Interview with Anya Overmann – President, Young Humanists International

by | January 14, 2021

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Anya Overmann is the President of Young Humanists International and has held multiple roles in the American Ethical Union. Her roles have mainly been in the youth sections of these organizations. She was raised in the Ethical Culture movement and attended the Ethical Society of St. Louis as a child to the present. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Communication from Truman State University. Overmann is a freelancing writer currently living as a digital nomad. Her passion lies in advocating vigorously for humanist and progressive values both within and beyond the United States.

Here we discuss the former role as the Communications Officer of Young Humanists International, expectations at the start, rebranding in tenure, Marieke Prien, time since Oslo general assembly, Humanist Voices, African Humanism, and science.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To start off, how long have you been Communications Officer for Young Humanists International?

Anya Overmann: I started in 2015. That will make it about 5 years.

Jacobsen: Now, when you started, what were you expecting?

Overmann: Because the Americas had such a lacking presence, the US had little to no presence in the youth section. I didn’t know what to expect at all. That was the first engagement that any youth US organization had with IHEYO, at the time, and, now, Young Humanists International.

It is the first time that we had in-person interaction with the organization ever. It was back in 2015 back when I attended the general assembly in Oslo (Norway). I did not know what to expect. I ran for that position to get more involved.

Because it more aligned with my passions and where I wanted to go. I did not know what to expect because from the US perspective. We were not involved at all. I really glad to lead that charge to get us more involved, particularly because I believe that – like many American things – the humanist organizations tend to be American-centric.

I was glad to lead the charge in breaking away from that mentality.

Jacobsen: Now, what have been some of the outcomes of the outreach of the communication officer efforts from IHEYO to YHI?

Overmann: Obviously, we went through a massive rebranding over the last couple of years. A lot of that was based on simplifying things and making it appear more open and progressive as an organization.

Because, as you know, secular and non-religious communities are, often, majority white men, Western white men. So, the effort was not only considered simplifying the very complicated acronyms we have in place [Laughing]…

Jacobsen: …[Laughing]…

Overmann: …but also opening it up to being more feminist, more inclusive, less Western-centric – generally more inclusive and moving in that direction of not being so Western white male focused.

That was really the direction I saw it going. I was glad to be part of the effort of this playing out. This was the major transition aside from the visual changes to the logo, the branding. A change from a dark red to humanist raspberry [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] I remember something like that. Yes.

Overmann: It is a softer colour. I don’t want to say, “It is more feminine.” But it does have an impact, visually. Aside from all that, I think the symbolism behind the rebrand was key. I am hoping the policies and the movements that we make as an organization reflect the branding.

Jacobsen: What do you think was the importance of the work that Marieke Prien did as the president in terms of service, in terms of leadership, and in terms of setting a tone for the leadership of the organization?

Overmann: Where do I begin? Marieke, she has done so much over the past several years. First of all, bridging the gap between the youth section and the parent organization, I think this has been really challenging.

There is this autonomy that we want to maintain as young people. But, at the same time, we don’t want to get too far away from the parent organization, who we are, and, frankly, the resources that they have.

I think she did a fantastic job in building the relationships with Humanists International and setting the stage for where we are headed next, which is to be a more integrated organization and removing some of the bureaucratic hurdles, which have been established.

I would say, “It was unintentional how those hurdles were erected.” When you are an organization establishing your own bylaws, she was key in seeing these hurdles for what they were and making moves in the direction of taking those down, so we as a youth section can do the work that we want to do.

It is in the respective communities having humanist perspective, having youth, and bringing youth in, without all the paperwork and hoops to jump through to get it done. She worked really to do that.

I think one of the most admirable things that she has done over the last few years is being a representative for young humanists at the Humanists International board level without having a vote.

She has attended these board meetings for a number of years now without, technically, having a vote. But because of the relationships built, and the advocacy done by her; she was really able to get – metaphorically – our foot in the door: to be heard, to be more considered.

She set us up for where we are headed next. I am so grateful for the work that she has done. She has done so much.

Jacobsen: When it comes to the parent organization and the youth section of the parent organization, what have been some of the more poignant parts of collaboration of a unified interest? The general organization will have some overlap with the youth organization interests.

It isn’t always the case. It may not have to be the case. Because a general demographic has some different concerns than youth. What has stood out in terms of the collaborative efforts to you, outside of individual admirable work of, for instance, the former president – since Oslo?

Overmann: I think the funding that has been put into the humanist grants, for example. That’s, maybe, the most substantial thing that we can point to – the overlapping interests. Those grants have been issued. People have used them to create events and workshops in communities that do not have a strong humanist presence or community presence.

So, particularly in Latin America and in Asia, and in Africa too, those grants have been put to use. I think that’s super important because building the youth community is an invaluable investment, especially right now.

Because if we want to build a stronger parent organization, we have to invest in youth now. That’s how you ensure a movement of humanists who will push the movement forward. I think the grants are probably the most powerful example of the parent organization really supporting the youth section.

Jacobsen: Humanist Voices, what are some highlights for you?

Overmann: We started that 2016/17. It was such a cool effort because it was such an unofficial thing. It came together as a sort of rough – let’s get some perspective out there, which isn’t officially attached to our name., but we support it.

