Join Rashad Robinson, leader of the largest online civil rights organization in the United States, as he lays out what’s needed to take a moment of possibility into a movement for systems change. You’ll be riveted by Rashad’s descriptions of how Color Of Change has built the political infrastructure to successfully take on big corporations like FaceBook and others to challenge hate speech and more.
Color Of Change is driven by 7 million members who are building power for Black communities. The organization uses innovative strategies to bring about systems change in the industries that affect Black people’s lives: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, corporate board rooms, local prosecutor offices, state capitol buildings and city halls around the country. colorofchange.org
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Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves presented by INTER-CONNECTED. I’m Mallika Dutt. In today’s episode were speaking with the brilliant and strategic Rashad Robinson from Color Of Change. The topic: Digital Organizing for Movement Building.
Mallika Dutt: I’m so delighted to welcome all of you incredible leaders from around the world to this first webinar that is part of the Interconnected Leadership Series for the BUILD community that is led by women leaders across the Global South and globally. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a while. We were supposed to start many months ago, and then of course the pandemic transformed all of our plans and we’ve all been doing quick pivots and adjusting. And I’m so happy to see all of you here. So as you know, today we’re going to be having a conversation with Rashad Robinson, who is the president of Color Of Change. Welcome Rashad, good morning from New York.
Rashad Robinson: Good morning.
Mallika Dutt: From one New Yorker to another. So Rashad, I met you many, many years ago when you were still at GLAAD. And then I watched you build Color Of Change into this incredible force of nature, this organization that has taken justice for Black people as sort of the wedge issue to challenge injustice across the entertainment industry and the criminal justice system and corporate America, most recently with Facebook and the tech industry overall. And really this ability to use technology, to use the digital space as a powerful organizing space is something that Color Of Change has been showing us how to do with great innovation, great creativity. And so I just want to start out with asking you to share where the impetus for really honing on this as your strategy came from and what are maybe two or three key things that you’ve learned along the way.
Rashad Robinson: Yeah. So first of all, it’s great to see you even by Zoom. Hopefully we’ll get to see each other in person at some point. And it’s great to be with so many incredible leaders from all of these places that I want to be right now and visit. And so I’m just sending so much love and appreciation for freedom fighters and people who are building to fight for justice and freedom and liberation and working to build a more human and less hostile world. And so first and foremost, just a lot of respect and appreciation. Color Of Change was founded in the aftermath of a flood, which was Hurricane Katrina. And it was caused by bad decision makers and it turned into a life-altering disaster by bad decision makers. And I explain the origin story because it really does animate sort of how we think about technology and how we think about digital sort of power.
And so Katrina happens, the levies break, the flood moves in, right? Katrina illustrates things that people already knew, right? Black people are on their roofs, begging for the government to do something and are literally left to die, literally left to die on camera. But the things that were illustrated, people already knew; geographic segregation, generational poverty, the impacts of what we’ve done to our planet, all of the ways in which structural racism undergirds those things, animates it, gives it power. And at the heart of that, no one was nervous about disappointing Black people. And so you’re asking me, so then how does that connect to the question? Right? And so it connects to the question is when no one’s nervous about disappointing your community, you have to figure out what is the infrastructure I build to make that possible. What is the infrastructure I do to channel this kind of outrage that people are having and the fact that people are giving to the Red Cross instead of working for a systemic change.
And so there was already… The United States is legendary for the sort of historic Black sort of political infrastructure, right? The legacy organizations that span now into a 100… A couple of them are 100 years old, right? And so there was a lot of organizations there, there was infrastructure, there were spokespeople, there were elected officials. Many people were speaking but they were not channeling that energy and that power into doing something. And the founders of Color Of Change at the time saw groups like MoveOn. Saw groups in the United States that were using digital technology, using digital tools and felt like there should be something here for Black folks that wasn’t just part of these other organizations but was owned and operated. And so a single email was sent out to about 1,000 people asking them to join a new movement for change and really focusing on what does it mean to channel that energy and direct it in places that can have strategic impact.
And so a couple of things that I think are important especially as you think about digital organizing, as you think about building power online is the first thing is, is that these tools and this technology will not save us. And that the tools and technology should be thought of as tools and technology. They’re not our strategy. The late Julian Bond, who was the former chairman of the NAACP and was one of the key leaders of something called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sometimes called SNCC. John Lewis who recently passed away was a leader of SNCC, folks like Diane Nash and others. And they were the student organizing sort of infrastructure during the 60s sit in, the lunch counter sit ins. And years and years ago as a young activist, Julian Bond told me this story that has stuck with me and really connects to why this sort of work is so important in terms of thinking about these things as tools is that back in the 60s, SNCC installed something called the WATS line in their Shaw University office.
And WATS was the precursor to the 1-800 number. It actually allowed people to call from long distance. And during the time when you had to call long distance, they would transfer your call from operator to operator. So if you call from Howard University in D.C. to Tuskegee University in Alabama, and those two university student groups wanted to talk, the call got transferred a couple of times. And at the time in the South, all of those operators were controlled by the White Citizens’ Council, the KKK. And for folks who live in other countries, you can probably think about how your ability to communicate might be compromised by forces who are sort of standing in their way. But they installed this WATS line and allowed them a more secure way to transfer information.
Rashad Robinson: The reason why I tell this story and why it’s important, if SNCC did not have a theory of change, if they did not have a power analysis, if they did not have people who were in motion ready to follow them and put their sort of bodies and their interest on the line to make something new and make something better, it wouldn’t have mattered what technology they had. And so part of what I constantly remind myself and remind my team is that the technology will not cover up a bad strategy. The technology will not cover up a plan that nobody wants to show up for. And so constantly recognizing in so many ways that presence and visibility and retweets and shout outs from the stage does not mean that we have power, power is power. And that in so many ways that we can’t cut corners and think that technology is going to fix those sort of cut corners.
