Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies 2015: A Conversation With Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson | Fast Company
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Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies 2015: A Conversation With Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson

Join the editor of Fast Company Digital, Anjali Mullany, for a live Q&A with Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson on Wednesday, March 4th at 12 p.m. ET. You can start submitting your questions now using the "Make a comment" box below.

Rashad Robinson
Executive Director, Color of Change

(Photo: Gus Powell) 

Can social media help change the face of American politics? 

Join us on March 4th at 12 p.m. ET for a live Q&A with Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. Fast Company recently named Color of Change to its annual Most Innovative Companies list "for creating a civil rights group for the 21st century". Anjali Mullany, editor of Fast Company Digital, will lead the discussion with Robinson as we explore a number of issues--from strategies for using social media to create real-world impact, to the next generation of politicians being born on social networks today. We'll talk about the challenges of navigating and appealing to diverse perspectives online, and the ways in which Color of Change is using data as a tool for activism. 

You can start submitting your questions and comments now using the "Make a comment" box below. And be sure to read J.J. McCorvey's piece about Color of Change in the recent issue of Fast Company.

  • Before today's live conversation with Rashad Robinson at noon, check out J.J. McCorvey's entry about Color of Change on our Most Innovative Companies 2015 list:

    Color Of Change

    Fast CompanyFor creating a civil rights group for the 21st century.
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  • Hello everyone! Looking forward to the chat in a few mintues
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  • Hello everyone, thanks for joining us today. We're pleased to have Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change, with us today. Color of Change was recently named to Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies 2015 list for its savvy approach to online organizing. Rashad will answer your questions, which you can submit to this chat using the "Make a comment" box above. Rashad, thanks for being with us today!
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  • Color of Change campaigns have addressed a range of issues in recent years, from corporate ALEC funding to stop-and-frisk to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers. Looking back, which campaigns had the most real life impact, and why? How can an online campaign impact real life?
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  • Well just this week ColorOfChange was part of the coalition that help to secure Title II Net Neutrality at the FCC -- this was a 4-plus year campaign for our organization that involved online and offline engagement. The real world impact for everyday people, especially those without access to a lot of resources, is huge. Ensuring that there will not be fast and slow lanes on the internet is a structural issue that helps so many of our other campaigns gain traction online.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Anjali Mullany 3/4/2015 5:06:40 PM
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  • In general, timing is incredibly important.....reaching people online with actions that relate to the issues they are facing every day and elevating a clear theory of change for how engagement by folks online can make a difference. The key for us is to identify a moment, build momentum, tell a clear and compelling story and have a campaign plan that often involves offline action as well. We work to move folks up a ladder of engagement to deeper and deeper actions all aimed at building the type of power necessary to create change. It may start with a petition but rarely do our campaigns only include petitions.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:10:25 PM
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  • So what are some examples of how online and offline engagement intersect?
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  • Generally offline engagements are a "higher bar ask." So we may get folks engaged via email outreach or social media graphics, however, that is intended to capture the energy of folks who might be outraged or motivated by something they have seen, heard or read about. The key when moving folks to offline engagement is that the theory of change makes sense. Our members...well everyone has limited time, so we don't want to waste it by asking people to show up offline if the theory for their engagement hasn't been thought through...so if we are going to ask folks to protest in front of a campaign target or meet with an elected representative it all has to make sense as a next step to achieve the type of change we are seeking
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:16:07 PM
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  • Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, answering your questions from Fast Company headquarters in New York. Photo by Robbie Jones.

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  • How do the petitions you use actually make a difference? Where do they go?
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  • The petitions are just a first step, we always outline for our members where the petitions are going and what the next steps will be. So for instance, when our members were campaigning to get corporations advertising during the Glenn Beck show to stop, the petitions were a first step...they helped us tell the story to our members, get them involved and gave them a way to engage their friends and family in the effort. However, we knew that in order to have real influence we needed to move these members to phone calls, rallies etc. The technology and online tools allowed us to capture the energy of folks outraged, however, the strategy to win wasn't about the petition or technology it was about a variety of tactics and steps that made the corporations advertising on Beck realize that our members weren't going away
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:22:56 PM
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  • This next question is from my editor Noah Robischon, and brings to mind this quote by you from our Most Innovative Companies post about Color of Change: "People are not joiners in the same way they used to be. What they want is to move in and out of campaigns that matter to them." I think Noah's question challenges that a bit...
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  • The Internet is great for letting people pick and choose the issues they want to engage with, but it also diffuses power across a bunch of specific instances without tackling the macro problems. How is your organization bringing people together to solve the bigger and more complex issues?
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  • That's a great question. I believe that people aren't joiners like they were a generation or two generations ago. Folks aren't going to be card carrying members of the ACLU or even ColorOfChange, they want to move in and out of campaigns that matter to them. That is why organizations like ColorOfChange are so important, because we have to hold a through-line to the systemic issues or the structures that put communities in harms way. As we are identifying moments that capture energy, we work to leverage those moments to build power for systemic change. For instance, campaigning around police misconduct, these "Justice For" campaigns where we tell the story of a Michael Brown or Eric Garner and give our members the opportunity to engage also allow us to bring more folks into the macro conversation around police reform.

