From sowing community gardens to starting grassroots organizations, Wick Thomas has fought for more causes than you can shake a picket sign at. When he's not planning a rally or hitting the political-science textbooks for school at UMKC, Thomas is championing libraries as beacons of free speech.
Lithe, bedecked with body piercings and sporting a different hair color every week, Thomas cuts a dashing, unconventional figure among the stacks in Central Youth Services, where he works as a Library associate.
When we spoke with the 23-year-old from Drexel, Missouri, his hair was sandy brown with blond highlights, teased on top and buzzed on the sides. His first gig at the Kansas City Public Library made use of his chameleonic appearance: wearing a costume and giving tours of the January 2008 exhibit Once Upon a Time: Exploring the World of Fairy Tales at the Central Library.
He worked the next two years as a technical assistant at the Ruiz Branch, where he found that his alternative appearance broke down barriers with youthful patrons.
"I think adults are intimidated by [my appearance], but kids respond to it and want to talk, and it's a good way to open them up to talking about the library," he says.
Thomas says he gravitates toward the so-called “troublemakers,” kids with a lot of energy and a little bit of mischief who are in need of focus.
"I see a limitless potential in people who haven't set their path yet that needs to be cultivated and explored," he says.
Though still a student, Thomas has already established a reputation as a veteran activist.
In 2008, The Pitch named him Best Activist in Missouri, and a recent July 4-themed feature in The Kansas City Star profiled him in a sampling of noteworthy local crusaders, including the executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, a female African-American conservative Republican, and an immigrant rights' proponent.
He currently serves as president of the board at EQUAL (Empowering Queer Activists and Leaders), which provides education, advocacy, and support for youths interested in social justice.
In 2006, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force gave Thomas a Creating Change Award for establishing a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance in 2004 while he was a student at Paola High School. He's also been involved in bike activism, has volunteered for the ACLU and Greenpeace, and founded the local environmental group TWIG (Think Work Inspire Grow).
While he was at the Ruiz Branch, he helped develop green programming, including assisting with the creation of the Switzer Neighborhood Farm community garden, which the Library planted alongside various community organizations (see a photo gallery on Facebook).
"You see kids on computers all day -- it's important to get them outside and actually doing stuff with the earth," he says.
When it comes to his work at the Library, Thomas has no trouble keeping his political views in check – in fact, doing so is part of his job. If any activism comes into play as he helps patrons find materials, it’s only in upholding libraries as neutral sources of high-quality, uncensored information.
"Libraries are our last strongholds of freedom of speech," he says.
For Thomas – as for all librarians – this means helping patrons access credible, unbiased information, which can sometimes be hard to find in our search-engine-ruled age.
He has particularly strong feelings about the G-word.
“As far as information systems go, with Google, you get the most popular results, not the best. You can't explain what you're looking for to Google -- it's not a person. The information is not detailed or unbiased,” he explains.
“It’s important to talk to a human,” he adds.
And for Thomas, sometimes just being human is an exercise in First Amendment rights.
Explore the Library
Four Books that Changed Wick Thomas’ Life
- The Once and Future King by T.H. White
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community by H.C. Flores
- How People Get Power: Organized Oppressed Communities for Action by Si Kahn
-- Jason Harper