The nonprofit Color Of Change (COC) calls itself “the country’s largest online racial justice organization.” Formed in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina by activist James Rucker and current progressive CNN host Van Jones, COC aims “to respond to injustice and move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America.” Its campaigns focus on achieving racial, media, and economic justice, as well as working to reform the criminal justice system.
The group has brought about several important victories in its ten years of operation, which include pressuring news networks to drop Lou Dobbs (CNN), Glenn Beck (Fox News), Pat Buchanan (MSNBC), and Bill O’Reilly (Fox News) off the air in light of ongoing racist commentary. The staff helped get justice for the “Jena Six” a group of Black teenagers who COC says were excessively charged and sentenced after defending themselves during a campaign of racist harassment at school. They’ve gotten Clear Channel to remove vote-suppressing billboards from Black and Latin-American neighborhoods. They successfully pushed for the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol. And they’ve weakened the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which the group calls a “dangerously effective” right-wing policy group that is responsible for funneling corporate dollars to politicians to create laws that roll back worker rights and environmental protections, and that “dismantle the gains of the Civil Rights movement.”
Like Green America, Color Of Change runs campaigns that hit companies in the pocketbook, as the group presses for corporate accountability. The group has also started embracing divestment as an activist tool, helping to encourage investors to divest $60 million from the private-prison industry.
Green America has worked with Color Of Change to promote the group’s Blood Money campaign (see more, next page) and its action last year to pressure corporate CEOs to leave Trump’s business councils.
Green America’s Tracy Fernandez Rysavy talked to Brandi Collins—who holds a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Color Of Change’s senior campaign director for media, democracy, and economic justice—about her work, the group’s important wins, and how economic justice and civil rights are inextricably intertwined.
Green American/Tracy: Color Of Change was founded in part as a response to Hurricane Katrina. How has your mission evolved since then?
Brandi Collins: I don’t know that the mission itself has evolved. I think the core is always going to be to build power for Black folks and redefine the rules of what’s possible in our society, although we definitely see through a wider lens than just Black folks. We know that in order for us to achieve justice, we all have to win. Communities left on the margins have to win.
If anything, we’ve reaffirmed our mission as we see more and more the structural inequities that continue to work against us and keep us from moving forward toward a collective vision of another world where anything is possible. Where the American dream can feel real for all of us and not just a lucky few.
Green American/Tracy: What do you see as the connections between economic justice and civil rights?
Brandi Collins: At the end of the day, to me, everything is a combination of an economic or a media justice issue. So even when you talk about environmental justice and who suffers, where corporations feel comfortable dumping toxic waste and who they feel will suffer in silence, and why coal mines are built near certain communities, and why Black and Brown kids have higher levels of asthma, oftentimes, that comes down to an economic justice issue.
All of these different issues—whether tax or economic policies that you see on the local or federal level, or paid child care subsidies, or who most benefits from a tax credit, like the ones we’ve seen rolled out by this administration, versus social safety net programs—are both civil rights and economic justice issues.
Green American/Tracy: Your executive director Rashad Robinson has said that Color Of Change doesn’t just go after the Nazis and white supremacists—you go after the institutions that occupy the mainstream and make racism possible. Can you elaborate?
Brandi Collins: It’s tied to something the leadership here has thought deeply about, and that’s about understanding leverage as means to build power.
It’s not enough to stop who’s causing the pain. But [we have to look at] who benefits from the pain. We’ve seen very acutely the role that Silicon Valley and financial institutions have played in allowing white nationalism to thrive.
[For example], as we go online, information is gathered about us to create a data profile. Everything we click on, every article we share, every pair of boots we buy works toward creating this profile of who the internet thinks we are.
A story that we saw consistently with Dylann Roof [the white supremacist who murdered eight Black churchgoers and their pastor in Charleston, SC, in 2015] and others is of someone who has questionable views on life, or people of color, Black folks, and becomes increasingly more radicalized through their online experience.
The more the internet receives you as someone with white nationalist, alt-right views, the more it’s like, “Well, here are ten more people you can follow on Twitter who have more radical views than you. Here’s a bunch more articles you can share with your friends that talk about Black-on-Black crime or other false narratives.”
It radicalizes people. When you think about it through that lens, then there’s a certain amount of accountability that Silicon Valley needs to have.
A white nationalist doesn’t care about what Color Of Change thinks about their views. But Silicon Valley cares what Black and Brown folks think of them because they want our money, they want our data. So we have more leverage over them.
Same thing with our Blood Money campaign, [which asks the major credit-card and payment-processing companies to cut off hate groups from their financial services]. We worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center to discover that a lot of white nationalists were using PayPal and different financial institutions to support their sites—to be able to expand, to be able to go into places like Charlottesville, Berkeley, Portland, and create chaos.
Now it’s not like these financial companies can say, “Well, we’re making billions and billions of dollars off of white nationalists, so we don’t want to mess with our bottom line.” They were making pennies on the dollar.