    Getting over 200k members to join us in pushing for a set of federal reforms, we delivered these demands to the White House. I testified in front of the President's commission on 21st Century Policing to bring our members voices to that forum and just yesterday the commission made a series of recommendations, some of which included the demands from our members. The goal here is to bring the power and energy of everyday people into the conversation so that it isn't about a single leader, while at the same time ensuring that our campaigns bubble up and add up to long term change not just moment to moment organizing.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Anjali Mullany 3/4/2015 5:35:05 PM
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  • What kind of team needs to be put in place to accomplish what you're describing for the online and offline? And how do you get the attentions of persons from diverse cultural perspectives (race, gender, class)? Does Color of Change have to decide "who is our audience"?
    by MichonBostonGrp edited by Anjali Mullany 3/4/2015 5:36:10 PM
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  • Our mission is to amplify the political and cultural voice of Black America. Our members are Black folks and their allies of all races. So our email outreaches to our members talk about the impact on Black folks and the larger societal impact. However, depending on the target of our campaign, we need to frame our communications with them to speak to whatever will make them move or change their decision.
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  • This requires a team that understands communication, story-telling and audience. My staff is tech and web savvy and we have a number of staff members with deep experience in grassroots and electoral organizing. The staff is about 24 between our Oakland and NYC offices
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:39:55 PM
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  • We also concentrate a lot on data...monitoring what gets folks to respond and take action. We listen to what our members are telling us...we make decisions about which campaigns to take based on how our members are engaging to ensure that we are serving them well
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  • Obviously, social media can be an amazing vehicle for change and to rally support behind a movement. It can also be a tricky place to navigate - it's not just the kind of diversity Michon brought up, between different demographics, that needs to be considered...within any demographic group, one finds so much diversity of opinion and experience. How does Color of Change navigate dissent within its user base, and keep its community of supporters behind individual campaigns cohesive?
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  • Paying attention to data and analytics helps us understand the scope of opinions and dissent, it allows us to make decisions that are deeper than changing course tweet to tweet
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  • So for instance if we are working on a campaign to push companies to stop supporting an organization who works with the gun lobby, some of our members may be compelled by economic arguments, some might be compelled by criminal justice arguments and we can understand that based on how these members came to ColorOfChange and what actions they've taken.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Anjali Mullany 3/4/2015 5:48:40 PM
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  • For instance if the first action someone takes is on a criminal justice petition and they keep a high response rate to criminal justice campaigns, but don't respond when we try to engage them around the economy or voting rights, instead of ignoring this data we can utilize it to build a deeper relationship with that member around the issues they care about and wait until we have a really big moment on, let's say, Voting Rights before we ask them to engage in one of those campaigns.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:52:03 PM
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  • We can generally tell pretty quickly if a campaign is performing well, we often develop a variety of messages for our members to share with their networks on Facebook and Twitter and we can see how those messages are performing basically in real time. We can then hone and optimize those messages by sending them to 20k or 30k batches on our list until we come up with the right message that not only gets our members to engage but helps them engage their networks.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:55:36 PM
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  • How about that "tweet to tweet" dissent -- how do you address it?
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  • It's really important for us to listen to what we are hearing from our members and to take moments of dissent to explain our decisions and strategy. We try to do that in our campaign outreaches so we are being proactive. For us, the big thing is to listen, respond, and be aware that not everyone is going to agree with everything we do at ColorOfChange. We're stepping back and looking at the totality of what folks are saying on twitter or via email and ensuring that we are being responsive to trends.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 5:58:53 PM
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  • You've mentioned before this idea of transitioning "cultural presence" to real "cultural power"...what are the paths to making that happen? This echoes some reader questions, as well.
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  • The key is not to confuse cultural presence with cultural power. It’s the difference between the cultural popularity of an issue, and real strategies for effectively leveraging cultural momentum to secure concrete political outcomes on that issue. What we are trying to do at ColorOfChange is take issues that often have deep presence in our society and build the type of power necessary to win. From my perspective it means running campaigns that often have those most impacted at the center, but build the type of energy and momentum through story-telling and organizing to get people who may not be personally impacted to engage.

