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Illustrations by Niki Usagi

Episode 6: In Conversation with Rashad Robinson: Civil Rights for the 21st Century

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The online civil rights organization, Color of Change, has used many different tools to push for change: ads targeted to corporate leadership, fax machines sent to lawmakers, Twitter hashtags, and online petitions. Ashley C. Ford sits down with the head of the organization, Rashad Robinson, to talk about their innovative approach to improving Black lives.

Read Episode 1 Full Transcript Below


ASHLEY [VO]: Hi, I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into the Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast about joy and justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.

Today, we’re talking about Black joy and how to remove the obstacles to it. We’re looking at how one organization takes a unique approach to this work. But first, let’s take a little drive.

[SFX comes in, generic sound of being inside a car.]

Let’s head east from New York City, out towards the end of Long Island. The end that disappears into the Atlantic Ocean.

If you’re driving out, you’ll see the map of the island change. First, there’s the tightly packed city blocks in Queens and Brooklyn. Then, big box stores dot the highway in the middle of the island. And then, eventually, farmlands and outlet malls and rocky beaches.

Out there, about 75 miles from Manhattan, is a town called Riverhead.

Rashad Robinson, Activist & President of Color of Change

RASHAD: The last exit on the long island expressway.

ASHLEY [VO]: Rashad Robinson grew up in Riverhead.

RASHAD: My family actually got there through the great migration.

They eventually worked as laborers, um, lived on the duck ranch. So if you see Long Island duck on the menu, those were oftentimes the sort of land where Black people were allowed to live.

ASHLEY [VO]: Long Island has a deep history of racism. Which includes redlining in housing mortgages. Schools that were effectively, if not officially, segregated. And expressways that were built through the middle of Black neighborhoods, forever changing them.

Long Island was and is very white. When Rashad was growing up, he says Riverhead was only 10% Black. And today, it’s still only 15% Black.

Rashad felt his difference, in more ways than one. He was a Black kid in a white place. He says he was short where kids valued height. He wasn’t openly gay at the time. But he says there are plenty of ways he felt he didn’t fit in.

So he had to be strategic if he wanted to be heard. Part of that strategy was knowing what he could and couldn’t do and how to get around that.

[MUX FADE IN]

RASHAD: Even if I’m not the smartest, even if I am not the most creative, I will outwork anyone.

ASHLEY [VO]: Rashad has been outworking us all ever since. Today, he’s the head of Color of Change, one of the country’s largest online civil rights organizations, with 7 million members. Color of Changes focuses on the practices and policies that hold Black people back and works to dismantle as many of those as they can.

They use the tools of the modern tech era in increasingly strategic ways. That means Twitter campaigns, petitions circulated widely online, as well as protests and billboards.

Color of Change may be very much a 21st century organization, but it started when an unprecedented weather incident told a much bigger story about America.

Illustrations by Niki Usagi

RASHAD: Color of change was founded in the aftermath of a flood, which was Hurricane Katrina. And we talk about it as a flood that was caused by bad decision makers that turned into a life altering disaster by bad decision makers. Black folks literally on their roofs, begging for the government to do something, and left to die.

And the thing about Katrina, which really, I think, animates how we do our work is that no one was nervous about disappointing black people.

If no one is nervous about disappointing your community, how do you build the power to force them to do so?

[MUX IN]

ASHLEY [VO]: Here’s some of the ways that Color of Change has done it.

They rallied hundreds of Facebook advertisers to pressure the platform to stop the spread of hate speech. They got credit card companies to block hate groups from their platforms. They’ve helped push retailers nationwide to raise their minimum wages. The list goes on.

And they do this all with the power of careful strategy… and email.

ASHLEY [VO]: One recent email madea a suggestion that you send a fax to your congressperson to support a prison phone justice act…

[SFX sound of a fax machine printing]

I thought this was particularly clever – people don’t typically use faxes, but Congressional offices still have them, so getting a bunch of them will stand out more. And you, dear listener, don’t even need your own fax machine. Color of Change will send a fax for you, if you let them know you want one sent.

The organization might tackle a lot of different issues–but they are all connected by one unifying focus.