Mallika Dutt: So that’s a really important reminder, right? That you have to have a theory of change. You have to have an analysis of power, you have to have a constituency that’s ready to mobilize itself and move forward. And that technology is not strategy. And I think we often make a lot of mistakes around just trying to get as much presence online as we can without paying attention to some of these underlying things. I mean, the other dimension of this, Rashad is that even with technology, we’re often using the tools of the very system that we are trying to shift and change. And so there’s an even greater reliance on that technology now that we’re in the midst of this pandemic. We’re watching the tech giants amass power in sort of an unprecedented way.
And so there’s that paradox, right? That we’re also constantly dealing with around using the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house, if you will, With a nod to Audre Lorde at this moment. So I’m just curious about how you might describe perhaps the Facebook campaign or another one of the campaigns that you’re currently deeply engaged in that is dealing with this paradox of the master’s tools as we pivot in this pandemic to being even more reliant on technology and the digital space than ever before?
Rashad Robinson: Yeah. I mean, the technology that can bring us into the future has so much potential to drag us into the past. And it’s important that we recognize that these platforms are incentivized to make money first and foremost. And money and growth will always supersede security, integrity and safety. And so as long as we go in knowing that, then we have to build sort of our infrastructure to both use those platforms and hold those platforms accountable but that’s no different than what we’ve got to do with mainstream media. Sometimes I go on a cable news station and sometimes we are running a campaign against the cable news station. And that actually has to be the thing because if we mistake presence for power, we think we’ve done something that we haven’t done. We think a Black president means that we’re post-racial.
America loves and monetizes and celebrates Black culture and exports Black culture in a lot of ways. And if we mistake presence for power, we can think that America’s love for Black culture means that America loves Black people and America can hate Black people and love Black culture at the same time. And so an example of sort of how all that happened is right in the start of the pandemic, as people were having to figure out how they were going to work and how they were going to sort of engage with their sort of day to day. If you were lucky and privileged enough to be able to transfer your offline work to online space, you were probably using this very platform at times, Zoom.
And so Zoom was this platform that sort of all of a sudden got to win the marketplace because they were there in this moment. And people started getting on Zoom and White nationalists started organizing in other spaces and taking over Zoom meetings, taking over sort of Zoom meetings from like a young Black PhD candidate with his grandmother and his mother on, as he was giving his defense, Zoom meetings of something called the Daughters of the Movement, which was a group of Black women whose parents are folks like Malcolm X and Diahann Carroll and other sort of legendary leaders, Al Sharpton, and these women, Harry Belafonte’s daughter. These women get together and share stories and work to share sort of thinking with younger generations of folks. They took over there. They were taking over meetings everywhere.
We reached out to Zoom about sort of some of the security things. And Zoom started sending people this thing called “How to deal with party crashers”, right? As if White nationalists taking over your sort of Zoom space is a party crasher. It also speaks to the fact that they’d said right away, that when they built the platform, they never imagined that someone would want to interrupt someone’s Zoom gathering. And that only happens when you build a platform and you don’t have anybody that’s actually had to experience what it’s like for someone to want to disrupt your space, to want to occupy and challenge your ability to gather and to convene. Right? So once again, these technologies are built without us. And so then they can’t possibly fully serve us because they are built with a whole set of assumptions about how people gather, how people engage, how people connect and build community. Black church gatherings were sort of interrupted.
We started to see other groups of color. We started seeing LGBT and queer groups in the US have their staff meetings disrupted with the most hateful and homophobic sort of commentary. And I’m not sure how much of it happened internationally but we had to launch a campaign against Zoom. And we had to make some really clear demands. And some of the steps that you all had to take even to get into this meeting are a result of our campaign. Some of the new sort of security framework, some of the end-to-end encryption that’s there. The new chief diversity officer at Zoom is a direct result of both the outside campaign that we led against Zoom but also the inside meetings we had with zoom leadership as we channeled for them how we were going to escalate the campaign, if they didn’t take on some sort of new things, the sort of market- based work we had to do with reaching out to products that weren’t as good at Google and Microsoft and other places but having to create some potential worry that we were going to talk about them as good or help them get better.
All of these things from my perspective were about dealing with a very clear moment that we were having that if you are a woman, if you are Black, if you’re queer, if you’re at the intersection, if you’re a person of color, you’re already dealing with a whole set of barriers to your full participation. You’re already dealing with a deeper level of impacts of COVID. And then we had this other cultural sort of barrier where people just in their day to day, just trying to show up, were being challenged. I mean, whether it’s Facebook and the White nationalists, whether it’s Zoom, whether it’s Twitter. And we’ve had meetings at the highest levels at all these places. What I end up getting and what I end up seeing sort of at a regular basis is these companies that have this very sort of libertarian view about how their platforms are supposed to protect civil rights and human rights.
And we have to change that perspective. And it’s sometimes the way that capitalism can operate that folks don’t believe that they have to protect those states. And that is why civil society organizations, groups that are building power, groups that are creating consequences, groups to that perspective of Katrina, making those in power nervous about disappointing us.
Mallika Dutt: So Rashad, one of the things that you say that really resonates so much with me is don’t chase the plane, land it, right? So basically let’s not be organizers that are always kind of trying to run after things but let’s be really strategic in what we want and think through the campaign strategy so that we actually land the plane where we want it to land. Yeah? So I just was wondering if you could move a little bit into talking about strategies to build power and constituency being primarily digital entities. So the role of local constituency, national constituency, global constituency and constituency building is work in and of itself.
And I’m wondering if you might layer your response with some understanding and analysis of what’s happening with the uprising right now. We’re also in the middle of the Movement for Black Lives, demonstrating some incredible organizing power in the United States. We’re in the middle of the Democratic National Convention. We’re watching the impact of all of this organizing playing out and how the DNC is even presenting itself. So if you would share some of the ways in which you have really built power, really built constituency and what some of the lessons might be around that, I think that would be incredibly helpful.
Rashad Robinson: So I’m going to share two slides that I think have helped give some visual sort of representation because I learn in many different ways. And I’m assuming that other folks might take in information in different ways. And so… Am I shared?
Mallika Dutt: Yes.
