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2001 Conference Write-Up


Godless Grassroots

"Stella got her groove back!"

-Tim Kelly

It is important to understand that we are still at the beginning. Six years ago, student freethought conferences simply didn't happen in the United States. But both this summer and last the U.S. has seen two wildly successful student freethought conferences. The Secular Student Alliance was proud to play a key role in this blossoming of activity this summer with "Godless Grassroots: Kicking Ass for the New Enlightenment" August 9-12 on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH.

Paul asks a question

Paul Youk, President of Individuals for Freethought at Kansas State, gives advice to other group leaders.
Photos by August E. Brunsman III
Hailing from as far away as London and San Francisco, over eighty freethought activists gathered to get each other in gear for kicking some ass. Indeed, this conference focused on getting freethought activists educated and motivated to strengthen their own local groups, and help the SSA in tackling its many programs--including its audacious Secular 100 program: a program to insure stable groups on the U.S.'s 100 largest campuses by January of 2005.


Keiv Spare, SSA Titleless Ass Kicker, sports the sexy SSA 2001 Con T-shirt.
Music was a powerful element of this year's con--with several conference goers coming in a night early to go to a nearby Radhiohead concert and a Thursday night concert as part of the official conference program. The Thursday night concert featured three local Columbus bands: Polycentric, Breakdown and Kopaz. Polycentric was especially popular, and played one song, Mindfuck, about the psychological effect of religion.

"I think I received some great feedback on how to start a group and keep people attending. I enjoyed several of the unrelated lectures as well."

-Colleen Tuohy

Many students were interviewed by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter David Briggs who was doing a piece for the Plain Dealer's religion section. Check it out!

After breakfast, Friday kicked off with a welcome from the board and an update on the condition of long time freethought activist Deidre Conn. Deidre has been in a coma since late July. Following the welcome from the board, representatives from all the national organizations present at the conference introduced themselves and their organizations. The organizations with representatives present included the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), Camp Quest (CQ), the American Humanist Association (AHA), Internet Infidels (II), International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Atheist Alliance International (AAI), American Atheists (AA), the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC), Freethinking Spiritual Wonderment (FSW), the Bank of Wisdom (BW), Evolvefish, the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS), Heartland Humanists (HH), and the Coalition for the Community of Reason (CCR). Although unable to send a representative the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) sent materials available to all conference attendees.

"Everyone was really nice, welcoming, I went all scared and not knowing anyone but by the end, I had met almost everyone and felt really good about the 4 days. I'll definitely be there next year."

-Monica Price

Babu Gogineni announced a $700 IHEU challenge grant to the SSA for aid in student travel to the IHEU 15th World Congress in Amsterdam. The SSA will be matching the money and using the sum to aid student travel to the Congress. Details will be announced on SSA_Update and our web site.


Stephanie Kirmer, SSA High School Director, and Angie Brunsman, CFA High School Director, talk in the lobby of Drackett
A quick break proceeded all of the student organizations present at the conference giving reports on their activity over the last year. Some of the groups represented were: Students For Freethought at the Ohio State University, Individuals For Freethought at Kansas State University, Campus Freethought Alliance at University of Nebraska, at Lincoln, Minnesota Atheists and Humanists, Students for A Nonreligious Ethos at Berkeley, Columbus State University Centa Freethought Society, and the Freethinkers At Virginia Tech.

"I GREATLY appreciated the nuts and bolts emphasis and liveliness. People really participated. I learned."

-Molleen Matsumura

Over lunch the High Schoolers at the conference met with Stephanie Kirmer (SSA Board Member and High School Director), August Brunsman (SSA Executive Director) and Tim Avery (Ohio State Director for American Atheists) to discuss their plans for the coming year. Through much discussion, they came up with ideas for increased communication between college students and high schoolers, and made plans for several smaller programs for the upcoming year. These include "Ask The Expert," a website Q&A to be conducted with the Advisory Board.


Robin, Scott, Colleen, and Angie take a break between sessions.
The afternoon session began with Dr. Reid Johnson from the IHS letting students know about their exciting, new Continuum of Humanist Education (COHE) project and how students there could talk with him at the conference about attaining roles as mentors and pupils in this program. Reid also stressed the importance of secularists educating themselves and each other as a central element of a successful movement.

Following Reid, Molleen Matsumura, of both the IHS and II, spoke on the Darwin Day project that the SSA helped spearhead, and on the importance and ways of supporting evolution education in public schools.

"There were many very good presentations, lots of important issues addressed, and inspirational ideas and energy. I came away with the definite feeling that the SSA could have a very bright future!!"

-Reid Johnson

Martha Knox, SSA Board Member and Council of Campus Group Leaders (CCGL) Director, lead a highly interactive session on the mechanics of running a local group. The second half of the session was used to let group leaders come up and share their ideas and concerns.

