Robinson’s civil rights nonprofit is pushing companies to get on the right side of history—whether or not they’re ready.
Color of Change president Rashad Robinson mobilizes his nonprofit’s 7 million members for change. [Photo: Dee Dwyer]
BY WESLEY LOWERY LONG READADVERTISEMENTADVERTISEMENTADVERTISEMENT
Rashad Robinson was on a zoom call with his staff in June when he got the news.ADVERTISEMENT
The TV show Cops, a mainstay of American culture for 32 years, the foundation for decades of ride-along-with-the-police programming that deifies law enforcement, was going off the air. It was a major moment in television history, and one that, for many, seemed to have materialized out of thin air—a knee-jerk response to the racial politics of the moment. In reality, it was the culmination of a seven-year-long campaign by Robinson and Color of Change, the civil rights organization that he helms.
Color of Change had long viewed Cops as blatant public relations for law enforcement that reinforced racial stereotypes—and that was beamed directly into millions of living rooms each week. In 2013, in the wake of the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both unarmed Black teens, and outrage over police stop-and-frisk enforcement in New York City and elsewhere, the nonprofit launched a social media campaign calling on Fox, the show’s then distributor, not to renew it. Next came a petition, targeting Fox executives and advertisers. Then came the meetings with network execs. A protest outside of Fox’s L.A. studios was in the works when the network suddenly announced, in May 2013, that it would no longer air the show. But Cops had staying power, soon landing at Spike TV (now the Paramount Network). It would take another half decade of public and private pressure by Color of Change—along with the racial reckoning brought on this summer by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—to knock the show off the air in the United States. (Cops is still producing episodes for international markets.)
“Is it canceled canceled?” Robinson recalls asking. He had trouble, at first, believing the news. He had no time to celebrate beyond a quick smile, however. There were more battles to wage.
It should come as no surprise that Color of Change was one of the forces behind the Cops cancellation. What began 15 years ago as a scrappy digital upstart focused on marshaling an online response to stories of racial injustice is now one of the heavy hitters in American civil rights activism. The organization’s presence can be felt in nearly every racial civil rights battle currently taking place in America—from corporate boardrooms to television sets to prosecutors’ offices and judges’ chambers.
Color of Change has launched a political action committee, pouring money into the coffers of progressive prosecutors who vow to bring accountability for police killings and brutality. It’s behind a sustained campaign to change how Black and brown people are represented by Hollywood. And, increasingly, the organization is a player in the business world.
Over the past year, Color of Change has further solidified its role as both lead agitator and diversity adviser for corporate America. It led the recent campaign to demand that Facebook and other social media companies take aggressive action to rid their platforms of hate speech, pressuring hundreds of advertisers, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Verizon, to pull their money. Through the “Beyond the Statement” campaign, which launched in June, Color of Change is challenging corporate America to do more than offer empty platitudes in the wake of racial unrest. It has targeted fast-food companies, including McDonald’s and Burger King, along with retailers such as Nike, for talking about racial justice while not paying workers a living wage. And the group has gone after investment firms that release statements about equity but also give money to police unions and foundations.
“It’s a 21st-century approach to issues that date back to 1619,” says Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s senior vice president for global policy and communications. He credits the organization for “holding us accountable” for racism on the platform in 2015. Since then, Airbnb has worked closely with Color of Change on issues of diversity within the company and on the platform.
Robinson, who has led Color of Change since 2011, sees his mission as creating a new infrastructure for civil rights activism, mobilizing online outrage into tangible force that “holds corporations accountable, that pushes for changes to how the media engages, that changes the narrative and the stories that we tell ourselves about change. And that tills the soil for long-term policy change.”
The nonprofit is structured almost like a newsroom or a political campaign, with different staff members clustered around areas of expertise and focus: criminal justice, technology, Hollywood, media representation. They identify opportunities to bend the structure of culture and society and apply what Arisha Hatch, the group’s vice president and chief of campaigns, calls an “inside-out approach”: pressuring decision makers by leveraging Color of Change’s massive reach to flood organizations with calls, emails, and the specter of boycotts.
