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Activist Training Seminars

Planning Time2 or 3 months before
end of semester
Group Size20+
Staff #5-8
Event DateAnytime

Activity Overview:
Becoming an effective activist requires a lot of dedication and knowledge. Learning from seasoned advocates for social change not only brings valuable insights to your group's strategy and tactics, it is inspiring to talk to people who have spent a large part of their lives struggling for the same goals you are. If you can organize an effective training session, you will emerge with more skilled and engaged members, as well as stronger ties to similar groups, and possibly even some publicity.

However, training can be difficult to coordinate, it may require resources (esp. money) outside of the reach of some groups, and to be most effective it requires participation and interaction between trainer and trainees. Considering the cost and time that goes into planning these, a rule of thumb is to have 60-100 attendees, possibly 200 if it has a broad appeal. Not all of these attendees need be from your group!

Planning timeframe:
This depends, of course, on the training organization, but to host a training on your campus you really should plan two or three months before the end of the semester for an event in the following semester. This will give you time to coordinate with the training organizer, to reserve an adequate venue, secure funding (either from your school or from a fundraiser), and to attract sufficient attendees.

Getting the logistics straight with the organizer can be complicated. Remember, they are doing this with other schools and groups as well, and need to have a clear idea of how and when they are coming to your school. At least one coordinator should be dedicated to working with them. You also need to work with your school to clear the activity (you may need security, but probably not), to get money, to promote the event, and to work with other groups. All of these components need a dedicated coordinator, with one of them or someone else checking in to make sure all runs smoothly.

Material requirements:
We cannot stress enough the importance of a good venue. If you're doing an hour-long training for 15 of your members, a classroom will suffice, but a day-long training with hundreds of attendees requires much more. Some will work best if you can have an auditorium or other large room where an organizer can address the crowd, with three or four nearby rooms for breakout sessions. Since this may mean reserving an entire building, you need to plan far ahead!

Some trainers will bring binders with materials for attendees. Even so, you need to provide them with notebooks or folders with papers and pens. The room itself may need chairs with desks, as well as a projector or computer monitors - you can work this out with the organizer, and your school's conference & events office.

Bigger and longer trainings may lead you to provide food, or just refreshments. Talk to your conference & events office to see if you will need to pay custodial fees, which may also be necessitated by the event itself.

Cooperating Organizations:
The range of collaborators for a training is surprisingly broad. Activist training offered by progressive organizations is often very helpful, even to groups outside of the trainer's experience. Talk to activist groups engaged in environmentalism, labor, immigrant rights, civil liberties, political reform and social justice - almost anything that fits under the community organizing umbrella can work! Conversely, when these groups are organizing training, take a look and see if your group could stand to benefit from it. If your campus has an activist resource center, or some other intergroup organization, see what they offer.

Don't forget that there are off-campus groups in these areas as well, many of whom would be willing to share resources with students. Local ACLU chapters, as well as groups for many religious minorities (Jews, Wiccans), are interested in church-state issues.

To be sure the training seminar information gets to everyone who might be interested, you'll want to promote far and wide. Hang flyers, submit information to community and campus event calendars, put an ad in a newspaper, and promote on social media. Go through our Group Promotion and Media Relations guide to get promotion ideas. 

Suggested Walkthrough

  1. The first thing you need to do is research training organizations and programs. We have provided a list below of some possibilities. The first three specialize in secular issues. The rest deal with more general progressive causes and advocacy; nonetheless, what they offer can still be useful to your concerns. Don't think that hosting a training yourself is necessarily better or worse: critically assess your group's needs and capacities, and decide what organization offers what you want and how they run their trainings. Always look to see if another group is already doing a training in your area!
  2. Americans United for Separation of Church & State can do individual campus outreach and visits, which can be particularly useful if you're organizing for a particular issue; however, their training isn't student-specific.
  3. Secular Coalition for America doesn't have the resources to do regualr trainings or individual campus visits, but they may be able to arrange something if you can get a hundred or more students together. Contact them at .
  4. Wellstone Action! is a group of organizers who teach advocacy and organization skills to students. In particular, you'll be interested in Camp Wellstone, which offers training in grassroots activism and running campaigns. These are held in local areas around the country, meaning that you don't have to host them; the cost is based on a sliding scale. They also have Campus Camp Wellstone, a training conference which you can host on your campus. These are more complex and costly, but can host 40-60 participants from your group and school.
  5. Student Government Resource Center offers a variety of on-site training packages which can be tailored to fit your needs. These packages include workshops on leadership skills, campaign skills, recruitment, and more. 
  6. Although the training offered by Democracy for America focuses on organizing for political campaigns, it includes a number of skills you can use on campus, such as communications, online organizing, organization building and issue advocacy. Their Campaign Academies are offered on weekends around the country, and you can apply to host one in your community. The only cost is a fee paid by attendees - DFA will pay the trainers and for the venue.
  7. The United States Student Association has developed a GrassRoots Organizing Weekend (GROW) that can train 20-40 student leaders in organizing methods and skills, both on and off campus. The trainings cost $2,500 - $3,000, but you will receive planning support from USSA.
  8. There are many, many other organizations which work on student activism training; some places to start are suggested by Campus Progress.

