Billy Wimsatt is founder and Executive Director of the Movement Voter Project, an organization that works to strengthen progressive power at all levels of government by helping donors – big and small – to support the best and most promising LOCAL community-based organizations in key states – with a focus on youth and communities of color.
Billy has 20 years of experience in journalism (published in Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, etc), social entrepreneurship (co-founded several organizations including the League of Young Voters, Ready for Warren, Solidaire, and Rebuild the Dream), philanthropy (co-founded Solidaire and consults for individual donors and family foundations), and consulting (Obama Campaign, MoveOn.org, Rock the Vote, Ohio Democratic Party, Green For All).
He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The growth of a “multifaceted movement of movements”, recognizing the intersectionality of current issues
- The understanding that supporting “organizations you’ve never heard of, in swing states where you don’t live. That’s what’s gonna save us.”
- The value of taking time for conversation and finding common ground with others of differing views.
- The idea of “deep canvassing”, building relationships through asking questions and sharing stories.
- The dual aims of campaigning to win elections and (more importantly) to win at reconnecting as humans.
- “Our greatest tool has to be love and building beloved community, because we can never actually change things sustainably with fear.”
Movement Voter Project https://www.movement.vote
Connect with Billy Wimsatt
Episode 67 with Billy Wimsatt
Founder and Executive Director of the Movement Voter Project
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go right?, a project to the Post Carbon Institute in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question. In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong or going awry, what could possibly go right?
And my guest today is Billy Wimsatt. He’s the founder and executive director of the Movement Voter Project. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism, philanthropy, organizing and social entrepreneurship, and has advised hundreds of donors to strategically invest tens of millions of dollars in hundreds of organizations and initiatives in 48 states. He prides himself on talent scouting, offering, nurturing, supporting, coaching and facilitating a spirit of strategic collaboration.
Over the years, his work in partnership with many others, has helped to swing hundreds of close local state and federal elections, and to pass hundreds of progressive policies. Founding and building the Movement Voter Project and its counterpart Movement Voter Fund, has been the culmination of decades of work to support movements and progressive electoral and social change.
Before MVP, Billy co-founded several efforts including Gamechanger Networks, League of Young Voters, Generational Alliance, Ready for Warren, Solidaire Network, Coffee Party, VOTE MOB, Student Power and Rebuild the Dream. He is the author or editor of six books on social change, and his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, The Nation, and Vibe. Now here’s my conversation with Billy.
Welcome, Billy Wimsatt, to What Could Possibly Go Right? Your current project, the Movement Voter Project, really empowers local organizers and small groups, often people of color, to get out to vote in swing states. You are unabashedly progressive and believe we can have a progressive decade – or decades, or future – and you are also unabashedly a possibility thinker, with some sort of unshakable faith that whatever is going on, something in there could go right. So that’s kind of my kind of guy.
While you are passionate now about the Movement Voter Project, I want to talk not about the project, but with the person who conceived of it, what we call a cultural scout, the person who scans the horizon for possibilities. I’m asking that Billy, what do you see emerging now, amidst all the news about climate threats and all the social unrest and vaccine mandates and anti-vax revolts and what we teach in schools and abortion limits and pushback. All of this unrest around us, the list goes on and on.
Where do you see shifts in the wind? Emerging sanity and maturity opportunities, not for bipartisanship, but for collaboration on climate disruptions? So where is your faith in democracy being confirmed in reality? Or to paraphrase it in our one core question, in the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?
What could possibly go right, Vicki? I love this. I love this. Well, I was thinking about this and I wanted to go back in time a little bit to the mid 90s, when you and I were both doing movement stuff out there. There weren’t a lot of movements happening in the mid 90s. In the late 90s, there was movement around the WTO, and then the Iraq War movement. Now it’s almost like a foregone conclusion, that we have the DREAMers. We have the Black Lives Matter movement. We had huge climate protests. Every wave of protests is the biggest one we’ve ever had. I remember growing up in the 80s and 90s and being like, Wait, I read about these movements in the 60s. Where are our movements? And it was this idea, like, we should have a movement again.
There were bits and pieces of movement, and we were trying to clip them together. But now it really does feel like we actually have a movement of movements. I do both political organizing and donor organizing, and I remember in the early days of Occupy getting involved in a movement-oriented donor circle. It’s called Solidaire. In the course of that, the project I do now, the Movement Voter Project, kind of grew out of that.