Rashad Robinson: All right. So we have built this sort of strategy, respond, build, pivot, and scale. And why that’s important is because social media, the internet can get you into whack-a-mole right? There is a game at the Carnival or the Fair in United States. Well, I’m not sure if it’s other places, whack-a- mole, where something pops up, you have a hammer and you hit it down and something else pops up and you hit it down. The goal is to hit down as many of these things as possible. But you never stop them from popping up fully. Right? And so what could end up happening is you could just sort of chase after things as Mallika said, or you could just be in this perpetual sort of ambulance chasing.
And so yes, we have to respond to these moments that are happening in the world and give people very clear things to do but then we have to build energy. And then we have to find the systemic pivot, that pivot where our energy targeted at the right place and the right place is important. And that is where organizing, analysis, research, all of that stuff comes into play. You can’t just do digital organizing and think you don’t need the other things that organizing requires in order to win. And the pivot is about how do I direct energy? And a lot of things I see online in social media is oftentimes ignoring this pivot or ignoring power, right? I will see campaigns that say, “Tell Donald Trump to stand up for the rights of Black people.” And I’m like, “There’s no petition that’s going to get Donald Trump to stand up for the rights of Black people. Why are we even wasting people’s time having them sign that petition.” Right?
There’s all sorts of ways. Maybe we pivot to a corporation that says they care about Black people and is now in relationship with Donald Trump. Maybe we find a way to hit at another enabler. But figuring out what is the power analysis, and then trying to scale that power over time. So you’re dealing not just with that individual moment but you’re dealing with the systems. And so how this sort of plays itself out, how this plays itself out, and I’m going to just walk quickly through this sort of graphic that illustrates some of the work we did around Trayvon Martin. And Color Of Change is structured in a way where we have a political arm, a nonpolitical arm and all that. And so I’m showing you a graphic that’s from our more nonpolitical side to keep everyone in right relationship.
Mallika Dutt: A little bit of context for Trayvon Martin, just because we have…
Rashad Robinson: I am. Yeah. That’s what I’m going to do. Yeah. Yeah. So Trayvon Martin was a young man, a high schooler in Sanford, Florida. He was followed by a local kind of security guard that I guess thought of himself as a security guard. But really I think wasn’t employed by anyone as a security guard by the name of George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. And George Zimmerman used this sort of defense that was on the books that sort of allowed for people to say that they were in danger. But Zimmerman followed Trayvon in a neighborhood where Trayvon lived.
The story was originally the death of Trayvon was originally suppressed by the local folks but it kind of got out. And in some ways, Trayvon Martin’s story animated what we think of as this modern civil rights movement around Black Lives Matter when George Zimmerman was acquitted. That is when Alicia Garza posted Black Lives Matter on Facebook, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi helped to amplify it and really helped to sort of channel energy over these past sort of seven plus years as more and more people have sort of aligned around the symbol of Black Lives Matter and build infrastructure around it for Trayvon Martin, right?
And then we have this thing called voter ID laws. And voter ID laws started really popping up back in 2010, the right-wing made this whole sort of claim that many people are voting illegally. 2010 was the first election after the first Black president was elected. And so all of a sudden now there was all this sort of illegal voting happening. They couldn’t prove it. They couldn’t prove that there was voter fraud. But they started putting in ID requirements in places around the country. But they narrowly tailored the IDs that you could use. So in a place like Texas, they said you could vote with your gun license but not your student ID. And so if you owned a gun, you could vote but not if you had a student ID.
And so they were tailoring it to try to prevent many people from voting and particularly people from voting that might vote for more progressive, might have voted for Barack Obama. And so we recognized. And so we are an organization that is racial justice. So these IDs are popping up. And we’re like, what do we do about these IDs? I started talking to lawyers and other people. I look at the framework. In a lot of the places where these IDs were passing, sort of the government who was passing it in the states and municipalities, they were not going to listen to a Black organization. If Black organizations mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and said, “You’re trying to make it harder for us to vote.” They would have said, “You are absolutely right.”
Rashad Robinson: And it was like basically, that’s what they were trying to do. So we realized we had no leverage, no theory of change, even though we could have probably written some really powerful petitions and sent them out and had people click and be outraged, and maybe even grown our list, we wouldn’t have actually had any power or leverage. I think that’s really important because that’s the sort of first way people go. They’re like, “The governor is about to sign this. Let’s do a bunch of petitions to get the governor stopped.” But we knew that the governor was intent because the governor’s, this was not about changing the governor’s mind. This was about power. And they knew they had to hold onto power as demographics were shifting in the country. They had seen it firsthand, a Black president. They were like, “If we don’t stop this now, they’re going to be like Black people and women and people of color leading all this stuff and we have to stop this.”
So we started out this thing and we found out about this organization called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. We had never really heard that much about ALEC. They’re behind the scenes. They’re not on TV. But what ALEC does in the United States, is they bring corporations together and they bring state legislators together, and then they write these pieces of legislation at these conferences, secret conferences, and then they bring this legislation to the states and they introduce it and they pass it. Basically legislation that the corporations want but the corporations don’t want their name on. The corporations don’t want to be the face of it. So ALEC becomes the face of it.
ALEC had gotten so good that the state legislators basically would sometimes bring the bills from the conference and forget to take the ALEC logo off the top of the page and the bill would still pass. So they got so good and this is how corporate power… This is complicated. Right? This documentary is on ALEC. Right? But this is actually more real than going after the governor. And so now I’m at a digital climate where you’ve got 140 characters sometimes. Do I want to ask people to do the thing that’s easy and clickable, or do I want to help people win? And I’ve got to try to figure out how to make that happen. Right?
And so we recognized that this was not going to be a thing that happens overnight. And this I think is the important thing about digital organizing. Yes, there’s rapid response aspects but we knew that we had to build a long-term campaign if there was actually going to be power to win. And so we then reached out. We started looking into ALEC and we found out that 98% of ALEC’s money came from corporations. Corporations who every single day came to Black communities to say, “Buy our products and use our services.” We picked about 15 of the 150 corporations that were sponsoring ALEC. And we picked the 15 big ones. We picked the corporations that sponsor Black History Month, that sponsor stuff on Black radio and Black TV stations. And we sent them letters, explaining what was going on and telling them that we would like them to pull out of ALEC.
