Organizing Young Humanists

This article is adapted from a panel discussion hosted at the American Humanist Association’s 80th Annual Conference in July 2021.

Four young humanist leaders gathered to discuss ways to bring younger people into the humanist community. Julia Julstrom-Agoyo, who moderated the discussion, is the AHA youth representative to the United Nations and the Future of Ethical Societies (FES) liaison of the American Ethical Union board.

JULIA JULSTROM-AGOYO: We hope to provide valuable insight into what young humanists are seeking from local groups. We’ll explore topics such as programs and activities that younger generations can identify with, the barriers younger humanists face in joining humanist groups, and what they need from their local chapters. We hope to examine how to better engage and support young humanists to create a strong unified movement that is accessible to all.

Generally, when we talk about younger folks, we are referring to people about eighteen to forty years old, currently Gen Y/Millennials and Gen Z. We also recognize there are differences within this group—for example, people in their early twenties may have different concerns than those in their late thirties—and that experiences center perspectives. For example, defining moments of your childhood—whether that included 9/11 and economic recession, or school shootings, climate change, and the pandemic—inform your big life decisions and transitions, like going to college, what type of career you choose, or whether or not to start a family.

I want to start by asking the panelists how they got interested in humanism.

JENNIE FRISHTICK: I went to Scripps College and took classes in secular studies. I had mainly heard the term humanism but hadn’t learned about what humanism is and looking at that from an academic perspective was very interesting. I became more intrigued by the idea of secular community-building, so I started a Secular Student Alliance (SSA) chapter. My involvement grew from there and I’m now on the board of the SSA, and very interested in how we can build strong humanist communities especially for young people.

CHRISTIAN HAYDEN: I’m an intern with the Ethical Society of Saint Louis and also a member of the Future of Ethical Societies (FES). I have been involved with Ethical Culture for about ten years now. The story of my history with Ethical Culture since college is kind of a searching journey. I dabbled in different religious faiths and traditions, and I happened upon the Ethical Society after I did a year of service that was really impactful for me. In my senior year, I did a community service learning program helping run community organizations with other young people that tried to make their communities better. They were learning, having new experiences, and building relationships and it was beautiful. Then, I stepped into the Philadelphia Ethical Society and I felt like that was a place where that could happen for adults. I think one of the big reasons I stayed really close to the Ethical Culture movement was because I had a sort of symbiotic relationship with the FES, so I had this community of young people throughout the U.S. in different Ethical Societies. I was in a society where I was one of the few young people, but also having an experience of being in a group of young people who shared the same ideas, so I got to enjoy both of those experiences. It kept me closer to Ethical Culture.

LINCOLN DOW: I am a student at NYU, where I study politics, public policy and public health and I’m the community organizer of the Jews for a Secular Democracy initiative of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It’s our educational and advocacy initiative, focused on the separation of religion and government. I was born and raised into a Jewish family, but a decidedly secular one. Growing up and as a student, I have always had my foot in two identities, the Jewish identity as well as the secular one. I found that the secular spaces are so important, particularly for people who are estranged from their faith, their upbringing, and looking for a sense of community through a pivotal and developmental time in their life. I served on the SSA board for two years and now, at NYU, I stay involved in the movement.

JULSTROM-AGOYO: So, who are the young people making up the demographic we’re discussing and how does that impact the kinds of things humanist communities can do to welcome and engage them?

FRISHTICK: It’s always interesting when we’re discussing young people in humanism or secularism and how to engage this demographic because it’s a challenge for basically all religious groups as well. That’s comforting in some ways, but might also give us some helpful hints on how we can work with people our age. I always find it fascinating that there is this pattern across religious groups and the secular community that people in their twenties, before they get married and have babies, don’t usually have much of an interest in being a part of an intentional community like a religious community. Or at least they aren’t attracted to those communities that already exist in their current shape. There’s a lot of potential and, of course, there’s a lot of diversity within our demographic, but it’s not a problem unique to humanism.

HAYDEN: I think of myself and where I was, and technically still am, in this younger group. I think about when I was younger and what I was going through. As Julia mentioned, I was in high school when 9/11 happened. I went to college and Hurricane Katrina happened. I came out of college into an economic downturn. I worked multiple years being underemployed, doing service jobs and then part-time jobs. And so it actually shocks me, now that I think about it, that I did stay with Ethical Culture, because there was a lot of headwind for me to just get into something else. A lot of my folks were into Occupy. A lot of my folks are into organizing now. Now, also, some of them are healing from all of the time that they spent in their twenties figuring things out, in an extended introversion. And on top of that, the pandemic has made it difficult to come into society. So, think of all of those things that are going on. Those challenges, like Jennie said, not only affect humanism, but groups who are interested in forming a community in general.

