CooRdinator’s CoRner: Interview with Pat McCann

UnitedCoR’s Education Officer and National Coordinator
Education Officer and National Coordinator

On our way back from an event with Boston Oasis, we stopped in to visit Connecticut CoR for a 2016-planning meeting. Although we’ve had a lot of communication with Connecticut CoR and its coordinator, Pat McCann, this was our first time to meet him and his vibrant group in person. In this interview—UnitedCcoR’s first time to feature a local Coordinator—you can sense the feeling of excitement and pride that Pat has for his CoR.

UnitedCoR’s Education Officer and National Coordinator: Please tell us a little about what brought you to decide to become an activist there in Connecticut.

Pat McCann: The short answer is serendipity. Although I had been an Atheist and Humanist for nearly 36 years, I live in a part of the country where there is very little discrimination against the non-religious so I really didn’t pay too close attention to the needs of the community…my apologies. However, it was in early 2012 and the anti-intellectual GOP election year rhetoric was ramping up again.

Meanwhile my life partner, Elisabeth Brown, and I had our Atheism/Humanism in common and had already started a collection of Atheist and Humanist books for our library including Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and others. We had also been following the American Atheist, American Humanists, and many of the national icons on Facebook and Twitter for some time. Then we heard about the Reason Rally! We wanted to go so much, but Elisabeth was recovering from hip surgery due to an injury sustained while studying martial arts (I am still apologizing to this day 😉 ).

It seemed like the weekend of March 24th, 2012 was shaping up to be another standard weekend until Elisabeth said on Thursday evening, “Let’s go!” I was surprised to say the least. She was still on crutches but she wasn’t joking. I immediately jumped on the computer, booked a hotel, and purchased a couple of Amtrak tickets: we were going to the Reason Rally!

It was amazing, as anyone who was there knows. In addition to being informative and inspirational about our community’s needs, what struck me was the size and the diversity of the crowd. I am sure if the weather had cooperated, there would have been three times as many people. Anyway, we returned home energized and looking to actively participate.

Spring of 2012 was also a year of transitions for us. Elisabeth’s oldest son was graduating from University and her youngest was graduating high school. My son was completing eighth grade and would soon be entering high school. We started thinking about what we were hearing from the election rhetoric, what we heard at the Reason Rally, and about in what kind of country and world our sons would be growing up. Action was required.

Later that summer, when we had made it through graduations etc., I began looking for local secular groups. I found one on meetup.com that was having an event at one of the member’s homes that sounded interesting. I RSVP’d and then told Elisabeth we were going on a mystery date. For all I knew, it could have been a trap and it was a house full of evil religionists trying to lure non-believers in to flay them alive.

Well absolutely nothing went wrong. We met a great group of people and had a wonderful time. The hostess was Daisy Cheng-Milano who was so polite and enthusiastic about us being at her home. She encouraged Elisabeth and I to become more active and over time convinced me to play a leadership role. Daisy was one of the founding co-coordinators of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. I eventually became secretary of the CT CoR and am currently one of its co-coordinators.

Although we love Daisy and all the members of the Atheist Humanist Society of Connecticut & Rhode Island (AHSCTRI), it was a bit of a drive for us to participate regularly. Luckily, Dan Blinn from the Humanist Association of Connecticut was starting up a new group closer to home, the Hartford Area Humanists. Elisabeth and I became founding members of the Hartford Area Humanists and I eventually became its VP and now its President.

SC: Please tell us more about the groups you work with in Connecticut. What makes them so special to you, as a Coordinator and secular leader?

PM: I think Connecticut may be unique in the country.  For such as small state we have nine local groups in our CoR.  If you add the Secular Coalition for America affiliate and the CT CoR itself, we have eleven groups. There is even a new group focusing on secular parents forming in the southeastern part of the state. They are still very small, but I am doing what I can to encourage them and help them grow. Once they get big enough, we will include them into the CoR.

The groups we work with include: AHSCTRI, Camp Quest New England (CQNE), the Connecticut Valley Atheists (CVA), the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (CHJ), the Hartford Area Humanists (HAH), the Humanist Association of Connecticut (HAC), the Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County (HFFC), the University of Connecticut Freethinkers (UConnFT), and the Yale Humanist Community (YHC). What makes them special is that they all serve their members’ needs creating the ideal niche for the local secular members. I think this is why we have so many groups in such a small state. I am not sure how larger states like Arizona or Colorado manage.

