An Interview with Nolan Rollins
By Daviona Moore
This installment of Can’t Touch This! features a striking interview with Nolan Rollins, long-time leader, and organizer. Nolan has dedicated most of his work to fostering strong communities within Urban League chapters around the nation, from Baltimore to New Orleans to Los Angeles.
Nolan and I dissect his experiences in his past work in addition to his speculations for the future of the fight against systemic injustice. Nolan attributed his inspiration and involvement in this work to his goal of utilizing his power to communicate and problem solve to help Black communities flourish.
Daviona Moore: What type of work do you do, both professionally and in your personal life?
Nolan Rollins: I've been really committed to equality for a very long time. It started when I was very young trying to figure out how a young man like me makes a difference in the community that he's from. I think I got on that trail by looking around and seeing the inequity that existed - seeing the inequity from an education standpoint to job opportunities, the list just goes on.
I've always felt that there's certainly a better way to be in America out there; that's an America for a little Black boy who looks like me.
So how do I figure out a way to take the talents that the universe has given me and use them. One is my ability to communicate verbally and the second is my ability to take really difficult situations and figure out how to develop very simple and elegant solutions to them. Those are the things that my mother would say are my superpowers.
Taking those two skills, it made sense that I’d go to school. I graduated from the University of Baltimore and made a really conscious decision to go to Grad school. I had a professor at my University of Baltimore who was going down to Florida to be a law professor. He said, “I think there's a really interesting opportunity for you there. I think that your skills match up nicely with being a lawyer. You should take a look at it.” And just like that, my life changed. The next thing I know, I applied to the law school and I was on a plane heading to Florida - all the while thinking, “How can I take these gifts that I've been given and use them to help the folks who I actually know are going to need me?”
I went back to Baltimore after I finished law school and one of my mentors, who was a judge, introduced me to Judge Mary Sue, a very famous attorney. She then introduced me to Jay Howard Henderson and at that time, he was the President and CEO of the Urban League in Baltimore. He wanted me to start the Urban League of young professionals in Baltimore. We created this core group of African American young folks whose main purpose was to create a more equitable Baltimore for people who look like us and push this generation forward.
We created the organization in 2001 and it's called the Greater Baltimore Leadership Association. The beautiful thing for us is that we were doing voter registration, helping out in hospitals, feeding the poor, and creating programs to help people understand money and how to work with it through budgeting and accounts. I went on to become the Eastern region Vice President of the National Urban League young professionals. I then went on to be the President of National Urban League young professionals, overseeing 67 chapters around the nation with 10,000 members.
I was asked to become the President and CEO of the Urban League in New Orleans to rebuild the urban league there post-Hurricane Katrina. They needed money for rent, lights, down payments, because their homes no longer existed. We were pushing an agenda with foundations and the state where we basically said we want $7 million, which we were awarded.
It was important to me to find interesting levers that we can pull to help people learn ways to pull themselves. I came to Los Angeles as the CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League here and again rebuilding positioning our folks pushing an agenda around inclusion from education into workforce development. I did that for six years and then I decided that my time in the urban League was going to be over, and then I was going to go into kind of my nerd lobes right, so my nerd loves technology, I think that the more inclusion in the technology spaces of people of color the better technology will actually be because I think a homogeneous technology platform is going to be detrimental to people who look like us.
I've transitioned from that and I’m actually the CEO of a wearable sports technology company I'm a Co-founder of StocSavvy and we're focused on women and women's consumerism and actually helping them to think more critically about wealth generation and creation.
Daviona Moore: Can you tell me more about the technology behind SMRT Mouth. What do you see for the company’s future?
Nolan Rollins: My way to go to college was through wrestling. So I was a high school and college wrestler. I was always cutting weight and on at least three occasions, I was in the hospital for dehydration. So imagine me using this mechanism to get a great education but it's the same thing that almost killed me. SMRT Mouth is a biometric mouth guard that uses sensory technology paired with algorithms to help folks understand their heart rate, core body temperature, hydration levels, and more. These are recorded in real-time to your tablet or phone. We think this is another solution that is really about how we can look at the 35 million amateur athletes in the mandatory mouthguard space and make sure that they're able to take care of themselves by knowing what’s happening in their bodies. It's a game-changer that’s about protecting people. I don't know how to think any other way: big problem, big solution. Helping many people - that's just how I’m built.