After Martha, Lisa Grant, a CCGL member, lead a panel discussion with Reid Johnson, Molleen Matsumura, Tim Kelly, Jo Ann Mooney, and Herb Silverman on why they had all chosen to devote significant portions of their life to secular activism.


Students enjoy a yummy, home cooked meal!
After a home cooked meal from SSA Support Operations Director Sharon Moss--which all agreed was filling and delicious--the CCGL met and elected Cliff Palmer, Jr. as their president for this year.

The evening's official activities rounded out with Martha Knox, Stephanie Kirmer, and August Brunsman outlining the pressing SSA programs that required volunteer work. Some 19 people signed up at the end of the session. If you'd like to become a volunteer for the SSA, email Sharon Moss [sharon@secularstudents.org].


Board Members Martha Knox, Stephanie Kirmer, and August Brunsman let students know how they can volunteer for the SSA.
Saturday morning began with group development ideas from Tim Kelly, Free Inquiry Group Board Member. Tim's presentation, in addition to containing a great deal of practical advice on growing a campus group, also contained several bumper sticker ideas such as "'God, you're fired!' -Humanity."

Following Tim, Fred Edwords, editor of The Humanist Magazine, spoke on Secular Service. Pointing out that when secularists do service, they should go out of their way to tackle social issues that, for whatever reason, most other organizations are unwilling to tackle (usually because of unspoken, and unfounded, moral hang ups).

"My wants and needs were met, dear."

-Jende Huang

The annual meeting of the SSA board of directors with the members of its illustrious Advisory Board occured over lunch. Plans for the upcoming year, problems to be solved, and ideas for directions were tossed around by all in a lively meeting.

Post Meridian, Jo Ann Mooney of the Heartland Humanists got the con rolling again with a session on making SSA student group events the talk of their campuses. Jo Ann worked through planning a hypothetical conference with the audience members--taking their advice and ideas and gently suggesting improvements from her years of experience in event planning.

Panel of elders

Jo Ann Mooney, Tim Kelly, Molleen Matsumura, Herb Silverman, and Reid Johnson (just off to the right) talk about why they have devoted their lives to secular activism.
After Jo Ann, Herb Silverman, failed gubernatorial candidate and facilitator of the CCR, spoke on the emergence of the Coalition of the Community of Reason: a two-year-old, and highly successful, effort to bring together the many freethought organizations around the world to create a voice loud enough to be noticed by mainstream culture.

"Babu, Silverman, Fratepietro were very good...We need more o' that. We all agree on religion. Let's have more diversity of topics to push and challenge our general thoughts."

-Derek P. Moore

Sharon Fratepietro followed Herb (who happens to be her husband). Sharon spoke on her experiences visiting Columbia and on the impact that the U.S. drug war, especially in the form of Plan Columbia, on the lives of the citizen of Columbia.


Babu Gogineni speaks with several students at the Columbus Zoo
Babu Gogineni, Executive Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, ended the talks on Saturday with an impassioned and moving talk on how if the secular movement is going to become a truly mainstream movement, that it will have to make itself relevant to people in the mainstream. It can do this, he suggests, by working hard to tackle problems of human need--problems that almost all secularists agree need to be solved (even if they disagree on the methods). By moving away from constantly criticizing religion (but not stopping entirely, of course) and towards working to make the lives of our fellow human beings better, the secular movement can truly come into its adulthood.

"Babu's speech was the single most inspiring Humanist talk that put my life as a Humanist in perspective."

-From Conference Feedback Form

The night was finished with a debate between philosophy professors Corey Washington and Peter Payne on evidence for intelligent design in the universe. The general public was invited to attend and several non-conference goers showed up to enjoy the debate.


Students relax after a long day of conferenceing
Sunday morning saw a flurry of airport rides along with a trip to the Columbus Zoo for those not taking off until later.

We are not yet even at the infamous end of the beginning. Things are still getting going for the student freethought movement--our national conferences are still dwarfed by single, weekly, local meetings of groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. The budget of the entire North American Secular movement is not even a tenth of the national budget of Campus Crusade. Be this as it may, things are moving forward and there are many reasons to be excited about the future and about the present. The quality of thought throughout this movement is impressive, and its emphasis on action is growing--these are good things as there are many exciting challenges before us that will require a great deal of good thinking and acting to solve. Let us put our hands and minds (and feet!) to the task of growing this movement and kick some ass for the new enlightenment!

By the way, next year's conference is tentatively scheduled for August 8-11 on the campus of The Ohio State University--hosted by SFF.

Martha and Augie are happy you made it all the way down here!

Augie and Martha are delighted you made it all the way to the end.
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