Salim Ocasio is a big believer in education. Just not the traditional kind.
Salim never went to college. Instead, the 21-year-old New Yorker went from being a manager at Modell’s Sporting Goods to Online Organizing Director for Wolf PAC, a political action committee whose mission is to get big money out of U.S. politics.
His passion for fair representation in politics had something to do with it. So did hard work and learning what went beyond the confines of a classroom.
In this condensed and edited interview below, Salim talks about how to deal with haters, why following your gut is a good thing, and the benefits of cobbling together a DIY education.
So you don’t have a college degree. Before Wolf PAC, did anyone give you flack for not having one?
Pretty much everyone in my family gave me flack. Especially when I was working at Modell’s. Since I was a manager, I had a set schedule. I could’ve totally went to school had I wanted to.
In my mind I had three priorities: make money, work with Wolf PAC, and go to school. I was set with a paying job. But I felt Wolf PAC was more important than school. School, unless there’s a zombie apocalypse, is still going to be there. That can wait. That was my thinking on that.
My family was like, “What are you doing? You’re just going to work at Modell’s for the rest of your life? What is this Wolf Pac?” Yada, yada, yada. When I quit my job to volunteer at Wolf Pac full-time, they were like, “Oh my God what is he doing with his life?”
What was your response to them?
I spent a lot of time trying to explain what was going on in my mind and that I wasn’t crazy or a bum. Some I just didn’t have words for. Some of them I didn’t care what they had to say. And there were others who were coming from a place of actual concern.
I was a troubled kid. I thought high school was a waste of time - I still do, but we'll leave my philosophy on education for another time - so I just didn't go. Not going to school caused a lot of trouble at home with my parents, but I was committed to not going.
I would "leave" for school, go hide across the street from my house, wait for my mother to leave for work, and just head right back in. I spent my days either reading or playing video games. It got so bad that one day I tried to come back into the house only to find the lock had been changed. My mother found out what I'd been doing and changed the locks to stop me. Eventually ACS got involved and I went back to school and finished.
That’s what inflamed their worry and concern. So I understood where they were coming from, and I spent a lot of time trying to explain what was going on in my mind and that I wasn’t crazy or a bum.
Now they think more highly of me than they did before. They know I’m not the kid I was before. They know I have a good head on my shoulders, and that I’m making moves. It’s not what they would’ve done, but there’s actually a degree of respect now.
How did you first get involved with Wolf PAC?
I first thought about it when I was 16. I remember arguing back and forth with my teacher about corporations’ influence in politics. He thought there was nothing we could do about it, that there was no way to get a constitutional amendment through Congress.
After this argument I’m looking at my U.S. government book and I see this graphic showing the two ways you can amend the constitution: through the states, and through Congress. When I was looking at the one with the states, I was thinking, “Wait, this works!” But then I told myself, “No, Salim, you’re being crazy. You’re being extreme. This is not going to happen.” So I pushed it out of my mind.
Then when I was 19, I was watching the online news show Young Turks. As I’m watching, they start talking about this place called Wolf PAC based in Los Angeles. So I go on the Wolf PAC website and see that it’s trying to do the same idea I was thinking about at 16. They’re trying to go through the less corrupt states, and get an amendment to get money out of politics.
I was sold. I sent them an email to volunteer, and the rest is history.
What were you doing when you first started out as a volunteer?
When I started in 2012, I was in South Carolina at the time finishing high school because my two sisters lived there. I really liked it, and thought I might want to go to college and start my life there.
With everything I just learn as I go along. I didn’t have any experience with retail and I did it. I didn’t know how to call legislators before and I did it. I didn’t have any experience with social media until I did it. With Wolf PAC I just did small tedious projects with spreadsheets and stuff. Mostly data entry. Voter and legislator information for all 50 states needed to be organized into something more digestible. Often times the data was pull from an API and it was a mess. I cleaned it up so that the information was usable.
I moved back to New York because I felt I wouldn't have been as useful in SC. When I got back up to NY, I was phoning state legislators to ask them to call for an convention of the states through Article V. (Once that happens, they can discuss the amendment and send it to the states for ratification without Congress.)
I’d never called them before and I remember being so nervous, my hands were shaking. I ended up calling all the legislators in NY. Then I started talking to my neighbors to ask them to get involved.
We made progress. It wasn’t the most amazing progress, but you move in inches when it comes to politics like this. It’s like slowly building muscle.
So you quit your job at Modell’s to volunteer at Wolf-PAC full-time. Did you ever doubt your decision?
I knew that someone new was going to get hired soon. We were growing at a fast pace. And I was really unhappy at my job. I felt like I wasn’t able to put as much into Wolf PAC because of it.
So I was like, let me just give this my all. I had money saved up that could last a couple of months, so after those months were over I told myself if I don’t get hired then obviously I’ll look for another job.
But for the most part I knew it was going to happen. When I have a gut feeling, I’m incredibly cocky that the gut feeling will come through. I remember thinking most of the time that one way or the other I’m going to get this job at Wolf PAC.
Why do you think you got the job? Did you have any formal training for your current position as Online Organizing Director?
With everything I just learn as I go along. I didn’t have any experience with retail and I did it. I didn’t know how to call legislators before and I did it. I didn’t have any experience with social media until I did it.
If you’re in politics, you’re going to have a degree in a field that’s completely unrelated. Most employers just want to see that you know what you’re doing and you can produce results. I’ve completed Google training for their Analytics software. I also did the New Media Boot Camp at the New Organizing Institute (NOI). It’s an intensive, seven-day program where you learn social media skills, how to write mass emails, etc. We also learned basic coding and basic branding. Pretty much all you need to know about online organizing and managing the digital side of an organization.
I remember being uncomfortable at the boot camp because I was probably the only person who had no experience doing anything there. That was pretty daunting.
But the week after I left the boot camp, I was on social media trying to boost the numbers, and we saw the progress right away. From there it took off and I got the job.
NOI really changed my life. My boss, who was an alumni of the very first boot camp, met me there we had a heart to heart about why we’re each at Wolf PAC. He’s the kind of guy who’s going to hire the person that’s passionate about the cause, even though they don’t have much experience. That’s what he saw talking to me. I’m pretty sure without that conversation I wouldn’t be where I am today.
So all of this you learned without a college degree. Have you ever thought about going to college?
I’ve always wanted to. To this day I still want to. Just for me. Pretty much everyone in my family has a Bachelor’s degree.
But I’m not sure if I need it at this point. At least that’s what the people at boot camp told me, that’s what my boss tells me. If you’re in politics, you’re going to have a degree in a field that’s completely unrelated. Most employers just want to see that you know what you’re doing and you can produce results.
What’s your advice for others looking to work for a cause without a college degree?
My philosophy is find out what you want to do and figure out how to do it. Going to school isn’t the be-all-end all.
You just stay focused, do your research, and find out where you want to be and find out how to get there. There’s options everywhere. You just have to look for them, and work hard to get there. That might be oversimplifying it, but I think that’s what it is. That’s really what I believe.
There’s just so many little skills and certifications you can learn - like Google Analytics - and when you know it, all of a sudden you’re marketable and can get a job. That’s always something I think about. Anything you can learn, learn it. You never know when it’s going to come in handy.
By Celeste Hamilton Dennis