Meet the AHA Staff: Kayley Whalen
Meet Kayley Whalen, the American Humanist Association’s new development associate! Kayley, a graduate of Swarthmore College, worked for three years as a financial analyst for Fannie Mae, and was a fundraiser for Safe Access DC, a medical marijuana advocacy organization, and DC Rollergirls, a nonprofit roller derby league.
HNN: What is your educational background? Why did you choose your particular major?
Kayley: I have a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College, with a minor in Women’s Studies. I actually began college as an engineering major at Rice University, planning to continue my studies in robotics I began at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. But I found writing and studying the humanities even more fascinating than engineering, and shifted focus thanks to a post-modernism class at Rice where we discussed Tom Stoppard, Blade Runner, and The Beatles. After transferring to Swarthmore I became likewise fascinated by modernism and wrote my senior thesis on the pioneering lesbian poet Charlotte Mew.
HNN: How did you first learn about humanism?
Kayley: Humanism is a term I came upon in activist circles, and I love how it ties together modern philosophy, science, social justice work, and a belief that human beings alone are responsible for their own fate—and not a god or other higher power(s).
HNN: Did you grow up in a religious tradition?
Kayley: I was raised in a liberal Catholic household that combined both Irish and Hispanic traditions. I always remember my mother telling me “we don’t talk to those people” when I asked her as a naïve kid why she didn’t buy a Christmas wreath from an organization that claimed to be “pro-life.” I volunteered with my church because I wanted to “do good” but was always skeptical of Catholicism’s claims to truth. At the age of eight I was more into studying field guides—including Darwin’s sketches—than studying for Sunday school. That said, I did grow up with a deeply ingrained fear of a literal hell.
HNN: Is there a single moment in your memory that helped you decide, “I’m a humanist”?
Kayley: I’ve been an ardent existentialist ever since I was involved in a production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit in high school. Existentialist philosophy combined with my background in science ultimately made me reject even liberal religious faith in favor of secular humanism. My struggle to understand my own queer identity and volunteering in the HIV/AIDS community has made me very critical of how organized religion is used to oppress minorities, including LGBT individuals, and is used to suppress ideas that are inconvenient for politicians to engage with, such as safe-sex education and harm reduction practice (i.e. syringe exchange programs).
HNN: What interested you most about working for the AHA?
Kayley: Helping to build a powerful humanist community able to stand up to politicians and demand their rights, while also working to build compassion and respect between all people—and a respect for the Earth, our home. I also never expected to have a job that combined my interest in feminism with my interest in robotics, but here I am, working at the organization that awarded Gloria Steinem the Humanist Pioneer Award in 1978 and made Isaac Asimov its honorary president in 1985.
HNN: What other issues are you most passionate about?
Kayley: LGBT activism, HIV/AIDS, drug policy reform, feminism, and environmentalism.
HNN: What’s your favorite book?
Kayley: I love William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, where the main character, a purveyor of all things “hip,” is so intrinsically sensitive to corporate branding that she harbors an intense phobia of the Michelin Man.
HNN: If you could have dinner with any three people (living or dead), who would they be?
Kayley: José Rizal, Filipino novelist and anti-colonial activist referred to as “The First Filipino,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, American feminist, abolitionist and author of The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, and James Joyce, Irish novelist, national hero and modernist pioneer. All three through their words and actions defined the history, unique identity, and rights of oppressed peoples. They have inspired both progressive and revolutionary activists and, in the case of Joyce, re-shaped literature. They also were all secular intellectuals who were unflinching in their critiques of organized religion even in the face of censure, persecution, and for Rizal, execution by the Spanish colonial government.