Daviona Moore: You’ve taken part in so many corporate spaces while maintaining community involvement. As a Black man, what challenges have you faced in the corporate sphere?
Nolan Rollins: Pretty much all of my life I've been the youngest person in every room I've been in. It's funny you know - the universe makes no mistakes. So I always have to raise my game to up to the level of who's there and then raise it even more because ageism is a real thing. Being a Black man in these rooms is very real now again. I've sat at corporate tables with the President of Shell Oil or President of JPMorgan and Chase, the list just goes on. We know that the President of every single one of those companies are white men. So my job is: to challenge the notions that they have of people who look like me because they've never met us before. I’m being intentional and not being afraid to walk in with my head held high.
Daviona Moore: Many folks have drawn parallels between the Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movements. How do you speculate the role of social media to impact the ongoing Black Lives Matter Movement?
Nolan Rollins: Everyone during the Civil Rights Movement pointed out the news on our new TVs, programs that were showing what was happening to Black folks in Selma and Mississippi. Black folks were shown being attacked by dogs or getting beat. Social media is decentralizing democracy in a way that we have never seen before. We’re given the opportunity to vote, speak and share our personal experience with our camera. We’re having conversations in ways we couldn't possibly imagine 10-15 years ago. So I think technology is a beautiful thing, but every beautiful thing has an ugly side. Where you get beauty and liberation, you're also going to get vitriol because liberation presupposes that you're in bondage. When you're in bondage, somebody is responsible for doing so while you're fighting for your liberation.
Daviona Moore: There was a lot of consciousness-raising in folks both in and outside of academia during the Black Lives Matter protests. Why do you personally believe an intersectional approach is important, and do you feel that there are some intersections that deserve more attention?
Nolan Rollins: There's no community in the United States that needs more therapy than the Black community. I think our ability to accept the rainbow of Blackness is a challenge that we have to work on. We cannot sit back and pretend like we don't have challenges in the Black community. We're attempting to dictate how someone lives their life, while we're telling our oppressor to stop telling us how to live our lives.
The oppressive nature of the country means that we've got to be at the very forefront of this issue. Nobody is better able to do that than the Black community. And the longer we have to sit and have conversations that divide us, the more energy we lose to fight the real enemy. That, for me, defeats the purpose of the journey for what we're here for which is a journey of equality. Equality cannot have guardrails that say “equality with exceptions.” That's not the equality I'm looking for.
Daviona Moore: Who were your role models when you were younger and why? Do you have any contemporary activists that you follow?
Nolan Rollins: When I was younger, it was my mother, it was my grandfather, it was my grandmother. All three of them because of their work ethic and their love for me unconditionally. My mother was the one that I was, as I was very close to, watching her work and understanding that she's actually doing these things for me. If I can't see value and greatness in a person who wakes up and goes to sleep every night just for me, then I'm missing what leadership looks like.
My grandmother because she taught us to always look out for one another. My grandfather showed me how to be a man who was consistent with his family and who went to work. This is what it looked like being raised in a house with my grandparents and my mother because my father was not there.
I think there are some really dope people out here now. I love the Color of Change and Black Lives Matter folks, of course. You need to cast folks like Marqueece Harris-Dawson. Another would be Dr. Andre Perry, a dear friend of mine when I was the president of the Urban League in New Orleans. Michael McMillan in St. Louis has been at the tip of the spear with everything that has been happening in the city. I think there are just amazing people out there who are doing amazing things, and I'm proud to know some of them and understand the work that they're doing.
Just like Gen X pushed the baby boomers, you Gen Z folks are pushing us. During the Civil Rights Movement, these were young kids who were out on the battle lines. These were kids who had a calling to do something far bigger that had nothing to do with age and everything to do with what's in their heart and their ability to deliver those actions. If we’re being honest, anybody who's trying to hold on to the reins now was young then, and they wanted their predecessors to let go and allow them to step in.
Daviona Moore: Do you have any closing remarks or call to action for our readers?
Nolan Rollins: What’s really important to me is that this is the time for young folks. That’s it. This is the time for young folks to do what young folks are supposed to do: move our country to where it’s supposed to be. Our [Gen X] job is to make sure that we're moving from what we've already done and allowing y'all to do what we could never imagine doing. The support that we've got to give to this generation is important. So my call to action is for young folks to not stop doing what you're doing because the truth is if we had it all answered you wouldn't have to do anything.
Daviona Moore: Thank you so much for sitting down with me Nolan. I really enjoyed speaking with you.