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2004 Conference Write-Up


Group 2004

For many college students summer is a time to go home, catch up with old friends, and frantically earn money for the next school year. Many secular students took some time away from these priorities this August 5th through 7th to make the trek to Washington D.C. to work on building a stronger secular community on their college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance annual conference set out to educate, inspire, network, and enlist these students and the many non-student freethinkers who attended. Those who made the journey found themselves connected to a broader national community. Jenny Werness of the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists (CASH) at the University of Minnesota said, "The thing that I really valued about this conference was the opportunity to meet and talk with so many intelligent, rational people from across the country."

The first day of the conference was an activist training session focusing on nuts and bolts problems and solutions students face when trying to start and run a secular student group. Brian Underwood, a past president of Students For Freethought (SFF) at the Ohio State University, unveiled a set of web tools he created for the Secular Student Alliance called the "Turnkey" that can help groups create a website; track their membership, finances, and events; and keep records of meetings "at the turn of a key." This tool is aimed at helping groups deal with one of their biggest challenges - maintaining continuity when leaders graduate. With detailed records new leaders do not have to reinvent the wheel when past leaders graduate. The Turnkey also allows groups to share information with one another such as event ideas, publicity materials, and meeting presentations.

Putting student groups in touch with one another and with the broader national Freethought community is one of the central missions of the Secular Student Alliance. A Friday afternoon session put student group leaders together in discussion groups with leaders of the national Freethought movement such as Fred Edwords, editor of The Humanist magazine for the American Humanist Association. This session allowed students such as Andrew Carmichael, an incoming freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando who is working to start a Freethought group at his university, to get advice from leaders of more established student groups as well as from people with years of experience in Freethought. These sessions proved valuable for the national leaders as well, giving them hope that the Freethought movement would be in good hands in the future. Bobbie Kirkhart, President of Atheist Alliance International, said, "I was very impressed with the young people at this conference. They demonstrate the intelligence, dedication and attitude necessary to lead the Freethought community to its rightful place of influence in the 21st century."

The main conference sessions featured a star-studded cast of presenters including Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Mel Lipman, President of the American Humanist Association; Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at SUNY Stony Brook; Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists; among many others. Many of their talks focused on political issues facing secular Americans, and how students could get involved to help foster more rational U.S. government policies. Audio from all of these presentations will soon be posted at www.secularstudents.org.

The conference closed on Saturday night with an awards banquet honoring Michael Newdow with the "Backbone Award" for his suit challenging "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The awards banquet also honored four SSA affiliate groups for their efforts in the past year. James Madison University Freethinkers received an award for their website. The University of Kansas Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics was given the Best Media award for the newspaper article in the Lawrence Journal-World featuring their efforts and publicizing campus Freethought. Students for Freethought at the Ohio State University received an award for the best service project for raising over $1000 at the Central Ohio AIDS-Walk. The Michigan State University Freethinker Alliance was honored as the best SSA affiliate for 2003-2004 for their work persuading their city council in East Lansing, Michigan to honor "Church-State Separation Week." Brian Underwood was awarded for his work as a dedicated SSA volunteer creating the "Turnkey" system. Robert Nekervis, the outgoing Campus Organizer for the SSA, received an award for his amazing efforts while working for the SSA over the past year.

Conference participants returned home from Washington D.C. on Sunday mobilized and inspired to continue the hard work they put in last year for the year to come. Cam Desautels of University of Texas - Dallas summed it up well, "It was an amazing experience. Never before have I felt the presence of so many intelligent minds. There's an incredible energy from being in the same room with so many people who are actually thinking." For more information about the SSA's 2004 conference go to www.secularstudents.org.
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