I remember in 2014, it was one of these backlash to Obama midterms, that it looks like we’re having another one coming. Right? And I was working on getting out the vote in key Senate states like Kansas and Iowa and Alaska and Georgia and Michigan. I remember, and donors would say, Hey, are there any groups in Kansas and Alaska that we should be donating to? And I was like, Oh, yes. And I made a Google Doc. It was like, Here are your groups you should give to, and that actually turned into the website, that turned into Movement Voter Project.
Back then, it was kind of like a novelty. Like, Oh, to impact elections, you don’t just have to give to candidates or parties. There are local organizations we’ve never heard of, everywhere. Now looking back, in last cycle, we helped move $100 million to over 500 organizations all over the country. And especially in the wake of the Georgia runoffs, it’s actually become sort of common sense, that people know it wasn’t just Warnock and Stacey Abrams, that there are these groups like Black Voters Matter and people have heard of some of the groups now, like New Georgia.
There are all these organizations that started in the wake of 2016, Trump winning, and people having a huge reckoning. All these people are like, Alright, let’s get together with our friends. Let’s raise money for these House candidates in 2018. Then a bunch of those groups came to us late in the 2018 cycle, or early in 2019. They’re like, Yeah, we’re not quite sure who to raise money for now, and we hear about these groups in these states. And so, there are probably about 20 groups we’ve worked with, that are just like regular people that start organizing everyone they know to donate to these candidates. Now, every single one of those groups is also raising money for local organizations, either as well as candidates or instead of. That’s actually a big change, as well.
And it’s so funny. I live in Western Massachusetts and we actually did this thing here. We have one of them behind me. We actually made lawn signs that say Movement really big, because people are used to putting up lawn signs for a candidate or a school picnic or whatever, XYZ festival. So this idea of the Movement is a thing. It’s not just Bernie, it’s not just Black Lives Matter. It’s a whole movement, that is a multifaceted movement of movements, that honestly doesn’t actually exist. Right? Doesn’t actually exist. But we are imagining it into being, this movement of movements, that it’s led by people all over the country who we’ve never heard of.
We have this joke. There’s a funny little bookstore near where I live, called Books You Don’t Need In A Place You Can’t Find. It’s how they advertise this bookstore. So we say, organizations you’ve never heard of, in swing states where you don’t live. That’s what’s gonna save us. So I love that.
And I love that this kind of fiction of a movement is becoming more and more real, in more and more places, and it’s more and more multifaceted. My mom was asking me actually recently, she’s like, What are the issues a lot of these groups work on? Are there groups that work on climate? And like, guess what, Mom? The new thing is, most of these groups work on all the issues. They see them all interconnected. They’re working on a climate justice issue. They’re working with neighbors who are struggling with immigration status. They’re working on policing, and they’re working on economic justice, and they’re working on local food. There’s like a whole new generation of organizations that maybe started out doing this one thing, and then realized as they grew and they listened to local community members, Oh, we need to become more broad.
So this idea of a progressive movement and a multifaceted progressive vision and worldview, those lawn signs that say, Love is Love, and No Human is Illegal, and Black Lives Matter, and Science. All the things on the lawn sign, that wasn’t a thing even 10 years ago. Now we have, there was a Progressive Caucus in Congress, I remember 10 years ago. It’s like, the Progressive Caucus, they have 60-70 members, nobody cares, they have zero influence, they’re marginal. And now the Progressive Caucus, like Pramila Jayapal, who ran this organization in Washington State. One Washington, was that the name of it? One America, thank you. So, she was a local organizer, just like all the folks that were supporting around the country. Now, she’s not just in Congress, she is negotiating with Biden and with Manchin and Pelosi. She is a player in the game. And she’s not even the left pole. There’s another left pole, which is The Squad, who are articulating things you’d never see or hear about in Congress.
Just to think about St. Louis, five years ago, the wake of Ferguson and everything was bad. Now you have the first very progressive Black mayor of St. Louis, a progressive Black District Attorney at the city level and the county level, you have a progressive majority on the St. Louis City Council, that’s passing all these policies. A lot of that grew out of the movement in Ferguson. And then, oh, out of that comes Corey Bush, who, when the negotiations are happening in Congress, she sleeps outside the Congress. She was like, I was homeless, I’m going to sleep outside until we pass a better deal for people. And she actually has some impact. That’s huge. That wasn’t happening before.