Anyway, what makes it such a delight to be one of the CT CoR co-coordinators is the other co-coordinator, Tanya Rogers Barrett. She is amazingly energetic, focused, driven, and inspiring.  She makes being co-coordinator easy. The good thing is, I won’t have to miss her too much when she steps down at the end of this year: in our CoR, we keep our co-coordinator on as emeritus member of our board, and she will be around for advice and support as are our other former co-coordinators. It doesn’t hurt that she and her partner Adam Arrowsmith, who happens to be the current president of CVA, are two of Elisabeth’s and my closest friends.

One other thing that makes being co-coordinator of the CT CoR so enjoyable is the leadership of the local groups that makes up our board membership. They are all very active in their groups and seem to have just the right skill sets to help their groups flourish: naturally born marketing geniuses all! Even though we all bring unique skills and different perspective to the table, the group aligns very quickly on our shared CoR objectives and can mobilize very quickly.

SC: What are some of the challenges you face that you think are specific to your context in Connecticut?

PM: The biggest challenge we face in Connecticut is apathy from outside the community. The general populace doesn’t care, the press doesn’t care, and the state/local politicians don’t care even though we mirror the national average of 23% non-religious. I think this stems from the fact that we are a relatively progressive state and there is little, if any, discrimination against the non-religious. There are also no major state/church separation issues and creationism isn’t taught in our schools. Although I don’t like the apathy, the alternative may not be all that appealing for the reasons I’ve stated. However, the bright side of this may be that folks might not be afraid to “come-out” as it were. My group, the HAH (which only started in Spring 2013), has more than doubled its meetup.com membership since December 2014, and this is very encouraging.

One of our responses to this apparent apathy is to get more involved in the community. Dan Blinn (founder and immediate past president of the HAH), Chris Stedman (Executive Director of the YHC), and Cary Shaw (President of the HFFC), are reaching out and building bridges to the community through interfaith activities. I think this is the area where we are seeing the most press.

The other big challenge I think we face is leadership succession. While the current leadership in all of our groups is energetic and engaged, it isn’t apparent where the next few generations of successful leadership will come from. Many of our current leaders and next gen leaders are full time professionals with families that have little bandwidth as it is. To add mentoring potential leaders is a big ask. This is why I started a conversation with UnitedCoR’s Executive Director in UnitedCoR and August Brunsman of the Secular Student Alliance to explore ways their respective organizations could begin to consider how to create a pipeline of local CoR leaders as student leaders transition into careers (perhaps in different parts of the country) and into local groups. Although privacy issues preclude a direct exchange of information, I think it would behoove all the national organizations to consider this topic with increased focus.

SC: What has been some of the most memorable achievements that Connecticut CoR has experienced? How did your friends and cooperating group leaders rise to the challenge to make these achievements happen? 

PM: Wow!  There are so many.  Where to begin….

I’ll start with the success of our 2013 Conference, the Secular Assembly for the North East (SANE). It was a great day and we had some amazing speakers including: David Silverman, David Niose, Sikivu Hutchinson, Jessica Ahlquist, Liz Heywood, and two local favorites, Barry Kosmin and Dennis Paul Himes.  What was really nice were the two billboards that the United Coalition of Reason put up for us in the month leading up to the conference. The conference sold out and in addition to many Connecticutioners, we had folks from Rhode Island and as far away as Boston MA and Albany NY come for the day. This conference would not have been a success without the hard work of all the organizers and volunteers lead by Tanya Rogers Barrett.

We stopped an illegal National Day of Prayer event from happening on government property! Every year since he was elected in 2011, Mayor Dan Drew (D) of Middletown, CT held a National Day of Prayer event in the chambers at town hall during normal business hours and invited only evangelical Christian pastors and flocks to the event. Dennis Paul Himes, State Director for American Atheists and CT CoR board member, would have none of this and organized an annual protest; inviting David Silverman in 2012. In 2013, 2014, and 2015 as the protests grew in size, the CT CoR sent strongly worded letters to the mayor, the governor, and local newspapers in advance of the event urging him to cease and desist in wasting taxpayer money on police protection, electricity, water, janitorial service, etc. When our protestors showed up again this year, we had found that the mayor had quietly moved the event to private property after hours. Dennis promptly declared victory to the local press that was in attendance and we all let the mayor have his, now legal, event in peace.

