Serious. Fun.: Ryan Lewis & The WSLA

Ryan Lewis grimaces as he packs a mound of donated toiletries into a box at a charity event he organized for homeless women. The Athens, Ga. graphic designer is not angry, however. The man who desperately wants to help those in need is suffering from kidney stones, without health insurance.

Lewis is one of the estimated 46.3 million Americans who lack proper health insurance as reported by the United States Census Bureau. He has chronic kidney stones that he cannot afford to have removed. So instead, Lewis suffers through them while he works on behalf of the Washington Street Liberation Army, an activist group he co-founded with Andy Rusk. He wanted a way to help people who didn’t have clothing, housing, or, in like in his case, adequate health insurance.

The WSLA is primarily based on the idea of “costumed philanthropy,” said Lewis. Members often don berets and costumes as they gather donations for Athens’ neediest citizens. After the actual work is done, the group will often watch cult movies such as “The Princess Bride” at their unofficial base, Cine. These are usually followed by a concert featuring groups sympathetic to the WSLA’s causes. Lewis’ own rock group, Grape Soda, can often be found rocking out alongside groups like Bambara, wearing comical military regalia.

“It’s like Monty Python running the Peace Corps,” said Lewis.

The members of the WSLA try to be active in the most pressing issues facing downtown Athens such as poverty and homelessness. In the past few months, the group has held several events aimed at gathering supplies for the homeless such as coats and blankets for the winter months and toiletries for women.

Building on the belief that giving back doesn’t mean giving in, Lewis claims that the primary aim of the WSLA is to get citizens involved in local social and economic issues.

“A lot of people complain about not knowing what is going on in local government and certain regulations,” said Lewis, “but I have learned that this is generally because folks ‘feel’ too busy to get involved. I know that was true of me until this summer when I finally decided to do something about it.”

Back then, it meant rounding up people like Rusk to create a joyful activist group. Now, Lewis devotes some of his graphic design talents to the WSLA, drawing up posters, buttons, and logos for the group. He organizes and advertises events for the group, taking advantage of new trends in social media, using resources such as Facebook and Twitter to gather and distribute information. Any person affiliated with the WSLA on social networks can expect to be sent several links a day from Rusk and Lewis to articles and videos they find interesting, many of them politically slanted.

“I have consciously built my ‘friend’ list on various social media platforms to include a good range of trusted folks from various age brackets in town,” said Lewis. “This way I can post questions about things and count on getting a good range of responses.”

One of Lewis’ own videos became a minor viral hit after getting passed around the social networks. In it, Lewis asks Representative Paul Broun, a Republican, a few questions about health care at a meeting in Athens, Ga. Lewis brought a bag of some of his kidney stones to the meet to make a point. He was eventually turned away. The video caught the attention of major news outlets, something that Lewis is very proud of. Health care has been the all too literal thorn in his side.

But some critics of the group have claimed that it focuses too much on a “liberal agenda.” Kaylen Smith, a freelance writer who identifies as Republican, said that “the WSLA should stop trying to attack Republican candidates and just focus on doing good for the whole community, not just those who agree with them.”

But Lewis does not intend to back down anytime soon.

“We take blankets to the homeless and collect food for the food pantry,” he said. “Not really that liberal or conservative. We are vocal about our political beliefs though. We’re not communist, but we like to parody that belief that we’re these left-wing nuts.”

For Lewis and the WSLA, it’s all about making a change for the better. Lewis hopes one day that everyone can have food, shelter, and health care. But mostly, he hopes that the crazy antics of the WSLA help raise awareness.

“If I can help give a political and social voice to the weirdo community I so love (and am a member of), then I will be happy.

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