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In Person

Billy Wimsatt

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Billy Wimsatt founded The League of Young Voters in 2003 to organize and empower youth – particularly young people from low-income communities who haven’t attended college. Known by his graffiti tag name “Upski” while growing up in Chicago, Wimsatt has been writing and organizing for social change since dropping out of college more than 15 years ago. The author of Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons, in 2004 Wimsatt co-edited How To Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office, a collection of essays written by youth organizers around the world.

In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring.)

Yikes!… Chicago hip-hop kid turned journalist political organizer. Proud founder of League of Young Voters, but didn’t vote ‘til age 27. Never heard of me before? Your life just got better.

What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?

My Wikipedia entry, which contains inaccuracies!

Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.

I have two favorite things right now: Generation Vote and Power Vote. They’re both new alliances of youth groups doing vote work – with a twist. Generation Vote is for racial and social justice groups. Power Vote is the same thing, but for climate change. These alliances are different because: 1) They’re long-term and locally-based. 2) They have an issue agenda they’re going to push in 2009 at the local, state and national level. 3) They’re really, really, really collaborative, like, they actually trust each other. 4) You’ve never heard of them before. 5) Over the coming decade, they will redraw the US political landscape.

Describe your politics.

I’m for the underdogs and the polar bears. I’m for matriarchy and Barack Obama. I’m for green jobs, not jails. I want to turn the Titanic around before we hit the iceberg.

I believe we need deep transformation at all levels of society, individual and systemic. I hate the game, not the players. I love the suburbanites, not the suburbs. I believe that evil is real but good is real too! I believe in God and evolution and I believe it is our moral obligation to protect God’s creation. I believe that all life is sacred and that right now humans are out of balance. I believe that a society that worships material wealth cannot be reconciled with the Ten Commandments. I believe humans are trying to play God, and that genetic engineering, robotics and nano-technology are radically altering the fabric of human life into a scary science fiction novel.

I believe we need to change the game, re-invent the game, get together, hold hands, take a big deep breath, and come up with a new game where there are more winners and fewer losers. I want to see a happy ending in which humanity ultimately survives. I believe that whether the glass is half-full, one-quarter full or one-tenth full, we’ve gotta play the cards we are dealt. I believe in big baby steps.

How did you first hear about In These Times?

Funny story. When I was growing up in Chicago, my friends and I tried to organize a high school walk-out to protest Chicago’s school system (which Education Secretary William Bennett had labeled ‘worst in the nation’). We were looking for a space to have an all-city meeting. My friends and I were all graffiti writers and we knew this older guy named Bill Finley who worked in an art supply store and was one of the few adults helping us to find legal walls to paint.

One day, Bill told me he got a new job at a magazine called In These Times, and they had a space we could use for meetings. So we all went there. They gave us free copies of In These Times. I remember Bill saying: “If you all read In These Times for three months, you will quickly outdistance your peers in terms of understanding what’s going on in the world. If you read it for six months, you’ll outdistance your teachers.” Outdistance my teachers? That was too tempting to pass up!

—October 19, 2008

Media

Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?

Kari Lydersen. [Editor’s note: Lydersen is anIn These Times contributing editor.] She’s probably my all-around most favorite young journalist, sort of a less-well known counterpart to Naomi Klein. She listens to the real people who are getting screwed over – families getting kicked out of public housing in Chicago, farmers getting kicked off their ancestral lands in Mexico. Global local, local global— she connects us back and forth from Chicago neighborhoods to global trade agreements.

She cares about the people she’s writing about…. beyond the page. She doesn’t just write about people getting kicked out of the projects, she teaches journalism classes in the projects so people can tell their own stories. She’s also the only person I know who writes for StreetWise (the homeless newspaper), and The Washington Post. She’s an extremely rare species. Every human being should aspire to be more like Kari Lydersen.

Pick your five favorite websites and tell us why.

Five? I can’t do five. I need to do eight: these websites together tell the story of the youth movement and youth culture. Pass these on to the young whip-snaps in your life…

Future5000.com – Best connector to the local youth movement in most states, created by dynamo Jessamyn Sabbag from Generational Alliance.

Wiretapmag.org – Best magazine covering youth issues and the youth movement —run by the fabulous Kristina Rizga.

FutureMajority.com –Best youth-focused “Big P” Political blog, created by author Mike Connery, who wrote a book Youth to Power and has best youth politics blog roll.

DaveyD.com –Best site on hip-hop politics created by legendary radio host Davey D, who has been doing online hip-hop activism since the mid-‘90s. Davey is a living national treasure.

