In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Tim Wright New Zealand Humanists’ relatively new president, and longstanding member Gaylene Middleton.
“The NZ Humanists are a national charity that promotes humanism, secularism, reason, and science. We work on behalf of the millions of New Zealanders who are not religious, ensuring their voices are heard in public policy and debate.”
What was your first experience of activism?
Tim: Back at university I got involved in student politics on a whim. I got involved in organising the “probably no god” signs on busses in New Zealand, a fair while ago now. So that was really the first experience. I found it interesting the pushback we got from religious people. And enjoyed the feeling of working toward a common cause.
Gaylene: I had great angst as a teenager about the purpose of life and did what many do, fell into religion-I converted to Catholicism. I have a bent towards ‘event planning’ and was ‘activist’ in a religious sense until my growth trajectory took me out of religion and into humanism. My partner Iain is a long time humanist and was with Humanist NZ as president for a number of terms. I learnt from Iain. It was 2018 when Humanists International had their General Assembly in New Zealand and we had difficulty with getting visas for humanists from non-visa waiver countries that this issue became a profound moment for me.
How did you become the president of Humanists NZ?
Tim: More by accident than planning. I have ADHD (undiagnosed) and tend to say “yes” to things without thinking (this is a common behaviour for people with ADHD), so when Jolene announced she was retiring as president, someone said, “Tim could do it” and I said yes. A very similar story to how I got on the board.
On saying that, I’m really proud to be president of Humanists NZ. It’s a great group of people who are involved and have been doing amazing work for a long, long time.
Gaylene: I became secretary in 2000. Just because I was asked, A big feature of the tasks was the regular monthly newsletter. This task has sharpened my thought, with the help of Iain and other committee contributions.
What advice would you give Tim in his new role?
Gaylene: I see a ‘president’, or I prefer ‘chairperson’ as a person who facilitates the skills of others. I like a horizontal structure rather than the older vertical concept. We can use individual skills to the full. A charismatic spokesperson may not be the best at the nuts and bolts of organising. I think that the traditional roles of a committee have blurred with the advent of the internet and global communication. The pace of life has increased, and I think the demands on people have increased so we need new efficiencies.
What advice would you give to a young humanist who wanted to be future activist or leader in this space?
Tim: Join your local society, talk to people, and find part of the movement that you’re passionate about. That might be writing submissions, giving talks, demonstrating, or other things. Also, leading volunteers is quite different to other forms of leadership, so learning about the differences can be really good.
What do you think makes an effective humanist leader?
Tim: I think that approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective is more important than “leading passionate people”. We all become humanists and then get involved in activism for different reasons. Supporting our volunteers and guiding them to help understand what is important is more important than leading or managing them.
Gaylene: Having respect for all the foibles we have as personalities. I agree absolutely with Tim’s comment “approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective”. I think it is essential for new leaders to make themselves aware of group history- to stand on the side-line for a time. All new members can do this. Everybody makes efforts and often it is forward and back again.
Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?
Tim: The fact that the people involved in Humanists NZ are a fantastic bunch of diverse folks who need very little leadership.
Gaylene: The friendship within the group. Members having time for me.
What challenges does the humanist movement in New Zealand face today, and how can activists best help address them?
Tim: I think our primary challenge is lack of visibility. The media is supposed to present all sides of an argument, but as they often don’t know about the humanist movement, they often don’t present a humanist perspective.
Tim, you recently launched a Humanist radio programme, could you tell us how that came about, and what you hope it will achieve?
Tim: See note above about impulsively saying yes to commitments without thinking them through. I wanted to start a music-based show and was talking to the station manager (a community station) about funding. He mentioned that they get funding for providing airtime to religious groups. I asked if an atheist/humanist show would get the funding as well. He said it would and asked me if I wanted to do one.
I’m always interested in how humanist groups adapt the humanist symbol for their own identity, could you tell us about the meaning behind your own version?
Gaylene: We wanted to acknowledge the Tangata whenua of our land. The koru symbol- the unfolding fern leaf is a symbol of new life, growth, strength, and peace. The green base and blue upper of the ‘happy humanist’ is a little nod towards the Maori creation myth of Rangi and Papa– the earth and sky. Our previous logo was the ‘happy humanist’ astride the map of New Zealand.
Thanks for reading
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Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists New Zealand’s logo