The organization’s email list ballooned from 1.7 million members in the spring to more than 7 million members in October, and its text-message list grew from around 100,000 people to nearly 6 million. And that digital infrastructure, combined with financial independence—unlike many civil rights groups, Color of Change does not accept corporate donations—has allowed the organization to be seemingly everywhere.
If you’re a newly woke company, wondering how best to devote money and resources to fight racism, the group is likely your first call. And if you’re a corporation or organization besieged by racial controversy, Color of Change is likely leading the digital picket line.
Color of Change was born out of the federal government’s disastrous mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. James Rucker, a Black computer scientist working with MoveOn.org, had been interested in finding a way to apply the nonprofit’s digital organizing and fundraising strategy—empowering regular people to work together to apply political pressure through strength in numbers—to issues important to communities of color.
Then the hurricane hit, leaving millions stranded and the news channels playing clips of Black Americans begging for help from rooftops and wading through neck-deep water. “Those in power don’t fear disappointing or neglecting or turning their back on Black folks,” Rucker says, articulating the problem that he saw.
He called a friend, the activist and now CNN host Van Jones, and they soon launched Color of Change. It began with a single email, sent to 1,200 people. Before long, they had 10,000 signatures on a high-profile petition demanding an urgent, robust response from local and federal officials. They had spent more than a year largely focused on the aftermath of Katrina when Rucker learned about six Black teenagers in Louisiana who were facing 20-year sentences after an altercation that left a white high school student hospitalized. The Black teens were being charged with attempted murder for what looked like a schoolyard fight. Color of Change sprang into action in support of the teens, who became known as the Jena 6, raising nearly $300,000 for their legal defense. With the case now in the spotlight, the local prosecutor reduced the charges.
Within a few years, Color of Change had amassed a powerful digital following and an email list of nearly a million people. It began launching even more high-profile campaigns, including a 2009 effort to get Fox News host Glenn Beck, who called President Barack Obama a racist, kicked off the air, by applying pressure to advertisers. The group’s tactics—online boycotts, hashtags, and petitions—raised eyebrows in traditional civil rights spaces, but they filled an important void. “What they were able to do is step into a space where many entities in the social justice community and great society were still figuring it out,” said Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP.
When Fox News canceled Beck’s show two years later, Color of Change staffers gathered in the organization’s office to watch the final broadcast. By then, Rucker had realized two things: that his group’s digital activism could deliver results and that it would need new leadership to channel that energy toward even bigger fights—someone with a master’s understanding of power and influence.
Rucker reached out to Robinson, who at the time was second in command at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In his six years there, Robinson had gained a reputation as a smart strategist, capable of targeting media companies to bend public opinion. But, by 2011, Robinson was ready for a new challenge.
“It was a big deal for a lot of Black folks that had worked inside the movement that I got to drive things,” he recalls of his time at GLAAD, “but I also saw the limitations of my representation.” So in 2011, he took a risk—and a pay cut—to become executive director of Color of Change, which then employed only five people full time. (Today, there are 153 employees.) “I went from having a lot of resources at my disposal to wondering would I have money three months from now to pay folks,” Robinson recalls.
From Presence to Power: How Color of Change has already shaped business and society
He quickly began exploring new directions for the organization. Color of Change continued its media campaigns, applying public pressure to turn TV advertisers against the likes of Bill O’Reilly, but also took the lead on a number of social justice issues, raising awareness of police and vigilante killings and advocating for the prosecution of police misconduct. Following the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, Color of Change was among the first groups to illuminate the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative public policy organization, in the spread of so-called Stand Your Ground laws. After online petitions and a deluge of emails and phone calls from Color of Change members, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Foods announced that they would withdraw their memberships to ALEC. Three months after Martin’s death, with Color of Change members gathered outside Amazon’s annual shareholders meeting in Seattle, attempting to deliver a petition full of signatures, the e-commerce giant became the 16th company to end its ALEC membership.
