AC­TIVIST-IN-CHIEF

Fast Company - - Contents - By Adele Peters

Rashad Robinson’s civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, Color of Change, pres­sures com­pa­nies to take stances on so­cial is­sues.

When Paypal an­nounced that it would stop pro­cess­ing fund­ing to hate groups in the wake of the white na­tion­al­ist rally in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, it came af­ter months of be­hind-the-scenes con­ver­sa­tions with Rashad Robinson’s Color of Change. In April, his or­ga­ni­za­tion suc­cess­fully cam­paigned to get The O’reilly Fac­tor can­celed by ral­ly­ing em­ploy­ees of Fox and of the show’s ad­ver­tis­ers to pres­sure their com­pa­nies to take a stand against sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Robinson used sim­i­lar tac­tics to move com­pa­nies to with­draw spon­sor­ship from the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. Here, he talks about find­ing the right mo­ment to launch a cam­paign, the dif­fer­ence be­tween pres­ence and power on­line, and whether com­pa­nies have a con­science.

This past year seems to have marked a turn­ing point for com­pa­nies tak­ing a stance on is­sues. We’ve seen cor­po­rate lead­ers speak out for trans­gen­der rights, de­nounce the travel ban, and re­spond force­fully to the events in Char­lottesville. Do you see this as a sign that com­pa­nies are gen­uinely devel­op­ing a moral com­pass? Or are ac­tivists just be­com­ing more ef­fec­tive? I think this is a sign that peo­ple are hold­ing cor­po­ra­tions ac­count­able, and that cor­po­ra­tions are in­creas­ingly not just lis­ten­ing to con­sumers, but to their em­ploy­ees as well. It would be a mis­take to think that these com­pa­nies are ac­tu­ally wak­ing up and be­ing more al­tru­is­tic with­out forces on the out­side. That is not to say that there are not good peo­ple

that work in­side them. It just means they are there to make a profit. If we don’t push and press, we are not go­ing to get change. If com­pa­nies don’t view the com­mu­ni­ties that are mak­ing the de­mands as pow­er­ful, then they won’t do what we’re ask­ing them to do.

Af­ter Bill O’reilly’s neg­a­tive com­ments about Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Max­ine Waters in March, you re­launched your #Dro­por­eilly cam­paign—de­spite be­ing told it was a waste of time, and no amount of pub­lic pres­sure could change Fox News. What made you de­cide to push any­way? We never get into these cam­paigns think­ing that they’re a slam dunk. I re­mem­ber peo­ple laugh­ing at us when we started our cam­paign around ALEC [the se­cre­tive lob­by­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that pushed for Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was used to ac­quit the killer of un­armed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013]. They were say­ing, “Oh, you’re re­ally go­ing to get Coca-cola to leave ALEC?” Mak­ing change in­side of big in­sti­tu­tions is hard. But we’ve learned if you can build up enough en­ergy, make it im­por­tant to enough peo­ple, and cre­ate the right nar­ra­tive, that folks will fig­ure out how to make the change that you’re ask­ing for.

You were quick to har­ness the en­ergy and de­sire for ac­tivism that came out of Char­lottesville into a #Noblood­money so­cial me­dia cam­paign, along with a web­site that got con­sumers to press credit-card com­pa­nies to stop pro­cess­ing pay­ments to hate groups. How did you know the cam­paign would gain trac­tion? Like many or­ga­ni­za­tions, Color of Change put out a state­ment about Char­lottesville. But our most pow­er­ful state­ment was giv­ing peo­ple watch­ing the events some­thing clear and strate­gic to do. To say, “Hey, you are out­raged, you are sad­dened, you are frus­trated. And here is some­thing that you can ac­tu­ally do.” We didn’t have to cre­ate a mo­ment. In some ways it’s about find­ing the strate­gic av­enue and giv­ing peo­ple the abil­ity to feel use­ful, to feel like they make a dif­fer­ence. That is im­por­tant in a democ­racy. We are a black-led, black civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, but we are pow­ered by black peo­ple and their al­lies of ev­ery race.

Even as you en­gage the larger pub­lic, how much are you also work­ing be­hind the scenes with the com­pa­nies you are plan­ning to tar­get? Our goal is to get cor­po­ra­tions to do the right thing. So just hit­ting peo­ple out of the blue with a bunch of sig­na­tures and a pe­ti­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily good or­ga­niz­ing. Ninety-five per­cent of the time, we reach out to them be­fore go­ing pub­lic. We of­ten share with them the lan­guage, the vi­su­als that we’re plan­ning. We give them an op­por­tu­nity [to re­spond]. What of­ten hap­pens at these or­ga­ni­za­tions is that there are peo­ple in­side who are on our side, that are ar­gu­ing [our case to their col­leagues]. We want to make those peo­ple as pow­er­ful as pos­si­ble. Then at some point, if a cor­po­ra­tion doesn’t do what we’re ask­ing, we en­gage the pub­lic. What we want to make clear is that we didn’t just see what hap­pened in Char­lottesville and de­cide to at­tack credit-card com­pa­nies. No one at Master­card should have been sur­prised when it hap­pened. In fact, Master­card should have said, “Oh crap, we’ve been talk­ing with them since Fe­bru­ary.”