Despite all of that, we are still like any other generation—we need places to grow and learn and be fed, to be reenergized. I mean literally be fed, but also feed our whole being. Some people are looking, I think I was looking, for that little bit more than the average person at that age. The need is still there. Keeping that in mind, we are sort of different but also the same.

DOW: It’s very interesting to hear about how these communities have helped fill a need for you. I think that’s a really important point. You have to identify and fill certain needs. Just identifying as a humanist is not enough to get somebody involved with one of these communities and keep them coming back because everybody in this generation, these generations, is busy. We are all so busy, whether you’re a student involved in class and extracurriculars and working, whether you are a recent graduate who is working hard at a new job, whether you have a family to take care of. Everyone is busy and that’s of course not unique to this age cohort but it seems to be very important among our particular demographic.

So, just because somebody agrees with what your group is doing, just because somebody shares that identity, might not be sufficient for them to make it a top priority. We have a lot going on. Groups need to tangibly help people develop and help give them something they need in their life that will be useful.

JULSTROM-AGOYO: That segues perfectly into my next question, which is: what kinds of things might be helpful for humanist groups to keep in mind when thinking about welcoming young people to their community?

HAYDEN: I’m trying to think of not just what not to do, but also what to do. But I do think about some of the things that offer particular challenges to younger people. If they step into the door and your concern is getting them to keep coming, there are some things to keep in mind to avoid. One of the things to avoid is loading things on to them too early. “Oh, you’re a young person, that means you can help bring in other young people.” Or a ton of people asking the same questions, “How did you find out about this place? Who are you? Are you going to come back next week?” Or giving them a responsibility immediately, before they get a chance to become a part of the community.

It’s important to be open to building awareness of what young people are doing. Not just social media, but in terms of where their hearts and attention are. Are you getting speakers and events that address that? Are we supporting groups that address that? One of the advantages of Ethical Societies that have buildings is that they are able to offer meeting space to groups that may not be able to pay or to groups that don’t have the resources for events. This offers natural abilities for partnerships, but you also have to seek out those partnerships. The groundwork has to be laid to get people to have some kind of connection to it, as Lincoln said, outside of just sharing some common ideas.

FRISHTICK: Christian’s first point about what not to do is an important one because it’s so easy to get very excited about a young person showing up—especially for an in-person meeting or over Zoom this past year—and to really bring all of your thoughts to the table right away and share all these great ideas for engaging young people. “Do you have friends you can bring next time? We would love for you to keep coming.” It’s so wonderful to be welcomed, but I think that for some people that might be more likely to scare them away than to encourage them to come back. It’s hard. We definitely acknowledge this is a challenge because, when you have a group that is made up of, for the most part, older professionals or retirees, it’s hard to attract young people without having young people there. Being open to listening to what a new person, a young person, might want to do in a group or, as Christian was saying, bringing other interests into the group and thinking about what other entities we can support as a humanist group is a great way to help support young people.

One thing I have been thinking a lot about is how we can bridge the SSA world (on-campus groups, high school and college students) with the humanist communities beyond colleges and what happens when our students graduate. A good number of our SSA student leaders go on to work in humanism or secularism-related organizations, like the AHA, or seek out other leadership roles. But we really want to make an investment in a robust alumni program because we think that could be a really important way to help bridge the period when our students leave college and they go onto work, so they ideally aren’t becoming one of the floating twenty-somethings that don’t have any ties to humanist groups. Instead, we hope to be able to engage them and keep them engaged in a meaningful way which I think could really help tie those two life stages together.

DOW: I think there’s a very exciting potential there for the partnership between SSA and groups for alums and I’m excited to see what happens. I will say, in the immediate short-term, groups don’t need to wait for what SSA comes up with. If you are able to cosponsor an event with a local SSA chapter or even if you are just in a college area with a lot of students, you can put together an event with an interesting speaker that’s going to draw in students or recent graduates or other young people. Because the point that both Christian and Jennie touched on—that young people are not terribly inclined to join a group where there aren’t other young people—is exactly right. That’s a difficult barrier to overcome because you need a handful of people at once to become a key segment of your organization. You can’t just build one at a time. But it can be done and if you have a really enticing lure to bring people in and keep them involved, that’s the way to do it.

JULSTROM-AGOYO: We are going to shift gears a little bit now to the topics of advocacy, activism, political involvement, all things that I’m very passionate about. How do we elevate these issues, especially the role of religion in government with young people?

