Mandisa Thomas is the Founder of Black Nonbelievers, Inc (Twitter & Facebook). One of the largest, if the not the largest, organization for African-American or black nonbelievers & atheists in the United States.
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 the, and again if not the, most prominent African-American woman nonbeliever grassroots activists in the United States.
Here, we talk about the RSVP for the next generation.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: There are a number of things that are on your mind today. Some of them are relevant news. Some may be relevant news, but are probably a little bit more perennial. What are the ones, let’s say, that are of interest, but are more perennial? Then, we can get to more current affairs.
Mandisa Thomas: I just wanted to give some general advice to people who are currently organizers, whether there is a secular movement, or in any other capacity. There will be times when you’ll plan an event, or you’ll plan a meetup, social gathering, or what have you. People may RSVP, but they may not show up.
You may also have a number of people who may join your groups, whether they’re on social media, whether they’re on Facebook, whether you have a certain number of Twitter followers, or you also have a number of people in your Meetup groups. There will always be a number of people who will join the online forum, and there will be a disproportionate number of people who actually (won’t) show up.
You do the analytics and comparisons across groups. These are just some of the things that happen. There are times where it can be frustrating to see people either say they’ll come, but then they don’t, or you see a number of people who will join the group but then never show up to anything.
For some people, especially if these are atheist, black, secular groups, it may take some time for the individual to actually show, due to being nervous about meeting people. Also, it’s important to remember that others have lives, they have families, jobs, and other commitments.
It isn’t in that you, as the organizer, is doing anything wrong, but to remain consistent – even if it’s just once a month – is going to be important. Because even if someone doesn’t show up the first time, or one time, they may show up the next time, and even times after that. It’s important to remain encouraged.
If you’re involved with a particular an organization that has particular branding, to please make sure that not only are you asking for advice, and you’re asking questions, but that you are also following the guidelines that the organization sets. Because that will be important to growth.
Jacobsen: What about some of the current affairs around admissions at post-secondary institutions?
Thomas: There is a current news story about a number of people, some involving some actresses, and other prominent people, who were bribing admission officials to either accept, or alter, their kids’ grades for college. The majority of people who are involved in this scandal are white people from Maine.
What’s interesting about this is that it almost seems like it’s an episode of Law and Order, where you have rich people buying grades for their kids, or just something to alter the college admission process – or it would have been a grading process.
Jacobsen: This speaks to the unfair advantage that people with money have had for years. It isn’t that their kids are smarter than the others who struggle in school.
They have more of an opportunity because their parents have money. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your child will turn out better at any career, but there’s an unfair advantage to having parents who have means and money, and also being from a certain status, i.e. basically, in a lot of these cases, being white.
What this does is that this basically shows that this is another form of a system that has worked against people of colour, people who have fewer means, working-class people, people who struggle in college, but yet, they have a harder time because they may not have the money or their parents may not have the money.
It’s interesting to see how this scandal has played out. I know that there are over fifty people involved. Some have been arrested. I think what’s interesting about that now, is that you can’t get away with that anymore.
Even if there is no jail time involved, this was serious business, now. I think it is very important to show that just because you have money and means, shouldn’t mean you can get away with murder.
Thomas: Correct. We always hear this argument that affirmative action, there’s no need for it anymore, that people of colour, black kids, have a fair advantage now when it comes to being admitted into schools.
That makes me wonder if some of these parents were scared of some of these affirmative action quotas that we know some colleges and universities have. However, that should not have been an opportunity for them to try and “rig the system” because they feel like now their child has less of an advantage. That is playing into unfounded fear that many of them have.
This is what educationshould look like, that everyone, regardless of their economic background, should have the opportunity to pursue a better education, and know that especially those who come from a working-class background, and who are economically able to afford the tuition, they should still have that opportunity. It really is just downright unfair, and what they were doing was illegal.
Keep in mind that there were a number of wealthy people who voted for Donald Trump to be president. I think these are the very same people who often times you don’t see as a typical supporter. There are many people of wealth and means who have the same fears as some of the working class people who supported him, and these are the people that we should be watching out for.
Jacobsen: Also, this leads to another commentary, which I would like your input on this, especially on issues of the way in which the educational system leading into, and in, post-secondary institutions.
For instance, the phenomena of the SAT being taken so seriously, as to dwarf so many other possible qualifications, traits, and strengths of perspective students to post-secondary institutions, in which the teachers, the educators, and elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in the United States, will then aim for what I have been told has been phrased “teach to the test”.
