Calvin Williams is Living Liberally

Talking Liberally Progressive Parley
by Mazhira Black

Calvin Williams is a Fellowship Coordinator with Young People For, a People For the American Way Foundation initiative. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY and spends his downtime performing spoken word, playing guitar, blogging, and occasionally brushing up on his b-boyin’ skills.

Mazhira Black: What does Young People For do and why is it important?
Calvin Williams: YP4 is a leadership development program for college students who want to create sustainable change in their communities now and identify their leadership role in the progressive movement in the future. We structure our program to support their leadership development no matter what work they want to do. It provides for our fellows the ability to identify what their leadership role will be and connects them to the networks, resources, and people who can help them take that next step.

MB: How did you get involved?
CW: I was in Montgomery Alabama teaching when I realized that my passions were pulling me deeper into social justice in a place where I could continue developing mentorships with students outside of the traditional classroom setting. I was looking for something that was grounded in the grassroots/popular education structure of allowing people to define what changes they want to see. A lot of issues connect on many levels personally and systematically; I wanted to be able to work with an organization that worked for the bigger picture without trying to create an ideology that everyone else needed to follow. I realized Young People For was what I was looking for as a student when I was trying to create organizations and build coalitions at LaGrange College. Had I known that there was a broad network of students experiencing the same situation and thriving, it would have been helpful to have that network. Looking back on it at that moment I knew it was the right fit the right time, filling the right need, two years down the road I still feel that way.

MB: How do you explain to family members what you do?
CW: First I have to give concrete examples through stories about the work I do with fellows. Then I can connect it back to how this would have helped me when I was in college. The last strategy is telling them about the inspiration I gain from the fellows. Nobody is surprised about the work I do, they expect it, that or law school.

MB: When was the last time you were in awe of something a Fellow did?
CW: Its almost as though I expect to be in awe; no matter what it is, every person brings something unique to the table. I could talk about Kevin Killer, winning his primary by five votes. Or about Kari Fulton who works with the EJCC and was instrumental in coordinating the Power Shift conference. The ones who are successful in this program are the ones who set up others for success. Its always amazing for me to see when fellows build each other up and connect back to the network. Every fellow has a story.

MB: Are there any sites or blogs you feel don’t get enough attention from progressives?
CW: This is a soapbox thing for me. Blogs led by young people of color and women do not get enough attention. People need to step out of their little bubbles that they’ve created. It doesn’t help if the people who crash the gates use their blogs as gated communities. It needs to be more inclusive with more discussion. They need to be on the front pages of other blogs, not just blogs run by women or by young people of color. Some particularly good examples are Jack and Jill Politics, Culture Kitchen, The Angry Black Woman, Skeptical Brotha, Too Sense, Feministing, Pam’s House blend, Ill Doctrine, The Super Spade and Feministe. What’s great about their networks is that they feature each other, but there needs to be a more inclusive role across blogs instead of continued flame wars.

MB: Are there any activists you try to model yourself after?
CW: There are a few that I have admired and respected, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer firstly because they organized in the south in Mississippi when that was not an easy task. Then there’s Van Jones who I have respect for not only because of the way he’s able to be a visionary about situations happening now with his ability to come up with solutions across issues, but he is also a family man which I greatly admire. Also Matt Birkhold, a personal friend of mine; he’s able to connect the theoretical academics of various left and progressive ideologies to the twenty first century, real issues and real people, things that are happening on the block and how we can address it. We normally do that around hip-hop organizing. Matt posts on Marc Lamont Hill's blog for a weekly feature "Corner of Cross and Damon" and contributes to Witretap.

MB: Where would you like to see the progressive movement in ten years?
CW: I would like for it to be to the point where the progressive movement isn’t identified as a movement, its identified as the norm. We’re so accustomed to a culture in which we are demanding change and reacting to the conservative movement that there hasn’t been enough momentum and investment into creating the actual changes we want to see and the leaders that will see it. We need to break out of the old model and create new models with an impact in sustaining change. In ten years there really needs to be recognition inter-generationally throughout the movement. We need to be able to capture stories and create mentorships, if that doesn’t happen within this movement then we’re not setting up future generations for success.

MB: How are you living liberally?
CW: Growing up in Alabama I had no choice but to live liberally by the very virtue of who I was. I came from a multinational multiracial background, when your identity is politicized as mine was I began to think critically and creatively about the environment around me. One of the outlets that I had for some of my frustrations and experiences growing up in the deep south and identifying myself as liberal, being labeled everything from a radical to a communist to a black nationalist was through music and poetry, particularly through spoken word.

Spoken word is both my release and also my internalization of my own reflections of my experiences and what I think real progressive values are, it grounds me. Most of my art is creative resistance or creative justice, when I’m performing that’s kind of my showing how I’m living liberally…and I’m vegetarian.