Lyz Liddell reached out to me to talk about the Reason Rally, including the concerns I had about diversity and the response I got regarding the current line-up. We agreed to do a written interview. Here on, everything italics is me, otherwise, it’s her.
Hi! I’m Lyz Liddell, the Executive Director of the Reason Rally Coalition. My job is, first and foremost (and almost exclusively) the coordination of the 2016 Reason Rally. Prior to this position I was a staff member at the Secular Student Alliance, directing the organization’s programs for more than seven years – my most recent success being the Openly Secular campaign. I’ve been involved in the secular movement for more than a decade — since grad school — and a secular American for most of my life.
Ashley’s blog post went up on January 15, while I was living out of a suitcase doing site visits for the Reason Rally. But I knew that she had a pretty good point, and so I reached out to her. I really appreciate Ashley’s response to that outreach, and her offer to do this written interview. She and I both want the Reason Rally to be successful and we both support the secular community. So we decided to get out here and chat about it a bit.
What is Reason Rally 2016 — when and where is it? How is it different from the last one?
Reason Rally 2016 is a celebration of fact-driven public policy, the value of critical thinking, and the voting power of secular Americans. It will be bigger, better, have a larger impact that the first Reason Rally in 2012. The Rally will be held June 4, 2016 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, along with a number of ancillary events at nearby hotels. Such events include two days of lobbying (we’re scheduling visits with all 535 congressional offices!), a pre-party and afterparties, a Sunday mini-conference, and several VIP events.
Not only are we celebrating our secular, atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinking, Bright, and nonreligious identities, we are us all to exercise our power at the voting box to bring good sense back to government. But the Reason Rally is first and foremost a celebration — we’ll have awesome speakers, bands, entertainment, and political leaders — all there to celebrate and support the secular community.
What is the goal of the Reason Rally? Why is it being held?
The goal of the 2016 Reason Rally is to show the presence and power of the non-religious voting bloc, and to put reason back at the forefront of our public and political discourse. We want to excite and empower attendees about that message so they bring it back home and apply it at the local and state levels.
Of equal importance, though, is the fact that every once in awhile we, as a community, just need to come together, be among like-minded folks, and celebrate who we are and what we’ve accomplished. We’re calling it a “voting bloc party” because we want to capture that feeling of community and celebration alongside the strong message of political power.
How long have you been in charge of the Reason Rally event? How did you come to be in charge of it?
I was hired as the Executive Director of the Reason Rally coalition on December 2, 2015, after serving on its board of directors for nearly two years.
One of the things we discovered in the planning process for this event is that it’s a massive job, and it really is too much to ask of volunteers. Since our board members all have full-time jobs with member organizations, we made the decision (and received generous financial support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation) to hire a paid staffer to handle the logistical coordination of this massive project.
How many people are working on Reason Rally? Is it mostly volunteer or people from an organization?
The Reason Rally has one paid staffer — that’s me! We additionally have a few contracts in specific areas (our PR firm, our event producer), and we have access to a handful of staff “on loan” for a few hours a week from some of our major sponsor organizations. The rest of our amazing team is 100% amazing volunteer. We have 14 members on our board of directors, and a small army of talented and dedicated volunteers besides. (I wish I could list them all here!) (Incidentally, if you’d like to join that small army, you can sign up at www.reasonrally.org/.)
Many of those individuals are affiliated with a secular organization — but not all of them! — and they come from all walks of life and all parts of the country. I’m delighted to have such amazing support and such a wonderful team of people to work with. This event would not be possible without them.
Last time there were a lot of big names — Tim Minchin, Eddie Izzard, Adam Savage, and several politicians and Paul Provenza was the MC and Dawkins the keynote. Obviously, we see Paul Provenza and Dawkins again. How is the rest of the event going to compare? Will there be celebrities and politicians in addition to movement insiders?
I wish I could give you specific names right now! Alas, we’re still negotiating contract details and I have been sworn to utmost secrecy until those contracts are finalized (because leaking that information at this point could cause the speakers to back out, and that would be no fun).
What I can say is that if even a few of the speakers we’ve received preliminary “yes” responses from come through, our lineup for 2016 is going to knock the socks off the 2012 rally. We have mainstream musicians (in two rather surprisingly different genres), nationally known celebrities, and some very high-profile politicians who are interested in speaking.