We also went out to our membership of about 700,000 people at the time. We’re about eight million now but about 750,000 at the time. And we said, “Stop corporate funded voter suppression.” But we didn’t name the corporations. We explained what was happening. We explained that this is group ALEC that takes corporate money. But what we did was we tried to create leverage. We basically wanted these corporations to see that they had a chance. That either they could pull back or they could keep going but we weren’t going to stop. And so the corporations started getting on the phone with us to have a conversation. And we would get on the phone with them and they would say, “We give a little to the left and we give a little to the right.” And we’d say, “That’s great but there’s not two sides to Black people voting.” This is not a two side issue. So you’re going to have to figure out what you’re going to do.
Rashad Robinson: By the time we’d get to the final thing, the corporation would put their senior level Black person on the phone with me. And that person would talk about voting with their grandfather and how they would never want to work someplace that prevented Black people from voting. And I would talk about voting with my grandfather and let them know that they were working someplace that was stopping Black people from voting. And at each point, we were trying to channel for them what a public campaign would look like. And so we kept moving this campaign. And then we got a break. Pepsi decided that they no longer wanted to go back and forth with us. And they wanted to pull out.
There’s a history of sort of racist imagery that sort of is not just in America, but around the world when I travel particularly sort of minstrel, dark sort of Blackface imagery. And Pepsi owns a product in the United States called Aunt Jemima syrup. And it’s not well known. They own Quaker and Quaker owns Aunt Jemima. And so we did a mock-up where we sent it to Pepsi, where Pepsi was being accused of stopping Aunt Jemima from voting. And we sent it to Pepsi and said, “This might be a way in which we go after you publicly.” Pepsi sent their lawyers and said, “This was trademark infringement.” But also at the same time they left ALEC. And so we’re like, “Well, that was it.” Because I mean, we didn’t really have money to run a bunch of billboards. So we had money for the graphic design and it was really good graphic design.
And so Pepsi left. And so what happens when Pepsi leaves, right? You’re like, “Well maybe Coca-Cola could be my next target.” But in between that happening, Trayvon Martin is killed in Sanford, Florida. And we are mobilizing. And George Zimmerman, the guy who kills him is using this defense called stand-your-ground. And we’re wondering where stand-your-ground comes from. And we find out, stand-your-ground just like the voter ID laws comes from ALEC. The NRA and the gun lobby wrote this law to help sell more guns. And they pushed it into 26 States. And that’s why we have it. And so now, right? This is really important for anyone who does organizing, right? Because this respond, build, pivot is about recognizing energy. And we have to try to recognize when was the right time to pivot our energy. When was the right time to help people know that we were going to pivot from justice for Trayvon. Because we’re now demanding justice for Trayvon. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed this petition.
People are mobilized. We are registering people to vote. We’re going after stand-your-ground laws. But each day I come into the office, I’m like, “Are we ready to pivot to ALEC. Are we ready to make the big reveal?” And my staff is like, “No. No. No. We have to keep moving on justice.” And I’m like, “Are we ready for the pivot?” I always want to pivot quickly and this is why it’s important to have a team. And so your team is saying, “No. The people are not ready. We’re not sensing yet.” And so at a certain point, we all got aligned that it was time to pivot. And we pivoted to Coca-Cola and we sent Coca-Cola a mock-up of how we would go out to their membership about their role in ALEC.
We focused on both voter ID and probably more on Trayvon because people were out in the streets. And we sent a link to a website that was not public. And we sent a link to all those things and let them know about how we would engage our members. And we sent it to the Coca-Cola leadership and said, “You have 48 hours.” And in 48 hours, we’re going to go public. And 48 hours passed and Coca-Cola did nothing but we knew they were talking inside. And I think in
some ways they were trying to figure out… I’m 5′ 3″.You can’t see that now. And so I learned very early on that you don’t make threats if you’re not willing to back them up in some way. Or if you’re not willing to deal with the consequences, if someone calls you on that threat.
Rashad Robinson: And so the whole time we are feverishly working. I’m working to be like, “Hopefully they fold, but if they don’t fold we actually have to be ready to do the thing we said we’re going to do.” Otherwise you don’t get to make those threats again. And so it happens. We have hundreds of thousands of people that have signed each of these petitions. And I know this is going to be different for different folks. But I just want to say that they never knew how many total people we had. Because what we did was, we got some numbers at Coca-Cola. And over the course of the first five hours of that first day, we started sending emails to batches of 300 of those people with the phone numbers, asking them to call.
So we didn’t send it to everyone. We wanted to flood them for days, not for a day. We wanted to be able to go as long as possible. We wanted to create enough of a storm. We also released this media stuff. I said five hours because five hours into that, Coca-Cola called us and said, “Please stop this. We’re leaving ALEC.” The only way they could have left ALEC is if they had already gotten the stuff together. And we’re just seeing if we actually could do the thing we said we were going to do. And then over the course of the next several weeks, many different corporations started to leave. I remember going on a national TV channel on MSNBC. And they were like, “Kraft, just released a statement saying they’re going to stay with ALEC.”
And I was like, “Kraft is our next target.” And my staff is watching like, “Kraft really wasn’t our next target but thanks Rashad.” But by the next morning, Kraft had decided that they were going to leave. And we had created this firestorm. Also what’s important is we create a center of gravity around, “This is the next corporation. This is the next corporation.” But other folks started to jump in. People on social media started to jump in. It created a distributed environment. It didn’t mean that we had to control everything but we got to direct it. And so corporation after corporation started to leave. About 15 corporations in, McDonald’s said that we were lying, that they were not a member of ALEC and that we were defaming them. It was actually like a very… And this is always important in politics because you never know who your friends are going to be.
There was a very well-placed Democratic operative who called me, who worked on the political side of McDonald’s. And they said to me, “You guys are in big trouble.” And at the time, Color of Change was much smaller. We were like seven staffers. So I’m nervous. But I’m going to keep it calm. I’ve emailed the staff. I’m like, “McDonald’s is saying X, Y, and Z.” The staff’s like, “Well, that’s great because we have this letter from McDonald’s saying they give to both sides. They give a little to the left and they give a little to the right and it’s on McDonald’s stationery.” And McDonald’s unfortunately had went out to the press already saying that they weren’t part of ALEC. We have this letter on their stationery signed by their chief global diversity officer, sent it.
