Activism matters: Mandisa Thomas, Black Nonbelievers

Activism matters is a new interview series where we will be meeting activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week I spoke with Mandisa Thomas, a founder and current president of Black Nonbelievers (BN). BN’s motto is “Walking by Sight, NOT Faith!” Their mission is to build community and provide support for black atheists and allies.

How did you become the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers?

When I first got involved in the secular community in January 2011, I experienced some challenges that fellow black atheists warned me about online. I spoke with the only other black person who was at a meet-up. I said that we should start something in the Atlanta area that specifically connected black people who are atheists or questioning religion in favour of leaving. That started as Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta. That person eventually stepped away to other projects. So, I assumed the role of president. We shortened the name to Black Nonbelievers when there were people looking to start similar groups in different cities. We wanted to become that foundational support for expanding.

And have you provided support for lots of groups?

We’ve had affiliates sort of come and go. At one point we were up to about 14, now we are at seven nationwide, across the United States. And yes, we have also worked with other organisations you know with their groups.

What’s the biggest or challenge that comes with the role?

Trying to get people to really understand that this is an organisation that needs to be sustained. That once you get what you need from it, there’s still a need to support it beyond that. You know it’s awesome to find those who don’t believe anymore and it’s understandable that individuals may have had challenges, and also trauma from leaving their church. But we are an organisation that in order for us to continue to provide the resources needed for those leaving religion, needs to be supported continuously.

What are some of the challenges or unique perspectives that come with being a woman of colour in a leadership position, in a movement where leaders seem to overwhelmingly be white and male?

Oh boy! Well, the challenges specifically our voices being taken seriously and heard the way they need to be. Because there is still this privilege that we’re dealing with, it becomes that much harder to be taken seriously in leadership. We’re often some of the last ones put in one of the first ones out. And if you are on a volunteer basis it’s expected that we’re supposed to just stay there. And we get a lot of moral support; you know we get a lot of people who understand the need for an organisation like ours.

But we still challenge and encounter this sense of anti-blackness, when it comes to actually financially supporting the work and actually putting us in the forefront of a movement that still needs to change and work on its diversity.

It sounds like there’s also like a financial undervaluing. Not just emotional or in terms of respect, but specifically a financial undervaluing of black activists?

Absolutely it is. Yes absolutely.

Black churches in America have traditionally provided a route to some level of political and community leadership for African Americans, despite wider disenfranchisement. Are there are any lessons there do you think for the atheist community, or models that can be drawn on and copied?

The only lessons that I think we can take is the sense of welcoming, being somewhat emotionally aware of what the members are going through. Now there are other secular organisations, other atheist organisations that are doing this. As far as the doctrine, which I contend has always been harmful and always will be, that sense of community comes at a cost, to one’s individuality. To make them conform. Certainly, when it comes to being more social, when it comes to being more engaging, being more hospitable, there’s a lot there is a huge lesson that the atheist community can take from this. And even with the work that Black Nonbelievers do, we understand that that that sort of engagement isn’t unique to the church. They may be a bit better at it. They’ve had more of a head start. But our social engagement doesn’t negate our advocacy for scientific and evidence-based principles. They can go hand in hand.

What’s been your proudest moment as president of Black Nonbelievers?

I’ve had a few. One of my proudest moments I would say this has happened a couple of times, when I have come across young people who were passing by our tables with their parents, particularly their mothers. These are mothers and daughters, and they’ve come by our table, and they when they asked about our organisation. They said wow like we’re not alone. But they are still isolated within their own families, within their own communities. And thinking that they’re the only ones who no longer believe as black folks. When they see our organisation, they know that there are more of us out here. They know that there’s a resource now that they can tap into, and other people that they can connect with.

Outside of that, I would say it was when we were featured on CBS Sunday Morning here in the United States. We were a part of a segment that spoke about more of the nonreligious community. And we were the representatives on that program.

And another one I would cite, is when we were invited to partake in a discussion with the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American Culture. We were part of their ‘god talk’ series. So now we are reaching institutions who focus on the black community. Now we are considered among the leading black nonreligious organisations, that can offer and provide representation for our perspective.

Being an activist can be extremely draining training in terms of emotional labour, time and also lost opportunities in other ways. How are you sustained in what you do? In terms of the emotional energy as well as the practicalities of getting by.

Right well I will tell you that it is not easy. There are times where I have wanted to throw up my hands. I wanted to give up and say you know what it’s not worth it I’ll just continue working the job that I was working three years ago, before I resigned that position. But what keeps me going, is knowing that we are making a difference. that I am a part of making a huge difference in this community, especially for those who didn’t think we existed previously, and for our members who actually benefit from our existence.

I’m a wife, I’m a mother and so even in my everyday life things are already busy for me. But this is another aspect of my life that I’ve dedicated myself to. And it goes hand in hand, because I want my children to know that if there is something that is of importance to them, that they are passionate about, that they have the right to do so, and that no one has the right to discriminate against them or even anyone else due to their nonbelief.

