Color of Change, which James Rucker and Van Jones founded in 2005, is a Black-led online racial justice organization with more than 1 million members.
Named the sixth-most innovative company in the world by Fast Company in 2015, with Rashad Robinson currently at the helm, the organization has moved its members to fight racism and injustice through initiatives as varied as net neutrality, support of the DACA program, and calling attention to the dearth of African-Americans as decision makers in the entertainment industry.
Windy City Times: Talk about Color of Change.
Rashad Robinson: Color of Change is a 21st-century racial-justice organization, founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina … literally when Black people were demanding the government do something and they were left to die. Color of Change works to channel the presence that Black people have in the world into the power to make real change. Going back to that Katrina moment, no one was nervous about disappointing Black people. In so many ways, our work is about forcing decision makers to be accountable.
WCT: How did you become involved?
RR: I came in contact with Color of Change during my time as the head of programs and advocacy at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ( GLAAD ). At GLAAD, I would often see stuff in the media or in my work where I was like, "If that was gay we would stop it, but it's Black." I would often reach out to folks in the civil rights space and the folks at Color of Change would always respond. After a number of those exchanges, their ED at the time and the founders were very much like, "We'd love it if you would consider coming on." I took over as executive director in 2011.
WCT: I want to go back to what you said earlier, about how institutions and corporations just aren't nervous about disappointing Black people. How do you think the way activism uses technology, like the power of Black Twitter for example, has started to change that view?
RR: I think Black Twitter and all these tools are really helpful, though technology for Black activism isn't new. I remember this amazing story the late Julian Bondwho was the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC )told me, about how SNCC installed a wide area telephone service ( WATS ) line in their Shaw University office. WATS was the precursor to the 1-800 number. It allowed them to make direct long-distance calls because, at the time, the phone operators in the south were largely controlled by the White Citizens' Councils. Long-distance calls would be regularly intercepted: if you called from Howard University to Tuskegee about a sit-in, people would be listening in on your call. And WATS fixed a lot of those problems.
RR: But WATS wasn't their theory of change, WATS would not have made their movement stronger if they hadn't had a strong strategy. I think social media and technology can be very helpful in helping us amplify, but it sometimes can make us mistake presence, visibility and retweets for power. We have these moments on social media where we force someone to do something but we actually don't change the rules. We may win something episodic, but we're almost playing whack-a-mole at the carnival and we're no better off.
WCT: You're all about changing structural policy, so how does the organization decide to take on an issue?
RR: We have a lot of ongoing issues and, as a member-led organization, we both poll our members on what they care about and we use a lot of tech and data to react to what people are responding to. Sometimes people say they care about a certain set of policies, but when put before them, they don't respond to them as much as other things. We try to help our members respond to issues they care about, but in the most strategic way.
If people say that they want to help end mass incarceration, we try to find the right set of campaigns to bring that energy into systemic change, [like] a fight to end money bail and to change the practices of district attorneys in order to have a long-term, positive impact in that space.
WCT: Tell us about the organization's work weakening the American Legislative Exchange Council ( ALEC ). I think a lot of people aren't even familiar with ALEC and how it shapes policy.
RR: ALEC is a 40+-year-old organization co-founded by the same guy who founded the Heritage Foundation. You don't really see the people from ALEC on TV, even on FOX News debating. That's why I say you can't confuse presence for power. ALEC is not very visible. Basically, ALEC brings corporations and state legislators together behind the scenes to craft legislation that the state legislators go back home, introduce and work to pass. ALEC has become so successful that some state legislators introduce laws and forget to take the ALEC logo off the top of the page and it would still pass.
WCT: That's so horrifying.
RR: We really learned about ALEC when those discriminatory voter ID laws were popping up around the country, like the ones that say you can vote with your gun license but not your student ID. We knew that in the states where they were being introduced, they were being passed and put forward by Tea Party state legislators and it was their intention to keep Black people from voting … and young people, and immigrants and senior citizens and a host of other folks.
