2002 Conference Write-Up
For the third year in a row, students from around the county made the trek to the three-day extravaganza that is the Secular Student Alliance's annual conference. This year's theme "Education Against Indoctrination" featured a fantastic assortment of speakers with years and years of experience in the freethought movement. The conference was not only a chance to hear from those leaders and brainstorm for the future, but an opportunity for students to meet new friends, reunite with old ones and party till the wee hours of the morning.
The Board of Directors had four goals for this conference, and as students parted on the final morning already thinking about the 2003 conference, it was clear that the goals had been met. Students left educated about how to be activists in their communities; became inspired to promote the cause of reason and compassion; had the opportunity to network with "oldsters" as well as fellow students; and the SSA had the opportunity to enlist the student's help.
This year the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel in Chicago, IL served as the venue for our speakers, as well as a place for participants to eat, sleep and play a serious game of ping-pong. The hostel is centrally located in Chicago, three blocks from Lake Michigan and a short walking distance from Navy Pier. In addition to our conference, the hostel was host to its usual assortment of young adults from around the globe.
Over 50 students, from 19 campuses, attended the conference and were treated to speakers that hailed from a wide number of organizations within the community of reason. Presenters represented organizations such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), Camp Quest (CQ), the Coalition for the Community of Reason (CCR), Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the Institute for Humanist Studies (IHS), and the International Darwin Day Program (Darwin Day). Other organizations that had representatives included Atheist Alliance International (AAI), the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA). A speaker from the Humanists of Florida Association was scheduled to speak, but unfortunately needed to cancel at the last minute.
Check in at the hostel took up all of Thursday, with many of the participants using their free time to explore the surrounding area. The conference officially kicked off Friday morning with a welcome from executive director August Brunsman. He introduced the rest of the Board of Directors, consisting of Jeff Dubin, Jende Huang, Stephanie Kirmer, and Cliff Palmer, Jr. The newest member, Jerry Lieberman, was unable to attend. Following the introductions, a member from each campus group was welcome to come up and share the activities their group took part in the previous year, and their plans for the future. Representatives from other national organizations also had a chance to introduce themselves. [audio]
Following a short break, the conference did something new. Attendees broke up into five groups, and with Board members acting as facilitators, discussed the vision and plan for the SSA. Board members were very interested in getting student input and thoughts about the future direction of our organization. Later in the day, attendees broke up into the same small groups and discussed the one-year plan the SSA is implementing. This all culminated in a joint session on Saturday afternoon, when the groups met and discussed what they thought the future direction of the SSA should be.
In another new twist on our conference, instead of having one session that everyone would attend, students were given the choice between two different speakers, and could decide what they wanted to hear about. Our first parallel session consisted of Brian Underwood, SSA database specialist, speaking on "How computers can help your group and how the SSA can help you use them" and Dale McGowan, music professor in the College of St. Catherine's, speaking about his book "Calling Bernadette's Bluff" [audio] .
Following a short break, Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today spoke about "Women in Freethought." Students could hear about that, or partake in "Coalition Building for Student Groups and Adult Groups," a session led by Herb Silverman of the Coalition for the Community of Reason, and Stephanie Kirmer, SSA Board member. Following these sessions, students attended the above-mentioned small group to discuss the one-year plan and then we all broke for dinner that was prepared by fellow SSAers (Thanks Stephanie and Co!)
The night was topped off by a rousing rendition of some Freethought Tunes by Dan Barker, also of the Freedom of Religion Foundation. Built off of his experience as a Christian performer, he was able to elicit several laughs with his new spins on old tunes. Following Barker's performance, students scattered into the city and throughout the hostel, probably performing activities that are better off never being spoken of again.
Saturday morning found students a bit more sleepy headed and moving a bit slower then the previous day. Edwin and Helen Kagin, however, were prepared (if necessary) to whip the tar out of any students who didn't look like they were paying full attention to the Kagin's presentation about Camp Quest, the first secular humanist summer camp in the nation. Following the Kagin's were Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies, and Shannon Tramacera, a public relations professional who provided insights into "Frugal Public Relations: Making a Big Impact without Spending Big Money". After explaining the laziness of reporters, the duo provided tips as to how to build up positive publicity for local campus groups [audio].
After learning the secrets to dominating the local press, students had the chance to argue amongst themselves in an interactive session with Massimo Pigliucci, associate professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Tennessee (and one of the debater's at the SSA's first conference) who spoke on the topic of "In Search of a Rational Ethics for Humanists". Pigliucci's talk [audio] was followed by our third try at the parallel sessions with Rob Beeston from the Darwin Day Program speaking on "Engaging the Public: Planning your Darwin Day Event" and Jeff Dubin, SSA Board member having some fun with "Fundraising Mad Libs: Learning to Raise Money for ANYTHING (even freethought!)"
Students then gathered together once more to run though some more mental exercises, by discussing the vision and one year plan [audio] . This was also a chance for students to present the solutions they have to problem solving activity that they had been earlier assigned. The Council of Campus Group Leaders also met, and agreed to strengthen their commitment to getting the CCGL off the ground.
"I really enjoyed the conference. It was a great opportunity to hear speakers discussing various topics related to secularism. It was also nice to meet other freethinking students from around the country." -Scott Jackson
After another scrumptious meal prepared by fellow SSAers, it was time for the big debate. We were lucky to find two knowledgeable debaters to go at it on the topic of "One Nation Under God: Church-State Separation in America" Rob Boston, assistant director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church & State and Calvin Lindstrom from the Christian Liberty Academy. The verbal fencing match went on for two hours, and the debate was even worthy enough to warrant the presence of the Chicago Police Department, ready to prevent any ruckus. However, in spite of the differing views of the two debaters, the debate stayed calm and, results from debate survey's favored Rob Boston [audio] .
With another victory secured in the name of Church/State separation, students left the debate in an upbeat mood and went out to explore the city for one more night. Some conference attendees retired to the hostel, and others ended up a nearby bar, to enjoy Chicago's nightlife and make new friends.
The final morning held a short feedback session, as well as for the one last chance to say goodbye to friends old and new. Some of the conference goers even extended their stay in Chicago, enjoying the various nearby cultural venues.
As we wrap up the details of this year's conference, the SSA is already looking to the future, and thinking about the possibilities for next year's conference. For the past three years, the conference has been a Midwestern event, and we've recently been feeling the call of the coast. Check back at the SSA's Web site over the next few weeks, and we should have tentative information about next year's conference.