Richard Dawkins calls the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, “the Good Guys.” In April of 2014, the University of Connecticut invited Richard Dawkins for a fireside chat in front of 2,500 students, CT residents, and CT CoR members. Although the University had not engaged with us or UConnFT, we were there and Professor Dawkins made that known. Cary Shaw, President of the HFFC had anticipated Christian protestors outside of the event and asked me to help him with a counter protest to support Professor Dawkins. We crafted a flyer about the CT CoR to hand out to people as they entered. As Cary and I were handing out the flyers (which we ran out of way too soon…lesson learned), a woman approached me and one of the Christian protestors and asked us for copies of our respective flyers and what they were about. It turns out she was on Professor Dawkins’ staff. Later, when he walked out on stage he brought the copy of the flyer I had handed to his staffer. When the fireside chat turned away from Evolutionary Biology to Atheism, Professor Dawkins picked up the flyer, paused, looked at it, and then held it up and said, “This is from the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. These are the good guys.  Seek them out.” Needless to say, that was followed by a thunderous applause lead by our members that were present for the event.

Those three stand out in my mind, but there are so many others. Dan Blinn and Dan Xenatro’s (past President of CVA) interview on NPR’s “Where We Live”, Chris Stedman moving from Harvard to Yale, Cary Shaw and John Levin presenting Representative Himes with an award from Connecticut CoR recognizing the sponsorship of his first Darwin Day resolution in the House of Representatives. We doubled the HAH meetup membership in less than a year. The CVA’s Holiday Display on the Vernon town green, numerous people fed by our volunteers in soup kitchens, donations of time, energy, and money to many charitable causes, assimilation of the UConnFT, the beginning of CQNE, HAH winter solstice/Human Light celebrations raising hundreds of pounds of food donations etc., etc!  The list is endless as are the people involved and I apologize for missing some of the great things we have accomplished and recognizing the people by name that drove them to fruition.

There are two more things that I am super proud of in Connecticut that we have had very little to do with other than phone calls, but that we have been celebrating over the last several years… and those are the Congressional Darwin Day resolutions in the House and the Senate, both of which are sponsored by Connecticut representatives. I can’t thank Representative Himes and Senator Blumenthal enough for their intellectual integrity and political courage in sponsoring these resolutions. I can’t also thank the AHA and SCA enough for working with our representatives to get this done.

SC: If you could look into the future, what would you hope to see Connecticut CoR look like in 5 years’ time? 

PM: In short, my vision for Connecticut is that it becomes the safest and most accepting state in country for the non-religious. So what does that look like? For starters it means that the two priority pieces of legislation that folks like Dan Blinn, Luther Weeks, Stan Greenberg, and Sarah Hambrick have been working on so hard for years, have passed. These are the Aid in Dying legislation that has died (no pun intended) in committee the last 3 years and the Standardization of Oaths that would allow CT citizens to affirm under penalty of perjury rather than simply swear to god, which didn’t make it to committee last year. We’ll be pushing hard for both again in 2016.

A project that I will begin working on in 2016 is modeled after Madison Wisconsin’s EEO change to include non-religious as a protected class. If we could get this done statewide in CT, I would be ecstatic.  My guess is there is not much appetite for this politically, but even if we just generate some press and conversations, I’ll be happy.

Further down the road? I would like to see Connecticut’s unnecessary Religious Freedom Restoration Act repealed and the state constitution amended to remove all references to god and religion. In terms of our community, I would like to see a few more local secular groups start up in “under-served” parts of the state and that they become so successful that we assimilate them into the CT CoR. I would like to see our groups swell so much with new and active members, that the people, the press, and the politicians take notice.

Lastly, but in no way in the least as part of the next five years, I want to look back and see that our 2016 conference was a smashing success and maybe that we’ve even pulled off another one. We are still in the planning stages so we haven’t announced a lot yet. Before I give you a preview I need to thank our organizing committee: Richard Siddall, Carol Siddall (President HAC), Rebecca Williams, Klaus Kingstorf (VP of the CVA), Dennis Paul Himes, Chris Stedman, and Tanya Rogers Barrett.

The conference is called The Connecticut Assembly for Reason & Ethics (CARE 2016). Our themes are Political Action, Community, and Interfaith. In the morning session, we will have one keynote speaker who will touch on all the themes and then we’ll have an individual speaker for each theme who will provide a more in depth presentation. In the afternoon, we will have breakout session on each of the themes where audience members will be able to learn more and interact more. Our keynote speaker will be Hemant Mehta also know as “the Friendly Atheist.” Our Political Action speaker is Attorney Amanda Knief, the National Legal and Public Policy Director for the American Atheists. Our Community speaker is none other than Executive Director of the United Coalition of Reason. Finally, our Interfaith speaker is Wendy Thomas-Russell, who is on the advisory board of the YHC and is a journalist.

 

Thanks goes to Pat McCann, Co-Coordinator of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, for taking time out during the busy holiday season to tell us of the fabulous things that are taking place in Connecticut. Check back with our upcoming newsletters to hear from other local CoR coordinators from around the US!

With best wishes for a prosperous New Year in 2016,

–Susan