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 we spoke with Nick Fish, an experienced civil rights activist and president of American Atheists.
How did you become President of American Atheists?
I’ve been working on secular issues for more than a decade now. Within American Atheists, I’ve served in a number of roles and have a level of familiarity with the history, people, and activities of the organisation that is incredibly helpful. But, as with any executive position within a non-profit organisation, the final decision lies with the board of directors. They set the direction and strategic vision and, when the position was being filled, they had to believe in my ability to execute that vision. Obviously, a big part of that decision from them was ensuring that there’s alignment between what I felt was the best way forward and what they saw.
What is the biggest (or if you’d prefer most surprising) challenge that comes with the job?
For any of us who’ve worked as front-line staff within the non-profit advocacy space, the transition into administration and oversight is sometimes challenging. I have always struggled on some level to give up control over the minutiae, and that challenge is only compounded when you’re in an executive role. Thankfully, I’ve been able to build a team that is both highly skilled and indulges me from time to time, so I know I can count on them to execute things incredibly well — and often better than I could myself — but also maintained the flexibility and freedom to get my hands dirty from time to time.
You became President of AA in 2018, following the removal of David Silverman. I don’t want to go back into the details of that scandal, but how have you rebuilt trust and accountability in AA leadership in the years since?
Everything comes back to the quality of the work we’re doing. We do everything we can to be good partners, good allies, and good advocates. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort demonstrating that we’re committed to getting the work done, keeping our word, and being generous with our praise and amplification of our partners and allies. That goes beyond just our partners within the secular community and extends to our partnerships with organisations that we’ve built within the LGBTQ advocacy space, reproductive access space, and even within the interfaith community. We’ve worked very hard to demonstrate our expertise on religious equality issues and to show that we’re reliable partners others can count on.
How important do you think institutional leadership (as opposed to say leadership in terms of having a large platform) is to the atheist movement?
There’s sometimes a disconnect between who folks think of as leaders (often those who have big platforms or are the most “famous”) and who other advocacy organisations or politicians or civil society groups think of as leaders (the institutional leadership you mentioned). If the goal of our organisations is to accomplish things from a policy standpoint, that organisational and institutional leadership is vital. I don’t necessarily view those two types of leadership as in tension, however. I think having the humility to acknowledge that it’s impossible to be all things to all people is vital in the context of organisational leadership.
What do you want to achieve as president of American Atheists?
My primary goals are to continue to grow the organisation and legitimise our participation in American civil society. That means investing in grassroots leadership, giving resources to the people on the ground all across the country who are working every day to build strong communities that meet the needs of atheists in their area, and building relationships with potential partners and allies nationally to make it easier for our local leaders to connect with folks who share their values, even if they don’t share their religious views.
You’ve had previous leadership experience in other political organisations and non-profits, how does that translate into your role at American Atheists?
A couple of things: First, knowing that people bring their whole selves to politics and community organising. Very few people are truly single-issue voters or organisers, even if they might say they are. So, creating opportunities for members of our community to engage in activism — or service, or education, or community building — that speaks to them and scratches that proverbial itch is vital. It also contributes to our organisational mission of legitimising atheists and atheism. Seeing atheists engaged in all sorts of involvement in their cities and towns goes a long way toward ending the stigma too many atheists face, particularly in highly religious communities in our country.
What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist, or secularist space?
You can’t be a leader in any space, but especially within our community, without a profound degree of humility. So many people we work with everyday have expertise and skills that we as leaders don’t. Learning how to defer to that expertise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your leadership. And beyond that, making sure people feel appreciated and valued in everything you do is the best way to retain outstanding people as members of your team. That means being generous with credit and praise and giving people the space to try new things without fear of failure.
What do you think atheist groups can do to support the development of future leaders and role models?
Create opportunities for people to succeed. Empower people to try new things. Build a leadership team that represents the diversity of the community, but also think about who isn’t (yet!) in the room but should be. Examine why it may be that certain groups are underrepresented in your leadership — and in the rank and file of your organisation — and be purposeful in working to reduce that underrepresentation.
What advice would you give to someone who feels that what they have to contribute could make a career in or lead an organisation focusing in this space?
I always encourage people to find opportunities for activism wherever they can and to not have tunnel vision on one particular path. The connections, skills, and experience you build by working in the private sector or for another non-profit or advocacy organisation will be invaluable in any capacity in our community, including as a volunteer. I would also encourage people to look into serving as board members, particularly if they have expertise on finance, governance, or oversight.
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: American Atheists Twitter header, group of activists with “thoughts and actions” sign.