We’re setting examples and paving the way for people who are coming behind us. So that it isn’t just simply about us. The people that I’ve come to know are in this community are like my family. They’re also they’re also an extension of family. We have built this camaraderie with each other. Sometimes you know we laugh, sometimes we commiserate, and we also work together. So, keeping those relationships have been very inspiring for me. And knowing that I’m not the only one out here doing this work.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in this atheist humanist secularist space?

Certainly, passion and dedication. Also being consistent. You must be willing to consistently dedicate your time and enthusiasm. You have to be enthusiastic about what it is that you’re doing. Also being flexible that this isn’t necessarily a nine to five sort of thing. For most of us this is volunteer for me it is still volunteer, I’m working on changing that. You have to effectively know how to manage your time and also your space. So, there’s a lot that goes along to it. There’s a lot of practical skills that you have to have in order to be an effective leader.

You recently became a humanist celebrant. Does your activism inform your celebrantism?

Absolutely. Humanist celebrants are still a very underserved need in the in the community of nonreligious people who are leaving their churches and are looking for these services. Oftentimes they have to fight and face challenges with religious family members and friends. I performed my first wedding ceremony back in May, and the groom was one of our members he’s an atheist and the bride was still a Christian, even though she’s pretty progressive. But the family still was fundamentally Christian. So, there was a challenge of being able to assert our non-belief and humanistic principles in such a setting.

In my activism as an open atheist and as a leader of an organisation, I encourage people to speak up and stand up for themselves, as much as they can, and being a humanist celebrant allows us to do that. So, I would say that it was it was due to my activism that I eventually became a celebrant, and it is just another extension of my work.

What do you think atheist groups need to do to support the development of future leaders and activists and role models, particularly those from less well-represented backgrounds?

Take more seriously the challenges that marginalised individuals face. It’s hard not to bring up racial justice, racial discrimination, and economic injustice, if you are coming from a marginalised community. Not only in the United States but across the world. We are still vulnerable susceptible to other societal stigmas, and more secular groups would do well to acknowledge this and sufficiently listening to what we have to say. Also understanding how those stigmas can creep into those organisations, how subconsciously they may be perpetuating the very thing that we’re fighting against. Being more aware of how they’re treating the people of colour that are involved in their organisations. Understanding what the issues are, and not just expecting us to be more bodies in the organisation, actually take the necessary actions to improve your groups as well.

I’ve seen in AHS groups where there’s someone from an underrepresented group like a younger person a person of colour or a woman, their very unusualness in within those spaces means they can be bombarded with requests.

Absolutely you’re putting an extra burden on those people of colour to do the work that you’re supposed to do. If they want to be involved, then and to be more involved and greater. But don’t encourage them to be in leadership positions and when they get there you don’t take them seriously or listen to what they have to say.

I’ve experienced this even when I served on boards, is that they just wanted the people of colour there for optics to say hey we have a more diverse board. But when it came to the policies and structure that stayed the same. That also puts a burden, this added expectation, that often the people volunteering, that we’re expected to do all of all of this extra work, that we aren’t really going to get much support for, because they’re still supporting the overwhelmingly majority of white male voices.

What can AHS+ groups do to get from stage one which is the wanting representation to stage two which is the actually valuing those different voices once they’re in there?

The biggest thing is going to be accountability if there are people who are holding back progress then it needs to be addressed and if these people refuse to make the necessary changes, then they might need to be moved on. There are people who have been on boards for long period of time, they don’t think that these issues are important and they’re excusing the behaviours of people who don’t mean well. We’re still a movement that’s fighting for recognition and rights, but it doesn’t mean that we have to fight each other, and it also doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to make activism either their career or a big part of their life? Particularly young person but new activists do not necessarily mean young people.

I would advise them to take a page from my playbook. If you are working, don’t just quit your job right away. Get involved with either your local and or national organisations. Participate and volunteer with them. You can go at a pace that is comfortable for you. Don’t just jump into this wanting to be a superstar. I’ve seen this happen and people have failed at it. Pace yourself, take your time, understand that you need to make an investment. This is a community that has been in place before you got there. It can have a pretty good return, if you put the time and effort in.

Also remember that it isn’t just about you, that you are going to need to work with other people. If there are skills that you are lacking, there’s always an opportunity for improvement. Treat it like it like you would your job. Even if you are a volunteer be on time and have that same love passion and level of dedication to it that you would in any other space.

Just be careful that you’re not burning yourself out and doing too much so quickly because there’s always a need for help and volunteers you can quickly be pulled into different directions, and you want to make sure you’re not doing to yourself. Make sure you’re pacing yourself.

If you think you have proven that you have what it takes to make this a paying career or being at the head of an organisation, then you may be able to potentially leave that other job and either become a part of another organisation or if you’ve built your own, and you have those skills to do that and you are able to tap into the community and get that support then do that. But make sure that you establish good working relationships, good connections, continue to work with people and always remember that it is about a community and not just you.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations. If you are, or can recommend, an activist or leader in the AHS+ space who would like to be featured in a future interview in this series, please get in touch. Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Photo information: Mandisa at Juneteenth event via Black Nonbelievers Instagram

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