A Few Good (White) Men

…No, I’m not talking about those guys.

I just finished William Upski’s new book Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs. Like I said last week, dude is on point. To be upfront, Upski (my bad, I mean Billy Wimsatt — he’s grown now) has been a hero of mine since I first heard that “hip-hop” and “activism” could be said in the same sentence. Not in a forced, “Vote or Die” way either. Real, fun, and (god forbid) effective organizing that transforms culture and politics, from the Battle of Seattle to the League of Young Voters.

One thing that makes Upski stand out is his ability to write and speak AND organize effectively around issues of race and class. Which is especially impressive considering he’s upper-middle-class white dude — things he’s clear about up front, and how…

When we think of movement heroes, the names that usually come up first are Martin, Malcolm, Che, Pac, Saul. And our sheroes: Ella, Dolores, Assata, Suheir. I’ve read and learned from all of them, and yes, they should be our heroes! But they shouldn’t be our only ones.

I’ve been lucky enough to have everyday mentors and comrades across many lines of race, class, and culture. From DC to Wisconsin to Oakland, I’ve had something that very few white people in America have: bosses who aren’t white. (Yes, even in Wisconsin.) I have worked with, and under, the leadership of some amazing organizers and artists of color. It’s been a privilege — yep, another one of those.

But hey…I know some good white folks too! Folks like Upski doing good, hard cultural and political work all across the country. I consider them the anti-Glenn Becks. The anti-Joe Liebermans. The anti-most-teachers-and-non-profit-workers who reproduce the same oppression they’re supposed to be fighting. In a country founded and still rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy, we need white men who are willing to take a lead in the struggle — and also know when it’s time to follow.

Michael Moore’s famous book was titled Stupid White Men — indeed, there are many of us. But there are more than a couple freedom fighters too. Here are the men that I’m proud to call my mentors. In the name of balance, let me introduce you to A Few Good (White) Men:

Richard Healey: This one is easy for me — it’s my dad. Sadly, that positive relationship isn’t true for many folks of my generation, which is why I’m extra grateful to call Papa Healey my own. He helped raised me, and has taught me more than anyone how to be a man — and one day, a father. Much more than just a family man, my dad is my model for how to be a smart, radical life-long activist in the freedom struggle. How to live, rather than burn out. How to challenge people on their ideas, and still maintain strong relationships. He learned from his mom, and I continue to learn from him. He was a leader in the New Left movements of the 1960s and 70s, and has spent the last 15 years as director of the Grassroots Policy Project, training left/labor groups around the country to shift from working on individual issues (housing, education, etc) to fighting for a larger vision. A worldview, as he’d say. That’s my pops. Pretty bad ass.

Kevin Coval – My main artistic mentor, and the dude I still get confused for at spoken word gigs around the country. I first met Kevin when we brought him to Madison for a conference, and during the weekend of me driving him around, we talked about everything: Chicago, Israel, poetry, women, bagels…everything. He was the dude who really showed me that I could do art AND politics AND education — that to do them together was to do them well. Kevin’s put out 2 books, founded the Louder than a Bomb youth poetry festival in Chicago, and become the unofficial poet laureate of the Chi. Last year, we got caught up in the J Street controversy, getting disinvited days before their conference├é┬á for being “anti-Israel.” Our names were both getting smeared in the media, and we had to make quick, hard decisions about what to do. In the end, we stood by our principles, created our own event and media framing, and probably had a larger impact than we’d have had otherwise. The only person I could have responded that quickly with in that intense situation was Kevin. That’s my dude.

Joel Feingold – My housemate for several years in Madison, I cut my organizing teeth with Joel as part of the Student Labor Action Coalition. We ran campaigns against sweatshops, for student rights and a tuition freeze, and occupied the chancellor’s office on more than one occasion. We actually won sometimes, a rare feeling on the Left. Joel was always one of the smartest folks I knew, as happy to talk tactics for our latest campaign as the history of Norwegian immigrants among the Community Party in Northern Wisconsin — and how the two were related. Now a housing organizer with GOLES on the Lower East Side in New York, Joel is the definition of a good comrade.

Michael Cirelli – The executive director of Urban Word NYC, I’ve known Cirelli since my first Brave New Voices back in 2006, when he took my money at a coaches’ poker game one afternoon — and then introduced me to Mos Def at the Apollo later that night. In the youth spoken word movement, there is a large emphasis on mentorship. And when it comes to being an honest, tough, though-provoking mentor, Cirelli’s about as good as it gets. One reason why is that he’s unafraid to show his own process, baring his own flaws for the world to see. Both his books of poetry, Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and his new joint, Vacations on the Black Star Line, take a hard look at hip-hop, whiteness, and his own family life. I just showed Vacations to an Italian-American organizer from Harlem today, and he was like, “I’ve been looking for years for this kind of shit.” Just wait for Cirelli’s next book…I heard he’s coming hard at Jersey Shore.

Josh Begley – Hands down, the nicest man I’ve ever met. Begley and I have a bunch of mutual friends, and when I first moved to the Bay, he invited me to come play soccer with him and the Left Wing Football Club. And then he gave me a ride. And then he invited me out for drinks after. This kept happening week after week. One week, I stopped him and was like, “Dude, do I owe you money or something?” But nah, he’s just that nice. And on point. Definitely an intellectual, but in the best sense of the word. Whenever I want to debate Arundhati Roy versus Naomi Klein, or talk bicoastal, bicultural politics, I go to Begley. He’s now working for Presente.org, helping move the immigration debate in a more progressive direction. Everyone knows Begley in the Bay — I’ll always be proud to be known “Josh #2.”

Dan Bunn. This is the one that brings it full circle. When I first started teaching spoken word at West High School in Madison, there was this one skinny freshman who blew everyone away with his lyrics. I called him Dan the Man. I got to work with Dan for two years, over which time he became an even more brilliant poet, visual artist, and activist. When we were creating the First Wave program at UW-Madison, we thought for sure Dan was eventually going to be one of the student leaders. Sure enough, last year he applied and got in — but then turned the program down. Instead, he decided to come out here to Oakland, where he’s now a freshman at the California College of the Arts. We hung out last week for the first time in over a year, and he’s even more of a fucking genius than ever. He doesn’t know it, but I learn from him more than he does from me. Or maybe he does know it — but is too nice to point it out. Either way, I appreciate it.

That’s my list. A partial list, for sure. But at least now I can be clear, “No, I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are white.”

I did realized that everyone on my list is Jewish. Well, except Cirelli and Begley — but they both live New York, which makes them Jews by default. I’m not saying the Tribe is especially good at holding it down, I’m just saying socialist, atheist Jews are the shit. And many of them are my friends and family. That’s all.

Are you really that surprised?