And actually, in some ways, this is also why all that lead up, right? All that research, all that backing. If you’re going up against powerful forces, they’re going to not let you win just because you have Twitter and Facebook. They’re going to face you down. And at some point, ALEC hired Edelman PR, which is a big PR firm in the United States that works with celebrities and corporations and everything. And they started placing and pitching all these stories to try to, I don’t know, make me and my dimples angry Black man in the media and trying to create all of
this analysis. They had this conservative writer, Michelle Malkin write this story that I was secretly tied to like Obama and Saul Alinsky and all these people. As I was reading it, I was like, “Wow, they’ve gotten me a lot cooler and a lot more connected than I’d ever been.”
Rashad Robinson: But all of that to say, we kept that campaign going and we also had to try many different tactics. We had our members take over the social media pages of some corporations. We showed up to shareholder meetings. We made very interesting tactics. If McDonald’s left ALEC, then we went after Wendy’s next or Burger King next. We kept thinking about how do we create a storm that’s of inevitability. At some point, ALEC decided enough is enough. We are going to stop our work on voter ID and on stand-your-ground laws. And they decided to make a big announcement. And the TV came and they were like asking us questions. And I was like, “This is great but ALEC actually has to figure out how to pay reparations for what they’ve done.” This is going out in the water and spilling a bunch of oil, getting caught and saying, “I won’t spill any more oil.” But not telling us how you’re going to clean it up.
And so we’re going to keep going. The campaign ended after we had got over 100 corporations to divest from ALEC. We left them with a budget shortfall of millions of dollars. We forced them to end those committees working on those two laws, we helped beat back various legislation in states on other issues because we had weakened them. And then we also made them close down the swanky offices they had in the nation’s Capitol D.C. and move out to Virginia to smaller digs. In the course of all of that, also opening up space to win some battles around stand-your-ground in a couple of states and helping to create a narrative with our legal friends around the impacts of voter ID and a narrative impact.
All of that right, is part of how you can take these respond moments, right? These moments where you’re responding to crisis, you’re trying to build energy to create pressure. You are forcing that pivot on systems. And then you’re scaling that over time to hit the whole system. And so we knew that it wasn’t just about the laws that impacted Trayvon. We knew it was about a media culture. And in the process, we worked to launch a media division in Hollywood to really focus on the representations of Black people, knowing that George Zimmerman was able to pull on the sort of ways in which Black people were portrayed and seen. All of this right, is organizing. It’s building power. But the tools allowed us to do things that we would have never have been able to do. It allowed us to move people in big numbers in ways that we couldn’t do. It allowed us to get creative in ways that we would never do.
And we’ve just continued to build on that over the years, whether it’s taking on folks like Bill O’Reilly and getting him kicked off of Fox News. He was a really horrible racist host on Fox News. Moving studios in Hollywood to cancel TV shows that took on our communities. Engaging around the corporate enablers of Donald Trump and shutting down things like his business council where business leaders would show up to The White House and work with him and then try to come back to our communities and work with us. And then the final thing I’ll just say about all this is that shortly after Charlottesville, we forced all of the major credit card companies to stop processing fees for White nationalist groups. So you could go to a White nationalist website and you could put your credit card number or your PayPal number in and donate money for them to get buses.
And we built out this campaign called No Blood Money. And once again, corporations would say things to us like they couldn’t do anything. The credit card company said, “No. That’s an issue of
the banks.” The banks would say, “That’s an issue with the credit card companies.” And once Charlottesville happened and we mobilized members and we gave them 48 hours and we had the momentum behind us, suddenly they were sending us lists of credit card… They were sending us lists of White nationalists that they were no longer going to allow to use their platform. No law had changed. No sort of banking law or credit card law had changed, even though they told us they couldn’t do it before. That is why it’s so important that power is at the heart of what we make possible and what we allow to be acceptable.
Mallika Dutt: Wow. Can everybody take a deep breath and let’s just digest that incredible elucidating of a pretty powerful theory of change. I mean, just following what you’ve been laying out, even in terms of just thinking about the theory of change, that Color of Change operates through and really keeping an eye on systems change, understanding that making the Black communities the center of your organizing, not only makes things possible for that community but actually acts as a doorway for opening things up for marginalized communities across the board, the distinctions that are made around strategy and tactics and how you’ve really got to be watching the moments to figure out when you pivot so that you actually build a movement.
There’s just so much you’ve just shared with us in that example. And what I’m going to do is open it up to the community now to either share their stories or to ask clarifying questions. Let’s just see where this conversation goes because I just feel like we’ve put out so much rich material that it might be time now to actually start digesting some of it. So Rashad from that incredible journey that you’ve just taken all of us on from you’re responding to something but then you’re building around it. You’re not just being in response mode. So you’re not just staying in a chase it mode. You’re actually take that moment of a response. And then you start building a campaign, a strategy, a storyline, power, constituency and really using your research abilities to understand what it is that you’re building around. Right?
And then you keep watching for the additional moments that come up so that you can keep making the pivots that you need. So you go from a particular kind of response to understanding that you can now actually go after this particular corporation or this particular entity, or go bigger or go public or whatever it is that the pivot needs you to do in that moment. And you use all of these moments to pivot to see how you can keep building scale so that it isn’t just about getting one or two companies to get out of ALEC or one or two companies to stop portraying racist storylines. It’s really looking at how do you pivot so you can scale? How do you actually get a system change happening in all of these organizations that perpetuate the norms, that perpetuate the values, that perpetuate the power structures that keep Black people and other groups marginalized.
Yeah. So I’m just taking a moment to tease out the theory of change and the process of campaign creation that you laid out with so much incredible complexity and beauty in what you just shared, just so I can make sure that we’re all following the narrative arc of what you laid out for us in terms of how you can actually build a campaign that lands the plane. Right? And also the distinctions that you’re making around when a lot of noise is necessary, when a lot of threats of public noise are necessary, whether it’s through multiple people in social media space or using the media to tell the story, versus when you’re being much more razor sharp and incisive around just going after Coca-Cola and saying, “Okay. We’re going to flood you with 100 letters right now.” And so even making the distinctions about sort of when you take out the big sword to chop off people’s head and when you just need a little dagger.
