May 2020 Church & State Magazine | Featured

By Alicia Johnson

With the separation of religion and government under unprecedented at­tack, Americans United knows how important it is to mob­ilize now and build a pipeline of leadership to sus­tain our movement into the future. That’s why AU is launching a new youth organizing and leadership development program this year, the Youth Organizing ­Fel­low­ship.

This fellowship is a year-long pro­gram that will train and support a group of 10 youth leaders (ages 18-25) from across the country who are ad­vocating for separation of religion and government in their commun­ities.

AU recently announced the call for applications to the inaugural 2020-2021 cohort. Ten fellows will be selected to join this summer and will tentatively meet in September in Washing­ton, D.C., and then continue to meet virtually throughout the year. The fel­lows will be from different back­grounds, be working on a variety of issues that intersect with the separa­tion of religion and government and have shared values of religious free­dom, equality and social justice.

According to the Pew Research Cen­ter, Generation Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations and more progressive. These young people also recognize the importance of supporting the separa­tion of church and state, which we know thanks to the public opinion research Americans United conducted last year. Young people agree that the separation of religion and government is under threat, and they say pro­tecting that separation is important to them personally.

We’re encouraging young adults to apply if they are directly or indirectly involved with and want to dive deeper into activism for separa­tion of religion and govern­ment. A strong candidate might be advocating for campus, city, state or federal pol­icy change; building interfaith or cross-movement coalitions; or run­ning pro­grams to educate their peers. Maybe they run a faith-based or secu­lar stu­dent group, work for an LGBTQ youth center, lead campaigns for social change or play another lead­er­ship role in their community.

My own journey as an organizer began as an undergraduate, when I was surprised and disturbed to en­counter a university that silenced pro-choice students and refused to even acknowledge students’s sexuality – never mind provide the resources and support we needed to be healthy. To counter this injustice, I founded and led an underground organization that still works to improve access to sex­ual and reproductive health care and education for students.

interns

AU President and CEO Rachel Laser with 2019 summer interns

Despite the barriers we faced, my small group of student organizers fought for what we knew our com­munity deserved. With the support of national nonprofits such as Ameri­cans for Informed Democracy and Advo­cates for Youth, we were able to chan­nel our passion and knowledge into concrete strategies to lead events and campaigns on campus. These org­­an­izations understood our exper­tise and our power as youth organi­zers, and they provided us with the training and the tools we needed to effectively ad­vocate for change in our community.

Now it’s my privilege to do the same for the next generation of youth leaders. With the launch of the Youth Organizing Fellowship, Americans Un­i­­ted will harness the passion and leadership of young people who are fighting for change in their com­mun­ities. We’ll provide fellows a stipend, a cohort of their peers, mentorship, coaching and training in the skills they need to be successful organizers and advance the movement for sepa­ra­tion of religion and government.

The Fellows will become an inter­connected, powerful cohort of youth leaders advancing the move­ment for separation of religion and govern­ment. They will:

• Gain leadership and organizing skills.

• Plan events and campaigns to mobilize young people in their com­munities on church-state separa­tion issues.

• Advise AU to help ensure we’re pro­viding relevant tools and re­sources that meet young people where they are.

Since I began my role as national organizer and student network man­ager at AU this past December, it’s been my privilege to get to know the organization, its youth supporters and movement partners and to think about how AU can advance its strategic road­map to energize younger adults as central to the movement and the fu-    ure of the organization.

The Youth Organizing Fellowship is one of several programs that Am­ericans United is shifting and ex­panding to meet young people where they are and invest even more deeply in their leadership. The fellowship will follow the trail blazed by the Youth Advisory Council, which since 2013 has served to boost AU’s work by promoting the organization’s mis­sion and goals to young people.

Members of the Youth Advi­sory Council are now assisting in the launch of the Fellowship and will end their tenure this spring. Youth Org­anizing Fellows will continue to play the role of promoting AU’s mission and goals, while also developing their own strategies to organize events and campaigns in their communities.

To engage even younger support­ers of church-state separation, AU con­tinues to sponsor its annual Student Essay Contest, which en­courages high school juniors and sen­iors to re­flect on why religious freedom and the separation of reli­gion and govern­ment are im­portant to them and their com­mun­ities – and what they can do to ensure religious freedom is used as a shield that protects, not a sword to harm others. The 2020 contest closed for submis­sions last month, and the winning essay will be shared in Church & State this fall.

Over 30 young people are planning to attend AU’s National Advocacy Sum­mit this September, joining hundreds of activists from across the country to learn and connect with peers, advo­cate in the halls of Congress and build the movement for separation of religi­on and government.

While we’re only in the recruit­ment phase for the Young Organizing Fel­lowship now, we’ll look forward to sharing more about all they accom­plish in the coming months.              

If you are or know a young person age 18-25 who is interested in the Youth Organizing Fellows, visit: au.org/youthfellows to learn more about the program and how to apply.

Alicia Johnson is Americans Uni­ted’s national organizer and student network manager.