“Companies invest a lot of effort and resources in managing the way people perceive and feel about their brand. So when you have a group of activists come out and start pointing out the hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing the other, that puts them in the danger zone,” says Nandini Jammi, cofounder of the online activist group Sleeping Giants, which also helped pioneer advertiser boycotts in the digital era. Robinson says that those early fights were not necessarily the organization’s most successful or influential, but they set the stage. “They allowed us to prove to members and those that joined us that investment in working with Color of Change was going to have benefit,” he says. “And it proved to the targets that they couldn’t ignore us.”
Robinson knew how to turn attention into power. He had grown up on eastern Long Island, New York, in a Black family that had landed there after the Great Migration. “When you’re Black [and living] in a community for multiple generations, you have a relationship to not just the Black community but the white people in the community,” Robinson recalls. “You have an idea about power and how you’re seen.” During high school, he produced and hosted a political talk show, Riverhead Teen Talk, on the local public access television channel, where he occasionally debated local callers. While studying political science at Marymount University, in Virginia, he worked as an organizer. A few years later, he appeared as a campaign manager on a short-lived Showtime reality show called American Candidate, in which 10 contestants mounted mock presidential bids.
One of Robinson’s earliest lessons was that “Black faces in high places” politics had its limits. Like most Black Americans of his generation, he’d grown up in a household with Ebony and Jetmagazines on the coffee table. A new wave of Black bankers, businessmen, and police chiefs was celebrated as the key to fundamentally changing a nation that, since its inception, has worked against its Black residents. But as more Black faces ascended—even to the White House—inequity and disparity persisted.
This same realization later powered the Black Lives Matter movement. A new generation of young people became disenchanted as, even during the administration of the nation’s first Black president, it seemed little about the structures and systems under which they lived were changing. Robinson and Hatch, who joined Color of Change in 2012 and is now the group’s second in command, have steered the organization toward addressing these root problems even as they tackle of-the-moment issues that are making headlines.
Color of Change leverages its membership to move from “presence to power,” Robinson says, by forcing decision makers to confront the real people impacted by the choices they make. He says he also hopes to disrupt the “magical thinking” that is too common in activist spaces. “We’re trying to help people recognize that we can’t have charitable solutions to structural problems. You don’t solve the Flint water crisis just by sending water bottles. You don’t solve the crisis of inner-city education and education at Black and brown schools by doing mentorship and service days. Those are ways to help, but those are not ways to undo the inequality,” he explains.
“People have a lot of Schoolhouse Rock theories about how change happens,” Robinson continues. “We’ve done a lot in our movement to talk about systems that hurt Black people. How do we actually change [them]? Otherwise we will get a lot more programs that work to fix Black people, and Black families, as opposed to working to fix the structures that hurt us.”
Perhaps no campaign has taken on more urgency for Color of Change, or been higher profile, than its battle with Facebook. For years, the organization has been among the groups pressuring the social media juggernaut to audit its internal diversity and inclusion efforts and publicly pressing the platform to more aggressively curb users and groups that post hate speech and calls to violence.
Despite periodically agreeing to a call or a meeting with civil rights organizations, Facebook had done frustratingly little in response to their demands, Robinson says. Moments after an hourlong video call with Zuckerberg and other Facebook officials in June, Robinson told The Washington Post: “What was clear coming out of that meeting is Mark has no real understanding of the history or current impact of voter suppression, racism, or discrimination. He lives in a bubble.”
By early summer of 2020, the civil rights community was incensed that Facebook had allowed President Trump to declare “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in response to the George Floyd protests, and infuriated that far-right groups continued to abuse the platform. “It became clear that no amount of bad press affected Facebook,” says Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, a media advocacy group that works closely with Color of Change in the tech sector. “It became clear that going after advertisers was going to be an important strategy.”