RASHAD: I like to think of, like, the issues we work on as the things that are impeding Black joy. Because Black joy is not the absence of pain, but the presence of aspiration, right? Not just what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for.

ASHLEY: So what does that look like when you are successful with those goals?

RASHAD: When it looks, when it looks right, people may like five months later talk about the change we helped them achieve. But oftentimes when the whole decision comes down, they don’t want to talk to me for a month, you know? We’ve got to beat someone up in the process to get them there.

Folks will always bring us a solution. Or a far more often than not, bring us a solution, quote-unquote, to a problem that is not what we asked for and allows them to sort of save face or keep power without actually having to make structural change.

“Oh, we’ll send water bottles to Flint,” instead of cleaning up the pipes and dealing with the tax policy that led to this community not having what they needed. So when it looks right, it oftentimes means that those in power feel like they have no other choice.

ASHLEY [VO]: Here’s another example of that strategy at work. After Trump was elected, white nationalist groups were getting more vocal and out in the open. Color of Change knew that many of these groups were collecting donations online.

RASHAD: You could use your PayPal number, you could use your Visa or American Express and buy paraphernalia, some of the most hateful things. And we went to the credit card companies and we’re like, well, you wouldn’t, you know, allow ISIS to accept donations. Why are you letting sort of white terrorist? And they were like, “Well, you know, we’re like with you Rashad, but you know, we technically can’t ban these groups and you really need to go talk to the banks.” And the banks would say, “You need to go talk to the credit card companies.”

And, you know, we recognized that this was about power. That the decision would be different if they saw us as powerful enough that they had to do the thing.

ASHLEY [VO]: So how to build enough power?

Color of Change called their campaign No Blood Money. They identified the companies who needed a little extra nudge in the right direction. In this case, it’s PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and others. The financial companies processing these transactions.

And they suggested an action that you take. Tweet at PayPal and the others to do two things: publish their hate policies and remove groups still collecting money.

This kind of work does make a difference. But not always on the first try. In this case nothing changes at first. And in the meantime white supremacists groups get more bold.

RASHAD: And then Charlottesville happens, right.

By that next week, these companies, they started sending us a list of groups they were going to suddenly start banning from being able to process fees, because the dynamic changed.

It wasn’t all the groups. So we started, we went out on them publicly to press them on more groups.

ASHLEY [VO]: Rashad wanted to make sure they didn’t just ban the obvious groups, like Proud Boys, but all of them.

So Color of Change took out targeted ads around these company’s corporate headquarters encouraging employees to speak out and ask questions of their leadership. To push for them to block more groups.

It worked. Within 24 hours, three of the credit card companies had gotten in touch to make fast changes. And with these changes, they had successfully cut off a lot more white supremacist groups from collecting donations.

For Color of Change, it’s all about the strategy, finding the points of leverage and applying pressure there. And sometimes it’s a matter of building up enough leverage over time and waiting for the right moment to deploy it.

After the break, Rashad heads to Hollywood.

— AD BREAK —

ASHLEY [VO]: Rashad found his voice early on in his life. When he was in high school, he hosted a political talk show. It was on the local public access station and it was called Teen Talk.

The show was a lot of work for a kid: getting sponsors, planning out the monthly slate, leading a team of other teenagers. But with it, Rashad started to carve out a space for his voice and the voices of his peers to be heard.

But that was just a start for him.

Over time, Rashad learned that visibility alone wasn’t enough. Sure, airtime matters. But to really make an impact you have to have power. And the way Rashad sees it, there’s a big difference between presence and power.

RASHAD: You know, presence is awareness, retweets, shout outs from the stage. Presence is not bad, but when we mistake presence for power, we can think that we’ve done something that we haven’t done. A front page story on the newspaper might be more awareness, but that doesn’t mean that anything has actually occurred yet.

Power is the ability to change the rules. Sometimes they are the written rules of policy and other times are the unwritten rules of culture.

ASHLEY [VO]: Let’s take a look at a major driver of culture. Hollywood, where Black writers and writers of color and women writers of any race are sometimes completely absent from writers’ rooms. Fully two thirds of TV writers’ rooms have no Black writers.

This is obviously a problem–it’s a problem for the lack of opportunity for writers. And it’s a problem for what those mostly-white writer’s rooms end up portraying. Sex crimes, courtrooms, poverty and other violences–with no input from Black voices.

