Overview:

She learned her lesson: Organizations only accept dissent if they want to be accountable. Organizations without accountability enact harsh consequences against dissenters.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It was June 10th, 2022. My plane had just touched down in Los Angeles. The long travel day from Glasgow was finally over. I wasn’t thinking about dissent; I was thinking about a bed to sleep in.

Scotland had given me a rough time. I had broken my leg in two places and was now struggling to navigate the world on crutches. The doctors prescribed me blood thinners to reduce the risk of a blood clot during the long flight. I had to inject the medication into my belly daily. There was a spent syringe in my purse from administering the last dose to my belly full of rainbow-colored bruises mid-flight.

I had also just endured a disappointing gathering for international humanists in Glasgow. For the past seven years, I felt connected and energized after every Humanists International gathering — even the virtual ones. They were one of my strongest motivators in doing humanist work. It’s what made me a proud humanist: the sense of cherished belonging. 

But after this gathering, I felt disconnected, completely drained, and deeply depressed. I needed a fresh start in LA to recover. 

I was about to need even more recovery time

As the plane taxied to a gate, I switched my phone off of Airplane mode. I furrowed my brow as notifications started popping on the screen. Condolences. Apologies. 

“Shit, did someone die while I was mid-flight?” I thought.

I opened up a message: “Anya, I just read about your removal from the Board. I am really sorry. How are you feeling?”

Wait, WHAT?

Heart pounding and hands shaking, I navigated to my inbox. I found an email with the subject line “Removal as a Board Member” from the Chief Executive of Humanists International. I started ugly crying, and surrounding passengers on the plane pretended not to look.

“I don’t understand. How could they do this to me? What happened?” I said in between sobs to my partner, sitting beside me and attempting to console me. 

I continued sobbing as I hobbled off the plane and collapsed into a wheelchair waiting for me on the ramp. I attempted to stifle my sobs as a friendly airport employee pushed me through the airport, past border clearance, baggage claim, customs, and then out the airport doors to the street. But my face was soaked with tears, and so was the N95 mask that had been strapped to my head for close to 20 hours. This had to be one of the most public low moments in my life.

How did this happen?

It had been just five days since I was elected democratically with 87% support at the Humanists International General Assembly.

I had served as Communication Officer of Young Humanists International for five years and as President for two. I was the first YHI President to get an official vote on the Board of the parent organization. The networking I had been doing as a nomad strengthened the organization’s global network. There was no denying how much of an asset I was to this organization, and I was doing all of this work unpaid, to boot!

But then, I started to see a troubling attitude from the leadership. They began to make excuses for not adhering to stated organizational values. And that was something I could not sit back and do nothing about.

So I spoke out against the negligent COVID policies and unchecked white privilege that was on full display at events during the events of the Humanists International weekend.

At first, I tried to engage with my fellow leaders to hold themselves accountable to the organization’s stated policies and values.

When it became clear that there was no shared will from the leadership to step up and proactively care for the organization’s members, I made an effort to create solutions — including a resolution to require proof of vaccine at the next offline event. But I was met with resistance every step of the way.

The organization failed members despite my attempts to prevent it.

Despite Humanists International’s ratified 2021 COVID policy calling for the prioritization of science, public health, and equal access to vaccines, attendees of the events held June 2-5, 2022, caught and spread COVID to multiple continents over the course of less than a week. 

I was embarrassed and ashamed to be part of a leadership Board that failed the members who trusted them.

But my urging the organization to act did nothing. They refused to notify attendees with urgency and enact any sort of contact tracing. So I took matters into my own hands. I posted about the COVID outbreak through my personal social media accounts and reached out directly to check on as many attendees as possible.  

The health and well-being of my peers and their friends, families, and communities is a matter I take very seriously. I thought it was something that all self-proclaimed humanists took seriously, but I was very wrong.

There were even deeper concerns than public health

One of the roots of concern I had about an international event where many of my friends came from other continents to Europe boils down to this quote from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

“The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by Europeans’ conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords. Those germs undermined Indian resistance by killing most Indians and their leaders and by sapping the survivors’ morale.” 

There’s a historical precedent of European nonchalance toward deadly viruses that harm people they have conquered. With this quote at the top of mind, the optics were not good. It’s an intersectional tragedy. This organization claims to stand for human rights and science, held an international conference in Europe during a pandemic, did nothing to stop the spread of the virus, and ended up producing an international outbreak.

But my fellow Board leadership disagreed. In response to my calling attention to this COVID outbreak, they held an emergency meeting with 1-hour notice to be held while I was known to be inaccessible on my 11-hour flight from London to LA. In this 5 am PDT meeting behind my back, they unanimously voted for my removal under the accusations that I brought the organization into “disrepute” and denounced my actions as “uncollegial.” My dissent—in an organization that claimed to champion the right of freedom of expression—was not at all welcome.

These accusations would lead a reasonable person to pause and reflect

After reflecting, I did feel some remorse. But there’s only one thing I would have changed. 

I would not have delivered my criticism about the white privilege and tone-deaf tropes on display at the conference through social media posts. My actions in tweeting about the lack of diversity on the conference panels were a poor judgment on my part, and it hurt the staff’s feelings. 

Despite that intent, the impact of my dissent still caused harm, and for that, I am deeply sorry. That’s why I sent personal apologies to each of them, affirming the wonderful attributes each of them brings to their work. 

However, my criticism remained the same

  1. The content in the program was not nuanced enough to deviate from the same tired privileged perspectives. 
  2. The lack of organizational proactive measures taken to prevent COVID at this event was negligent, and the lack of urgent response after the outbreak became known was unacceptable. 

Speaking out for what’s right came at a very high cost — a cost that devastated me. But this was a cost well-worth paying when compared to the cost of betraying my humanist values. 

Clearly, I have no place in an organization that acts so swiftly and with such finality against dissenters and whistleblowers while acting so slowly and with so little care to prevent a public health emergency that they perpetuated themselves. 

Without accountability, dissent is punished

Those who want leadership in such an organization must be compliant and remain silent when the organization breaches its own values. That was simply not a practice by which I could abide. 

Some leaders and activists who I deeply respect are more capable of compliance for the sake of creating change from the inside. We need people like this to reinforce the institutions that will ultimately create a positive impact. But what these institutions need even more of right now is accountability.

And so I joined the ranks of the many other whistleblowers ousted for trying to hold their organizations accountable to their stated values. 

“Loyalty doesn’t require conformity. If consensus is wrong, you have an obligation to disagree. Weak leaders demand deference. Strong leaders welcome dissent. Being a team player is not about sacrificing your values for a group. It’s about acting in service of the greater good.

– Adam Grant

I learned my lesson: Dissent is only accepted in organizations that want to be held accountable. Organizations without accountability enact harsh consequences against dissenters — and oftentimes, that lack of accountability is not realized until it’s already too late. 

And still, I must dissent

Even so, the right choice, for me, is to dissent in the face of wrongdoing. Without dissenters, there is no shot at making this world a better place, much less an international organization that claims to have some of the most admirable ethical values of any group. 

That’s why I must keep fighting for what’s right, even when the consequences are disproportionate. 

The choice is clear: I must dissent.

anya overmann

Anya Overmann is a digital nomad, writer, activist, and lifelong Humanist. As former President of Young Humanists International, she continues to work to advocate for inclusive young humanist communities...