Graduate Spotlight: Vanessa Gomez Brake
About the Author:
Vanessa Gomez Brake is a graduate of Class 18 of the Humanist Institute. She is co-president of the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists, a local chapter of the American Humanist Association.
Several years ago, my search for a humanist community began. I sought out to find a group of like-minded people with whom I could connect often. I certainly lived in the perfect place to accomplish such a task. Just last year, San Francisco was hailed the “atheist capital of America.” Apparently, the Pacific Northwest is the place to be for the actively godless—in a Public Religion Research Institute survey, both Portland (Oregon) and Seattle tied with San Francisco as the cities with the lowest rate of religious affiliation in the US.
When I first moved to Oakland a decade ago, a Humanist Hall greeted me from across the street of my new apartment. The building functions as a venue for local organizations and community members. Each week, a host of weddings, quinceañeras, movie showings, fundraisers, and dance parties fill its main hall with hundreds of people. Sunday Assembly East Bay also held its first year of gatherings in the welcoming space. As much as I support the Humanist Hall in its endeavors, the presence of a humanist community was somewhat lacking. However, the excitement brought on by the mere existence of a humanist venue led to my own search for community.
When I met Jim Barnett a few years back, my calling became clear: together we would build the humanist community we had both been seeking. Prior to that time, it had never dawned on me that I might lead such a secular group specifically for atheists, humanists, agnostics, and nones. Jim and I first met in 2011, when we both enrolled in the Humanist Institute’s certificate program in Humanist Studies and Leadership. We were the only two students in our class based on the West Coast. Eager to begin our studies, Jim and I made arrangements to meet at San Francisco’s Main Library—before we had even matriculated. I was that excited about finding a fellow humanist!
By late 2012, we launched the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists as co-presidents. Together, along with a few other pioneering folks, we offered a regular MeetUp series in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our base was the iconic Women’s Building, not far from picturesque Mission High School and Dolores Park. The setting was perfect for our burgeoning community, complete with convenient public transit, tons of taquerias, bars, and cafes for our post-lecture hangouts, and a diverse neighborhood where we could engage people of all walks of life.
Early on, Jim and I had discussed how our complementary backgrounds would work well in our co-leadership roles. It was common to hear him describe himself as an “old, gay, white guy from Oklahoma,” while I am a straight, millennial woman of color who was raised in Arizona, Guam, and the Philippines. In addition to our contrasting identities, our vocations are disparate too. Jim has a doctorate in biomedical sciences and a lifelong career in pharmaceutical research. The focus of my education and current work is in religious studies and conflict transformation. Somehow, our paths came together under the umbrella of humanism.
The Bay Area Humanists (BAH) started with a simple monthly lecture series in 2012. At the time, we barely knew who we could schedule to give a talk the following month. In 2016, our group is unrecognizable compared to our humble beginnings. We host or co-sponsor four to six events every month. Our event calendar is booked five months in advance. Our lecture series quickly gave way to our “Walk N’ Talk” events (California-living necessitates that we take our activities outside as often as possible). The group has walked through Oakland, Angel Island, Golden Gate Park, and many other local favorites while discussing current issues of humanist interest. Soon, the BAH began offering weekly volunteer service activities at the San Francisco Food Bank and a variety of other local nonprofits. A book club came into formation next. Our latest endeavor has taken us to the Berkeley Main library, where Jim offers a monthly Sunday discussion on humanist philosophy. Not to pass up an opportunity to party, BAH hosts house parties from time to time in the Castro, the Inner Sunset, and also Pacifica. As if those are not enough, you will also find BAH collaborating with other secular groups: marching together in the San Francisco Pride Parade, exhibiting at SkeptiCal, sending a delegation to Sacramento Reason, or acting on social justice issues of shared interest.
What an exciting experiment it has been to build the community that I wanted and needed. Although community building has not been easy, Jim’s organizing skills and commitment to humanism have helped us to flourish. With the many challenges we have overcome, and continue to face, there are still several more milestones we can celebrate. For example, we have been invited to contribute to the San Francisco Examiner on a regular basis. The American Humanist Association awarded us with a grant to grow our program offerings and outreach efforts. We are looking forward to being among the few local organizations in San Francisco to take part in “Sunday Streets” in the Mission, Golden Gate Park, and the Embarcadero—days when San Francisco closes down main streets so residents can take over with fun community activities!
For anyone who is seeking a humanist community and haven’t found the one they are looking or, I’d encourage them to launch one. Even if your city of residence is not as godless as Northern California, odds are in your favor that there are other humanists nearby seeking similar opportunities.