The Human Rights Campaign has named Kelley Robinson its new president, the organization announced Tuesday.
Robinson comes to HRC from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, where she has been executive director since 2019. She is HRC's ninth president and the first Black queer woman to lead the group -- the nation's largest LGBTQ+ rights organization, with 3 million members and supporters.
"I am just honored, humbled, and feel I'm so ready," Robinson, 36, tells The Advocate. Her first day on the job will be November 28.
She succeeds Alphonso David, who was fired by HRC in September 2021 after an uproar over his work for Andrew Cuomo when Cuomo was governor of New York and faced sexual harassment accusations. David, the first Black man to lead HRC, has since sued the organization, alleging racial discrimination, something the group denies. Joni Madison, who had been HRC's chief operating officer and chief of staff, has been serving as HRC's interim president since David's departure.
Instead of the controversy surrounding David, Robinson prefers to focus on the work HRC has done and will continue to do. "HRC is an incredible organization, and the work they've done speaks for itself," she says. "I wouldn't be able to be in the position I'm in without HRC."
She adds, "I'm entering this role with a deep commitment to leading with equity" and to "building an organization that is as inclusive as the people we're fighting for."
Robinson calls herself "an unlikely activist." She grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Missouri, and she encountered "insidious racism" at the school, she says. "It was an awakening for me ... that just my being was a threat to the people around me," she says. She left college for a while and worked as a mixed martial arts fighter and bartender before becoming a political organizer with Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.
She worked with Obama for America in mid-Missouri in 2008, where she registered more than 30 percent of young people attending local colleges to vote and mobilized tens of thousands of others to engage with the campaign.
In 2009 she joined Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (serving Iowa and eastern Nebraska), where she led grassroots organizing that ultimately led to passage of legislation in Iowa expanding Medicaid coverage for family planning services. She became national field manager for Unite for Gender Equity in 2010, then went to work for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, first as associate director for youth engagement from 2011 to 2015 and national organizing director from 2015 to 2019.
Robinson fought efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal the Affordable Care Act. She also helped to create and launch the PP Defenders -- a national virtual volunteer program that recruited over 500,000 members. Her other accomplishments include overseeing an increase in the number of supporters from 6.5 million in 2012 to over 18 million today, with an emphasis on young people and people of color, and helping to quadruple the annual budget resulting in a $45 million electoral program in 2020, the largest electoral program in PPAF's history. She also led efforts that tripled Planned Parenthood's campus presence, growing the youth and campus program to represent over 350 affiliated campus groups and 1.5 million activists nationwide, reflecting the diversity of the communities served.
She has been a trainer in residence at the Management Training Center, where over the past five years Robinson has coached over 1,000 nonprofit and social justice leaders on managing people and program best practices with an equity and racial justice perspective.
She comes from a supportive family who embraced her queer identity. "I've been truly blessed," she says. Her forebears were the first free Black family in Muscatine, Iowa. Iowa was the first state to rebuke slave laws and, many years later, the third to legalize same-sex marriage. She is married to Becky George, who works in gun violence prevention, and they have one child.
She comes to HRC at a time when there is great potential for further progress for LGBTQ+ rights but also substantial backlash, particularly in state legislatures and particularly against the most vulnerable members of the community, such as transgender youth and people of color.
The backlash has come because of victories LGBTQ+ Americans have won, Robinson says. More victories are possible, she says, with an expansion in the number of supportive elected officials -- for instance, electing a few more pro-equality U.S. senators. Yet, as happened with the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade's national guarantee of abortion rights, other rights are just one court ruling away from revocation, she notes.
So this is no time for half-measures, she says. "It's time for us to fight back in ways that are bigger and bolder than what we've ever done before," she says. "I'm not looking for supporters anymore -- I'm looking for champions."
HRC officials say she is the right person for this challenging time. "After extensive engagement with staff and volunteers in our community across the country, we learned exactly what type of leader HRC needs to take us boldly into the future," says a statement from Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson, board chairs for HRC and its foundation. "We have found that forward-thinking brilliance in Kelley Robinson. Kelley is widely respected for her work and leadership creating diverse winning coalitions, building political power with a focus on underserved and the most marginalized communities, and creating programs that change culture. She led the largest political program in Planned Parenthood Action Fund's history and has been at the center of critical fights to protect against repealing the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood -- which saved access to critical, lifesaving healthcare services for millions of Americans including many in the LGBTQ+ community. These past months have reminded us why equality and liberation work is so important and we believe Kelley Robinson is the exact person to help us lead the fight for all LGBTQ+ people around the world. We are excited to build on the tremendous work of our teams at HRC and to grow our strength, compassion, knowledge, and reach through the visionary leadership of Kelley Robinson."