Mallika Dutt: And I apologize for the weapon analogies that I’m using here in terms of decision making around strategy. So I really want to make sure that people sort of are understanding the narrative arc and then as well as the specific incisive moment. And so one of the things that I think is a really important question that’s coming in from Jess is, when you’re moving that fast and you’re having to make these pivot decisions, how are you then keeping coalition partners or other people who are part of whatever it is that you’re trying to do engaged, in partnership, right? Because you could be having lots of differences around when pivot moments need to happen, but you get the question. So how do you stay in partnership at scale while being able to be quick and nimble and responsive to what’s happening at a particular moment?
Rashad Robinson: That’s a really great question. It’s really where the art comes in. It’s like there’s a difference between arts and science, right? And it’s always complicated. But I guess the short answer to that is that from the ALEC campaign perspective, I will say that there were a lot of organizations that cared about fighting ALEC. They all were really focused at protesting in front of ALEC’s offices and sneaking into ALEC’s conferences. There was one group called the Center for Media and Democracy that did this work where they got a dump of all of the ALEC documents. And there would have been no way we could have put together our campaigns if Lisa Graves, the leader of that organization wasn’t such a generous leader. And didn’t create space for us to have the information, really help us digest it as a campaign organization and not a research organization.
But for the most part, at that point and in a lot of these campaigns, what ends up happening is a lot of people have a strategy. And we got some jokes when we said we were going after Coca- Cola. “You guys are… You think you’re going to go after…” I mean, it was like one of those things where like… And so we didn’t have to deal with coalition partners in a deep way until we got to the third or fourth corporation, then everyone wants to jump in. And then people wanted to take on corporations that weren’t the most strategic next corporations. And we had to have some really sharp elbows. Many of the organizations that jumped in were not Black led organizations, they were not organizations that were even led by communities of color. Anytime a group that was led by communities of color got into the campaign, they were always coming in to support us. Most of the deep, progressive organizations like MoveOn and others were getting in and following our leadership.
But then there were like a lot of main line sort of left of center organizations that many of them had raised a lot of money over the years to take on ALEC. And now there was this little scrappy Black organization at the time on TV taking on ALEC and their board of directors and their funders were like, “Why am I giving you a lot of money to take on ALEC?” And so we started seeing all these random press releases coming up that made no sense with people talking about ALEC and new ALEC stuff. And we’re like, “What are you…” And so if I’m being really honest, I had to start treating some of those organizations like I treated some of the corporations. Meaning that I would send them a letter laying out what they were doing was a mistake and letting them know how I might have to talk about that publicly.
I didn’t go after them publicly. And thankfully they all saw the writing on the wall but it was a really tough period of time where we were being accused of all sorts of things while we were winning a campaign that they had been funded for for 10 years. And I will say that some of this is about knowing your leverage. These corporations were never going to listen to groups that
came at them saying they were left groups. They were going to listen to groups that were women groups or queer groups or Black groups. They were going to listen to groups that represent a constituency that the corporation was trying… They were going to listen to a moral authority, not political authority.
Rashad Robinson: And so we leveraged moral authority and we always said, “This is not about left or right but about right or wrong.” And we would say that over and over again. We would say things like, “You can’t come for Black folks money by day and take away our vote by night.” I would say it so often that there’ll be times where journalists would call us and they would say things like… “I would finish the interview.” And they’re like, “Well, what about that thing about the night and the day, can you just say it. I need you to say it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, bla, bla bla…” So I would say it so they would have it for the article and it appeared so much. Right? I like to think of myself as having enough words to say different things but at a certain point it was just message discipline.
And just getting on saying the same thing over and over again. And that was important. So we did have to deal with the coalition partners. Towards the middle of the campaign, once we got them in those two committees, we started opening up the space and letting other groups just do what they were going to do. Because ALEC took on a lot of issues that were not just… They were responsible for this sort of piece of legislation that started in Arizona but transferred to the rest of the country. And it was kind of the start of some of the most egregious immigration laws where people had to show their papers. They were behind a lot of the laws that prevented people from organizing in the workplace. They were behind a lot of the laws that created this sort of Flint water crisis and other water crises in the United States where people didn’t have access to clean waters in cities. So they were behind a lot of things and so a lot of groups.
But in the early days, we had a very clear strategy. We had mapped this out. We knew which brands we should go after first. And sometimes there would be big groups, like labor unions, where they would say, “We want to make this the next target.” And we’re like, “Why do you want make this the next target?” And like, “Because we have a labor dispute with them.” And we’re like, “Okay. I’m for your labor dispute. I’m with you.” But that’s actually not… You’re not going to like… AT&T is not going to crumble yet. AT&T can’t be the third target, they’re too big. And maybe this just comes from once again being five, three and being like, “Okay. We can get them. This is how we get them. And this is how we get them but that one over there let’s leave them for a while. Let’s knock down all these other dominoes and maybe create some inevitability, maybe create a space where they will feel good about joining us because ALEC has lost so much money that they’re now weakened and they’re not as powerful.
And now they’re less useful to AT&T and we can get AT&T to leave in a different way. And so all of this right, was thinking about power. I will say things can move quickly after the fact but during the campaign it’s days in and days out. We debated for a couple of weeks about when to pivot. I was annoyed for a day or two. My staff was annoyed with me for a day or two. Now in retrospect as I look at the timeline, “Yeah. We did all that quickly.” But in some ways when you’re in the campaign, you’re… And especially when it’s a campaign that a lot of people are paying attention to, you are thinking, “Okay. When do I do this? When do I do this?” And so we were hitting pause a lot and checking things and double checking things because of all of that.
And so the coalition stuff is tricky but I will say like, once we started to win, we made sure that other organizations that got inside of the campaign… And here’s the other thing that I tried to do.
