Interview with Social Justice Activist Ashton P. Woods

Photo via Ashton P. Woods.

Ashton P. Woods is a social and political activist in the Black Lives Matter movement and the co-chair of the Black Humanist Alliance. You’ve been an activist for a long time. What was your first moment of political and activist awakening?

Ashton P. Woods: When I was fifteen I co-founded the first gay-straight alliance at my high school in New Orleans. I got tired of seeing people being bullied for being different, not just LGBT, but different, period. Now you’re the co-chair of the Black Humanist Alliance. What tasks and responsibilities come along with being the co-chair?

Woods: The way I see it, we’re not just organizing black people as a monolith, but organizing with the knowledge that black people come from different walks of life, including those who happen to identify as humanist or atheist in the secular community. There are more of us out there than people perceive to be. One of the things that I do as a co-chair is I focus on social justice. You note that the black humanist community isn’t so visible in the public eye. What efforts are being made to overcome that barrier of public perception?

Woods: First, it is about being visible. The more people see you out there doing the work and identifying like they do, then they have a stake in the game. They have something to relate to. I have worked in activism. And in general, it requires a certain level of relatability. That way, people are more inclined to be part of a movement or part of a project, and are willing to listen.

We must gain visibility within the atheist community as well. I went to the Nashville Nones! Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, and I could only count ten, maybe fifteen black folks. It wasn’t on a weekend, so most people were at school or work, and there are also financial barriers.

So signing up and being part of those particular events is important, as well as my social justice work, and emphasizing that there’s a place for the secular community in the Black Lives Matter movement, in feminism, and in HIV activism. It can be tedious when it’s needed. For some reason, I never found it hard to do. I just do it, if that makes sense. Yes, thank you for that. Also, you mentioned HIV activism. When did you find out that you were HIV-positive, what were the feelings that came up, and what have been some of the difficulties?

Woods: I was twenty-one years old when I was diagnosed with HIV. That would make it 2008. And I had never been educated a lot about HIV because I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen. Deliberately, I went to community centers that were part of the LGBT community, and in the black community as well, and learned what I could because I had friends who died from it. So when I found out that I had HIV—of course, you can’t die from HIV, but you die from complications with AIDS—I found the biggest reaction was that I broke out in hives.

I didn’t want to be around people. I remember the conversations with friends, who are no longer here, that it wasn’t not a death sentence. It was about destigmatizing HIV, but in the black community, in 2008 or even in 2017, people lack the common knowledge of how HIV works, and what it does. There’s a stigma that it’s about promiscuity. But it’s so varied. Some people with HIV were raped. There’s a lot that needs to be unpackaged there with HIV.

I feel like if we’re going to talk about Black Lives Matter or any other types of black activism, we need to make sure we’re including people who are living with this virus, and know that health is a main issue that should be discussed. So when we talk about, for example, Black Lives Matter, we say, “Black lives matter. Black health matters. Black women matter. Black LGBT people matter.”

I came out in 2015 publicly and by the beginning of 2016 I was on the cover of an industry magazine that covers HIV issues, which was a very rapid rise in that context. But it is about knowing what’s affecting your body. It’s about knowing how it affects everybody else. Because it doesn’t just affect the people who have it—it affects those around them as well. Tell me a little about your path to atheism. Was there a single moment of realization or a progress away from a traditional belief system into atheism?

Woods: Well, the irony is I don’t fit into either one of those boxes. I actually grew up religion-less. It was around me. Others practiced it, but I was never forced to go to a church or forced to try to learn. I was offered, but it was never forced. I was left to make the choice on my own. I never really believed. By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I was like, “This isn’t real to me. I don’t believe in this.” As an adult, I did try to join a church just to see what it was like, and to see if I could deal with it, and to see if I could believe in it. But no—it was, no. It just didn’t work. It’s not that I didn’t have any respect for the people because there are some good people there. But it’s not who I am. I never experienced agnosticism either. There was just never any God for me. You’re the co-founder and lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Houston. What are some of its main initiatives at the moment? What are you hoping to achieve in the next one to ten years?

Woods: My part in the Black Lives Matter movement is to affect policy. One of that things that I have been good at is working with elected officials to change laws and policies. I’ve been at the Texas legislature helping to look at language in bills, testifying on panels, and meeting with elected officials to convince them to vote for particular legislation. These bills basically abolish the ability for police to arrest you on misdemeanor charges. There’s also victimless crime. You get a citation and then go.

I’ve also been involved with the Sandra Bland Act. I was very involved in protests [at the time of her arrest and subsequent death in police custody]. The act basically makes it so that a police officer has to prove probable cause. It’s one thing to protest in the streets; it’s another thing to expand that protest to where you’re actually engaging in the political process.

While we would love to dismantle this system of pain, we are still in it. It will take some time.