Embracing the Discomfort of Progress: An Interview with Krista Cox

This year the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference (its 79th) is going completely virtual. On Saturday, August 8, 2020, from 11:00am – 6:30pm ET, the AHA will host a day-long conference: Distant but Together: A Virtual Celebration of Humanism.

In these challenging times, it’s important that humanists stay connected. That’s why this year’s AHA Annual Conference is free to all and can be safely viewed right from your own home. Whether you’re new to humanism or a longtime AHA member or humanist activist, this virtual meeting will keep you inspired, engaged, and connected. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from exciting humanist speakers who will explore the values and principles important to our community.

This year we’re happy to welcome speaker Krista Cox, an essayist, poet, and chair of the Advisory Council of the AHA’s Feminist Humanist Alliance. She works as a paralegal with an environmental and insurance coverage law firm in northern Indiana, and in her free time she acts as the president and executive director of Lit Literary Collective, a nonprofit serving her local literary community; is the managing editor of Doubleback Review; and an associate editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.

Cox’s activism focuses on intersectional feminism and difficult conversations. Through her many years as an activist, she has invested time and energy in learning to navigate the defensiveness that often accompanies conversations about sexism, misogyny, racism, internal biases, and more. At Distant but Together, Cox will discuss how we can confront our internal biases—an important part of living humanist values—and embrace the necessary discomfort that comes with recognizing our role in systems of oppression. Her presentation will help humanists learn about why activism can be so unsettling, especially when it hits close to home, and what we can do about it.

I had the opportunity to ask Cox about her experiences as a humanist activist and what she hopes Distant but Together attendees will learn from her session.

MEREDITH THOMPSON: Did you grow up in a particular religious tradition? What was the experience like and when did you start identifying as a humanist?

KRISTA COX: I was confirmed as a Missouri Synod Lutheran in small-town Wisconsin. In my youth, being religious was mostly fine (albeit a bit weird at times, like when my mom decided Halloween was Satanic). But as a young adult, the religious dogma I’d internalized, especially around “purity” and the role of women in relationships, became incredibly dangerous and deeply harmful. I went into a sort of “religious hibernation” in my early twenties, and just didn’t think about “bigger questions” of belief, value, or identity until I was nearly thirty. I started identifying as agnostic; atheist followed shortly thereafter. I discovered humanism in my mid-thirties, and realized it was really who I’d been all along. Humanism was what I wanted from religion—empathy, compassion, connectedness—without the irrational, oppressive baggage.

THOMPSON: Can you talk about your experience as an activist and leader in the humanist community?

COX: Humanist values so naturally lead to activism that I feel routinely inspired and connected when I’m interacting with humanists. There are so many ways to be a humanist activist. I think the humanist community is uniquely positioned to model restorative justice, true inclusiveness, and equitable systems, not just in theory but in practice. While we may be better equipped to enact these values, we’re certainly not there yet, so my activism is largely centered on helping the humanist community espouse its ideals as best it can on both individual and institutional levels.

THOMPSON: What are the biggest challenges you face as an activist?

COX: My biggest challenges are all related to my own shortcomings—or, more accurately, my humanity. As a white woman whose activism focuses on social justice and intersectional feminism, it’s vitally important that I’m able to identify my implicit biases and prevent them from causing additional harm to already harmed peoples. It’s ongoing work, and it requires vigilance, humility, and the ability to sit with discomfort. It means being able to truly listen when called in or out, instead of allowing the knee-jerk response to defend myself to shut down the conversation.

THOMPSON: What do you hope viewers will take away from your talk?

COX: Difficult conversations are full of split-second opportunities for growth that often go unnoticed and unused because of the very normal, human aversion to discomfort. I hope to help people get the full benefit of those opportunities, and, in the process, help unseat biases that harm.

THOMPSON: What’s the first step humanists can take to challenge their discomfort? How can we channel our discomfort for good?

COX: I wouldn’t actually suggest challenging discomfort—I would recommend embracing it (in this context, at least). It’s an automatic response to pain, whether physical or emotional, to do whatever it takes to stop it. In difficult conversations, that often means closing off and lashing out. The first step to creating positive change out of discomfort is actually doing nothing—waiting out that impulse to protect yourself from a perceived attack, or to offload the uncomfortable emotions onto someone or something else—so that you have time to process thoughtfully. It sounds simple! “Do nothing? I can do that!” But it’s a skill that requires mindfulness and practice.

THOMPSON: What else are you working on, and how can we learn more?

COX: The Feminist Humanist Alliance is offering grants to support activism and community-based relief from COVID-19. We’ve also partnered with other AHA alliances and the Humanist to offer the Call for Voices program, which offers additional compensation to writers from underprivileged groups who publish social justice-related work in the magazine or online. You can learn more about these programs at https://www.feministhumanists.org/grants-programs-2020.

Though I’ve struggled to write in these weird and difficult times, I’m also a poet, essayist, and editor. At Doubleback Review we publish work online that was originally published by literary journals that became defunct. Doubleback is currently accepting submissions of pieces that were removed from journals at the author’s request because of problematic editorial behavior there or that journal’s publishing morally objectionable pieces—for example, when a journal publishes work widely condemned as racist—for a special “Conscientiously Withdrawn” issue. You can read more about that call for submissions at http://doublebackreview.com/submit-special/.

Don’t miss Krista Cox’s presentation at the AHA’s Distant but Together virtual conference on August 8, 2020. Registration is free! To secure your spot today, go to conference.americanhumanist.org, and look for more speaker profiles in the coming weeks.