Exclusive Interview: Atheist Alliance of America

by Susan–UnitedCoR’s Education Officer and National Coordinator

UnitedCoR was pleased that Melissa Pugh—former President of the Atheist Alliance of America—flew to Des Moines to support the two local CoRs in their public demonstration at the final GOP debate. Melissa works as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines. She loves her job, secular activism, books, and knitting (which, she admits, is all the time she has in her busy working schedule). Melissa majored in History at Georgia State University. Her father, four sisters and a brother, six nieces and a nephew still live in Georgia where Melissa is the oldest of the group and says that she has to remind her siblings of this important detail more often than not. In between her working life and leadership of the Atheist Alliance of America, Melissa took the time to interview with UnitedCoR about her outreach:

UnitedCoR’s Education Officer and National Coordinator: Please tell us how you first became involved with the Atheist Alliance of America (AAofA)?

Melissa Pugh: I became involved with AAofA (our little acronym not to be mistaken for the car people…I can’t even change a tire so you’re on your own) last summer when I began working with them as a representative of my friend Dr. Jerry Coyne, who had won the Richard Dawkins Award and was being presented with it in October 2015 at AAofA’s National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. As they also needed speakers, I paid for Jeffery Tayler, writer for The Atlantic and Salon, and Inna Shevchenko—president and co-founder of FEMEN, an international group that protests for the rights of women and all human beings against the reign of patriarchy and intolerance (especially among the many world religions)—to come to Atlanta and speak at the Conference. I guess someone in AAofA noticed my organizational skills, and I was nominated to finish the term of Jana Weaver, who was the president of AAA at that time. In October 2015, I was appointed president of AAofA and have been working tirelessly with the executive team, Vice-President Shawn Owen and Executive Director Mark Gura, to make AAofA more prominent and valuable to our affiliates.

SC: Could you tell us a little bit about the mission and vision you have for the AAofA?   

MP: I have a large vision, but it is one I think is in need in our community and is certainly within the realm of our capabilities. AAofA has always focused on our local groups and affiliates, and yet this seems to be being done by many national atheist groups. We’ve decided to change it up a bit. While focusing on our local groups, we also want to encourage the next generation of secular speakers. We can do this when I visit affiliates and non-affiliates in smaller areas and meet with their local groups, helping them get more involved with their communities. As I do this, I will also be watching for individuals with a passion for leadership and will help them to become local speakers and advocates. This way, instead of investing a lot of resources to bring in national speakers, we can utilize local talent to become the next wave of speakers within our movement by feeding and nurturing the grassroots.

SC: As the new President of AAofA, what has been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face since being elected to this role?

MP: The biggest challenge I have had to face has been motivation, which is something that I think all secular organizations face from time to time. We’ve addressed this with the Executive Team, who working along with me, have many ideas and activities planned for the future of AAofA. I just returned from a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, protesting the GOP debate and I have recently been invited to attend a Darwin Day event on February 13, 2016 to meet with the Illinois Chapter leaders of Freedom From Religion Foundation and Secular Coalition of America. I have also recently spoken to a large group of SSA students and members of various freethought groups in Las Vegas, Nevada and am looking forward to future speeches, such as one in Roswell, New Mexico. My Board and Affiliate Council are also filled with the same passion and determination that I feel for local areas and we’re working hard to reach out to local areas with AAofA’s new mission and vision.

SC: You mentioned you have a new Vice-President and other executive officers. Could you tell us a little bit about them and what they hope to achieve in the coming year?

MP: This is my favorite question! I am so excited to talk about these two guys because without their passion, understanding, patience and friendship, I would be lost. My new Vice-President is Shawn Owen, also from Georgia. We met on Facebook and bantered back and forth into the real world. We have a relationship like an older brother and younger sister: he’s always there to support me but sometimes he has to bring me back to reality, which is a much needed quality for one working with the dreamer like I am. My Executive Director is Mark Gura, a very talented man who directs his own group, the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism and is a renowned speaker all over the country. He has such passion and such a positive outlook, I am constantly reminded while talking to him how truly lucky I am to have him on my team. Love to both of them!

SC: If someone was interested in becoming associated with the AAofA, how would they find their nearest group and what would be the benefit of their affiliation with the group?

MP: That information is available on our website, atheistallianceamerica.org, but I would also encourage people to please email me personally. I like to speak one-to-one with people (I guess that’s the flight attendant in me), so I can fully understand how to serve and help them with whatever they need to achieve.

Thanks to Melissa Pugh of the Atheist Alliance of America for taking the time out of her work, family and volunteer commitments to give UnitedCoR an interview. We look forward to reading the next edition of the AAofA’s magazine, Secular Nation, and new podcasts when they’re released.