Color of Change began organizing an advertiser boycott. Leaning on its membership ranks, it petitioned major companies to refuse to spend money with Facebook until the platform made a serious commitment to addressing the spread of hate speech. A coalition of groups took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times to announce the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign, and placed a flurry of phone calls urging corporations to pause any ad buys on Facebook and other social media companies. At the time of Floyd’s death, many advertisers were already reconsidering their financial commitments due to the pandemic. Now, corporate America was scrambling for ways to show its support for racial justice. Once the first few companies signed on, others lined up. Soon, hundreds of companies had pulled or paused their advertising on Facebook and other platforms.
In July, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met with the campaign’s leaders, who demanded she take more seriously the threat created by allowing racism to fester on the platform. The meeting, Robinson said publicly, was a “disappointment.” His sharp comments were yet another part of the strategy, aimed at showing the company that small concessions wouldn’t be a means of blunting criticism in the future. Facebook ultimately committed to installing a more permanent civil rights infrastructure within the company. More recently, it’s taken steps to combat the spread of hate speech and ban the conspiracy group QAnon from the platform.
“While [the campaign] hasn’t led to as many changes as I would like, my little civil rights organization is taking on the biggest communications platform the world has ever known,” Robinson says. “And has forced a scenario in which Mark and Sheryl have to deal with our attacks, which are rooted in their failures, and also have to still work with us.”
Officials at Facebook say they now consider Color of Change a partner, albeit an at times adversarial one. “They have been an important part of some of the changes that we’ve been making, and I think that they are really masterful at what they do,” says Ruchika Budhraja, a Facebook spokesperson who has been involved in the negotiations with Color of Change.
Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy and engagement at Mozilla, who works with Color of Change on diversity issues, says the technology space is particularly ripe for this kind of pressure. The sector’s “move fast and break things” mindset is often blamed for reinforcing unethical decision-making, but Boyd notes that it also makes many of these companies uniquely prepared to undergo significant changes quickly. Color of Change’s effectiveness, she says, stems from the way it uses storytelling to force companies to see the consequences of their actions for communities they are otherwise inclined to overlook. The organization has had particular success with Airbnb, which recently announced a new effort to track racism on its platform, and Pinterest, which banned images of plantation weddings in 2019.
At the same time, Color of Change has redoubled its efforts in Hollywood. Building on the model Robinson learned at GLAAD, which fought for more complex portrayals of gay and lesbian people on television, Hatch has set out to alter the way Black Americans are shown on the big and small screens. The group has waged an all-out assault on any programming riddled with stereotypes. In addition to the Cops campaign, it stopped Oxygen from airing a reality series about the rapper Shawty Lo, titled All My Babies’ Mamas, which intended to make comedy of the fact that he’d fathered 11 children by 10 different women, and it petitioned Bravo to turn its cameras off during fights that broke out during its Real Housewives series.
The organization also now offers consulting services to Hollywood writers rooms and works directly with production companies to make sure they’re factoring in inclusion and representation from the very beginning of the process. Color of Change has released a groundbreaking report on the lack of diversity among writers and showrunners, and the first-of-its-kind “Normalizing Injustice” study, published in early 2020, on how crime entertainment distorts our understanding of the criminal justice system. Robinson and his team have worked with creatives like director Ava DuVernay and producer Dream Hampton to promote award-winning projects such as the Central Park Five miniseries When They See Us and Surviving R. Kelly.
Hatch, who launched Color of Change’s political action committee in 2018, also used DuVernay’s When They See Us to encourage Black voters to push for reform-minded district attorneys. The organization helped to elect more than a dozen in the 2018 midterms, and released a full slate of endorsements ahead of the 2020 election, signaling a new front for Color of Change.
While Robinson concedes that his organization has made progress, this work is part of a long game. None of us knows what will bring the next moment of reckoning. But when it comes, Color of Change, and its millions of members, will be ready.
Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives.