"I've always been an activist but in different ways," Jann Renert, Arizona Citizens Project president and founder, told Freedom Writer Magazine. "My background is in biology and chemistry. I put some time in medical school, and did some cancer research as a volunteer at Sloan-Kettering. As a 20-year volunteer with the American Cancer Society, my interest has always been in health care reform. It still is, but right now I'm mostly concerned about religious political extremism."
What made Jann Renert, 47, married, and a mother of two boys, shift from medical research to political activism? "I was on the HIV/sexuality curriculum task force in Scottsdale; our school district has 20,000 kids. We started seeing little things happening here and there," Jann said.
"Let me give you some examples," she said. "Money for AIDS education was sent back to the Center for Disease Control after complaints were made to state legislators by just a few religiously conservative parents. Then the chairman of the environmental committee at the state capital called environmentalism 'a religion.' The fees from 'environmental' license plates were not used for environmental education as required by law. The chairman of the judiciary committee would not allow a hate-crimes bill to be heard because he was afraid sexual orientation was included. In a court document, a deputy county attorney described a Buddhist as a 'pagan who has chosen a path of eternal damnation...Christianity is the only true path of an everlasting life.'"
After sitting down with her friend, Sue Braga, the two decided to look into these matters and try to figure out what was going on. "At first," Jann said, "nothing clicked. But, we started doing research, and the more we looked, the bigger the thing got.
"Because of our concern about the long-range affects that the more radical groups would have on society and the future of this country, we decided to form a group to monitor and collect information on extremist groups that were beginning to show success in impacting policy-making. We also wanted to make this information available to others because of the stealth tactics being used to keep the pubic in the dark. We realized that few voters were informed on candidates positions on critical issues."
They called their new group the Arizona Citizens Project. That was about four years ago. The two were soon joined by others, including Shirley McKean, Chick Gerstone, and other volunteers.
Jann's life may seem exciting and dynamic, but it is far from easy. She often finds herself working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. She travels to Religious Right conferences, speaks at conferences statewide, answers the phone, sends fax and e-mail alerts, and answers about 30 e-mail letters a day.
Does her work negatively impact her family? "Yes, sometimes," she said. As a result, she freely offers advice to other would-be activists. "Before you get started, make a commitment to the time you're going to put in and leave it at that. Stop when kids come home, or when your husband comes home. Otherwise it's not a healthy situation."
This past February, Arizona Citizens Project held its first conference entitled "Countering Extremism in Arizona: Keys to Empowerment." Speakers included Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In connection with the conference, the project put together a binder, a "1996 Toolkit" of over 100 pages about problems facing the citizens of Arizona, and includes activist tips for dealing with those problems. It sells for $25.
Although Jann said putting on a conference was extremely difficult, "It came together and went off very well. With 200 people at our first conference, and all the letters and positive evaluations, it was well worth it! We'll do it again next year; people just can't wait!" The Arizona Citizens Project is also planning a candidates forum in October of this year, in a coalition with other nonprofits.
As she goes along, Jann is learning the ins and outs of running a group. Fundraising is always onerous, she said. "Newcomers to this need to develop the courage to ask for things the group needs. One person gave me a frequent flyer ticket so I could go to the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory conference in Washington last September. I'm slowly learning to ask for donations. When I realize that the cause is bigger than me, it becomes easier. Specific things are easier to ask for, like money for a computer, or to travel to a conference."
What other things has Jann learned as an activist countering religious political extremists? "Well, for one," she said, "you can compromise with a moderate, but do not compromise with an extremist. There is no giving there. When you go through a bad time and it tears the community apart, stick with it; you'll meet a lot of nice people, and they come together behind you. Also, maintain vigilance. Stay with it. Don't give up. Keep the work going; keep building your database; keep those letters to the editor going."
"In the long run," Jann told Freedom Writer, "we hope to educate as many people as possible; we will give them information to help them make informed decisions when they go to the ballot box."
You can reach the Arizona Citizens Project at 9699 North Hayden Road, Suite 108, Box 203, Scottsdale, AZ 85258 or by phone at (602) 585-9719. Light on the Right, the project's newsletter, is $25 a year.