So they’re all these seeds that have been planted over the years that are growing and that are growing together. I really think about the movement as a garden, that’s like growing together in all these different ways. It’s just beautiful to be involved in the movement for decades, because you get to see it grow, and this person who was an intern that has an idea and creates a whole new thing. It’s like, did you say yummy? It’s like a very luscious experience.
So I love the fact that what you’re saying is, we use the term Movement, and it’s actually about movement. It’s about things are moving. It’s almost like, the picture that’s forming in my mind, is that you’ve been watching something that’s in motion and growing. And as it moves and grows, it connects naturally, not because some consultant decided that we should link up these two movements, but they’re growing together. You’re painting a picture of something that’s quite organic.
I’m curious about the word that you used, of fiction, that movements are also fictions. There’s something about naming. It’s like, okay, right now we’re doing this. We’re drawing a circle around something and naming it in our conversation and it’s adding reality to it. So it’s because things are happening so fast right now in, I can’t even name it in generations. It’s like, Oh, the people who are the generation born in 2020 and then there’s 2021 generation. Because things are so much in motion, that this quality of noticing and naming and celebrating that I’m hearing you do, is a piece of having some agency, not force, but some agency in moving things along.
We’re all sort of out here naming things, we’re all noticing things and naming things. Like where I am, I’m working on issues around local food, affordable housing, the standard things that every community thinks about. So I think they have something powerful, in that quality of noticing that generated the project that you’re working on. It’s not that you came, sat alone in a room and came up with an idea. You noticed, and your friends noticed. It was a social noticing, not a personal noticing. Those are just some themes I’m picking out. Does that resonate?
Yeah, I love that. I just thought of a couple other little, I think you call them, little green shoots of hope. There’s a new effort that people are doing. It turns out many of our electric utilities around the country that decide is our energy going to come from clean or dirty sources, are democratically elected co-ops. So people are running. I have a friend who’s doing work in Alaska, and she told me, Hey, there’s eight elections this year that we’re working on to kind of flip these two electric utility co-ops. If enough seats flip, then they can potentially shut down two coal plants. They won six out of eight elections in rural Alaska. They’re often decided by like, 100 votes, or very small numbers of votes. Renewable candidates were running on that and winning, in rural Alaska.
There’s a Native organization that we funded in Iowa, called Great Plains Action Society. They came up with – when we talk about Thanksgiving, there’s always like, Ugh, Thanksgiving, we love the gratitude and the thanks, but the history of it is really problematic – and so she came up with this idea of Truthsgiving. So I feel like, there’s so many… And, by the way, part of what’s scary is this is happening on the right wing side as well.
I was gonna say, that this is not exclusive to progressives, it’s like equal and opposite. There’s rooms over there, where people are noticing similar things.
Yeah, things that were very marginal, like Nazism and QAnon conspiracies, are quickly moving from the margin to the center on that side as well. So we have an epic situation here. And when I say about the progressive decade, because we initially went into how do we make the 2020s a progressive decade and build up? And by the way, Biden. Right now, everyone’s like, ugh Biden. Demoralized. Biden is actually significantly more progressive than Obama or any president in recent memory, because of all the movements that have happened. If Obama were president now, he’d be more progressive than he is. Before, people had mixed feelings about Obama, but basically like the guy. Basically were like, This is good. This is progress. And Biden is someone who most people like me, didn’t like. Oh, Biden…
So I have a question, because it’s something I’m curious about. Let’s do one little scenario, that you’re in your room with all your people and imagining a future. And then there’s this other little room, where sincere people – we’re not going to diss them – sincere people who are worried about many things that you’re worried about; they just have different solutions. They’re dreaming, they’re scheming, and they’re doing their signs and their banners and stuff like that.
Imagine that each one of these rooms could send one person forward to have a conversation. What is the conversation that you would want to have between these movements that, just by the very fact that they’re movements, they’re doing slogans and polarizing and accusing and stuff like that? Is there a sweet spot in here somewhere, that is also part of what could go right?
I love that. It’s so funny. In my heart of hearts, I’m not like a left wing person. You can’t fly a plane with just one wing. I grew up reading right-wing thinkers and thinking, they’re making a lot of good points and I see where they’re coming from. So, yeah, in a dream world, and Van Jones does a lot of this, I think he’s kind of one of the best people at it. It’s like, a lot of listening, a lot of let’s find common ground. We agree on the opioid crisis, we agree on some aspects of criminal justice reform.