I tried to spread around the love. Right? And so groups that were really working with us well and supporting us, I couldn’t do all the media. And so people would reach out. I’m like, “No.” If like an outlet that appealed to a certain demographic, and we had a group that engaged with that demographic, we gave them space but kind of let them know that we’re giving it to them because they’ve been such good partners. And try to use what was the center of gravity we created to keep people on board.
Mallika Dutt: So thank you for all of that detail and nuance because I think for a lot of us as organizers, and you’re getting a heart flashing at you from Jess, which I hope you can see.
Rashad Robinson: I can see. Yes. Thank you.
Mallika Dutt: So the nuances of this really help us to start teasing out different ways in which this work can happen in different contexts and different countries. And so I just want to lift up a couple of comments and questions that are coming in in the chat. So Allyne from the Brazil Human Rights Fund is talking about how there are similarities and differences and how Black people are oppressed in Columbia, Brazil, South Africa, United States. And so there’s a lot of learning here even as we’re being very US specific in the examples. And she says that she thinks social media can be an important tool for coalition building. But before I have you actually address that, I want to weave in some more of the questions and the comments that are coming in because we don’t have a huge amount of time left. So I just want to make sure that we get all of these voices in.
And so Tarcila is in Peru and asking, how do we get the issues of Black and indigenous people to really resonate with broader civil society? Because civil society tends to think of those issues just as the issues of those people not as issues of the whole community. And that’s clearly been something that you’ve incorporated into your theory of change in a very specific way. So that’s something that if you could address. And then Edward is talking about the paradox of using these tools to do our work in a world of spin, right? Where lies and truths, and what’s real, and what’s not real kind of exist in this world where spinning and doctoring and narrative strategy is a huge tool for everybody to be used. And so in this current moment, where does movement building come in as sort of the overarching frame here?
Rashad Robinson: On the coalition building front, I think that… And on the fact that these tools are tricky and they’re not owned by us, I think all of this is something that we think about a lot. We think about what is the connection? How do we create connection and community? How do we create space for people to come together? And how do we think about that space as a vehicle for people to want to take action collectively? And yeah. And so we are doing base building work, right? We have an organizing team that in the old era was doing a lot of offline events with our membership. And in this current era is finding the ways in which we’re leveraging technology to still bring people together.
Because this is not just about sending out a bunch of petitions to folks and asking them to sign them and hoping that they sign them. It’s also about doing the listening about what are the
things that people care about the most? What are the things that are coming up for people? What are the things that people are outraged about? Because oftentimes those things are going to animate people. It also fits into this respond, build, pivot, scale thing, right? Because on the pivot front, we have a lot of long-term issues that we’re trying to work on. Criminal justice, the economy, voting rights, there’s a lot of long-term issues. But then there are all these egregious moments that happen in society. And part of the respond is how do we take that moment where maybe we have more people that care or are outraged than just our community? And how do we then channel that to say, “Take action on this.”
Rashad Robinson: Because the last thing you do in a moment like Trayvon Martin is say, “We need to reform the justice system.” Right? People want justice for Trayvon. But if you can help them recognize that the reason why we might not be getting justice for Trayvon, once we’ve got them on board is because of stand-your-ground laws. And because of these other things, then we can channel that energy. And so I would say it is about making those connections. The thing about getting people to care that don’t care. This is the thing that we think about all the time. And I kind of talked about it in the opening when I talked about no one being nervous about disappointing Black people during Hurricane Katrina. And I believe in humanity, I believe in the ability for us to find human connection but I also believe in power.
And I believe that systems will constantly realign. I believe that racism is like water pouring over the floor. It will always find the holes. It will always find the cracks. It will always find the places to leak through. And so in many ways, what we are trying to do here is force people to care. And not always forcing them to care from a heart space, recognizing that people have all sorts of sort of incentive structures in their own lives. And so creating consequences and thinking with each sort of target, what are the consequences that they care about? What do they care about? And so sometimes it’s like, “Wow, the CEO doesn’t care about this at all but they’ve got these three members of their board of directors who are out in the world pretending they are for all this stuff.”
Maybe we target them. Everything we’re trying to do is to create the space. And we do this exercise at our retreats where we put our target, the target of our campaign in a chair. And so someone will play the target. And they’ll sit in the chair and then other folks have to sort of do and say things that are going to make that person want to get up, make that person want to stand up. And what we’re trying to do, right, is to break the magical thinking that can sometimes happen when we build campaigns, where we think the messages that are compelling to us will be compelling to the people that we’re trying to move.
And it’s constantly recognizing that the people we’re trying to move, if the messages that were compelling to us… They would already be where we want them to be. And so we have to sort of jump in and think like, “Okay. They don’t really care about what we care about. So now I need to find a way to make them care.” And care might be even been the wrong word. I need to find a way to make them act. I need to make them do something because at the end of the day, if I leave it up to like… Because every single target that we have tells us in some way that they understand our point.
At the end of this ALEC campaign, I ended up meeting with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Their senior level Black people after the campaign was over, wanted to sit down and talk with me. And they were two great gentlemen. They give money to civil rights organizations. They’ve got kids. They are nice people. They could have been friends of mine in college. Right? And they each
went down about how much they agreed with our campaign. Now this is after the campaign is over because people will always agree with your fight for… People always agree with the forward movement of history after it’s over but weren’t there as it was happening. And so they said, they agreed with me. I mean, the McDonald’s people actually tried to give me a bunch of gift certificates for the staff. And I was like, if I bring this back to the staff, they might uprise on me. They’ve got like…
Mallika Dutt: Lighting a bonfire in the office.