But for those white nationalist groups, that $200,000 that they bring in each year allows them to keep their site open, allows them to travel to all sorts of places, allows them to amplify their message of hate.
Again, do they care about Color Of Change or what Black people think about what their site is doing? No. But do financial institutions care that millions of people are coming to them and saying, “We’ll cut up our credit card today. And we’re going to go out and talk about how you have blood on your hands because of Charlottesville, because the [white nationalist perpetrators] used money they got through your financial system in order to go there in the first place”?
Now the financial companies want to have a discussion. Now they’re able to cut off the financial flow that’s allowing these groups to thrive.
[Editor’s note: In August 2017, as white nationalists converged on Charlottesville, VA, for a rally, one drove his car through a group of counter-protestors, killing activist Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. As the Green American reported in our Fall 2017 issue, all four major credit card companies, as well as PayPal and Apple Pay, have agreed to cut off white supremacists from their services. Color Of Change notes that they still have hate groups using their services, and it continues to pressure the companies to develop and implement an anti-hate Acceptable Use Policies and divert resources to enforce them.]
Green American/Tracy: Can you talk a bit more about your work pressuring social media companies, as well?
Brandi Collins: We’ve had a lot of different conversations with companies in Silicon Valley. Eventbrite was one interesting campaign we ran last year. We noticed that a lot of white nationalist groups and individuals were selling tickets through Eventbrite. Again, this is pennies on the dollar for Eventbrite, but it allows white nationalists to amplify a message of hate.
So we reached out to Eventbrite, Facebook, Twitter, and to their credit, all of these entities have shown a willingness to talk with us, and to say, “This doesn’t align with our values. What can we do?”
We’ve also done a lot of interesting work with Airbnb because of the online discrimination that was happening [against renters] on their platform. That’s one corporation that really came to the table and said in our meetings, “We’d rather leave money on the table and get this right than get this wrong.”
Oftentimes, these are behind-the-scenes conversations that might result in different policy changes in their most positive form. But if I’m being completely honest, there’s still so much work to do.
Green American/Tracy: You’ve also worked on diversity issues, getting Twitter to release diversity data in 2014. Why is diversity at the highest levels of a company so important?
Brandi Collins: I want to be clear we never call for diversity just for diversity’s sake because a Black face in a white place doesn’t always ensure equity.
What we’ve seen time and time again is that when judgments are being made—Is this racist? Is this a problem?—there are certain things that go over people’s heads when they haven’t had that same level of experience.
With Facebook, for example, there was a ProPublica article that came out last year where ProPublica flagged for executives at Facebook around 50 pieces of hateful content on their site that had been reported by users but were allowed [by Facebook’s Community Standards team] to stay on the site.
Facebook admitted that almost half the time, they had gotten it wrong. Their response was, “We’re hiring more and more people.” But who are you hiring? Are you hiring someone who understands implicit threats rather than explicit? Who doesn’t need to see the N-word to know that something is hateful content?
Also, when Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and others are making decisions around the type of platform and the user experience, whose user experience are they taking under consideration?
When Uber makes a call that says they’re going to advertise in New York as, “Uber, cheaper to get to work than the train,” but they’re not willing to go into neighborhoods where people might actually benefit from being able to travel to work at a cheaper rate, what does that mean? How are we actually moving the equity of user experience?
By having diversity at all different decision points, it ensures that more of those discussions can happen internally, and you don’t have to have a Color Of Change knocking on your door when you’ve messed up, and our million members asking you what’s really going on.
We’re also doing some work around Hollywood diversity. Late last year, we released a report where we looked at the state of Hollywood writer rooms. What we see on TV and in our theaters matters.
For many people, they go through life without necessarily having an experience of what it means to have a person of a different ethnicity close to you in your life. So for a lot of white people and other folks, your experience of Blackness or what it means to be Latino or Asian is informed by what you see in the news and on TV, not necessarily by your neighbor.
Who’s in the writing room, and who’s telling those stories, and how people of color are being depicted matters.
We’re also doing work in diversifying newsrooms, because the “fake news” witch hunt led by this current administration has elevated certain mainstream news outlets, and we conveniently forget some of them are the worst when it comes to perpetuating harmful stereotypes around low-income communities and communities of color.
We released a report last year that talked about how Black families are depicted in the media. There were some interesting findings, not just things you expect to see from the more right-wing media but from a New York Times or a CNN.
Green American/Tracy: I’d love to hear more.
Brandi Collins: The report looked at 800 stories published or aired between January 2015 and December 2016 from national broadcasts and cable news outlets—ABC, CBS, NBC, the Washington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times, USA Today, and other online news sites. This study also correlated with election cycle, so these are the stories that were popping up as certain candidates were emerging.
When the media outlets we examined reported stories about poor families, they chose to feature Black families in their report nearly 60 percent of the time, even though only 27 percent of families living below the poverty line are Black.
