CFI Interview: Zack Kopplin Will Save Louisiana Because He Loves It

September 9, 2013

It’s almost a cliché to say that Zack Kopplin is a crusader for science education, but it happens to be quite apt. Barely out of high school, Zack began with little more than a flurry of emails, sparked by a desire to turn around his state’s science-denialism. Since he began his work, he’s not only gotten the attention of the government of the state of Louisiana, but the national media as well. Though he’s mustered the support of allies and compatriots from academia, politics, and popular culture, it his singular drive and determination that has galvanized so many in the struggle against creationism and science denial in public education. Zack now studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, but his work on behalf of Louisiana shows little sign of slowing.

Zack will be one of the speakers at the upcoming CFI Summit in Tacoma, Washington, October 24-27, and he talked to me about what motivates his activism (which includes a cameo from a particular Cajun political operative), how he actually manages to get things done, and what other pursuits he might decide to train his laser focus on.

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PF: As far as the media is concerned, you've emerged as kind of the lone glimmer of sanity in Louisiana, and you told the New York Times you feared the stigma of being from "the stupid state." But what's it like for you in Louisiana itself? Has your activism won you more enemies than friends in your area?

ZK: I wouldn’t call myself the lone glimmer of sanity in Louisiana. We’ve got Barbara Forrest, the Louisiana Coalition for Science, New Orleans City Councill and Orleans Parish School Board, the State Board of Education, a few legislators, and hundreds of others who’ve come out to support science or made decisions that put them on the right side of science.

When I was younger I did fear the stigma of being from the “stupid state.” I had family in Connecticut, and so I would spend every summer in the Northeast, and I was judged by people for the place I was born.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become proud of being from Louisiana, and I do identify deeply as a Louisianan. I went through Katrina and I’ve lived on parade routes all my life. The state gave me my taste in food and music and my sense of humor.

I’d rather be a Louisianan and fight to improve my home than worry about other people’s judgments of my state.

I’ve got the support in and out of Louisiana that I need to keep going with this fight. Some people don’t like me and can be incredibly nasty, and that’s always been the case. I’m not going to stop, just because someone is upset by what I’m doing. I know that I’m fighting for what is right.

It does always amaze me how nasty people can be though. My first instinct isn’t to go for the jugular, so I’m always surprised by how mean people can actually be.

PF: When the public sees you, they see you on Bill Maher, on a talk show, or footage from your appearances in hearings. But of course there is much more to activism than being on TV. What's the grunt work you're doing? When the camera's not on you, what kind of day-to-day work comprises your activism?

ZK: I’m sending emails, having conference calls and writing all day, every day. We’re working on getting a non-profit set up in the near future, and have a few other side projects going on, and it’s just tedious work that you have to get through.

Also, social media takes a surprising amount of time to manage and keep updating every day. It takes time to find relevant articles about science to share.

We’ve built an incredible amount of buzz and energy and now we need to harness it. 

PF: Do you see yourself expanding the scope of your activism beyond Louisiana and creationism?

ZK: I am. I want to work on fighting all science denial, whether it’s about evolution, climate change, GMOs or vaccines.

I’m also advocating for more science funding, because we do not spend enough on science.

PF: Did anyone serve as a model for activism for you, in or outside of the freethought and skeptic movements?

ZK: I’m always impressed by James Carville. I took his class at Tulane while I was in high school, and quickly realized that James could see connections between everything that was political. He always understood what was going on, and what he should say.

PF: You're pretty young to be so immersed in politics and religion. You must have other interests or outlets. What else takes your time, or your creativity?

ZK: The last year was fairly rough for me in terms of work, and I was working 90-100 hours every week up until May. It’s why I’m taking a year off school, now. I want to be able to do my policy work and still have a little time for myself.

I’m getting myself back into running and playing guitar and I want to join a pickup soccer league at some point. I also want to travel out of the country more.

Lastly, Houston has an incredible number of good restaurants. I’ve been to a lot of them, but I want to go to all of them.

PF: Bonus Question: Any chance you'll run for office yourself someday, and then be lobbied by some other tenacious young activist?

ZK: I don’t see a path to office anytime in the near future, I really like the freedom I have to pursue a specific platform, right now. Once I’ve got the movement built though, who knows.

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Don’t miss Zack and the entire lineup of leaders, thinkers, and activists at the CFI Summit! Register now!