There are always changes of leadership in the non-profit world. We’ve seen quite a bit of it in the insular world of organized atheism. But this one hits me personally.
Roy Speckhardt, the executive director of the American Humanist Association, is stepping down from his position after 15 years at the helm (and 20 years with the organization). I’ve known him ever since I became involved in this (loose) community nearly two decades ago, and he’s been a consistent voice of reason in a community that often claims that word but doesn’t always deserve it.
It would be hard to describe all the ways he’s shaped how people see Secular Americans — in a more inclusive, positive light — but I would just point out that he helped steer the formation of the Secular Coalition for America (a lobbying group in D.C.), oversaw a legal team that argued in front of the Supreme Court, and helped convince Rep. Jared Huffman to go public with his humanism.
I suspect there are very few long-term activists in our community who haven’t worked with him, directly or indirectly, at some point. We’re all better off because of that.
So why step down now?
While there are always multiple factors in a decision like this, one reason stands out.
Speckhardt acknowledges that the atheist world remains a predominantly white cis male one — that’s certainly still the stereotype — and one way to change that is making sure women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color are in positions of power. Speckhardt has routinely elevated those voices within the AHA, but ultimately, he’s always been the guy at the top of the pyramid. He’s the one who gets quoted in the media, for example, by virtue of his position.
So as he leaves his post, he’s urging the AHA board to give strong consideration to replacements who aren’t like him, especially people of color since we’ve rarely seen them running atheist groups of this size. In a statement sent to me, he explained:
Being at the helm of such an organization as the AHA, whose mission is so critical to our times and whose influence far outstrips its size, was the greatest honor of my life, but I’ve decided it’s time for me to step down and make room for new leadership. It is my emphatic hope that my seat is filled with a Black or Brown humanist because our movement has gone too long without such diversity at the helm and this would open the door for the AHA to truly achieve its potential as a humanist and anti-racist institution.
Obviously, the position is open to everyone who wants to apply. (The job is already listed on LinkedIn.) But it’s no small thing when the leader of one of the largest atheist groups in the country gives his board clear direction on how he believes they should move forward.
The current President of the AHA Board of Directors, Sunil Panikkath, said that Speckhardt will stay in his position until a new leader is selected.
Speckhardt hasn’t announced his future plans just yet, though his next book, Justice Centered Humanism, will come out in April.
(Screenshot via YouTube)