Similarly, in coverage of welfare, 62 percent of families portrayed were Black, even though 40 percent of families receiving welfare are Black. Some of the worst offenders were Fox, CNN, the New York Times, and Breitbart—less surprising with Fox and Breitbart, a little more surprising around CNN and the New York Times.
There’s this deliberate decision-making that’s putting a Black or Brown face on poverty and on stories about who gets government benefits. Couple that with a narrative that we see consistently in media, shaped by our society, that anybody who does receive benefits or is involved in social safety-net programs is draining the system. They’re not seen as being important members of our society.
Also, poor folks are often not shown as working. But most poor folks are actually working; many have more than one job and still are not able to make ends meet. Instead of questioning why that is, there’s this built-in assumption of laziness.
When you look at whose faces are being shown when those messages are sent out, it tells a devastating story that has deep impacts from a policy standpoint, from all sorts of standpoints.
Green American/Tracy: You’ve also looked at local newsrooms as well?
Brandi Collins: When we were looking at local news, we did a report in New York, where we found that every station was over-representing Black crime by as much as 77 percent and dramatically under-reporting white crime.
There’s also another study done by our friends at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, who have led a number of different initiatives looking at the B-roll news stations use, and who’s on that B-roll, and who are spokespeople they go to, and what stories are being told. They found that every time police officers are up for budget renewals, they intentionally feed a higher level of super-predator crime stories to local stations.
The news stations are not even vetting these stories for themselves, or making distinctions like, “Are we showing an over-representation of Black folks?” They’re getting handed a stack of stories by police departments that are often disproportionately Black and Brown people, and they’re airing them.
That, coupled with a spike in super-predator stories overall means that there’s still a lot of work that still has to be done around humanizing our people. And in continuing to call out our elected officials and judges who use that sort of rhetoric as justification to pass or uphold harmful laws and legislation.
Green American/Tracy: How has Color Of Change used divestment as a tool for social justice?
Brandi Collins: I definitely want to get more into shareholder divestment. Our criminal justice team has done some work around divesting from the private-prison industry, including explicitly calling on political candidates to say that they will not accept money from the private-prison industry, especially if they want people of color to vote for them. Hillary Clinton had announced she would not when she was running her candidacy. That was some work happening behind the scenes from Color Of Change and others.
Another campaign that I ran early on in the election cycle called on corporations to divest from the Republican National Convention [because of Trump’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric], which is a little bit different from what we typically think of when we have conversations around divestment. We called for corporations to say they will not carry water for white nationalists and will not treat [hate speech] as business as usual when it’s not business as usual.
When we have a president that calls—excuse my French—Black and Brown countries “sh*thole countries,” and you as a corporation continue to sit down with him even as you rely on our dollars to exist, something’s not right there.
Green American/Tracy: Why is it so critical to divest from private prisons?
Brandi Collins: The prison industrial complex, in general, is a system that’s built on an economy of filling beds. What does that mean for our communities? Some of the things we’ve seen happening and the conditions we’ve seen in for-profit prisons are appalling, and they don’t have even a remote level of accountability that maybe public prisons would.
They’re all funded by venture capitalists, and their ability to make money depends on putting someone in cages at the lowest possible cost to maximize their profit. When we use that as a structure, there’s immediately a huge problem in terms of what sort of treatment incarcerated people receive, and what are the motivations to re-incarcerate and the de-motivations to invest in programs geared toward lowering the likelihood that someone will come back to prison.
By the time they go through these horrible prison conditions and are coming back into society, there’s no soft landing. Before you even walk out the door, you don’t have a chance to succeed, and they’re warming up a bed for your return.
Private prisons perpetuate that cycle in a number of different ways, whether it’s people who are unable to stay in touch with loved ones, who are incarcerated so many miles away from their families, and even if their families do want to stay in touch, they’re unable to travel. Whether it’s many of those costs being pushed back on already poor communities, like forcing them to pay for phone calls and food, or all sorts of things. It’s just a bad system.
Green American/Tracy: What can white “allies” and non-Black people of color do to support Color Of Change’s work and civil rights in America?
Brandi Collins: A lot of different things. We know anecdotally we have a pretty multiracial membership. So if you join Color Of Change, we provide a lot of opportunities for you to stay engaged and a lot of different activation points in your community.
For folks who can give a little, consider giving to organizations of color. And definitely look to the leadership that is emerging from those spaces. We have always seen and continue to see an incredible amount of young, old, multiracial, diverse, LGBTQ leadership. We need to challenge ourselves to be led by those folks.
I also want to mention our work at OrganizeFor.org. This mechanism allows people to start their own petitions. If you see an injustice happening in your community, and you want to do something about it, start a petition, and we will talk to you and help you move from a petition to a win in your community.
They always say social justice people are like cynical optimists. We have to believe another world is possible. I am surrounded and uplifted by all the people doing this work. Maybe we can’t imagine that other world because maybe we haven’t experienced that other world. But the fact that we keep striving toward it and coloring it in a little gives me hope.