CantStopWontStop.com –Created by savvy hip-hop political reporter Jeff Chang, it includes a good hip-hop culture blog roll called “Fiyahblogs.”

ItsGettingHotInHere.org –Sassy mouthpiece of the youth climate movement, created by Energy Action Coalition.

CampusActivism.org –Most comprehensive connector site on campus activism, created by Philly super programmer-activist Aaron Kreider. Good calendars of events.

TheLeague.com –League of Young Voters site has good links to political youth groups, especially local voter organizing groups, plus TheBallot.org which features local voter guides across the country (make sure your town has one!).

Wow, that’s a pretty good list. Pass this on to teachers to share with their students. Every young person needs to know about these websites.

What’s your favorite web-based tool for your job? Give us a quick walk through on how to use it.

I have to give props to DemocracyInAction.org for the best, most affordable web-based data management tool. It keeps getting better –and it’s run with a movement vision. Let a thousand MoveOn’s bloom! (Just, please, not in my inbox.)

Politics

If you were to describe George Bush in three words, they would be:

He united us.

My political awakening occurred when…

My white friends who did drugs got sent to college. My black and Latino friends who did drugs got sent to prison.

What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?

So many laws, so little time! Green Jobs Act. Employee Free Choice Act (helps unions). Health Care. Iraq. Debt relief.

Good news: We can have all this legislation (and more) passed by next year, if we’re willing to work for it!

Bad news: Most of it won’t get passed, or will be terribly watered down, even with a Dem in the White House, unless we get 60 votes in the Senate. Unless Dems have 60 votes and a progressive mandate, Senate Republicans will fight like hell and filibuster to stop anything progressive from passing. That means we have to take out Republicans in: Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, … Lots of work to do in the next few months!

What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see defeated?

I think we need to shift the focus from how to individually defeat each bad law. The individual bad laws are part of a larger right-wing political movement. The right-wing movement needs a hug. And the whole system needs to be changed –starting with removing the bad guys. It’s the same group of guys behind all the bad laws, no matter the issue. We need to stop focusing on each issue, and start focusing on organizing in their home districts.

That’s Step 1. But Step 1 isn’t enough because the people we elect will have the same industry devils sitting on their right shoulder, whispering Satanic verses in their ear. But instead of pitchforks they will have policy briefs.

That’s why we need Step 2: Step 2 is all of us little people rising up together with our values, our volunteer time, our money, our networks, our voices, and our votes. We need to build our capacity to flex our strength every year, in every county and eventually in every precinct in America. That’s why I try to tell young people: Do not move to New York or California, Boston, D.C. or Chicago. These are not the cool places to live.

The cool places to live are in the suburbs (yes, I said it) and small towns where it’s much easier to make a political impact. If you organize 200 people to vote or sign a petition in the right district –in Bernalillo County, N.M., or Hamilton County, Ohio, or thousands of other places— you could personally, directly and dramatically impact national elections and national legislation, not to mention state and local. That’s exciting! And a lot of progressive people just don’t get it.

Who is your favorite elected leader, past or present? Why?

One of my favorites is Khari Mosley. Khari is the youngest elected ward leader in Pittsburgh. He loves Pennsylvania like no one I have ever met. I think he’s going to be governor one day. The organizations he’s helped build in Pittsburgh have already helped elect three progressives to City Council. They got bus cuts reduced from 50 percent to 11 percent. They are passing the first “community benefits agreement” in western Pennsylvania. And they’re working to revive Pennsylvania as a center for green jobs.

My other favorite is Jane Kim. She is the youngest person on the San Francisco School Board. She helped pass a law that institutionalizes an innovative Youth Vote program in all the high schools. Every San Francisco public school will register seniors who are 18 as voters, and hold real elections in the school for all students – whether or not they can vote – including non-citizen and undocumented students. They also educate the students about everything on the ballot so they can make informed choices. The high-school election results are then publicized prior to each local election (California has mail-in voting) so that high-school students will become a highly influential voting bloc.

For more stories like this, check out the Young Elected Officials Network. And the book How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, co-edited by myself and Adrienne Maree Brown.

Personal

Name a historical figure you’d like to take out to dinner. Why?

Bill Clinton is a historical figure. It would be fun to have dinner with him. I’d like to ask him why the prison population doubled while he was in office. But I’d also like to ask him to pay for dinner because of all my tax dollars he used up to build prisons.

How do you get around (bike, public transportation, car)? Why?

I’m a public transit fanatic.

