February 2022 Church & State Magazine - February 2022

Getting Active: Meet Brian Silva, AU’s New Director Of Outreach And Engagement

  Rob Boston

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.


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