In all our planning, we want to appeal to as wide a range of attendees as we can. Not every speaker is going to appeal to every attendee (which is good, or you’d never have a chance to grab lunch or take a bio break!). But we really hope to have something for as wide a group of people as we possibly can.
When will we see a push for advertising? When do you expect to have more speakers finalized? How many speakers will there be?
The first week of February is going to be the beginning of our big media roll-out. At that point, we’ll have a full schedule of events and opportunities, registration for the various ticketed events, and many more details to run with. We should also be able to start announcing our really big-name speakers by then. Once that week hits, you’ll be seeing new information about the Rally on an ongoing basis through June.
Will there be merchandise for the event? How are you going to get people pumped for an event that is coming up soon and has so little information or promotion thus far?
We have a great line-up of merchandise that will also be ready for roll-out by February 1 (if not before). T-shirts in both men’s and women’s cuts, hoodies, hats, infant onesies, and more. We’ll be adding items as the Rally gets closer, and we’ll have on-site merchandise options if you haven’t had a chance to pick up your shirt beforehand.
In the meantime, we’re taking your [Ashley’s] own suggestion and adding a note to our speakers page to make it clear that the speakers we currently have listed are only a small segment of the final lineup, to avoid the impression that what’s on our page now is the entire lineup for the event.
What is the event’s approach to diversity?
Great question. We’re not going to be able to appeal to the full body of nonreligious Americans if we aren’t taking a diverse approach to our speakers and programming. We have a few different ways to ensure that we’re able to meet that goal. First, we have several sponsor organizations that specifically work with minority and under-represented groups in the secular movement: Ex-Muslims of North America, Hispanic-American Freethinkers, Black Nonbelievers, and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, to name a few. These groups have had strong input into our program planning process to ensure that we’re considering a wide variety of speakers, not just in terms of racial diversity, but also in terms of background, experience, profession, and attendee appeal.
It’s a tough job! Folks with more privilege can more easily take the social “hit” of the atheist-label stigma and so they’re more likely to say “yes” when we approach them. But we have a great set of invitations out to speakers right now, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and we’re dedicated to making the 2016 Reason Rally an event that appeals to a wide base of nonreligious Americans — and that means a diverse program.
If you were to point out issues within the email that I received, what do you find problematic about it? What do you think needs to be addressed and how are you addressing it?
I want to be very careful about how I answer this question because I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. So rather than answer the exact question you have asked here, I’m going to share here what I took back to my team once you posted your response.
We discussed how the email that you received came off as somewhat defensive in its attempts to make our speaker lineup appear diverse when it is, at the moment, a bit monochromatic. As an organization, we are upfront about the fact that, at the moment, the speaker lineup on our site is not as diverse as we want it to be. My team agreed that the key piece of information missing in the message sent to you was that we have a lot of outstanding invitations that, when accepted, will make the list of speakers much more diverse. Our team was very responsive to the discussion so, in the future, inquiries such as yours will be much improved.
How did the email that was sent to me come to be written? Had diversity not come up, were those numbers a talking point internally, or was that an individual simply taking responding into their own hands?
Again, I want to be careful here because I don’t want to point fingers at any one volunteer or group of volunteers. Ultimately, I’m responsible for the messages that the Reason Rally sends, and I take full responsibility for the response you received. It was not our finest moment.
Given our limited resources, we rely on a great team of volunteers, who help with everything from responses to website and social media inquiries to graphic design to vendor sales calls. My approach to staff and volunteers alike is to find competent people, set them up with the resources they need and give them the autonomy to complete their tasks. If something doesn’t go quite right, I circle back and provide feedback to ensure that we do that task better in the future. Sometimes that results in some initial embarrassment. But I’d rather treat my team with respect and allow them to act with autonomy and authority than micromanage and bottleneck the processes involved.
Is there anything else you’d like to add — about the event, about the email, about diversity, or about anything you want!
I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to dig into this issue a bit more. Diversity is a big topic in our movement right now, and it’s hard to do right. But I’d rather try, screw up, and learn from it so I can do better moving forward than not try at all.
As for the rest of the news and excitement about the Reason Rally, it’s coming! And soon! This is a huge event, and we’re going to have some hiccups along the way. But, ultimately, the Reason Rally is a celebration. It’s going to be a fun ride and an important opportunity to make ourselves heard.
So I’ll share this one request, in the form of the song that popped into my head as I was reading some of the comments and responses to your original post:
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