Rashad Robinson: The Change Agent

At 34, Rashad Robinson is executive director of Color of Change, making him one of the youngest leaders in America’s equality and civil rights movement. And he’s taking what he learned from one of the country’s most influential organizations and using it to help usher in a new era of crowdsourced activism. But activism, Robinson notes, is something that comes to him almost naturally. “I grew up in a home where politics was talked about and activism was part of the culture,” he says. “My parents are card-carrying members of the NAACP. I definitely got it from them.”

From creating a public-access television show about teen issues to his work as head of programs and advocacy for GLAAD, Robinson says his family helped shape and influence his work.

“I remember going into the voting booth with my grandfather and finding out years later that he couldn’t read or write,” he says. “What still inspires and animates me today is that my grandfather, who grew up as a sharecropper in Virginia, would have this passion about participating in the political process—even in a country that didn’t see value in his education.”

A longtime proponent of social media and its ability to influence everything from casual conversations to public policy, Robinson helped launch GLAAD’s enhanced online organizing and social networking presence. The experience would serve him well. When Color of Change, a new organization inspired by the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, was looking for someone to take the reins, they looked to Robinson.

“Color of Change was born out of the idea that we want to be able to take moments and utilize them to drive movements,” he says. “So the ‘moment to movement’ philosophy was critical to us. The use of technology, the use of the latest social networking tools—they are how we do our work. We are so often the proverbial David going up against Goliath corporations or politicians with huge war chests. Being able to provide the opportunity for people to speak up in their own voice—to make their voices heard and be counted—is fundamental to democracy.”

As the only openly gay leader of any national black civil rights organization, Robinson says getting people to view LGBT equality under the civil rights umbrella has not always been easy. But true to form, he focuses more on what brings people together than what drives them apart. “I think there is something incredibly universal about people wanting to be visible and heard and counted,” he says. “Oppressed people, regardless of who or where they are, want something better.”

According to Robinson, one way that people can demand something better is through the collective force of their online activism.

“It’s not my individual voice speaking on behalf of this organization or our members,” he says. “We are just a conduit to move their voices, their energy and their passion to those in power and ensure they can be heard just as loudly as those with much more money and access.”

When it comes to being an openly gay leader, Robinson says he likes to bring his “full self” into the room. 

“The unapologetic way that I have decided to approach my leadership at this organization creates a very clear case of whether or not people want to work with us,” he says. “I think it’s been very important that I have not tried to be closeted or hide aspects of myself. There are so many people who do want to work with us and want to be connected to the successes we’ve had. For me the focus has to be on the aspiration of pushing the ball forward.”