“Don’t draw lines between yourself and other human beings”—Seráh Blain, humanist activist


Serah Blain MemeSeráh Blain is the former executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona and a board member for the Secular Student Alliance and Arizona Coalition of Reason. She will speak at FBB’s Humanism at Work conference about her experiences living without shelter on the streets of Phoenix for nearly a month last summer to raise awareness and funds for a women’s shelter at risk of closing. She chronicled this project at a blog, Blistering at the Margins.

Seráh Blain has a history of putting humanism to work. As an outspoken member of the secular community, she maintains that humanist values “are part of the higher ground, we have all the tools to shift the political culture in our country.” She works with a variety of organizations to this effect. Her involvement with secular humanist causes led her to spend three years lobbying the Arizona state legislature on church-state separation. While an important human rights issue, it felt removed from daily life, and the end of the legislative session left Seráh exhausted. “I wanted to do something that felt real for me,” she explained.

While she was working on a speech with Arizona representative Juan Mendez at his home in Tempe, some people knocked on the door and asked for a ride to the grocery store to buy food to share in the park with friends. During the course of a long conversation, it was revealed that they were experiencing chronic homelessness. After suffering the indignities of shelters, the group had decided to make their own way in the world. “That was really eye-opening,” noted Seráh, “that even if you have options for a shelter, it would be better to sleep in a park because of the way that that system is working”. With heightened awareness of how the existing system fails people experiencing homelessness, she increasingly noticed how passersby respond to people experiencing homelessness and the arbitrary, harmful divisions drawn, almost endowing them with an “untouchable” quality. Seráh wanted to force people to look at the problem of homelessness differently.

Seráh’s personal values center on working to see that “all humans are treated with dignity, respect, and equality.” She believes that often “just presence with people does a tremendous amount of good in terms of breaking down barriers and humanizing people and getting them into a place of empowerment. … I started thinking what I could do both to radically humanize that community for people outside of it and also potentially to raise some money and do some good,” and the idea for the project was born. Seráh would live on the streets of Phoenix for as long as it took to raise money and awareness for the Madison Street Veterans Association Women’s Shelter, which was facing imminent closure due to lack of funding. This shelter, which was founded by veterans experiencing homelessness themselves, is run in a peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical way. This model serves to empower people, in contrast to the traditional shelter design, which “treats people like children.”

In addition to respecting all people, Seráh’s philosophy includes working to help people feel safe and loved: being “radically welcoming”. Thus, Seráh did not see the project as charity. “To me, this is just what you do if you’re a radical humanist,” she explained, adding that she lives out this principle in day-to-day life, opening her home and life to friends and strangers in need. Despite occasional disappointments when people don’t live up to their potential, “so much of the time it’s amazingly rewarding.”

One of the most surprising outcomes of the project was that help was not always forthcoming from the expected sources. “I thought that those people in [nonprofit] organizations, and even in the political realm, like the city council or mayor’s office, would be my allies, and they were the most challenging piece of the experience. They were really concerned about messaging, and that things that I said might reflect badly on their organizations, rather than working with me to develop messaging that might boost their donations. There were a lot of strange power plays among the different organizations because I was fundraising for one and spending a lot of time with a different organization, and so just every step of the way there were these nonprofits that were trying to thwart our efforts.” Additionally, she points out flaws in the traditional paternalistic model of shelter services, which creates an unhelpful hierarchy, noting “it’s a very strange way to empower people when you’re essentially not treating them with respect, not suggesting that they have their own power.” It was discouraging to see a system theoretically designed to help people causing more long-term problems.

However, allies emerged from unexpected places. Individual champions made great contributions of time and resources, and the Camelback Crossroads Rotary Club declared support at a critical point when the project was starting to lose collaborators. The members of Rotary “are folks from all different political walks of life,” Seráh noted; they “didn’t really care about religious difference or political difference, they just wanted to help people, so that was really cool to get their support.”

When asked about the role that the nontheistic/secular community played in supporting the project, Seráh was resolute; “There was absolutely no way I would have even dreamed of undertaking this project had I not known how well-organized and compassionate our secular community is throughout the country. I’d been doing advocacy with the Secular Coalition for Arizona for three years at that point, and had a lot of allies all around the country … and I knew that they’d be in my corner for this. That turned out to be extremely true. People helped with the social media campaign and a lot of the money came from them.” Encouragingly, Seráh’s connection to the secular community was not an issue in the veterans’ community. “It was so interesting, because a lot of the money came from the atheist community and we had a lot of money coming from the veterans’ community and from sort of more religious-right types of folks who liked the veterans aspect of it; it was a really interesting mix of people who championed the project.”

Despite the efforts of Seráh and her support network, the Madison Street Veterans Association Women’s Shelter closed. The funds raised through the Blistering at the Margins blog are in a 501(c)(3) called Positive Network Alliance while she works with different stakeholders in the community to find the best way to use the money to support women veterans experiencing homelessness, as the donors intended.

The most important take-away of the project is the point Seráh has been making all along: “don’t draw lines between yourself and other human beings … we have a tendency to be afraid of people who are different or having a different experience, but those people can be incredible teachers.” One of the biggest points of frustration for her is how difficult it is to convey this lesson to others. “In the project I was not differentiating between people experiencing homelessness and other people in the world. There’s no substantive difference.” She elaborated, “I don’t feel like I was successful in conveying that. A lot of people afterward wanted to do charity work for the homeless,” but even that language, “the homeless,” is problematic. “These are people experiencing homelessness, it’s not this separate category of human.” Breaking down these barriers and helping people be less afraid of each other is a crucial step in the process, and Seráh laments that progress is so slow. “It’s painful to see people pushed outside of society because we think they’re different, when there’s so little difference.”

A critical part of humanizing people experiencing homelessness is listening to them and responding to their actual needs rather than imposing a rigid structure. Seráh notes that while paternalistic, warehouse-type shelters get people off the street, they fail to help people realize their own potential, and the success rate at keeping people in homes for three years or more is around thirty percent. In contrast, the Madison Street Veterans Association, with its peer structure, has a success rate at around seventy percent. In addition, Seráh would like to see more experimentation with co-op living and setups where people can live, work, and contribute to the community together in a way that is self-directed and empowering.

Seráh’s advice for people wanting to help comes with a caution: “We don’t need more charity, that’s part of the problem: it creates division, a sense of superiority.” She encourages people to act on humanist values, to figure out ways to be present with people, listen to them, and give them opportunities to be empowered. Look for things you can do in your daily life with your resources. She reiterates the importance of not drawing arbitrary divisions between people based on their current home status. “The most important thing we can do is never dehumanize another person. If you refuse to dehumanize people that you meet, all kinds of opportunities for doing good work will present themselves.”

Seráh will speak this weekend at the Humanism at Work conference, July 18-20 in Chicago.