Advocacy

Civil Rights Goes Digital

In both online and offline venues, activists at Color of Change are pursuing the fight for racial justice at Internet speed.

The hip-hop artist Nas speaks at a protest organized by Color of Change at the offices of Fox News in New York City. (Photo by Mary Altaffer/Associated Press) 

In 2012, soon after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., protesters hit the streets. At Color of Change, meanwhile, activists turned instead to their computer keyboards. In his defense, Zimmerman cited Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which gives citizens the right to use potentially lethal force against people who they believe threaten them. Color of Change—the nation’s largest online African-American civil rights group—had been tracking support for such laws in state legislatures for several years. Activists at the group knew that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative lobbying group, was an important backer of stand-your-ground laws. They also knew that ALEC received funding from Coca-Cola Co., Kraft Foods Inc., and many other large corporations.

With the controversy that surrounded Martin’s killing as a backdrop, Color of Change sent an email to its members that highlighted the role of ALEC in passing not only stand-your-ground legislation but also laws that resulted in voter suppression of minority groups. The email invited members to sign a petition that called on corporate executives to stop funding the lobbying group. In just a few hours, Color of Change gathered more than 80,000 signatures. The initial message to members withheld company names in order to give executives an incentive to pull their funding of ALEC quietly.

At the same time, Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, met behind the scenes with people at several companies that were funding ALEC. “They would say, ‘We give money to both sides [of the political aisle],’ but there’s not really two sides to black people voting,” Robinson says. He gave the companies a limited amount of time to withdraw their support from ALEC before Color of Change would publicly disclose their names and call for a boycott. The deadline passed, and Robinson released the names.

Coca-Cola was the first to respond. Within five hours of Robinson’s announcement, the soft-drink maker withdrew its ALEC membership and issued a statement: “Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business.” Kraft and nearly 100 other corporations—including Best Buy, CVS Caremark, John Deere, Hewlett-Packard, and MillerCoors—followed suit. The loss of funds forced ALEC to shut down its Washington, D.C., office. For Color of Change, the success of this campaign led to a spike in membership. “All of that happened because we have a unique model, and we are able to pivot our audience quickly,” Robinson says.

Mobilizing Matters

Color of Change was founded in 2005. Following Hurricane Katrina, the civil rights advocate Van Jones became frustrated by the way that advocacy groups such as MoveOn .org responded to the disaster. Instead of demanding action from President George W. Bush and other political leaders, those groups focused on raising money for Katrina victims. “I couldn’t help but think: If there were tens of thousands of white grandmothers stuck on rooftops and dying while the whole world watched, would the government not have a stronger response?” says Jones, president and founder of Dream Corps. “Why were there no calls for marches, demonstrations, or sit-ins at federal buildings across the country to force Bush to do something?”

James Rucker was frustrated, too. He’s a veteran organizer of online campaigns, and at the time he worked at MoveOn.org. After watching the response (or lack of one) to Katrina, he resolved to direct his talents toward racial justice issues. Together, he and Jones launched Color of Change. Rucker became the group’s first executive director and took the lead in building the organization.

For their first project, Jones and Rucker sent out a mass email that asked people to sign a petition that demanded political action to confront the devastation caused by Katrina. “This was all new stuff in 2005,” Jones says. “You could use email to mobilize people, and yet the best people in the world were mainly using it for charitable [purposes].” Few people, he adds, were “using the super-weapon of email to make government act right.”

Since that first email, the organization has grown considerably. Today it has more than 1.3 million members, and it employs about 30 people. Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Color of Change uses the power of the media to call attention to the daily injustices that African-Americans experience. But the model that Jones and Rucker developed relies not on broadcast and print media, but on digital tools. “What the technology does is amplify this work in ways that are quicker and more efficient,” says Robinson, who succeeded Rucker in 2011.