There are elements in the right wing movement that recognize climate change is a thing, that care about localism. I mean, I got to hitchhike all over the country when I was younger, I got in a lot of cars with a lot of like, rock-ribbed right-wing folks, who were like, the nicest people in the world, who took me in. You know, nice to me, white guy. There’s context to that. But there’s a lot of, I believe, that if we could get in a room together, there’s a lot that we could find common ground on in all sorts of ways. The way things are set up is to do the opposite, is set up to polarize against each other.
I have a friend who’s organizing a canvass in West Virginia, to try to get Manchin to vote on the For The People Act. They’re going to lots of doors of Trump voters, and talking to them about the For The People Act and dark money and gerrymandering and people having a voice. Trump voters are, for the most part, just as committed to these issues as the Democratic voters are, and are sending selfies of like, here’s my MAGA hat and Senator Manchin, vote for the Let America or Freedom to Vote Act. So, at a human level, there’s so much we agree on and it is a lot of this polarized B.S. that is making us not feel like we’re on the same team.
It’s so interesting that imagining your people who are out there canvassing and having human conversations, if you lead on the foot of your positionality, then you’re going to get it slammed the door. If you lead on a foot of relationship, like, How are you today? What are the things you’re concerned about? I’m not an organizer, so I don’t know what the script is, but basically, that’s a huge opportunity.
You have so many people out there knocking on doors, on a question not of candidates, but as you said earlier, on issues. Like, what are we going to do about the local food, or what are we going to do about these things? To me that has this quirky little odd feeling of, not exactly left or right, or up or down, but something human.
Yeah, and the potential is… Well, there’s something that’s being called deep canvassing, that’s kind of a term of art. And you said something about, what the script is? Part of deep canvassing is you don’t go in with a script. You go in with little questions and stories, and you have a real conversation, and you try to actually build a relationship. And because so much of how people operate is we operate in tribes, right? So if you’re part of this church or this set of friends or this parent group, then the worldview is this, and that translates to listening to these news sources and sharing this on Facebook. You can very quickly become a QAnon person, and be a perfectly wonderful, reasonable person who just went down a particular tribal rabbit hole. But you’re still human inside there, and care about the same things I care about with my kids, you know? So, we have to somehow scale human conversation.
Totally. Yeah, politics is a conversation. I mean, this is a little idealistic, but it is a conversation. It’s a conversation about where we’re going to go together in the future, because we’re in a three legged race or potato sack race or something like that. We’re really all stuck in the same game. And we’re not getting out of the ball field, so we have to develop some rules here, that will get us where we want to go.
It’s almost like, in some ways, the left – I’m not talking about the extremes, the sort of almost cartoon level extremes – but I think there’s a troubling feeling that’s sending people out of the center and toward extremes. The troubling feeling is, they’re not telling us the truth, and they don’t have our best interest in heart, and we can solve our problems better than they can do it up there in Washington or whatever. There’s a disquiet, and maybe this deep canvassing is a piece of, like a listening project for the disquiet.
Yeah, I feel like we kind of have to operate on two planes at once, because we are facing existential threat with our climate and with our democracy. We do have to win elections, and change policy, and migrate where we’re getting our energy from really quickly, and do a bunch of other things, or we’re going to go down a negative spiral, a self-reinforcing negative spiral. So we actually do have to win those things.
And simultaneously, we have to do the bigger winning of reconnecting as humans, and doing the deeper work, that’s not about winning electorally, but that’s about winning back all of our humanity. The left at its worst mirrors the right in a kind of fight-or-flight fear or whatever, and we can be guilty of… The right is fundamentally rooted in kind of fear and power and control, and the left is fundamentally rooted in beloved community and whatnot, but each one has components of the other. So, at a deep level, our greatest tool has to be love and building beloved community, because we can never actually change things sustainably with fear.
Yeah. I love that, that building beloved community as the secret agenda of political organizing. In the long game, you guys are playing a long game, of small scale community groups, supporting them in reaching out to their neighbors. It’s a really beautiful thing. It’s about winning elections, but it’s also about this winning the beloved community. So all I have to say, is more power to you. More power to this. And I think there are clues in here for people who want to be a force for whatever they think the good is, the thing that’s going to help everybody survive. So I want to thank you, Billy, do you have any final wise words for us?
Oh, gosh. Let’s make magic together. This has to be fun. We can’t do this alone. So, let’s go.
Thank you, brother, Billy!