In my travel bag right now, I literally have active fare cards from five different cities: a Metro card from NYC, a CTA pass from Chicago, A BART card from the Bay Area, a Charlie Ticket from Boston and a Metro card from Washington D.C.

And I like buses, not just trains. I like Greyhound and the Chinatown bus. It costs $35 roundtrip to go from NYC to D.C. People always say: “Oh my God, you ride the bus,” like it’s a form of torture. I feel at home on the bus. I even like buses in L.A.! People always say: “You can’t take the bus in LA. Nobody takes the bus.” Well, actually, millions of people do. They even have the Bus Riders Union.

Are you a parent? Any parent/kid related resources that you know of and love?

I’m not a parent, and this is probably going to make me really unpopular, but I believe one of the best resources are adoption agencies! I believe that all children are our children. There are millions of children who need loving families. There’s an enormous social pressure and expectation to have biological kids, even for gay people now. And really, nothing against that choice. I might decide to have a biological kid myself. Not sure yet. This really isn’t a judgment against people who have kids. I think we need to find a way to have these conversations without creating a feeling of judgment either way. And I also want to give super props to people who stand up to the social pressure, and choose to care for kids who aren’t their biological offspring.

A century ago, we had to have a lot of kids to tend the farm because of infant mortality, and there was no birth control. A century ago, there were only a billion people on the planet. Now there are six billion. By the middle of the century, there will be ten billion people –all aspiring to consume like Americans— which will test Earth’s carrying capacity. I believe we live in a new reality where we need to focus our energy and resources on the quality of love and care we give to the young people who are already here. I think it will take a long time for us to emotionally adjust to this new reality. In the meantime, I’m a big proponent of adopting kids who already exist and who need more caring adults in their lives.

What’s the best piece of advice someone gave you when you were young?

That would be Paul Dawson, a politics professor at Oberlin College. Professor Dawson told us: “You’re all good people. You just need to get power.” This piece of advice clobbered me over the head. And it still does. Because I was sitting there constantly questioning myself and other people on whether I was being good enough.

But it made me realize that there was this whole other set of kids who were going to business school and law school and who were not questioning whether they were good. They just assumed they should have money and power. And that for all the flaws of myself and my fellow Oberlin students and people who read In These Times, most of us are fundamentally not like that. We are people who are oriented to think about how to do good. And it is a moral imperative for good people to get power. Because otherwise, we leave all of the power in the hands of the people who are oriented not to think about how to do good.

Culture

What’s the last, good film you saw?

I’m a little biased because my cousin is a film producer and he made some great movies this year: Talk to Me, Lars and The Real Girl, The Dew Breaker, Death at a Funeral, Kite Runner… These are quality movies that didn’t do as big as they should have at the box office. It’s getting harder and harder to make quality movies turn a profit in Hollywood, so very few are getting made now.

Taxi to the Dark Side was amazing too, even though my cousin didn’t make it.

What is the last, best book you have read?

Non-fiction, I’d say: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. This is a fascinating book about management and team dynamics (ahem, not that any of our social justice organizations would need help in this area).

Fiction: I’m a big fan of Octavia Butler. I have read some of her series The Parables, and the Patternmaster: Wild Seed, etc. They’re about surviving in the future when the world has gone to hell, and building a progressive movement in the face of incredible odds. I also loved The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk, which is in the same vein. I wonder how much she was influenced by Octavia Butler.

Guilty television watching pleasure?

“The Wire,” of course, which is also about movement-building. Do you like how everything is actually about movement-building?

Give an example of pop culture that you love and make the case that is it subtly or subversively leftist.

“Weeds” –a show about a suburban housewife who becomes a drug dealer. You don’t even need to make a case here. It’s front and center, ripping to shreds the rationale for the drug war, and poking wicked fun at the absurdity of upper-middle-class suburban life.

What texts, persons, or events have inspired you the most?

Recently, the climate and green jobs movement are the smartest thing I’ve seen. Energy Action Coalition is amazing. Last fall, they organized the biggest youth lobby day ever. They had 6000 young people. And they trained 2000 of them to lobby Congress with green hard hats, saying: “It’s not just about the environment, it’s about jobs in your district.”

What person deserves to be a lot more famous than they are?

Robert ‘Biko’ Baker. Biko is the executive director of The League of Young Voters – he took my place early this year. Biko is one of those rare people who is a bridge between the progressive movement and young people in the ‘hood. With all this hoopla about the election, he is someone who really stands for kids in the inner cities having a voice in the political process. Not just in 2008 when the spotlights are on, but in 2009 and for the long term. Check him out over at The League.

—October 19, 2008