The Root 100 Close-Up: Rashad Robinson

The executive director of is a strong believer in online power to make social change.

Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

In his senior year of high school, Rashad Robinson organized a protest. It was, says this veteran connoisseur of protest, a "very successful" one. A drugstore in his hometown of Riverhead, N.Y., had decided that it would not serve high school students during school hours.

The policy, Robinson says now, was a clear example of the kind of infuriating circular thinking that adults sometimes inflict on teenagers: Kids who play hooky are not in school during school hours; therefore, any student not in school during those hours must be playing hooky. And we wouldn't want to encourage that, would we?

"But there were breaks during the day when students could leave the campus," says Robinson, a 2011 The Root 100 honoree, who for the past seven months has been executive director of the national activist organization "It was a very discriminatory policy. Young people used to go into the drugstore during those hours to buy sodas and things."

The series of sidewalk demonstrations that the teenaged Robinson spearheaded, involving dozens of students at a time marching in front of the drugstore and its alarmed managers, was so successful that it drew the attention of network television stations and Newsday, the paper of record on Long Island. The drugstore quickly folded.

"There was no way they could hold out after that," Robinson says.

The protest turned out to be a small victory for non-truant high school students with a yen for sodas, but a big-time lesson in political power for everybody involved. "We learned very quickly the power that everyday people can have in creating accountability," he says.

Robinson is putting that knowledge -- seasoned and expanded now from dozens of other campaigns throughout his career as an activist -- to work for the 800,000-member, the largest black online political organization in the country. This is the group that scuttled talk-show host Glenn Beck's Fox-TV program after he asserted, among other racially divisive statements, that President Obama was a racist. launched a petition drive to get Beck off the air, garnering more than 200,000 signatures, then focused on his advertisers, demanding that they withdraw their support.

Robinson took over the reins of the organization just in time to see Beck depart from Fox to cable-television obscurity. "By then his advertisers were, like, that company that asks you to send them your gold for cash or the makers of home face-lifts," Robinson says. "Not McDonald's or Johnson & Johnson."

In person, Robinson, 33, is energized and articulate, a dynamo who speaks passionately about the business of "advocacy." "ColorOfChange was born out of the principle that democracy works when all of our voices are heard," he says. The idea is to use the power of sheer numbers to effect social change. When several hundred thousand citizens get behind an idea, it's amazing what can be accomplished.