How do you use tech­nol­ogy and dig­i­tal tools to mo­bi­lize peo­ple on­line? We have this strat­egy of re­spond, build, pivot, and scale. Ev­ery day peo­ple are be­ing hit with all sorts of in­for­ma­tion that in­spires them, makes them an­gry, all sorts of things. But if we don’t give peo­ple some­thing to do in that mo­ment, they go back to do­ing what they were do­ing be­fore. So we [is­sue a call for them to] par­tic­i­pate. That’s the re­sponse. Next, we build mo­men­tum by bring­ing in al­lies, lever­ag­ing so­cial me­dia and in­flu­encers, and iden­ti­fy­ing re­search that we can ex­pand on ra­dio and TV. Then we have to find the sys­temic pivot, which is at the core of how we think about our­selves as an or­ga­ni­za­tion. We have a frame­work of not mis­tak­ing pres­ence for power. Pres­ence is vis­i­bil­ity, it’s aware­ness, it’s peo­ple pay­ing at­ten­tion, it’s retweets. Power is the abil­ity to change the rules. Some­times the rules are writ­ten—like the writ­ten rules of pol­icy—and some­times they’re the un­writ­ten rules of cul­ture. The pivot for us is about chang­ing the rules, chang­ing the sys­tem, chang­ing the way busi­ness is done. The fi­nal piece of this is scale— con­tin­u­ing to keep peo­ple en­gaged in hold­ing cor­po­ra­tions ac­count­able. Even as we move to the next cam­paign, we keep peo­ple ed­u­cated about how all these sys­tems are con­nected.

What have you ob­served about the tac­tics of white su­prem­a­cists? Are they be­com­ing more so­phis­ti­cated? From a mes­sag­ing per­spec­tive they’ve re­ally worked over the years to be less on-their­face threat­en­ing. The polo shirts and khakis. Even some of the vis­i­ble lead­ers of the alt-right, like Milo [Yiannopou­los], are openly gay. They also un­der­stand the or­ga­niz­ing [po­ten­tial] of chat rooms and those plat­forms that al­low them to rad­i­cal­ize, en­gage, and mo­bi­lize peo­ple. They use those tech­nolo­gies well. Quite frankly, they’ve built up enough so­phis­ti­ca­tion and power to make the pres­i­dent of the United States ner­vous about dis­ap­point­ing them.

But we need peo­ple to un­der­stand that racism and in­equal­ity and prej­u­dice are not just the car­i­ca­ture of tiki-torch rallies and an un­hinged pres­i­dent. They’re also about the struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that hap­pen ev­ery sin­gle day. And the fear is that [the al­tright] has moved the bar so far out of the main­stream [that it’s easy] to think, Well I’m not like that, so I’m not racist, I’m not par­tic­i­pat­ing in racist sys­tems. That’s why our cam­paigns are not go­ing af­ter the racists and the KKK and the Nazis. It’s im­por­tant to go af­ter the in­sti­tu­tions that oc­cupy the main­stream and make racism pos­si­ble.

“IT’S IM­POR­TANT TO GO AF­TER THE IN­STI­TU­TIONS THAT OC­CUPY THE MAIN­STREAM AND MAKE RACISM POS­SI­BLE.”

Be­fore join­ing Color of Change, you over­saw me­dia strat­egy at GLAAD and fo­cused on chang­ing the way LGBT peo­ple are rep­re­sented on tele­vi­sion. When you took over Color of Change six years ago, you tried to launch a cam­paign against Don­ald Trump—and NBC’S Celebrity Ap­pren­tice. I did. I could get no sup­port. Color of Change was much smaller when I took over. Part of the deal, when they hired me from GLAAD, was that they would do more cul­tural ad­vo­cacy work. Don­ald Trump was on Celebrity Ap­pren­tice, he was go­ing af­ter [Pres­i­dent Obama] with con­spir­acy the­o­ries and racist rants about the pres­i­dent’s her­itage. I was like, This is a per­fect cam­paign. We built it out, but we needed more al­lies be­cause we were go­ing af­ter NBC. To a per­son, across the move­ment, at or­ga­ni­za­tions that we reg­u­larly work with now, peo­ple were like, “He’s a clown, just ig­nore him.” I knew, from my time at GLAAD, the power of me­dia to set the wheels in so­ci­ety and the rules of what’s ac­cept­able and what’s not. And al­low­ing Don­ald Trump to be seen as a smart, ca­pa­ble busi­ness­man who each week showed up on TV to make de­ci­sions, while he was say­ing these other things, was not some­thing that we should have let stand. Now that he’s pres­i­dent, it is in­ter­est­ing to [think of] this mo­ment, [when] we could have all gone in, to re­ally put him away.

What else did you learn from work­ing on LGBT is­sues that you’ve taken to Color of Change? When we picked up the phone at GLAAD and called peo­ple, when we were con­cerned [about what their com­pa­nies were do­ing], in­sti­tu­tions were ner­vous about dis­ap­point­ing us. When Color of Change was founded [in 2005 by James Rucker and Van Jones], no one was ner­vous about dis­ap­point­ing black peo­ple. That was at the heart of black peo­ple be­ing on their roofs [in New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Katrina], beg­ging for the gov­ern­ment to do some­thing, and lit­er­ally be­ing left to die. In­sti­tu­tions were not ner­vous. So [I think about], how do you build power that forces de­ci­sion mak­ers to be ner­vous? How do I build the type of power for black com­mu­ni­ties that makes for real change?

“AL­LOW­ING DON­ALD TRUMP TO BE SEEN AS A CA­PA­BLE BUSI­NESS­MAN WHILE HE WAS SAY­ING THESE OTHER THINGS [ABOUT OBAMA] WAS NOT SOME­THING THAT WE SHOULD HAVE LET STAND.”

Color of Change ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Robinson has made a ca­reer of per­suad­ing me­dia to re­think its por­trayal of un­der­rep­re­sented groups.

Color of Change used the out­rage over the vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville this past Au­gust to pres­sure cred­it­card com­pa­nies to dis­avow white na­tion­al­ist groups.

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