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Can the Youth Brigade Stop a GOP Takeover?

We check in with author, firebrand, and voting activist William Upski Wimsatt.

| Sat Oct. 23, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

MJ: How do you plan to build this "super movement"?

WW: Step 1. Don't get crushed in the midterms. A dozen volunteers could swing a House race. We need to jump in with both feet like we did in 2008, even though we're not in the mood.

Step 2. We need to recognize we're all on the same team. We're all on this Titanic together. Even if we just take the most progressive 5 percent of the population, that's 16 million people who are total kindred spirits. Most of them have names, phone numbers, and email addresses.

Step 3. After the election, November 13-14, people will be gathering across the country at Rootscamp sessions to talk about where we go from here. How can we build an integrated progressive movement as strong as the tea party? It's an incredible time to make a case that we can't lock up nonviolent, first-time offenders at a cost of $35,000-40,000 a year. It's an incredible time to make the case that we can't afford these 700 military bases around the world, and wars of discretion. It's an incredible time to make the case that we need to invest in creating jobs. And somehow we've been losing the argument.

MJ: What's the end game here?

WW: The most eloquent way I've heard it was, "Free people living in fair society and a healthy planet."

MJ: Why didn't youth organizing blow up after Obama mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people?

WW: Ha! Great question. First, a lot of lists and Facebook groups did grow: Rock the Vote, MoveOn, Organizing For America—their lists all got way bigger. One structural problem is that donors expect miracles from youth groups, like they're magical ponies that run on pennies! This generation is the most progressive in recorded history. We voted for Dems by 22 points in 2006 and 34 points in 2008. Anyone who believes in progressive change but doesn't invest in youth and leadership in communities of color is not to be taken seriously. Finally, it's because we—and I include myself in this—are just not imaginative and inspiring enough. It's game time. We have a huge opportunity!

Children of the '80s: eighth grade graduation.Children of the '80s: eighth grade graduation.MJ: You told me earlier that you've been thinking of race in a new way. How so?

WW: I think the realities of race have changed quite bit in the last 15 years. But my thinking about how to be a good "anti-racist" white ally has evolved dramatically. I learned the hard way that a lot of the orthodoxy on how to be a good white person is too much about hating yourself. And that doesn't actually end up helping. Basically, we can't love people of color if we don't love ourselves. What we need is to love both.

MJ: How has this realization affected your work?

WW: The orthodoxy for good white men in the movement is to create space and get out of the way, so I was very focused on not dominating. What I actually needed to do was be a good manager. Being an executive director is extremely hard! It takes a lot of different skill sets and types of intelligence. It's like being a mini-Barack Obama. It can be very isolating. No one understands except other executive directors, and you can't talk to them because they're your competition.

MJ: Does it still make sense to talk about hip-hop activism?

WW: The moral and political power of hip-hop has faded, but there is so much vibrancy in new and social media—people making YouTubes and doing green stuff. There are still millions of people who've grown up and been influenced by hip-hop and punk and rave and jam bands and who are socially and culturally and politically attuned. So, how do you awaken and organize that sleeping giant?

We have to be a little bit like Malcolm Gladwell in understanding and building social phenomenon. I always make fun of the philanthropic spectrum—they are just now figuring out about hip-hop, which had its best political moment 20 years ago. We have to be more on the ball with understanding popular culture and connecting it to movement culture. This rally that Stewart and Colbert are doing could be the most galvanizing thing for progressive folks. And we are sitting around, like, "Ha?" There are kids putting out YouTubes with five million views talking in a funny voice. We need to figure out how to do that and connect it to something real.

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