Portrait of the Activist

As a Young Man

| September-October 2002

At the height of the 1990s scare about inner-city crime, a young, white graffiti artist from Chicago's South Side named William Upski Wimsatt ventured across the country, spending the night on the streets in some of the country's most notorious neighborhoods. Borrowing a page from Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, Wimsatt called his travels a Bet With America, declaring that nothing bad would happen to him. He was right, and in fact he met many amazing and inspiring people. He chronicled his experiences in Bomb the Suburbs (Soft Skull Press, 1994), a spirited defense of life in the big city.

Wimsatt's tour and book caught our attention, and in 1996 we named him, then 23, as one of 20 Utne Reader visionaries for the year, noting his accomplishments as a 'graffiti writer, inner-city journalist, hitchhiker, chronicler and critic of hip-hop culture.' Being lauded as a visionary prodded him to drop out of Oberlin College and follow his dream of becoming a full-time social activist.

Since then he has been involved with projects ranging from advising young philanthropists to promoting alternative education outside the school system. His second book, No More Prisons (Soft Skull Press), was published in 1999.

Wimsatt's essay 'My Generation' is adapted in part from The Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the U.S., a book chronicling young activists in all 50 states to be published this fall (Subway & Elevated Press; www.future500.com). Wimsatt is one of a team of writers and researchers working on the project as part of Active Element, the first foundation to fund youth organizing and activism nationwide, across all issues, constituencies, and organizing styles (www.activelement.org). One of the foundation's chief goals is to connect and support this new generation of visionaries.