This seems to have a hugely deleterious effect on the psyches of students, in other words, their mental health, and on the ways in which education is focused more towards the test, rather than education.
Thomas: Absolutely. There is the report, for a number of years, that the SAT test is culturally biased, meaning that students of colour are less likely to pass that particular test because it does not prepare students who come from economically disadvantaged schools and areas for this test.
If it is being judged as the primary the standard for whether someone gets into a college or university, then that is indicative of a still very racist and an institutionally unfair education a system that we have here. There’s really a need for teachers, as well as people in general, to start realizing this.
When you teach in a certain standard, and the student doesn’t learn well that way, they may be left behind. There are a disproportionate number of young people who may end up in special education classes, or they get left behind in certain grades. It may not be, necessarily, the fault of the student. This is a systematic failure, here, that needs to be addressed. This is something that has been at the core of the public education school system for a number of years.
Really, the SATs are just one symptom of the problem with the way kids are being taught. The “just teach to the test”, and also numerisation as opposed to memorizing what should be on the test, as opposed to retaining the information, which is why you have so many people who are still very, very ignorant on your basic levels of American government, physics, stuff like that.
I know that one of the talk show hosts, Jimmy Kimmel, I think – he does these street interviews, and he asks your average person, about the federal government, or other American histories, or other basic questions, and many of them don’t know.
What this definitely speaks to – not just an economic disadvantage, but also, like you said, it’s a fast-tracking of getting these – and also trying to adhere and fulfill academic standards that aren’t necessarily — There’s some pressure that we put on teachers, as well. It’s just a systematic failure, all around, that is inappropriate.
Jacobsen: How does this impact civil society down the road? By which I mean, the arts, the humanities, and other areas that contribute to the cultural health of a society?
Thomas: Unfortunately, there are many arts endowments that are in danger of being cut from the budget because they aren’t seen as important. They often rely on other philanthropic efforts, private donations. There is less of an effort to teach this in public schools, and to get students interested in them.
I graduated from a performing arts high school, a specialized high school. In your standard high school, those music collectives aren’t necessarily considered a primary concern. When this happens, it really can thwart the education process because the creative process is also very important to a child’s learning ability.
Unfortunately, it may be priced out so much that your average working-class family would not be able to afford to develop their child’s talent. Therefore, that’s also another area that they may be left behind. It really becomes something that is only available to those who can afford it, which is a shame.
Jacobsen: If these trends continue, as they have for many years, what are your projections as to what kind of society America will be producing?
Thomas: Oh, gosh. It would be similar to what I would see as people just droning if you will. Either you have people who will not be. Or it would almost seem to be a dictatorship, people who will just go along with things, simply because. It also seeks to diminish the artistic qualities of people who would be considered “the others”.
I think it would really, really have a negative impact on those who are coming after us, the children that we’re trying to develop. I think we’ll be headed back towards this – it would be for a while, it will be until things change – we’ll be headed toward a dark age that people will just go along with things simply because. There would be no independent thought, which would be very, very bad for those coming after us.
Jacobsen: If you look at culture, broadly speaking, not simply arts, humanities, and other associated fields of endeavour, but also the sciences, we can see a longer-term trend in the United States, with efforts to really thwart proper science education. It comes out in obvious statistics that we’re both aware of, unbelief in evolution, unbelief in climate change, skepticism of climate change, and so on.
We can see deleterious effects on one metric of cultural health. Certainly, we could see even further deleterious effects on another metric of cultural health, with the arts, humanities, and other associated fields.
What happens, then, for the African-American community, and for, in particular, the African-American nonbelieving and atheist community in these contexts, where you see both of those mentioned trends of negative cultural health indicators, of declines in certain aspects of cultural health?
Thomas: What I’m hoping will happen is that we will continue to resist. The one thing that I’ve always held to be true is that there is always been resistance to oppression and that when people recognize that something is wrong, that they continue to fight back, and that we’re not just going to stand for these things to just happen.
The progress has never come easy. It is important that we remain persistent and diligent in our efforts because we know that there are people who might try, which is why it is important to continue to stay involved, actively, in our school boards, in our children’s lives, and stay up -to -date with what is going on in our current legislation.
It will be important for us to speak to our legislators, and continue to remain vocal, and vigilant, and continue to mobilize, as much as possible because it will be much harder for people. There are people who don’t realize the rights that they have, and that they can exercise them. Remaining informed, remaining active and continuing to stand with others who will fight for our rights. That will really, really help in the future.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity, and your time, Mandisa.
Thomas: Thank you.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.