The work of Color of Change centers on mounting campaigns that ask people to sign petitions, to write letters or make phone calls to officials, and to post or tweet their concerns on social media channels. In 2009, the organization launched a campaign against the television personality Glenn Beck that generated 285,000 signatures and pressured nearly 300 advertisers into pulling their spots from Fox News, the network that broadcast Beck’s show. Ultimately, the network removed Beck from the air. In another successful effort, Color of Change persuaded the producers of Saturday Night Live to add black women to the show’s cast.

Online campaigns aren’t the whole story, however. “Color of Change doesn’t simply manifest on the Internet. [It operates] in the real world as well, dispatching staff, resources, and technical assistance to support communities responding to horrific events,” says Eric Ward, a program officer at the Ford Foundation who focuses on racial justice issues. Last spring, for example, amid protests that occurred in Baltimore after a young man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody, Robinson and his colleagues flew to the city to meet with criminal justice officials. This past July, an African-American woman named Sandra Bland died in unusual circumstances while she was in a Texas jail. (She had been detained following a traffic stop.) Afterward, Color of Change worked with Bland’s family not only to bring attention to her case but also to raise funds to hire a private investigator. “It’s a tragedy that these killings occur, but it’s also a tragedy that without the actions of organizations like Color of Change, we may not ever hear about them,” Ward says.

Unlike many other civil rights organizations, Color of Change does not take money from corporations or political groups. Since 2010, it has received about $4 million in funding from the Ford Foundation, and additional support has come from the Arca Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Public Welfare Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund. The group also receives small donations from its members. “With an unfiltered voice—unfiltered by the money that we get—we can stand up to powerful opponents that push for issues that put our membership in harm’s way,” Robinson says.

Building a “Black Frame”

Over the past decade, Color of Change has become a leader in the civil rights advocacy community, according to Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and activist. “Very often, when a criminal justice crisis occurs, one of the first questions that advocates ask is, ‘Can we get Color of Change involved?’” she says. Color of Change is able, in a matter of minutes, to mobilize its members to take action on issues that have received little or no attention from the media or from mainstream social justice organizations.

The team at Color of Change has found that using digital technology enables them to apply a racial justice lens to the emerging narrative about an event or issue. Internally, they refer to this practice as creating a “black frame”—a way of discussing an event that focuses on how it affects African-Americans. Racially charged incidents happen every day, Robinson points out. He and his colleagues must take care in choosing which battles to fight. To meet that challenge, they have structured their team like a news organization. The group scans information channels continuously to spot stories that fit well into a black frame. The team then crafts messages that not only inform members but also guide them on what they can do immediately to make a difference. “One of the things that I love about Color of Change is that it combines public education with strategic action,” says Alexander.

Keeping up with the flow of activity on the Internet poses a challenge for Color of Change. Stories emerge and evolve quickly, and the Color of Change team has only a short period in which to communicate with members and to channel their energy into meaningful action. “We have to be able to show our members that their actions lead to real impact. Otherwise, people become disengaged and hopeless,” says Arisha Michelle Hatch, managing director of campaigns.

One risk associated with online advocacy is that people may come to believe that clicking a “send” button or signing a digital petition is enough to create change. Building a movement for justice requires real human connection, Alexander argues. “We have no hope of creating a thriving and equitable multi-racial and multi-ethnic democracy if we remain disconnected from one another, stuck in our comfort zones,” she says. “Online advocacy, by itself, will never overcome disconnection. In fact, social media can actually deepen our feelings of disconnection.”

But Robinson says that critics of online advocacy are wrong to dismiss it merely as “#activism.” He and his colleagues regard the Color of Change online presence as only a platform. They don’t assume that galvanizing members to sign a petition will accomplish much on its own. Their strategy—the vision that lies behind the technology—focuses on motivating people to make phone calls and to show up at rallies. “We are engaging our members in very strategic ways where we have a clear theory of change,” says Robinson. “That’s very different from sending out a tweet and hoping for the best.”

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