I think that that was a really cool effort that we made. The content that we can put out has so much more potential there. We have put out – I mean, thanks to you. You have put out the majority [Laughing] of content with your interviews and the work that you have done.

We have been able to get a lot of different perspective just from the project, which has been entirely youth led. There’s been no funding put into that whatsoever. I think that’s the most impressive aspect of that entire project. It was youth-led and completely unfunded.

Humanist Voices is a really cool effort on its own. I will say this on the record. I do think that developing it into a podcast format or, at least, developing something similar that has an audiovisual component is going to really step up the exposure that we have and has the potential to bring in a lot more interest from both youth and older people interested too.

I think there is a lot of potential there.

Jacobsen: In terms of the diversification of the community base for young humanists, I think you’re right. I don’t think there has been a lot of emphasis, especially African Humanism or Eastern European Humanism. They’re there.

They have fewer resources, so they may not be as developed in having those fundamental aspects of infrastructure. But they have grounded ideas in the long-term traditions that they come from, the cultures. I think they have valuable contributions to the overarching humanist ideals.

Two examples come to mind, or one with two different titles is Ubuntu and Unhu, which is ‘I exist because you exist.’ In other words, it is an interpersonal sense of things. It is more communal while still saying there are individual people within the society who have their own rights.

That social responsibility and communalism is fundamental to Humanism. A lot of African humanists will talk about Ubuntu or Unhu prior to Arab-Muslim colonialism or European-Christian colonialism as really the core of a lot of African values.

Some termed it “African Humanism.” It’s there. That’s only one example. What are thoughts on some of these different areas of the world with young humanists coming up?

Overmann: I think it is very important and vital that those are highlighted, featured, and given exposure. Because, again, we are moving towards this global humanist organization. It means moving away from this exclusively Western focus with an emphasis on the individual more than the communal aspects of Humanism.

I think a unique perspective that I, specifically, can provide coming from an ethical humanist group is that there can be a lot of really important cultural aspects. These aspects are in religion too, which focus on community. There are pages out of the book of religion. Which we can take and apply in a humanistic way, I think Western humanists tend to shy away from that.

In that, they are entrenched in this Western mindset and believing so many aspects of religion are bad. They tend to miss out on the aspects that can really help us move forward. I think bringing in these different takes on Humanism, especially the African one.

Like you hit the nail on the head with that one, it is a really strong case for looking at Humanism differently and seeing how we can be more inclusive and communal. I think that’s super vital. Ethical culture does the same thing back in the States.

It is a different approach to Humanism. It doesn’t necessarily sit well with secular humanists because it is so inclusive. But at the end of the day, the motto is “deed before creed.” So, what it is saying, ‘We don’t care what your beliefs are. If you believe in a God, it’s not a big deal. You values and execution of the values are what matters.’

It is still so humanistic. I know secularists don’t necessarily like that. Because it looks like it includes religious people, but it does. But I think that opening ourselves up to those types of thinking help us excel, especially when we are trying to get away from the classic Western, secular humanist view of Humanism.

Jacobsen: Do you think the fact that Humanism is more empirical permits it to more consistently refine itself?

Overmann: Yes! [Laughing] I think it might be easier with my background and being a young person to be able to incorporate that into my view of Humanism. But I can see how someone who has been a humanist for a number of decades and is used to what you described as this empirical approach.

I can see how it might be challenging for them. It is really interesting because it is really reflective of these very white, male driven societies. We become entrenched in “this is how we will do it, and this is how it is” [Laughing].

I think humanists don’t want to believe that we fall into that mindset, but we do. I think that it just reinforces why it is so important to have these other approaches to Humanism, which are steadily gaining more of a voice and as a reminder: Our worldview should be more malleable, especially if we are seeking to be more inclusive every day.

As a movement, we are going to have to incorporate more views. I think that that’s totally part of it. I think science doesn’t necessarily go agaist that because science is learning new information, take that into account, and then you move forward.

So, it is not too far away from the scientific approach either. We don’t have to take spirituality and make it a part of Humanism because that is the way forward. I think there is a way to do that in a thoughtful and calculated way, which is both inclusive and considerate of where we are coming from.

Jacobsen: Science studies one unified reality. So, if anything is studying a human being, then it is studying human nature. So, to any anthropological study into any other way of looking at the world that we would fit into a humanist framework, it would be more revealing of what Humanism is truly about, because it is incorporating more and more aspects of what is possible for a human being to flourish, what is possible in human nature.

Overmann: Absolutely, I totally agree.

Jacobsen: What humanist value is the most important, stands out the most, of the declarations or manifestos formalized?

Overmann: That’s a good question. I think the one on climate change is really important. Right now, I think the Auckland Declaration is important denouncing the politics of division. I think that is so critical right now with the US in this really critical time of teetering on the edge of a fascist regime. I think having denounced that back in 2018; I don’t want to say, “We were ahead of the curve.”

But we were on top of it. The U.S. isn’t the only place in this circumstance. The UK is too. They are separating from Europe. The Philippines have been in that position for a while. Brazil is another example of that. I think that declaration was really important.

That one sticks out for me as being one of the most important values that we as an organization have publicly announced.

Jacobsen: Anya, thanks so much for your time.

Overmann: You’re welcome. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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Image Credit: Anya Overmann/Humanists International.

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