Ask Mandisa 1 – Organization, Activities, and Funding

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of, if not the, largest organization for African-American or black nonbelievers or atheists in America. The organization is intended to give secular fellowship, provide nurturance and support for nonbelievers, encourage a sense of pride in irreligion, and promote charity in the non-religious community. I reached out to begin an educational series with one of, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States. Here, as the start of the series, we talk about Black Nonbelievers, Inc., associated organizations, barriers facing African-Americans coming into the nonbelieving community, and funding.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s bring everyone back into the fold in terms of what is happening with Black Nonbelievers, Inc. What is it? What are some of its new activities?

Mandisa Thomas: Yes, I am Mandisa Thomas. I am the Founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, which is an organization devoted to increasing the visibility and building the community for black atheists or blacks who are atheists, or questioning religion or who may be leaving.

Also, we are connecting people with the broader secular community. We host a variety of activities including general meetings, support meetings, social gatherings, tabling at various events, and so on. Also, we have the annual convention, which is coming up. It is one of our larger events.

We host guest speakers and bring members, and other attendees and allies, together for fun and educational experiences. Also, we advocate for being out as atheists as well as connecting with others. So, we can turn around the stigma of atheism, and bring people into the community for our voices to be heard.

Jacobsen: For the African-American community, in particular, as we have discussed in other interviews by us, it is one of the less reached communities on behalf of the secular community as a whole. 

What are other organizations doing similar activities? Also, what are some of the difficulties that come along with that, especially as it is not one of the communities reached out to as much?

Thomas: Yes, the black community in the United States continues to be highly religious. The new Pew Research numbers show 87% of blacks in the United States identify as religious, which can make the conversation, as well as being open, about atheism difficult.

Because a lot of the politics and community building is centered around the church. That is due to historical reasons as well as the presence of, not just the church but, the historical fact of institutionalized racism in the United States.

It is similar to organizations doing similar work to ours such as African Americans for Humanism, Ex-Muslims of North America reaching out to the ex-Muslims who need community and building supports for those who want to leave.

Also, there are other organizations within the secular community that target specific demographics: Secular Student Alliance based on the building of these communities and groups on high school and college campuses.

Most of the other organizations have the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. You have the Hispanic American Freethinkers, American Humanist Association, who challenge Church-State separation on a more aggressive level there.

Each organization has their unique focuses. It is similar to Black Nonbelievers reaching out to specific demographics. It shows that we all need it.

Jacobsen: Also, different people coming from a different background of faith, which they left, may have different concerns if they are coming to Black Nonbelievers. For example, someone who has a Sunni or Shia Muslim background may have a different set of concerns compared to the Baptist or Lutheran community.

It may be different when wanting to integrate into a new community of secular people. Do you note differences between the issues people come forward with when leaving different religious groups?

Thomas: Yes, absolutely, one of the major concerns heard by us. Many of our members think that they are the only ones. It is having a highly religious black community and a highly/predominantly white represented secular community.

It can be isolating for the many black atheists. To encounter an organization like Black Nonbelievers show that there is an organized effort to bring out black atheists, people of color, those who can relate to issues in our community.

A lot of politicians and representatives are faith-based, which makes it that much more of an obstacle for many black people to understand that there are more of us our here. Yes, there are specific circumstances for different demographics or groups.

Each of our organizations can help touch, even with ex-Muslims. We have some who have left the Nation of Islam sect of the Muslim faith. Many of our members were not only Christians but Muslims as well.

We catch some intersections there when it comes to leaving the faith or leaving the religion. Also, it comes to the idea of being an atheist is trying to be white. That is, you don’t belong to the black community because you’re atheist or do not believe anymore.

You do not like all the other things supposedly associated with black culture. Also, we help with the support there within the organization for us.

Jacobsen: Also, in the United States, some of the language used by the government has been “faith-based organizations.” This seems like a way to simply weasel around the word “religion,” not necessarily having as much of a positive association to some of the American electorates. 

As far as I know, this impacts funding for certain initiatives in the United States, from the United States government to certain organizations. Is funding to Black Nonbelievers or similar organizations in terms of simply operating and potentially expanding that generally is underserved?

Thomas: Yes, but since we are a 501(c)3 organization, we can accept funding from the private sector and the public sector, as well as our members. But I think there is a barrier to knowing our organization is needed for support and visibility.

We are still a young organization. We are 7-years-old. We are growing. We are still looking for ways to increase our funding potential. As far as the government and certain support given to faith-based organizations, yes, I think it would be easier to show.

I think there is a favoritism there. There is an advantage that they have. As far as the progress offered by them, however, I am confident. As our organization grows, we will be able, as a non-profit organization, to reach out for general funding for certain programs, which, in the black community, may be considered mostly faith-based.

We still have to test waters for applying for larger funding. We are at the point of receiving considerable amounts of support from donors and contributors. But when it comes to looking to increase funding, it is looking to not only our own but also to other communities.

We are still looking to expand there, as well as looking into obstacles faced in terms of funding for us.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: No problem! Thank you very much.

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