This is true across entertainment. But Color of Change puts particular resources towards crime procedurals.

Illustrations by Niki Usagi

[SFX gavel, group walking in, TV static turning off]

Your NCIS’s, Criminal Minds, Law and Orders. And the more “reality” shows like Live PD and ‘Cops’.

When I was growing up, ‘Cops’ was ubiquitous. It was everywhere. I mean, to the point that, you know, one of the parts of the Bad Boys movie that everybody loves to repeat is the part where they’re singing the theme song to ‘Cops’. It’s classic American television.

RASHAD: I mean, I too, like you, remember it coming on Saturday nights on Fox. You know, before I was old enough to, like, be out and about on a Saturday night, it was like a show that was on.

ASHLEY [VO]: These shows often hit the same notes. Good-guy hero cop or detective in pursuit of justice, against the “bad guys,” often Black and brown, where the ends in that pursuit often justify the means.

RASHAD: When a police officer does something bad, you’re with them, cause they’re the stars of the show. And you might know from last season that their wife left them or that their father doesn’t really love them or whatever, the sort of thing that justifies a kind of human portrayal of their interactions with nameless, faceless Black and brown people.

ASHLEY [VO]: There are other ways in which a lack of Black writers is a problem. Take, for example, the fact that Rashad says there are way more Black judges presiding over the cases on these shows than in real life. You’d think that’s a good thing–more visibility. But these characters carry a lot of moral weight.

RASHAD: You have a elderly stately sort of Black symbolic character that is supposed to be making the decisions about justice on these shows where there’s a lot more trials than ever really exist.

ASHLEY [VO]: Because in real life, most cases end with the person pleading guilty to avoid court or longer jail or prison time.

RASHAD: And then you have a white writers’ room sending those words through that symbolic stately magical, and I say magical because they’re just not that many Black judges. Like they’re just not that many. And it would say something very different about our justice system if there were.

And I know sometimes people will say, like, “Well, it’s just entertainment, Rashad.” But, what if a hospital show was putting out, let’s say Gray’s Anatomy, was putting out misinformation about COVID or HIV and AIDS or diabetes. Would we say it’s just a TV show and it didn’t have consequences? Or would we say it was damaging and it was harmful?

The networks would probably stop it. But because the misinformation, the normalizing of injustice, that is not seen as necessary to engage with. And that’s because of power.

ASHLEY [VO]: Color of Change was nothing if not strategic.

RASHAD: We’re not going to get these shows off the air, right. The goal is to actually have these shows more representative.

Let’s show the background behind the FBI—the FBI report, not a Color of Change report, but the FBI report—talking about the rise of white nationalism and white supremacy in police departments. Let’s show the sexual violence. Let’s show the fact that police officers are overwhelmingly more predisposed to domestic violence in their homes. And don’t face consequences. Let’s show that.

ASHLEY [VO]: After years of work, Color of Change played a significant role in getting ‘Cops’ the TV show off the air—and with it a limit to its dehumanizing portrayals of Black and brown people that flickered to life inside so many American homes for so many years.

It’s an uphill battle, for sure, though. Color of Change helped get ‘Cops’ cancelled first in 2013 after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the public tides helped put pressure on the network. But the show came back only a few months later. Then, Color of Change helped get it cancelled again, in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered. But unfortunately, it’s back again.

If there is one thing that Color of Change is particularly good at, it’s being clear-eyed about where they have leverage and where they don’t and using their resources accordingly.

RASHAD: It’s not just what we take off the air. It’s what we help to put on the air, the type of stories that we helped to push the writers’ rooms that our team goes inside of to help. The stories get shaped in new ways.

That work is work that I’m incredibly proud of as well as the work to remove the harmful. And so it has to be both.

ASHLEY: The more you talk, the more I realize. The amount of work that it takes to accomplish the kind of change to see the kind of shifts that you’re hoping to see is, it can be, I think probably some of the most, either spirit lifting or heartbreaking work possible.

So in the midst of all that in the midst of like these big goals where does taking care of yourself come into that? Like, how do you end up taking care of yourself during all of that?

