By Diane Arellano
Recently the blog “Considered Exclamations” featured a post by AH Tripp challenging the selective endorsement of the “Next Generation of atheist activists.” This “crop of next wave leaders” is virtually all-white and lauded for tackling perennial secular and atheist issues such as questioning prayer in school. Tripp wondered why the social justice work of secular activists like Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) and Black Skeptics Los Angeles, are under-recognized by the media and secular/ atheist communities. He challenged white atheist groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation to get out of their bubbles and see how communities of color approach secularism.
As an atheist and program coordinator for the WLP, a feminist mentoring and leadership training program for young women in South Los Angeles, Tripp’s post resonated with me because Sikivu was my college professor and mentor. Over the past several years, we’ve worked at schools where students who aren’t considered gifted or “college material” aren’t encouraged to prepare for college. For example, African American students are disproportionately shut out of college prep Advanced Placement and Honors classes. And undocumented students are often told straight up by racist teachers that “my taxes shouldn’t pay for you to go to college.” Black and Latino students are searched, profiled, and basically considered guilty until proven innocent. Girls of color are ritually silenced when it comes to speaking out about basic rights like freedom from sexual harassment or access to birth control.
Most of our students come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles. At sixteen and seventeen, girls are already saddled with the double and triple burdens of schoolwork, housework, caregiving, and child care for younger siblings. Being involved in WLP they begin to see the sexism in these double standards, in the constant misogynist policing of their sexuality, and the racist bitch/ho/mammy/maid roles that society stereotypes them into. Hardly a week goes by when one of our girls isn’t absent because she has to help with child care or work to support her family. Hardly a quarter goes by when we don’t hear a story about a pregnant tenth grader who is keeping her baby because she can’t “kill” God’s creation. For our girls, abortion is freedom and reproductive justice is life, period. So, no, trying to get Ten Commandments displays taken down or challenging prayer in school are not our priorities as atheists and freethinkers of color teaching in urban schools. Sikivu willingly and patiently mentors, supports, and promotes, not just myself, but many young people of color who are unsure about how to begin to openly question religion or declare their identities as secular/ atheists in hyper-conservative religious communities.
For me, Sikivu’s humanist approach is powerful because it helps our students become critical about the influence of racism, sexism, violence, poverty, and religious dogma on their lives. But, more importantly, it goes beyond “atheist” enlightenment, gives them the tools to understand how all of these things are connected and allows them to pushback as young women who the dominant culture—religious, secular, and all points in between—says don’t matter.
Diane Arellano is a photo documentarian and program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project and AB540 crew