The Federal Communications Commission is led by five commissioners and Mignon Clyburn counts as the longest-serving of that body.
A strong advocate for enhanced accessibility in communications for disabled citizens who also works closely with representative groups for the deaf and hard of hearing, Clyburn has fought to promote strong competition across all communications platforms with a belief that the more robust and competitive the marketplace, the less need there is for regulation, she said.
Clyburn, the daughter of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and a graduate of the University of South Carolina, began her service at the FCC in August 2009 after 11 years in the sixth district of the Public Service Commission of South Carolina.
Recently, the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to dismantle rules on net neutrality that Clyburn first spearheaded two years earlier.
The protections Clyburn championed in 2015 prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic. The rules also banned them from charging companies such as Netflix to reach their customers faster than their competitors.
“We are supposed to be here protecting the consumer’s experience and interests when it comes to communications and other services,” Clyburn said. “We are supposed to be enablers of opportunities, both for businesses and individuals.”
The commissioner spoke to The Washington Informer about various topics, including what’s in the pipeline that should concern African Americans and other minorities:
Washington Informer: Who inspired you?
Clyburn: If I were to look at my upbringing that would expand a little from my parents. I grew up in a community of four strong grandparents and they lived in different cities but had the same values. My paternal grandfather didn’t make it through high school but still enrolled in an HBCU.
When he couldn’t produce a diploma, he had to drop out. My grandmother did earn a degree. She went to boarding school and was an entrepreneur, and the beauty shops she established is still operating today.
On the maternal side, my grandmother wasn’t allowed to go past the sixth grade but she gave so much. And her husband was a tall, silent type, but when he put his foot down, that was it. He dropped out of college and took care of his family’s farm and really helped to raise a community.
WI: Can you briefly describe your role, particularly as the dissenting voice, on the FCC — a board that has just one woman?
Clyburn: I will admit to bringing a unique perspective that had not been heard from an African-American female perspective. I think it’s important to have representation outside the Beltway. It’s important to have voices when it comes to communications and technologies and the opportunities that come out of it. I went through stages where I felt much pressure.
When they call you the first … that pressure and all of those things that come with it can bear on you. You don’t want to make mistakes and stub your toe, but you ultimately do and sometimes you feel that pressure because you don’t want that mistake to be too significant for the next person. It’s all about recovery and recovery is in your hands. I’ve attempted to overcome [mistakes] so that one could marvel more about the recovery than the stubbing of the toe.
It’s my job, I believe, to open the door wider and not to do anything that would make it a single footnote in history, but a beginning of a brand and robust experience.
WI: You follow in the footsteps of those like Dr. Benjamin Hooks, William Kennard and Michael Powell (Retired Gen. Colin Powell’s son). What does that mean to you?
Clyburn: It can be and is humbling. It really is when you think about these giants. I got a chance to see Dr. Hooks and he wasn’t well but he came out because he knew the importance of [an FCC meeting]. Then, you look at Bill Kennard of West Coast upbringing and a former general counsel who came through the ranks. And when he led, it wasn’t problem-free, it was a lot of political challenges he overcame.
Then Powell, the son of a general who came with a different political persuasion but led in a way in which he was proud. So those three men I had an opportunity to interact with and they were supportive. I forgot about Tyrone Brown who continues to be a mentor today.
So I’m grateful to those men who have allowed me to evolve in this role in my own way and every single one of them were complimentary in recognizing my uniqueness and that’s important for those who come behind those legends.
WI: We know that broadband and minority ownership are key issues on your plate. Can you briefly tell us why that’s so important and why African Americans should be paying attention?
Clyburn: The FCC is one of the most significant federal agencies and most people don’t think about it or never heard of it unless there’s a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl or a four-letter word used during family hour. We are enablers of or stiflers of technology.
We are enablers or stiflers of broadband. We can ensure that more Americans can be connected. What we do can both make programs like Lifeline more ubiquitous and answer today’s needs when it comes to telecommunications or we can close the books where they don’t work ideally.
When you think about telecommunications, you can’t do anything without communicating and you can’t communicate effectively in the 21st century without communicating with broadband. I say to people that when they [ask] what does the FCC does. If you hear or see a signal transmitted over the air, the FCC had something to do with that.
WI: The high rates of prison telephone calls has been another big issue. Why is that a major topic of concern for you?
Clyburn: It’s very obvious that it’s time to achieve just and reasonable rates for families trying to keep in touch with their loved ones in prison facilities. The FCC has taken a path in doing what it can to make sure that the broken eco system is one that works best for those 2.7 million children who might have one parent behind bars.
This marks my 20th year as a regulator and this is the most broken, distressing and sad framework that I’ve ever seen. It’s making an already stressful situation even more dire for millions of families.
It is needless to charge what you can — the sky is the limit — and ensuring that already-poor people are put further into bankruptcy because they want to hear the voice of an incarcerated loved one.
This injustice is a sad commentary on this nation because, unfortunately, 2.7 million children apparently mean nothing to people, because if they did, we’d have a rate structure that’s reasonable. This could be fixed in a matter of weeks if we really put our minds to it.