RASHAD: Activism is one of the vehicles that helps me make sense of the world and to use my energy and my time and my in the hurt and the joy and the pain and service of something.

And then, I love to cook. I love to eat. Um, I love good food. And, you know, I grew up in a family that loved seafood and we fished and we keep, we kept gardens. And so I love produce, and I love putting together meals.

ASHLEY: What’s your celebration food?

RASHAD: So, I make a really, really good, like, fried chicken sandwich, you know, it’s crispy. I make a coleslaw. I make my own Parker House rolls. Um, I’ll make an aioli. And to me that is like very comforting. I do love a good sandwich.

ASHLEY [VO]: Personally, my favorite sandwich involves a fresh baguette, fresh butter smeared on both sides of that baguette, a little bit of, like, sprinkled sea salt. Not too much, OK, I don’t want my mouth to be overwhelmed. And then I want slices of fresh black forest ham. To me, that is a perfect sandwich for any time of day, it travels well, it’s amazing.

But this isn’t a food show… Still, isn’t food a big part of how we nourish ourselves, and part of what Rashad is setting out to create space for?

Self care and Black joy can take a lot of forms. Some of them might be sandwich shaped. And some of them show up in the relationships you have both within the movement and the work you’re doing. And outside of it. You obviously can’t do this kind of work alone. And sometimes who you distance yourself from is just as important as who you draw yourself closer to.

Like when a corporation wants to donate money to you and then write a sparkly press release about it, but they don’t want to do the real work. Rashad and Color of Change, They actually see this a lot.

RASHAD: We don’t really have relationships like this with corporations. We don’t overwhelmingly take financial support from big corporations. We turned down $12 million of corporate financial support during 2020 and we redirected another 3 million.

ASHLEY [VO]: They definitely live their principles. One organization Color of Change has worked with is Ben and Jerry’s. And they see something different with the way they work with the ice cream company.

RASHAD: When I talk about Ben and Jerry’s being such a positive force for change it doesn’t even start or connect to money. It connects to how they’ve been able to use their brand and their positioning to push the people who are connected to them, to connect to justice.

I remember years ago being invited to present at their franchisee meeting. So this is a franchise meeting with all of these, sort of, owners of Ben and Jerry’s stores. And they have me on stage for, you know, 30 minutes talking about, like, race and justice and voting rights to people who want to sell ice cream.

An ice cream company saying, “We’re not just going to, like, write a check. We’re not just going to put out a statement. But in front of people, we are going to put forward what we believe and ask people to engage and know that along the way, some people might be mad. And say like, ‘I would rather have my ice cream without racial equity or justice.’ ”

They have been true partners.

ASHLEY [VO]: One effort they worked together on was the Stop Hate for Profit campaign. Color of Change was pushing Facebook to do something about hate speech and misinformation on the platform. A thousand advertisers agreed to stop spending until Facebook did something meaningful about it. Ben and Jerry’s was one of those organizations.

RASHAD: They were one of the first companies to publicly say that they would stop spending, didn’t do it quietly, made a statement about why, encouraged others to join.

I think about the folks who truly are putting their energy, their money, their time, their, um, comfort on the line. And Ben and Jerry’s is definitely one of those companies. And we’ve been proud to work with them.

And if they can connect more of their fans to this work, the world we get to live in 5, 10, 15 years from now will be so much better. So much more tasty. [ASHLEY: Laughs]

ASHLEY: So much more tasty. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

RASHAD: Thank you for doing this. Thank you for having me. And it’s been, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you, Ashley.

ASHLEY: Thank you.

[MUX IN]

ASHLEY: If you want to learn more about the amazing work Rashad Robinson and Color of Change are doing, check out “ColorOfChange dot org.”

Once you’re there you can read all about past and current campaigns and find out how to take action to fight for racial justice and hold political and corporate leaders accountable.

You’ll also have plenty of company. Think about it: Color of Change has 7 million members. That’s a lot of people! And when that many people speak, when they raise their voices together, they get heard.

So go to “ColorOfChange dot org” and join the movement to build Black joy and power.

[MUX IN]

ASHLEY: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative. This episode was written by Jessica Glazer. Production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby. The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.

The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.

I’m Ashley C Ford. Thanks for listening.

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