February 2021 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Editor’s Note: Americans United has launched a new Action Network to provide support and tools for members and allies who want to be more active in efforts to protect and defend separation of religion and government. AU Outreach and Engagement Manager David Morris recently discussed the new network with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.

Q. Americans United is launching a new Action Network. What can you tell us about this network? What will it do, and how will it operate?

Morris: The AU Action Network (AU-AN for short) is a new program we launched in January to give our supporters concrete actions they can take to help further the cause of church-state separation.

One question that we often hear from people is: Besides donating, what more can I do to help AU fulfill its mission? Joining the AU-AN is the answer.

As part of the AU-AN, people will receive email messages with oppor­tunities to build skills and take a spec­i­fic action. The kinds of actions will vary, but they will include things like contacting legislators, doing out­reach, educating people and partici­pa­ting in meetings, trainings and briefings.

Q. How can people get involved in the network?

Morris: Visit au.org/action to sign up! When you sign up, you’ll receive an email with actions you can take right away.

We know our supporters are busy so we’ll be working with our policy and legal teams to choose 6-12 actions each year that will have the biggest impact possible.

Q. You’ve worked at Americans United for 22 years. How has AU’s outreach and engagement evolved over that time period?

Morris: When I started working for AU in 1998, the modern internet was still relatively new, as was AU’s De­part­ment for Outreach and Engage­ment – it was called the Field De­partment at that time. Our focus was on growing and supporting our networks of chap­ters, faith and secular groups, students and local activists throughout the country. While that focus remains essentially the same, our tactics have evolved as have the ways people org­anize, activate and make change in our country.

In the old days, a lot of our corres­pondence was done either over the phone or by postal mail. Now with email, social media, smart­phones and various apps, we’re able to commun­icate with each other — and our com­munities and lawmakers — more quick­­ly and efficiently.

Recently, we’ve shifted from build­ing formal chapters to less formal models of volunteer engage­ment, like the Action Network and network groups. Many of our former chapters that were less active or that struggled to find new volunteer lead­ers have decided to transition to the network model. Those former chapter leaders are among some of the first to join the AU-AN. We even have our first net­work group that evolved out of a chap­ter. They’ve been meeting monthly. So while we aren’t forming new chapters, people can still create and join similar net­work groups or remain engaged as indi­viduals in the Action Network.

AU's David Morris

Q. How have AU’s organizing efforts been affected by the coro­na­virus pandemic?

Morris: Since the pandemic, we’ve had to evolve our work even further. Outreach involves meeting with people and building relation­ships, so not being able to meet in person has proved to be very chal­lenging for our efforts. As a result, we’re using online tools to bridge the gap. The chapters and network group have been holding their meetings and events online. In some ways this has actually enhanced engagement by al­lowing people to participate remotely who might other­wise have not been able to attend such an event in person.

Until it’s safer for everyone to start meeting in person again, the actions in the network will be things people can do online.

Q. Social media is extremely popu­lar these days and has been success­fully used as an organizing tool in political campaigns and other con­texts. Will there be a social media com­ponent of the Action Network?

Morris: We’ve invited people who follow our social media accounts to join the Action Network. One of our goals with the AU-AN is to provide members with opportunities to meet other people who share their passion for this issue. We are always looking for ways to build community, so we’ve also created an exclusive Face­book group for AU-AN members.

Q. Americans United has always been a broad coalition of Christians, Jews, Humanists and lots of others. How does that diversity strengthen AU’s work?

Morris: I think this diversity strengthens us by showing the broad support that exists for keeping religion and government separate. We live in a very diverse country, and as our name implies, we’re truly a diverse group of Americans united. Our opposition fights to limit our country’s diversity and impose their preferred, narrow religious interpretations on everyone else. It’s powerful when people from all walks of life, different back­grounds, different identities, different religions and different viewpoints all come to­gether through AU to push back against that dangerous agenda.

Q. What do you like best about your work at Americans United?

Morris: I love being able to help our volunteers achieve their goals. They are on the frontlines of this so-called culture war, and I’m in awe of their commitment and resolve. Hear­ing from our volunteers and seeing all the work they do is inspiring. To be able to play a small role in empow­ering them makes my job so satis­fying. I look forward to helping even more as they join the AU Action Network!                                     

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