Effecting Change, Remaining Relevant: Q&A with AHA Board Member Mandisa Thomas

Mandisa Thomas speaks at the Secular Student Alliance Conference (photo by Emily Newman)

Q: Congratulations on joining the board of directors of the American Humanist Association. How do you view the role of the board? What’s your vision for the AHA?

A: Thank you very much—it is an honor!

As with other organizational boards on which I currently or have previously served, I think the role of the board is to provide insight and guidance when needed while letting the executive director, president, and staff fulfill their responsibilities. It is important for the governing body to allow this to happen for their organizations to develop properly. My years as a management professional have taught me that effective teamwork depends on trust in how everyone does their part, stepping in when necessary, yet remaining consistent when reviewing the work.

I would like to see the AHA utilize its seventy-year-plus foundation and resources to help other organizations and people in a meaningful way. That doesn’t mean helping until it hurts but stepping away from the “ivory tower” form of humanism that tends to talk more than it DOES. This also means helping people in real time and understanding that it will take some serious effort to do “what it takes” to effect change and remain relevant.

Q: You founded Black Nonbelievers, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2011. Can you tell us what inspired you and what the organization is like today?

A: I had a few inspirations for getting involved in the movement and for starting and maintaining Black Nonbelievers. The first was an attempt at dissuasion by a beloved mentor, to “save” me from damnation. The second was seeing the need for an organization that connected more Black atheists and religion doubters with each other and to the broader secular community. The final was my own complete liberation and acceptance of the atheist and humanist identities. That was crucial to my personal development, how I raise my children, and how I engage others.

The organization started locally in Atlanta, and today is fifteen-affiliates strong nationwide.

Q: Did you grow up in a religious household? If so, how did it impact you? When did you become a nonbeliever?

A: I was not raised in a religious home. In fact, one of my primary secular influences was my maternal grandmother, who celebrated holidays but never in a religious manner. So, I have pretty much always been a nonbeliever, though I considered myself spiritual but not religious for many of my formative years. However, I fully identified as an atheist and a humanist in 2010, and I credit my upbringing with the ability to do so without overcoming a great sense of guilt and fear that plagues many former believers.

Q: In October you’ll participate in the Women of Color Beyond Belief Conference in Chicago. Can you talk about how this conference came together and your role in it?

A: This conference was envisioned by Sikivu Hitchinson, founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles, and the Women’s Leadership Project. She, myself, and Bridgett Crutchfield, on the heels of the “Five Fierce Humanists” article in the July/August 2018 issue of the Humanist magazine, strategized on putting this conference together, as my skill set with planning and executing events would be well utilized.

I am the main logistics person for the conference, and I’m sure I’ll be moderating a few sessions. I also plan to discuss how my activism has progressed over the past eight years, and the joys and pains of it all.

Q: What else do you enjoy or work at when you’re not involved in humanist-related activities?

A: As the movement is now my “work,” it’s hard to pinpoint activities that don’t revolve around it [laughing]. But in my spare time, I prioritize ME time—whether it’s watching my favorite movies, going out to eat by myself, and now traveling solo. It provides me the opportunity to recharge and fulfill my personal and professional responsibilities.

If you could have dinner with any three people in the world (living or dead), who would they be and why?

A: My three picks would be: Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, and Assata Shakur.

All three of these individuals have had an impact on my life, and they helped shape my worldview and what it means to stand up for myself and for the Black community. I would like to hear from their own mouths what things were like for them, and what gave them the strength to fight as they did. With the growing tensions and political unrest after the Civil Rights era, especially in response to police brutality and law enforcement corruption, Shakur and other activists during the 1960s and ’70s, took more aggressive actions and stances that may not be agreeable, but are certainly understandable. I think it would make for some interesting conversation.