February 2019 Church & State Magazine - February 2019

Strategizing, Speaking, Snacking!: Assessing My First Year On The Job At Americans United

  Rachel Laser

So, it’s my one-year anniversary at Americans United already? No way!

But it’s true. And it caused me to reflect on a favorite saying my husband and I have about raising our kids, now young adults (17, 19 and 21): The days are long, and the years are short.

With no offense to my kids intended, the days and year both have felt short at AU, and I continue to feel lucky to work every day on a critically important issue with a supportive and dedicated Board of Trustees, an amazingly talented staff and such wonderful members. Elsewhere in this issue, you will find a Q&A about my first year, but here I wanted to do a partial steal of David Letterman’s old routine – my “Top Five” list of my first-year achievements. I hope you enjoy!

I built a roadmap because Google Maps wasn’t doing the trick. Cognizant of the challenges and opportunities concerning separation of religion and government in America today but also our realistic limits given our budget and size, I arrived on the job knowing that AU needed to have the most strategic and focused game plan possible to fulfill our mission in this critical moment.

To that end, I initiated a strategic planning process with both the board and senior staff with the goal of crafting a five-year roadmap, replete with benchmarks. Along the way, we have engaged AU’s National Leadership Council, chapter leaders, other staff mem­bers and many of our allied organizations.

I made new friends but kept the old. I am perhaps most proud of the fact that I have both hired amazing new people and kept our hugely talented senior staff in place. Tali Israeli joined us last fall as our vice president for strategic communications, and Sarah Gillooly is starting this month as our vice president for state outreach and engagement (the new name for our former Field Department). They join seasoned staffers such as Legal Director Richard B. Katskee; Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy; Rob Boston, senior adviser and editor of Church & State; Chris Colburn, chief operating officer; Mike Smoot, chief financial officer and David Morris, a key person on our new State Outreach and Engagement team. They’re all hugely engaged and as fierce as ever leading on our issues as ever.

I spoke truth to power. I had the opportunity to speak in front of the U.S. Supreme Court about Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Muslim ban and the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. These were powerful moments for Americans United and for me personally. Sharing the stage in particular with so many targeted communities, including American Muslims affected by the ban and people identifying as LGBTQ vulnerable to discrim­ination in the name of religion, drove home so clearly the human faces at stake with church-state separation. Also, it was critical that the large crowd of allies and leaders understand and hear how church-state separation was at the heart of all of these battles. I was proud to give voice to that.

I took Jack Kerouac’s advice and got on the road. Yes, I spent a lot of time on internal matters this past year, but I was delighted to be able to spend some time outside the Beltway and with all of you. I visited Boston, Chicago, Nashville, New York City, San Francisco and Tulsa, where I spoke in houses of worship, at chapter events and met one-on-one with some of our most dedicated supporters. I already have scheduled at least one trip each month through the summer and, assuming it feels right, I plan to keep up this travel schedule going forward. Thank you for your invitations to speak, and please keep understanding that I can only be in so many places at one time!

I fed our staff. I put snacks in the AU kitchen! Maybe it’s just the Jewish mother in me, but how is this dedicated and hard-working staff to sustain its pace and output of amazing work without snacks, and at least some healthy, energizing ones at that? We now have a weekly delivery of fresh fruit and an assortment of snacks, ranging from “Flamin’ Hot” Funyuns (not my choice and I hope they are replaced soon!) to KIND fruit and nut bars. I’ve also initiated occasional pizza lunches, which give the staff a chance to unwind and soc­ialize.

It’s been a fabulous first year – the first of many, I hope.

Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Rachel Laser with AU supporters in Massachusetts

(PHOTO: AU President and CEO Rachel Laser meets AU supporters in Massachusetts.)

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