of hygiene and sanitation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 47 percent of these deaths could be prevented if soap was made available to them. Kayongo came up with the idea for The Global Soap Project during one of his first stays at an American hotel. He and his wife, Sarah, founded the non-governmental organization (NGO) to repurpose partially used soap from hotels into new soap for vulnerable populations that do not have access to basic necessities – including disaster victims, refugees, the homeless, and mothers and children living in extreme poverty. Partners in 32 countries now receive clean soap, which has been collected, cleaned, broken down and reformed into clean bars.

Kayongo is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a U.S. citizen who has been recognized with a multitude of honors and awards for his work, including CNN’s Top 10 Heroes award, the Maxx Entrepreneurship Award, the Certificate of Congressional Recognition by Congressman John Lewis and accolades from Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In expressing gratitude for CNN’s Heroes award in 2011, he encouraged others to offer inspiration: “Every single day you have the opportunity to do something heroic for another person, to make their life a little bit better than it was before. Please apply your talents and passion and you will be rewarded.”

Kayongo is a natural choice as the leader for The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Inc. whose mission is to empower people to take the protection of every human’s rights personally. We are proud that Derreck Kayongo now calls Georgia home