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.
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.