Rashad Robinson: Yeah. They’ve got five other campaigns. But all to say is like, I think I hit all the questions but…
Mallika Dutt: Yeah. You do. And I actually want to just elicit a little bit more information about how did you get to eight million people in your constituency in the first week. What are the lessons that you learned about actually building that constituency upon? And then two, you now have your own studio where you actually make stuff, which is pretty damn incredible. So that requires resources. So in this crazy time that we’re living in, the whole question of resource mobilization to do this work and the depth and scale of the work that you’re describing obviously requires resources. I mean, you started out scrappy, you had some wins. Now you’re a much larger organization. You have four offices around the country. You’re hanging with the CEO, with mister Mark from Facebook and a whole bunch of other people and you’ve got your own studio. So some of the questions that have come in from folks in the chat have to do with money and constituency building. So insights with that…
Rashad Robinson: Yeah. I mean, and United States and United States capitalism is different. And so I’m in no way going to like… And some of this may not be useful. Some of it might be. When I took over Color Of Change nine years ago, we had a budget of a little over a half a million dollars. And we had a staff of about five and… I always say five and a half. Like, what’s the half? I’m like we had a half- time person. So we had five and a half full time staffers at Color Of Change. The only reason why they would have let me run Color Of Change was because it was small and scrappy and I’m small and scrappy. And they were like, “We’ll see if you can do this.” Right? And it was my first time being an ED. I think I was 30, 31 at the time. 31.
And all of that to say I took over the organization. And like a lot of things I had to like deal with like, “I got the organization.” Was like, “You have three months of salary in the bank.” And I think those moments are hard to fully remember because they were a while ago and so much has happened so quickly. But some things that we’ve really done and some things I think are really important is that I really focused on winning campaigns and really focused on leaning in to things that would be meaningful for people. And we tested a lot of different campaigns. And we had a diversity of campaigns even if at the time we couldn’t run a lot of campaigns the same time. And so I remember some early campaigns like Psychology Today, this magazine, wrote this article saying that Black women were scientifically less attractive than women of other races. And we took on Psychology Today and got people fired. Right?
But that endears you to a set of future constituencies that seeing you standing up in a way, sees that article happening feels like you’re on their side, right? People respond to different types of engagement. But if they see that I did that for them over here when I asked them to do something over here… Because I think it’s important that we recognize especially in the digital space, that people don’t experience issues, they experience life. That the things that hold us back are interrelated. We may have issues that are our most important issues but every day, people are just experiencing their life. And they’re not experts in this issue or that issue. And these things all crossover. Political inequality goes hand in hand with economic inequality, they all connect.
Rashad Robinson: And so finding the sort of vehicles that can sometimes be the key to unlocking people’s potential. I remember running this campaign on NBC because they had this guy that had this reality show once a week, who would go on and decide whether or not someone should be fired or not. And this guy was also running around the country saying that president Obama wasn’t a citizen. And when we launched that campaign, there were a lot of progressive groups that told me, “Why does Color Of Change care about this? This guy is a clown. Don’t Black people have more things to worry about?” And I was like, “We cannot allow NBC to give this guy a platform. It sets a standard.” Actually there was stuff on social media about Color Of Change trying to become too Hollywood under Rashad and all this stuff.
And then that guy, his name is Donald Trump. And everyone thought that he was just a clown and we should ignore him. And a lot of people did while NBC gave him a platform and made him real. But we took on all these campaigns. I think the other thing about growth, which I think is really important and really important from my perspective is that we constantly also grew into the things that people cared about. Right? So as the uprisings were happening in the country around Ferguson and after the killing of Mike Brown, some of these uprisings, what we were providing while people were in the street, we were listening and then we were providing the ways for people to direct their energy. So we went back to Ferguson and we mobilized, and we took out that district attorney that wouldn’t prosecute.
And so constantly trying to provide the very clear things. For us, the studio and all of this content is a recognition that we have to reach people at scale. We have to be able to tell our own stories. I’ll say the final thing about that is capitalism and corporate power has made us oftentimes try to fix people who are oppressed instead of fixing the systems that oppress people. Even in the words and how we talk about it. We will say things like Black people, and you probably have heard this in your own spaces, Black people are vulnerable, vulnerable communities. And I’m like, I can sometimes feel vulnerable when I go on social media and I see an ex that’s way too happy with his life. And I’ll be like, “That’s vulnerable. I need to work on myself. Maybe talk to my therapist.”
But Black people have been under attack. They have been targeted. We have been exploited. When you call Black people vulnerable, folks then try to fix Black people in their families instead of fixing the system that hurt us. We will hear people say things like, “Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank.” Instead of, “Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people.” We would hear people say, “Women are less likely to get hired in executive positions at corporations.” Instead of, “Corporations are less likely to hire women in these companies.” We end up not even saying what we mean. And then we make content that doesn’t actually make what we mean. And so what we end up doing, I think this is really important for those of us who are part of oppressed communities. We will have folks that come in with charity instead of structural change. Charitable solutions to structural change. They will do a service day at a failing inner city school instead of actually forcing corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. So we have schools that serve everyone.
Rashad Robinson: And so I say all that to say, the reason why we felt like we had to start creating our own content is because we’re challenging the content on the air and we’re building all sorts of campaigns. And if you go to our work at changehollywood.org, changehollywood.org is really where we’re doing a lot of the work around Hollywood, but we’re also trying to also create content of our own and trying to reach people. And there’s something called the Webby Awards, which is these awards for content online. And so for the first year last year we submitted five pieces of content that we had done and through our new studio and we got nominated for four awards and we won three awards.
And for a nonprofit, for a Black nonprofit, I find that really exciting and affirming but the thing about it that I think that’s important is that it’s authentic because what we are pushing out are the stories and the aspirations and the sort of things that we want to connect with people around and get people to move from caring to actually acting. And so, yeah, I mean, we’ve grown a lot but at the same time we may get invited over Mark Zuckerberg’s house to sit down and talk with him. The other thing that I think is that it… But we don’t take his money. And it’s been hard to turn down seven figures of money. But we didn’t take his money. And as a result, we’ve continued to run powerful campaigns and I’ve never worried. And so we don’t take corporate money and everyone can’t do that. And I’m not saying that. But I do think you have to think about how do you set yourself up where growth is important, where you could have more staff but it doesn’t change the DNA of why people want to be connected to you.
Mallika Dutt: That is a truly powerful place for us to end our time with you. So Rashad, thank you so, so much for being with us and for being our inaugural-
Rashad Robinson: Thank you.
Mallika Dutt: … webinars series.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD Program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at Mallikadutt.com.
For more episodes, please visit mallikadutt.com/podcast
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
Theme music from Mann ke Manjeeré: an album of women’s dreams, (c) Breakthrough 2000. Used with permission.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.