    • Women have great presence in our culture obviously, but that doesn’t mean that feminism has brought enough people in to be politically powerful on Equal Pay or contraception.
    • Gay people had plenty of presence and influence in culture in the '90s, but when I was at GLAAD we realized we needed way more people identifying with that struggle, in order to become powerful enough to make any real change. Even though gay was already culturally “cool.” So we were part of inventing a new model.
    • And of course, plenty of Black people and Black issues were visible in society in the 1950s and '60s, but the civil rights movement had to find a banner that would allow more people to join their struggle, before they could become powerful enough to move the country on major policy.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 6:04:13 PM
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  • This next question from a reader is a great follow up to that point about presence vs. power...
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  • How do you see #BlackTwitter impacting the next cycle of elections?
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  • Great question. When President Obama announced that he was running for President back in 2007 we didn't have twitter. The growth and presence of twitter and #BlackTwitter speaks to how many of the old rules of engagement are changing. Who gets to have a voice? Who gets a response from those in power? Folks in power who often have barriers designed to prevent them from having to deal with the public directly...twitter blows that up. So to the extent that we could have a long primary season for both parties, twitter will allow folks to force issues into the debate that may not be the issues that media gatekeepers or the political parties want to talk about. For instance, I can't imagine the candidates being able to ignore #BlackLivesMatter, even mainstream media will force them to address it.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 6:10:48 PM
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  • Speaking of hashtags (and this loops back to our conversation about dissent online), here's a great question from my colleague JJ...
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  • During the protests following the Eric Garner verdict, we saw a number of hashtags pop up on Twitter, such as "#CrimingWhileWhite." Do you think these in-the-moment hashtags are uniting and can engage civil rights allies, or have they become more effective at surfacing privilege and deafness to other cultures?
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  • Both...I think hashtags are tools for organizing. They allow us to capture attention around an idea and open up spaces for conversations. So depending on who ends up inside of the hashtag they have the same type of opportunities and challenges that offline debates or conversations can sometimes have. From my perspective, #CrimingWhileWhite started off as a really interesting tool for allies to engage in a set of conversations they might not always engage around, however, I think as the pool of participants expanded, the goals and intentions got diluted, which is one of the challenges with hashtags.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 6:20:02 PM
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  • Finally, we've got a couple of reader questions about the future of technology and activism...
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  • How else do you see technology evolving to become a more powerful tool for activism, beyond social media?
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  • ...do you have plans to utilize geolocation as a way to get individuals to do offline tasks when it is something that is near them?
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  • Over 50% of folks reach us online via mobile devices. This has grown pretty rapidly over the last couple of years. It speaks to how folks engage everyday and also speaks to how black folks and young folks get online. A geolocation campaign is certainly part of the future and a part of ColorOfChange's future. More work with interactive maps that allow folks to take their campaigning into the stores they may be shopping in, for example. Last year ColorOfChange launched IAmColorOfChange.org, which is our distributed organizing platform which allows our local leaders and local organizations on the group to utilize our technology for free and build and run civil rights campaigns that sit inside of our issue area. Because I believe that we have moved from a top-down communication age to a participation age, where everyday people have more power to amplify their voices having tools that capture that energy without feeling like we, as organizations, need to "get in front" of it will be key.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 6:27:16 PM
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  • One more piece is that as text-based email becomes less and less engaging for folks, more and more will utilize video and graphic content that goes beyond simply "raising awareness" and instantly moves folks to action. The challenge here is that every time we reach someone, every time we speak to them about our work, if they are interested we need to ensure that we can do it again and again and move those folks from interested, to supporters, to activists, to leaders... Capturing information and data along the way is key to moving from having political presence in our culture to building power.
    by Rashad Robinson edited by Cayleigh Parrish 3/4/2015 6:31:20 PM
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  • I think that's a great place to stop, since we're out of time -- thanks for joining us Rashad, and staying on longer than we planned to take more questions! Readers, if we didn't get to your question, you can tweet it to Rashad directly: @rashadrobinson on Twitter.
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  • So many fantastic questions, this was such a pleasure. Thank you to the entire @fastcompany team for elevating our work and all that you do to promote new ideas and outside of the box thinking. Please don't forget to check us out at www.colorofchange.org @colorofchange on twitter and reach me @rashadrobinson
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  • Thanks to everyone for coming! Please make sure to check out our ColorOfChange entry on our Most Innovative Companies list! We're sorry we couldn't get to everyone's questions, but you can reach out to Rashad on twitter @rashadrobinson, with anything we couldn't get to today.
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