Allow me to introduce you to Nicole Li from Collierville, Tenn. Nicole is just starting her senior year at Yale University. She has been involved since high school in advocacy for racial justice in her hometown. Nicole has also just finished her year as an Americans United Youth Organizing Fellow, which helped provide her with tools and support to advocate at the intersection of racial justice, religious freedom and church-state separation – with a focus on inclusive invocations before town meetings.
During the fellowship, Nicole educated other young people about church-state separation, talked with local officials and coached two high school students to testify before the Collierville Town Alderman about the problem of Christian-only invocations.
“I think that what’s really unique about AU is not only realizing that Gen Z organizers deserve to be paid for their labor but also investing in the educational aspects,” Nicole shared. “AU really cares about not just mobilizing a new generation of church-state separation advocates but also making sure they’re informed.”
And please meet another AU Youth Organizing Fellow, Victoria Williams. Vicki will also graduate in the coming year, from the University of South Florida, and has an impressive record of both advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in her home state and mobilizing support for the Equality Act, federal legislation endorsed by AU to provide comprehensive nationwide civil rights protections to LGBTQ people. Over the course of the fellowship, Vicki found new ways to connect her advocacy to local issues including opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. She also hosted a webinar educating her community about the harms of private school voucher funding and the importance of inclusive public education.
“Before joining the fellowship, I didn’t understand the extent Christian nationalism ran through the United States,” Vicki said. “Even in Florida, now I’m recognizing so many things and questioning more. I was in student government, and we went to city council, and before the fellowship I wouldn’t have noticed that they only have a Christian pastor come up. During this fellowship, I then wanted to question, I wonder if they invite religious minorities to come? It really challenges your thinking not only in your organizing but also in day-to-day experiences.”
The program that Nicole and Vicki participated in, AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship program, is now entering its third year. The Fellowship is a year-long leadership development program for a cohort of 10 young people (ages 18-25) that provides training, support and opportunities to gain organizing and leadership skills for our movement. It’s just one of many new programs that AU is cultivating to help build a new generation of church-state separation leaders.
During this milestone 75th anniversary, Americans United is emphasizing how important it is that our strategy include not just fighting back, which could easily take up all our time, but also fighting forward through investing in and connecting with younger people on church-state separation.
You can further this work and the future of our country by supporting AU’s Next Generation Fund, a fund to grow and sustain programs focused on the next generation of leaders. The goal is to raise $750,000 for AU’s 75th anniversary (which means by the end of this calendar year.) I hope we can blow that goal out of the water. (Learn more at www.au.org/ngf)
In addition to the Youth Organizing Fellowship, the Fund will support AU’s new Legal Academy, which was a great success this year. The Legal Academy is an AU-led response together with a coalition of powerful organizational partners to what conservative legal groups have been doing for decades. Its goal is to build a network of next-generation lawyers who will occupy influential positions to protect human rights and our democracy.
We really can put this country back on track if we keep our eyes on the prize. One of my favorite childhood memories is of competing against many family members at a state fair to squirt the most water into a toy clown’s mouth to win a small stuffed animal. Being a twin, I’m naturally competitive, and I wanted to win. And I did win, by blocking out all the surrounding noise and just concentrating on getting that water where it needed to go. If we continue to focus on reaching and empowering the next generation, we can win too – and the prize will be so much better!
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.