April 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Editor’s Note: Sarah Gillooly was hired to run Americans United’s State Outreach and Engagement Department (the new name for AU’s former Field Department) in February. In this interview, Gillooly discusses plans for enhancing Americans United’s grassroots presence.

Q. Tell us a little about your back­ground.

Gillooly: I grew up outside of Jacksonville, Fla,, in a big Irish-Cath­o­lic military family. I loved growing up in the South – grappling with our country’s history and legacy of racism from a very early age was incredibly formative. I’ve been a bit of a traveler most of my adult life – college in Atlanta, graduate school in Chicago, an incredible seven years in Kansas City, a short stint in D.C. and most recently, my wife and I made our home in Raleigh. We’ll miss North Carolina, but we are thrilled to be back in D.C.

Professionally, I’ve spent the last 15 years working in policy, politics and organizing. I started my professional career as a community health worker in Kansas City and later as an organizer for LGBTQ equality. Over 10 years with Planned Parenthood, I worked at both the state and national level as a community health worker, organizer, lobbyist and national policy strategist. In addition to my passion for women’s health, what I loved about my time at Planned Parenthood was serving in both a state-based affiliate and the national office. It gave me tremendous perspective to work on the ground and in D.C. – there are so many ways we can bridge the divides between “the field” and “the Beltway.”

Most recently, before joining AU, I served as the director of political strategy & advocacy at the ACLU of North Carolina, where I oversaw the organization’s political, organizing  and legis­lative agendas in the state. In that role, I lobbied in the North Carolina General Assembly on a broad range of civil rights and liberties issues including LGBTQ equality, reproductive freedom and the First Amendment and built integrated advocacy campaigns in the areas of immigrant rights and criminal justice reform.

Sarah Gillooly

Q. What made you want to take this position with Americans Un­ited?

Gillooly: There are a couple of reasons I was excited to join AU! First, these issues are personal to me. As religion is increasingly being used to discriminate – against women, LGBTQ people and religious and non-religious minorities, I worry about my family, about my marriage, my access to lifesaving health care and the well-being of my community.

Ultimately, the values behind the principle of church-state separation are freedom and equality. In a country that is increasingly divided, I see great power in those values. And AU has such a smart and savvy team – AU’s legal and policy prowess is well known both inside the Beltway and around the country, as are our passionate, intellectually curious members. Under Rachel Laser’s leadership, AU is poised to grow to meet the urgent demands of our country, and I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be.

Q. The Field Department has been renamed the State Outreach and Engagement Department. What are your priorities for the department?

Gillooly: My job is to build the power of AU’s members and supporters in the states to protect religious freedom for all Americans. Policies and politics are not won or lost in Washington, D.C., – but in city council meetings, state capitols and living rooms all across this country. My number one priority is to grow our influential network of state-based voices, and to do so we must modernize our state outreach and engagement. The key is to build upon the passion and success of our long-time dedicated supporters while igniting new and diverse voices. Initially, for me, that means a lot of listening: What’s been working well at AU? What’s been less effective?

Q. Americans United has been in existence since 1948. We want to keep people involved locally, but a lot has changed in the last 72 years. Based on your assessment so far, what do we need to do better or differently?

Gillooly: We’re living in an unprecedented political moment. Increasingly, Americans are religiously unaffiliated or non-religious. Yet, the Religious Right has more power and money than ever before, and they are aggressively co-opting the very concept of religious freedom.

We need an absolute, laser focus to meet these urgent challenges. That’s why, under Rachel’s leadership, we’re creating a five-year roadmap to help all of us, staff and volunteer leaders, understand where we are going and how to get there. That roadmap points to a lot of things we need to be doing differently. We need to meet more people where they are and connect the dots between the issues they care about and church-state separation. To do that, we need public opinion research to understand how to talk about AU’s agenda in a more impactful way, new digital platforms and modernized chapters. Even as we need to do things differently, there is a lot we’re doing right – for example, we occupy such a unique space as legal and policy experts on the issue of separation of religion and government. The next few years are going to be really exciting – we’re going to have to experiment to learn together what works best.

Q. What does grassroots organizing look like in 2019?

Gillooly: The Rev. Dr. William Barber – a fellow North Carolinian — says, “In a fusion coalition, our most directly affected members would always speak to the issue closest to their own hearts. But they would never speak alone.”

My approach to organizing is ultimately about figuring out how to make sure that those most impacted by the growing erosion of the separation between religion and government are not speaking alone. In her book Emergent Strategies, black feminist activist adrienne maree brown (Editor’s note: brown prefers to style her name lowercase) gives us great wisdom on how we do that. She calls for a strategy for change that “emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the senses of the body and the mind.” Grassroots organizing in 2019 demands that we speak across differences and make deep and meaningful connections with people who look, believe or love differently than we do – and then speak together.

Q. Members often ask about the next generation of activists. What are your thoughts on how to bring younger people into this cause?

Gillooly: By and large, young people are with us. Every day, young people are turning out in droves on issues inextricably linked to AU’s agenda. We saw this during the Muslim ban protests. We see it during the current state legislative sessions in which young people are bravely testifying against bills that would use religion to discriminate about LGBTQ people. Thousands of young women are mobilizing right now against the federal rule that would let their employers deny them birth control and other life-saving medical care based on religious belief.

But the next generation of organizing looks different than the last. Young people tend to reject joining formal organizational structures, like chapters, and want to engage in causes through informal networks and actions. The next generation is communicating in more visual and personal ways on platforms such as Instagram. Young people are already in the cause. But we need to reach them, give them points of entry and connect the dots to the issues they are already mobilizing around.

Q. Social media can spread news quickly and spur people to act. Yet it also has some drawbacks as a communications tool. In your view, how can we best leverage social media as an organizing tool?

Gillooly: Social media is a powerful organizing tool. We can use it to do large scale mobilizations – but also as a tool to do more old-fashioned relational organizing. Organizing is fundamentally about making connections among people and helping them take collective action. Whether or not we are on social media or think it has drawbacks, it is the primary way people under the age of 40 connect with one another. Under the leadership of Tali Israeli, AU’s new vice president for strategic communications, we’re beefing up our social media presence, and I’m excited to work with Tali to think about how AU can start connecting our people and helping them take action together!

Q. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Gillooly: Only that I’d love to hear the thoughts and ideas of AU members. Don’t hesitate to send your thoughts to field@au.org.