Editor’s Note: Brian Silva became Americans United’s vice president of outreach and engagement last year. In this position, Silva spearheads efforts to organize AU members at the grassroots level to support church-state separation. He will also oversee AU’s Summit for Religious Freedom later this year.
Silva discussed his position with Church & State Editor Rob Boston recently.
Tell us a little about your background.
Silva: I moved to New York City in 2006 from the West Coast to attend graduate school. I thought it would be a great place to live for a few years – and 15 years later I’m still here, now with my husband Jonathan.
I grew up outside of Oakland, Calif., and lived there before attending college at the University of Redlands near Los Angeles. I’ve been fortunate to have had many career adventures leading up to joining AU. I started after college as a high school history and technology teacher and mentor before becoming an emergency medical technician. When I moved to New York, I worked in the emergency management field for the city as well as in the nonprofit sector.
When Proposition 8 passed in California banning same-sex marriage in 2008, I started to become more involved in the LGBTQ+ rights movement and was eventually hired to be the executive director of Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA), the grassroots organization fighting for this right nationwide. I was honored to work with our volunteers and chapters across the country to finally ring in equal marriage rights in 2015!
Following that, we evolved into the National Equality Action Team (NEAT) to use the same grassroots tactics to push for full LGBTQ+ equality and justice both on traditional issues – that is, nondiscrimination, conversion therapy, transgender rights – but also the issues that impact, often disproportionately, that community, such as voting rights, drug policy reform and immigration.
What excites you about working for Americans United?
Silva: I’ve seen firsthand the harm that can come when certain religious beliefs are allowed to dictate policy for all of us. I’ve heard countless elected officials try to justify their attempts to deny or take away my rights and the rights of others by cloaking it in a twisted definition of “religious freedom.” This despite the fact that people of faith actually hold a wide range of opinions on these topics.
Religious freedom is not just the right to believe, or not, and practice those beliefs, it also ensures that those beliefs cannot be used in a way that harms other people. And that’s exactly what AU is fighting for. In today’s climate with religious extremists and Christian nationalists trying to impose their narrow views on the majority of Americans, I can’t think of a more important fight than this one to make sure the America we leave to the next generation still adheres to its most important ideals, including a strong separation of church and state.
Grassroots organizing took a hit during the COVID pandemic, as people can’t gather in person. At the same time, we’re all learning that Zoom and other web-based platforms hold the promise of helping groups like AU reach new audiences and take part in events from hundreds of miles away. In light of all this, what does organizing look like right now? What strategies do you intend to employ to spread AU’s message?
Silva: When I was at MEUSA and NEAT, our national grassroots work was always primarily done remotely, in combination with in-person organizing. I’m a big fan of virtual organizing and events for multiple reasons. Virtual events and organizing can give us the opportunity to reach communities often neglected by organizers, including more rural and remote areas. It can connect those who live in areas that may be hostile to church-state separation with others who share their beliefs, giving them a sense of community.
For people who are working multiple jobs, raising kids, taking care of loved ones, living paycheck to paycheck, etc., free virtual events and online organizing can give them a place to be involved at a level that works for them. But there is a critical role for in-person organizing as well. That’s why my goal is to develop and nurture both and keep AU’s organizing a hybrid model that works closely with our chapters and networks. We also need to make sure that our in-person organizing is done in as safe a manner as possible and be nimble enough to pivot between the two when necessary.
Americans United has always been an interesting coalition of religious and non-religious people. We continue to reach out to diverse audiences, such as members of the LGBTQ community, women’s rights advocates, social justice advocates and others. Can church-state separation function as a kind of glue that can hold all of these activists together?
Silva: Absolutely! A strong separation of church and state with real religious freedom advances everyone’s interest. It creates policies based on science, data and fact and not ones that only reflect the narrow interests of one set of religious beliefs. This is one of the reasons for the launch of the Summit for Religious Freedom later this year. AU is a natural convener for this event and the multitude of issues that interconnect with religious freedom.
Speaking of the Summit for Religious Freedom, what should people expect from that event?
Silva: Over three days of exciting keynote events and breakout sessions followed by a virtual lobby day with Congress, attendees will teach and learn about the work being done for religious freedom and how it supports our shared goals with LGBTQ+, women’s rights advocates, social justice activists and others.
By bringing us together, we will be able to network and coordinate our work, learn from each other, and elevate a strong separation of church and state as a strategic goal to both accomplish our goals and protect the wins we’ve achieved. Our supporters should definitely plan to be there to catch the pulse of this movement, what we’ve accomplished, the fight we are facing and where we go from here. I encourage everyone to complete the free pre-registration at www.theSRF. org/pre-register today to be the first to learn key dates and other critical information.
Here are some ways to get involved with Americans United:
Become a member: If you’re not a card-carrying member of Americans United, join today. You can join online at www.au.org/become-a-member.
Sign up for email updates: To get the latest news about church-state separation and regular updates from Americans United, sign up for our email alerts. To sign up, visit www. au.org/get-involved/updates.
Join AU’s Action Network: Members of AU’s Action Network receive six-12 messages per year with specific actions members can take to advance the cause of church-state separation. These actions include legislative and legal advocacy, outreach opportunities and invitations to attend special meetings, briefings, and training sessions. To join, visit www. au.org/actionnetwork.
Attend an AU event: Americans United chapters and network groups hold events to educate the public and promote church-state separation. Check out the upcoming and past events at www.au.org/get-in volved/events. Watch video of AU speakers at www.au.org/au- speaks.
Spread the word about Faith Leaders United: If you’re a religious leader, join Faith Leaders United, a diverse network of faith leaders from across the United States dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all people, while also ensuring that religion is not used to harm others. If you’re not a faith leader, spread the word among clergy you know. Find out more at au.org/ tags/faith-leaders-united.
Reach out to the next generation: Americans United has special projects and programs for young people. AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship is a year-long leadership development program for a nationwide cohort of 10 young people (ages 18-25) to strengthen their organizing skills and lead the movement for separation of religion and government. Learn more at au.org/tags/youth-organizing-fel lowship. AU also sponsors an annual essay contest for high school students with scholarship prizes. You can get more information at www.au.org/essaycontest.