FRISHTICK: One of the big draws for me to humanism and to secular community-building is that it provides a space to do this kind of activism work that isn’t through a religious group or doesn’t have a religious base. Especially on campus, I felt like a lot of the community service opportunities or the other civic engagement opportunities were through one of the religious entities on campus. The biggest connection with humanism here is that there are so many challenges and so many problems in the world that we see as humanist. And many of them, if not all, have a basis at some point in history in religion or of religious dictatorship of some kind. Making that connection can seem very basic and, of course, we know that there’s some religious tradition behind a lot of oppressive policies, but making that clear connection was really helpful for me. Then, I began to see how humanism can really inform every aspect of activism and political involvement beyond just separation of church and state.

DOW: The connection in many cases is explicit. When you look at, for example, anti-LGBTQ legislation or anti-reproductive rights legislation in states around the country, you see these are not simply inspired by regressive theological views. They are in many cases written and advocated for by what we refer to as Christian Nationalist groups, organizations that believe that America is fundamentally a Christian nation and that Judeo-Christian values—which by the way do not exist, it’s a complete falsehood of a phrase—are the core of our system of government and we need to get back to biblical principles. This is a problem particularly with state level laws where these groups work to infringe on the rights of minority communities, LGBTQ people and anybody who may need an abortion. That’s a very explicit link between a harmful use of religion and harmful legislation. We are uniquely suited—as folks who push back on the core of that notion that this is a Christian nation and that we ought to be acting in a specifically Christian way—to counter those pieces of legislation and those harmful policy ideas.

That’s not always clear off the cuff. It’s something we need to do a better job of communicating to people who share our views on the legislation because, if we can teach them what the core tenets are and how we can better address them, that’s a good way to keep the activist types involved in your group as well. Our generation has a lot of active people, a lot of advocates. Again, we are all extremely busy and torn between dozens of organizations that are all doing important work. We can set ourselves apart by saying, “Look, here is what these particular religious organizations are doing. We have a very clear differentiating factor from them because we also approach this from a values-based perspective. But our values are different and our implementation of those values leads to very different policy.” If you can make that connection and, particularly if you can do it without stepping on the work of other organizations, but by working in partnership with them, you will attract a very good and loyal group of activists who share your values and who will be excited to do work on your issues with you as opposed to other organizations.

HAYDEN: This generation is really politically involved. More than any other generation in pure numbers. I think it’s also interesting because there’s some tension between where on the spectrum some young people might fall in terms of humanist orientation or perspective and where some folks of different ages might fall. That spectrum can be good and generative, but I think it has to be handled well. Sometimes, there’s resistance to some of the positions of more progressive or younger folks, an unwillingness to understand their approaches. It’s important to figure out how to prepare groups to hear things that may be uncomfortable, that may make them feel a little bit like, “Oh, I’m being called this,” or “I’m being asked to use this language,” or “I’m being told this thing that I’m doing is not right.” That kind of reaction can be a big turnoff for young people and can cause a reluctance to engage at all. It’s important to develop a dialogue that will help young people feel welcome, even if folks may not ever agree with them. Some people will never come to a certain kind of position. But is that perspective welcomed? Is that space open where people can feel like what they will say will be heard and maybe, in some way, shape what is happening? The cool thing about the humanist community in particular is it includes a lot of educated people, but that can move to a certain kind of rigidness at times. Figuring out how to organize our communities so they can have a demonstrated openness to ideas and perspectives will go a long way to make young people feel welcomed.

JULSTROM-AGOYO: Here is our last question. What has and hasn’t worked to engage younger folks and when have you felt included or excluded from the humanist movement?

FRISHTICK: One useful thing is to just create connections with other people. In addition to having a sense of community, there are really helpful opportunities that come out of having connections with people who are not just other millennials or Gen Z: things like professional contacts that can provide insight on issues in the working world. It can be really great to have that distant connection at some company where you maybe applied for a job, or would like to. Things like that might come up through communicating with young people coming to a humanist group. It can be helpful to seek that out in addition to the kind of proactive community-building and shared experiences that we have from being part of a humanist group.

DOW: It’s sort of a double edged word because you don’t want to overwhelm someone with responsibilities and make them feel “too” welcome. At the same time, if there’s a clear delineation such that the young members of a group don’t have any say in how it’s run, don’t have any pathway to leadership, that’s not great either. So, I want to welcome people in as valued members without making them feel like they are the center of everything, but then at the same time give them an opportunity to move into positions of leadership to take on a more active role in your group if that’s something they express interest in. It’s a nuanced line to walk, but it’s one that can and needs to be walked.

JULSTROM-AGOYO: Thank you to all of our panelists for their insights.