Jessica Ahlquist is the high school student fighting her school’s administration to have a Christian prayer banner removed from the gymnasium at her school. I first met her in April, at the American Humanist Association’s national convention in Boston where Jess received a standing ovation from all those in attendance.
Yesterday Jess wrote about the one-year anniversary of this whole ordeal, mentioning the beginnings of our association. For those of you who only know the activist side of Jess, I’d like to familiarize you with what I have learned of her.
She is small. She is very short and has a meekness to her that mirrors her lack of height. She is extremely kind. She is very quiet, generally not speaking unless she has a purpose to speak. In short (pun intended) she is the very last person on Earth you’d expect to have the adamant backbone of a giant.
But she does. When Jessica speaks, other people stop. When this tiny, sixteen year-old student opens her mouth, you can expect something relevant to come out. I don’t believe she started this way, but fighting over the last year, long past the point when virtually anybody else her age would have quit, has awakened this quality in her. She has become a leader the way leadership was meant to be: by example and through deep, personal strength.
She talks about how I have influenced her positively, but I must say the feeling is mutual. Here is a person with everything running against her. She is a shy personality in an extremely Catholic community. She is in a public school environment where acceptance and popularity are everything, where she is frequently beset by her peers verbally. Even some of her teachers have made her life difficult. And yet she has not only continued to fight, but has done so admirably, calmly, and without letting the tribulations of such a daunting tribulation make her bitter or mean. This fact removes whatever excuse the rest of us might have.
You want to know why my job as high school organizer at the SSA means the world to me? Because through it, I get to touch every other atheist organization. The students in high school right now will take the reigns of the atheist movement right as it is becoming, for the first time in history, a mass of the citizenry backed financially. These students will be the next Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. One of these students will one day replace David Silverman at the helm of American Atheists. This will be true of every atheist organization and all the new ones that spring up as our movement continues to become more powerful. And yes, one day one of them will take my job – a job through which I get to literally touch the future of the cause about which I care so much.
Meeting people like Jess and knowing there are others out there like her waiting for the opportunity to apply their incredible character to equality, reason, and the elimination of irrationality not only moves me to throw myself into this job in full, but it reaffirms that this fight is one we cannot help but win. And it makes me content with the prospect of ceding the future of our movement to them.
The best of our movement is not Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris, or PZ Myers, or myself, or the SSA. The best of our movement is the coming generation that will stand on the shoulders of giants. I have no doubt they will be led by Jessica Ahlquist. If you want to support a future where religion and bigotry are on the ropes, support her.
Every day I am proud of Jessica, and Harrison Hopkins, and Zack Kopplin, and Duncan Henderson, and Damon Fowler, and every other high school student out there fighting for a better world in an environment far more harsh than any that we adults have to endure in the process. The sooner we hand them a seat at the national activism table, the better off our movement will be.
In short, Jess talks about how much working with me has changed her life, but the feeling is mutual. I cannot express how meaningful it has been to meet Jess and how much my life has been changed on account of it. It is good to be beside her on the front lines.