America – Billy Wimsatt

June 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

I thought I’d posted this last year after my US trip, but I hadn’t. I think it is still relevant, so enjoy meeting Billy!

On the flight from Boston to San Francisco last night, I read Billy Wimsatt’s latest book (one of the benefits of being off-line for seven hours in a row..). He’s most famous for his hip-hop culture book ‘Bomb The Suburbs‘ in the 1990’s, and he’s since gone on to become a central figure in the US youth movement. (The name ‘Upski’ was his graffiti tag.) We met after a talk he gave to the Harvard Democrats Society as the political scene here enters the final days before the mid-term elections on Tuesday.


20 years in the US youth movement

The book is an honest account of the successes and failures of the youth/progressive movement in the US from 1985-2010 and parallels his own maturing process alongside the movement becoming more strategic, more collaborative and ultimately – more successful.

He set up the League of Young Voters, the Generational Alliance, worked on founding the Rich Kids Doing Good movement – getting young mini-philanthropists involved in social change (a bit like our very own Youth Funding Network), and has worked with just about every youth/social justice organisation there is! He’s focused on bringing together the different wings – cultural creatives, electoral, social justice, issue campaigns – to work together strategically, and build bridges between different silos. He now often talks about building a Super Movement (dreadful name for a nice idea) of getting active people in each precinct working together – fundraising, doing electoral work, local issue campaigns and building community.

Becoming an adult

He’s 36 years old now, so even by the generous UN definition of youth he’s definitely an adult. He now works for the Movement Strategy Center, visualising what movements will look like in the future – how they’ll use new tools, how they’ll build alliances and how they’ll start to implement those changes.

This diagram from the Center I found particularly useful – he describes how work that we do usually falls into four categories – and we need them all!

  1. Resistance
  2. Reform
  3. Governance
  4. Build Alternatives


He also shared his three rules for being a movement adult;

  • be good
  • get power
  • don’t do anything to mess up your life (pants on, mouth shut, finances in order)


Being so involved in the hip-hop/graffiti/music scene has given him a really interesting perspective on race in the US. He goes deep into his own transformation of first being ignorant about race and oppression, then being incredibly angry and guilty at his own whiteness, being hypersensitive about his privilege (to the point of not doing his job properly as an Executive Director in charge of a team of mostly queer women of colour), and finally realising that to look at people only by their skin colour/gender/sexuality/physical ability ultimately does a disservice to them as an individual. Yes, we need to have the difficult conversations about race, yes we need to acknowledge and work to overcome the systems of privilege – but being an ‘ally’ to people of colour means being a friend. We need to laugh, dance and have fun together. That’s not a bonus – that’s the whole point of it all!

He quotes Kofi Taha and writes, ‘The paradox we have to live with is that racism is real, but race is not.’


  • Power may corrupt – but so does powerlessness. If you’ve got no option but to be exploited in your work because you’re poor – you’ve been corrupted by that. We are corrupted – mind, body and spirit – by powerlessness as much as by power.
  • One idea that struck me as really interesting, is the concept that Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers– that being born at a certain time is as important as any talent/practice. 1953 – for example – was the right time to be born if you wanted to become a computer/software honcho, young enough that large capacity computers were at your disposal while you were at university, but old enough to have created the start-ups that have now made it big – Microsoft, Apple etc.
  • What if the same is true of social movement organisers? We’re young enough to have had technology in our pockets since our 13th birthday – mobiles, email, facebook – and especially in the US context – we’re old enough to have had good experience in campaigns, especially the Dean and Obama campaigns.
  • I’ve definitely been guilty of the elitist attitude that he slams by saying, ‘It’s not okay to look down on people. It’s not okay to call them rednecks or trailer trash, to say ‘oh those evangelicals’ and roll our eyes. That’s not being progressive. That’s being an asshole.’ Zing.
  • I also wanted to share this saying by Hazrat Ali Haider – an Islamic Caliph, that he quotes;Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
    Watch your words, for they become actions.
    Watch your actions, for they become habits.
    Watch your habits, for they become character.
    Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

To Read

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