Civic Leadership Conference keynote speaker urges students to find their ‘power’

Rashad Robinson spent a lot of time with his grandfather as a child and often accompanied him to the voting booth. Sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders, he would read the names of the candidates to his grandfather as he pulled the lever to vote.

Not until after his grandfather had passed away did he learn his grandfather couldn’t read.

“I always think about this when I think about our participation in society, regardless of where we sit, whether we are privileged or vulnerable,” said Robinson. “My grandfather felt it was still his goal and his passion to participate, even though there were probably so many reasons as to why he shouldn’t, and he would pass that on in so many ways to his grandson.”

Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, was speaking to an audience of nearly 100 students at the second annual Yale Civic Leadership Conference on Jan. 30. The conference was organized jointly by the Yale Civic Leadership Initiative and Citizen University at Yale’s West Campus.

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said a phone call last year with Citizen University founder Eric Liu ’90 led to the creation of the Yale Civic Leadership Initiative, an effort to cultivate civic leadership capacities among a diverse cross-section of students. Together, they organized the first conference in February 2015.

Liu's organization, Citizen University, helped organize the first Civic Leadership Conference. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

The main aim of the conference is to help students see themselves as civic leaders in their fields and make sure they are equipped to spark change in the world, said Liu. He also noted that he believes everyone has a capacity for civic leadership if given the proper tools.

At the start of the conference, Liu outlined three aspects of civic leadership that he encouraged students to think about throughout the day: narrative, power, and purpose. The seven afternoon workshops focused on these three aspects and included sessions on the power of visual media, connecting students with their communities, and a case study on Detroit’s educational system.

In his keynote address, Robinson recounted various examples of how he used his power to effect change. When he was growing up, stores in his hometown decided to ban young people from entering. Robinson gathered his friends and mobilized people to protest the stores’ policy. While the ban ended, Robinson said the experience taught him the limitations of protest as well as the power.

“After it was over, we all sort of went back to doing what we were doing before, shopping at those stores that banned us,” he said. “I kept thinking about the deeper changes we can force on the system. Did we really win?”

Robinson took the lessons he learned from that experience with him and, as a part of Color of Change, he helped lead the fight against discriminatory voter ID laws that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had been pushing. Color of Change mobilized its members and pressured ALEC’s corporate members to withdraw their funding. Since the campaign began, over 100 corporations have left ALEC, leaving ALEC with a $1.5 million budget shortfall.

Reflecting on the experience, Robinson said some of the corporations dismissed Color of Change at first since the organization lacked recognition. Other corporations commended Color of Change for its “smart, clear, proactive” campaign and gave “sympathizers who wanted to do the right thing the power to move things along.”

“That’s the power of our members stepping in to the fight: the clarity of purpose and demands coming from our members that gives us the ability to negotiate a different way. It’s the constant challenge to make powerful political lives possible,” he said.

In another example, Robinson talked about the work he did at GLAAD in trying to increase the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) characters and stories shown on network television and news. After having criticized Fox a number of times for their coverage of LGBTQ people, the president of Fox invited him to a board executive meeting about an upcoming show called “Glee.” While Robinson joked that he didn’t think “Glee” would last, he acknowledged the power the show would have on LGBTQ lives.

“It’s about elevating our everyday presence, and it’s about thinking how we translate that into power,” said Robinson. “It’s why movements like Black Lives Matter make us stronger. It’s why worker movements make us stronger. It’s why empowered men and women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, young people, and active elders make us stronger. There’s something unique about all these movements but also something central: it’s that we all want to express our common will for a better future.”

The conference also included a panel featuring student leaders throughout campus. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

Beyond the conference, Holloway said, he hoped students would take the lessons from the conference and apply them in their everyday interactions. Last semester’s events, when discussions on race and inclusivity took over campus discourse, was “an important test,” he said, and urged students to talk and listen to one another, even if they disagree.

“We can disagree on many, many things. In fact, we probably should; it’s healthy. But we need to identify and embrace the things we share we in common,” said Holloway.

Liu said he hopes to start hosting events throughout the year in addition to the annual conference in the form of “conversation and learning settings where people across the left and right can come to re-humanize each other and learn how to disagree well.”

At the afternoon panel of campus leaders, students addressed how they have acted as civic leaders in their own organizations. Zach Young ’17, a William F. Buckley fellow, talked about the challenges facing conservative voices. After the conference ended, Young and other students began planning a follow-up activity to build cross-partisan dialogue on campus. Liu said their enthusiasm is “a real indication of how beneficial the conference was."

Robinson agreed and urged students to think of themselves as powerful, adding that even if they don’t think they have power, in some phase of their life they are able to influence conversations. He concluded by reminding students that the learning process doesn’t end after college.

“When you leave the college campus, you simply head out to another campus,” he explained. “You head into other types of environments with written and unwritten rules and your ability to navigate that and be inside of yourself and understand who you are in the world will be incredibly important.”