by: Andrew Tripp
Last Monday, I got this e-mail from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, with the subject title “Tell Illinois schools to stand by Jessica Ahlquist!”:
Three Illinois public schools are coming under fire because of a decision to invite First Amendment advocate Jessica Ahlquist to speak during their “Constitution Week” festivities. (FFRF’ers can hear and meet Jessica at FFRF’s upcoming annual convention in Portland Oct. 12-13, where she will receive the “Freethinker of the Year” Award.)
Ahlquist, 17, still in high school, is scheduled to discuss her successful state-church lawsuit over a prayer banner at her Cranston, R.I., high school. She will speak at York Community High School, Waubonsie Valley High School and Downers Grove North High School this week.
The Illinois Family Institute (IFI), “a non-profit ministry dedicated to upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty in Illinois” has issued a mean-spirited call to Illinois citizens to protest Ahlquist’s appearances at the schools.
The group argues that “York and Waubonsie Valley high schools sent out permission slips to parents, permission slips that failed to include any information whatsoever about Jessica Ahlquist, the specifics of her lawsuit, or any details regarding the topics she would be addressing or the learning objectives her presentation is intended to fulfill.” IFI mainly seems to feel Jessica’s atheism is the issue. Very few adults have had the first-hand experience Jessica has had in defending the Establishment Clause and in winning a Federal Court battle.
They claim that Ahlquist will spend more time discussing an “issue about which she cares deeply and about being bullied” than the Constitution. Talk about irony. A religious right group during “Constitution Week” seeks to muzzle the First Amendment rights of a champion of the First Amendment.
IFI contacted a Waubonsie teacher who spoke against the group’s suspicions: “The purpose of the optional presentation is so that students may see that the US Constitution, which is the foundational document for our country’s government, is still relevant today.”
Help counter the outcry from the religious right, as IFI is encouraging its members to take action by contacting school administration and school board members.
It concludes with the usual Action Alert links to send e-mails and phone calls to school administrators.
This is all well and good, and fair play to the FFRF: Laurie Higgins and the IFI are despicable people and we should absolutely fight on Jessica’s behalf to make sure her voice is heard.
However, there is a but.
I was never really sure before now how to write this post, but I’ve known for a while that I wanted to. I’ve noticed a definite trend in those that we in atheism have begun to champion as the next super-activists; Jessica, Damon Fowler, Zack Kopplin, and Harrison Hopkins are all atheists who have challenged prayers at their high schools, and created stirs about it. In Jessica and Damon’s cases, the backlash was severe, in the former’s case being met with threats of rape and violence and in the latter’s case being effectively disowned by his parents. I am privileged to know Jessica, Damon, and Harrison; they are all incredibly brave, and we should applaud their efforts.
My issue is not with any of them; my issue is with secular organizations, and with the blogosphere. We have set up these four, and a few other besides, as the Next Generation of atheist activists. We’ve championed them, their struggles, as indicative of what the rest of us should do. In doing so, however, I contend that we are erasing the voices and struggles of atheists who aren’t so privileged, or white, i.e. accessible, to gain the attention of the FFRF and other mainstream organizations.
For instance, in Los Angeles, there is a program being run by writer and secular activist Sikivu Hutchinson called the Women’s Leadership Project, which states their aim as being to “educate and train young middle and high school age women in South Los Angeles to take ownership of their school-communities,” and
Using a humanist curriculum with a social justice lens, the goal of the program is to empower young women of color to develop their own voices, increase their self-esteem, foster healthy relationships, promote critical consciousness about and activism around race, gender, and LGBT equality, and prepare for college and careers. WLP guides young women through public advocacy projects of their own choosing, toward helping them develop and sharpen their critical thinking, writing, organizing and leadership skills.
The WLP’s mentees live in what has been shown to be one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the nation. Many members of their cohorts are the first in their families to go to college, suffer direct consequences of rape culture and are ridiculed for their resistance to it, have to deal with the widespread and accepted notion in their communities of validation rape, all while, as Hutchinson puts it, “work[ing] their asses off to become the first in their families to go to college.”
The WLP is an amazing story of activism at its best, of culturally relevant humanism put into radical practice that is changing the lives of women in a real way. I doubt there is a single one of you who could argue otherwise.
So, why then is Dr. Hutchinson the only one writing about the WLP? Why aren’t we hearing about these students at The Friendly Atheist? Why aren’t action alerts on their behalf being released by the FFRF, or the Secular Coalition for America? Why aren’t activist groups forming similar projects in their areas? Do these mainstream atheist organizations think these students aren’t worth talking about?
Now, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the FFRF and SCA haven’t ever even investigated the WLP, beyond noting its existence in Dr. Hutchinson’s bio. I think they are so wrapped up in their actions within the hierarchies of the state, through court actions and writing to politicians and the like, that they have no notion of what is going on in South Los Angeles, or in the Bronx, or North Lawndale, or in any such neighborhood. I think Jessica Ahlquist in small town Rhode Island is the most radical notion of oppression of which they can conceive, because mainstream American culture doesn’t allow us to think that systemic racism and misogyny can exist in our culture anymore. Those are ideas that to white America died in the 50s and 60s. The fact of the matter is, though, that they are a daily reality for the marginalized populations in our country, and throughout the world, and are preserved and given fuel by the privileged classes’ unconscious, color blind racism.
I call on the FFRF and all other atheist organizations, from American Atheists and the Harvard Humanist Community down to the smallest Secular Student Alliance or Center for Inquiry affiliate, to make these issues a priority in their organizing. This message will fall flat to those Neanderthals who think sexual harassment policies at conferences are infringements on free speech, but I don’t write for them. I’m writing for everyone who commented on Jen McCreight’s posts about Atheism+ who thought it sounded like a cool idea, who liked the logos, who haven’t yet made this part of their daily thoughts when they look at the world we live in. An action alert or court case about a school prayer is not going to make any real difference in the lives of those who the WLP and similar organizations serve.
If there is anything we should have learned by now, it is that the American criminal legal system does not benefit the marginalized and oppressed; it is a tool to serve the rich and privileged. Change will not come through the Supreme Court; it is going to come through sustained grassroots action that first listens to the concerns of people who live with oppression every day, like that work done by the WLP. We need radical action, not legal bandaids.
Note: This piece was originally published on the author’s blog and reposted with permission. You can find the original here.
Andrew Tripp is the President of the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, a Secular Student Alliance and Center for Inquiry On Campus affiliate, at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, where he studies philosophy and causes lots of fun, secular, activisty trouble. Find him on Twitter @ahtripp and at his blog, Considered Exclamations.