WCT: Obviously, the feature and not the bug...
RR: Well, we found out that this law was written by ALEC at one of their meetings and that 98 percent of ALEC's money came from corporations. Corporationswho every single day came to our community and said, "Buy our products and services,"were behind this organization, which was essentially making it harder for us to vote. We decided to launch a public campaign, "Stop corporate-funded voter suppression," but didn't name any corporations. Then we communicated behind the scenes with the corporations. We would send letters, get on the phone, they'd say, "We give a little on the left and a little on the right," and we'd say, "That's great, but there's not two sides to Black people voting." By the end of the conversation, they would dedicate their senior-level Black person to being on the phone with us…
WCT: There's always one.
RR: There's always one, right?
We had some corporations that pulled out behind the scenes, but while that was going on, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin happened. Our organization jumped in, supported hoodie rallies around the country, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitionsit was a huge effort by Color of Change. Then we found out that Stand Your Ground was an ALEC law written by Walmart, the largest seller of guns, and passed in states around the country. At that time, we escalated. We gave some corporations 48 hours, we began to move our members into more public engagement. We stopped the behind the scenes conversations and we were quite successful in channeling the energy of people who were outraged about voter ID laws and what happened to Trayvon.
[More than] 100 corporations have left ALEC. We left them with a $1.4-million budget shortfall, they had to end their committees working on those policies, and they had to close down their swanky office in D.C. and move to smaller digs in Virginia.
WCT: I've been following Color of Change for a long time and it's been interesting to see the organization's foresight into what could be an even bigger problem laterwhether it's net neutrality then and right now, or Trump then and right now.
RR: My first campaign at Color of Change was back when [Trump] was on Celebrity Apprentice. We tried to get NBC to end that show while he was going around doing his birther rant. It was a racist conspiracy theory about President Obama he was running around the country with, while simultaneously being given this huge platform on TV by NBC. A platform to decide who gets to stay and who gets to leave, being positioned as a smart, savvy businessman. We heard from many different activists and other organizations, "You guys should really concentrate on more serious stuff; don't you guys have better things to care about?"
WCT: Well, it's serious now, isn't it?
RR: And then, net neutrality. We are an organization that was actually founded on a single email in the aftermath of a flood. Our ability to be powerful, to have our information seen and heard, to be able to push back against powerful corporations and not have the content that we're moving blocked, has relied on an open internet.
RR: I also think about an open internet in so many different ways. In a country where Black people and women don't own media outlets, the internet has provided a tool for us to be able to make our voices heard. I remember when I was at GLAAD back in 2007/2008, at the rise of the gay blogosphere where you had all of these LGBT folks, many of whom would never have gotten on mainstream media at the time, building their own platforms where people could follow them. The internetwhether it is from a democracy perspective and making our voices heard, whether it is from a commerce perspective allowing people to compete in a marketplace that has kept them outhas been a tool that's allowed many people to rise. It's a powerful tool, and that's why corporations want to control it.
WCT: It's been astounding to me that some people still see racial justice, economic empowerment and LGBT equality as completely separate issues. Where do you see the intersectionality of Black and LGBT people coming into play moving forward within Color of Change?
RR: It is who we are in our DNA. As an openly gay Black man running the organization, with a staff and membership that are incredibly diverse, my job is to not think about allyship, but to think about solidarity. To recognize that if I'm fighting for all Black people, that Black people are many things: they're LGBT, they are immigrants, they are Muslim… When these issues come up, I don't think about it as, "Color of Change is siding on allyship," I think about it as Color of Change is standing up for an aspect of the Black community.
WCT: What would you say is next for you?
RR: The big thing is the 2018 elections. We will continue to be focused on district attorney elections around the country and channeling energy into getting better decision makers for Black people. We don't think about candidate first, we think about issue first. We think about building Black independent political power. That means beyond any political party, we're working to put people in office that we can hold accountable, that are going to work to make our community better.
Learn more about Color of Change at colorofchange.org .