Ask Mandisa 45 – Conferences

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.

Mandisa has many media appearances to her credit, including CBS Sunday MorningCNN.com, and Playboy, The Humanist, and JET magazines. She has been a guest on podcasts such as The Humanist Hour and Ask an Atheist, as well as the documentaries Contradiction and My Week in Atheism. Mandisa currently serves on the Board for American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, and previously for Foundation Beyond Belief, the 2016 Reason Rally Coalition, and the Secular Coalition for America. She is also an active speaker and has presented at conferences/conventions for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Student Alliance, and many others.

In 2019, Mandisa was the recipient of the Secular Student Alliance’s Backbone Award and named the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Freethought Heroine. She was also the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association’s Person of the Year 2018.

As the president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., Mandisa encourages more Blacks to come out and stand strong with their nonbelief in the face of such strong religious overtones.

“The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around some of the disparities we face. We are NOT alone.”

Here, we talk about conferences.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have attended several conferences. You have spoken at conferences. You have been in hospitality in earlier career work. You can help us learn more on how to do conferences. What have been the big takeaways on conferences that have been done well?

Mandisa Thomas: I have had the good fortune to take part in conferences, both big and small. What I find for most of them is that, for one, there is a lot of hard work involved. These things are not easy to put on.

I think people tend to take for granted what goes on behind the scenes. The time that it takes, and the funds that need to be raised. Organizing these events are really a labour of love, but they cannot survive on love alone. But I DO love them, attending and organizing alike. I also love to observe and learn from other conference organizers, as I tend to get some good ideas for my own events. And there are good opportunities to work with other people. The ability to bring people together – whether it is to have a good time, to be educated and informed, encourage more activism, or all of the above – is a skill set that can be developed and mastered. Though some may just have the natural knack for doing this kind of work.

It is really, really a good thing to know how to do. And it is often underrated by many. 

Jacobsen: What about a context of individuals who you want to put on speakers list as well as the individual, or two individuals, sometimes, who you want to raise as the keynote, the distinguished speaker, of a conference, especially at community freethought events?

Thomas: It is interesting. Many conference organizers look for “big names,” within the community to be keynotes at conferences. There are even a few organizations who push for really big name celebrities, if you will, to be their spokespersons. If that is possible and works for the event, then that’s great. Now, there are other events who look for people who have done some noteworthy activism, which is important. What I tend to look for in a keynote are people who, for example, at the Women of Color Beyond Conference, are people like Sadia Hameed. She is the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and represents women of colour who are ex-Muslim.

As we know, it is very, important work and can be very dangerous too. Also, when looking at speakers, I look for folks who have worked their way up, and may not have as much popularity. I can appreciate that I have now become popular as a speaker, because this has certainly been my experience.

I think that it is important to bring in new speakers/presenters, and highlight people who the mainstream community may not be aware of.

And a lot of those tend to be people of colour. It is important to bring them to the forefront so that hopefully, they will become keynote speakers. We cannot have an effective voice if it is singular.

It helps me, and the organization and our events. So that’s what I try to have in my criteria for keynotes and speakers.

Jacobsen: As you were in the hospitality industry, what are things all secular communities should keep in mind when it comes to the clientele or the customers and the big takeaway?

Mandisa: It is important to make sure the atmosphere remains festive and respectful, and that everyone on attendance feels like they belong in the space. This is where codes of conduct come in.

It also means considering speakers who are vibrant and give great information. And that they know how to talk to people. That they will not just recite their speech, and then leave. It is making sure there are people who are good at engagement and discussion.

It is good to have people who live those values every day. Because then, people will want to come back and continue to support. An important piece here is saying, “Thank you”. Thank your members, attendees, sponsors – ALL supporters.  You don’t want people to think that you are just taking their money and support for granted. Applying that customer service aspect to our community is important. And no matter how challenging it becomes at times, maintaining it will be the key to continue to growth and support.

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

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist 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 AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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