Closing Thoughts

  • More important than finding an attractive off-campus group, though, is getting good trainers. Rena Levin (formerly of AU) writes, "Word-of-mouth and/or having actually heard someone speak is the best way to ensure that you get someone who's knowledgeable and engaging. Do not rely on a person's credentials alone when looking for trainers. Sometimes impressive resumes are not matched with equally impressive presentation skills."
  • If you find something you're interested in hosting on campus, contact that organization and see how their training works. Come up with a list of dates that will work for you and the organization. Be sure to ask about costs, venue requirements, and a curriculum for the workshop(s).
  • With this idea for a training in hand, make a committee of coordinators and delegate specific areas and tasks to each (working with the trainer, working with the school, securing a venue, getting funding, and recruiting attendees). Come up with a basic pitchthat explains what this training is, why you're doing it, who it will benefit and specific issues and campaigns it will be used for.
  • Take this basic pitch to several places simultaneously:
  • Talk to your student activities department and make sure that a training of whatever size will be OK with the school.
  • Go to your university's conference and events department to secure a venue. Have an idea of how much space you'll need (size and number of rooms), as well as what you'll need (A/V equipment, space for catering) and where it is; try and come up with a few locations that will work. Look ahead to see what dates you can have those buildings, and that they will work for your trainers. Be sure that nothing loud or busy will be going on at the same time!
  • Talk to your group treasurer to discuss the cost of the event, and how that relates to your group's funds and other planned events. The cost of a training may force you to scale back on other events, or find alternative sources of funding. Be aware of deadlines to request money from your student government, and apply well in advance to try and get what you can!
  • Go to the leaders of other clubs who might be interested in this training, and see what they can contribute. You may be looking either for a co-sponsor, which will reduce the cost and planning on your part, or for attendees. Think outside the box - Greek organizations, surprisingly enough, may make good partners, as they have their own sources of funding, and can use this to bolster their images.
  • If your training is not strictly devoted to campus activism, go to local non-student freethought and activist groups. They may be able to send attendees, contribute financially, or help secure a venue.
  • Before you schedule the training, check in to make sure all of these elements are in place. If you are lacking any of them (school approval, venue, funding, potential attendees), you will incur huge headaches later on.
  • If everything is in place, proceed…cautiously.
  • Confirm your venue. Check with the organizers about what you will need, and make sure you can have it there.
  • Request funding from your student union or student activities office. Be sure to emphasize the benefits the student body will receive from the training, particularly because multiple groups will be included. You may want to split up the requests between different groups - have your treasurer communicate with other treasurers!
  • Think about providing food or refreshments - your attendees will greatly appreciate it! See what catering services are offered by your school or local restaurants, find out if you can serve it in your venue, and if there will be custodial fees.
  • The coordinator's committee needs to set recruitment goals. You want to get your money's worth from this training, and that means getting people to come. Each coordinator should be responsible for a certain number of recruits each week - check in every week to make sure they meet their goals.
  • You may want to have registration for the training, particularly if there will be a fee for participants. Advance payment will ensure attendance! Consider using Wufoo.com for this. Attendees can check in at a table outside the venue - a good excuse to display your banner, information, and a sign-up sheet.
  • As you get closer to the time of the event, you'll need to contact and confirm participants, collect participation fees, confirm food or refreshments, and check the room's condition (especially tech and A/V hookups).
  • Find out how the wi-fi network functions; at many campuses, non-students may be able to connect.
  • After your event, thank your coordinators, volunteers, donors and attendees!
  • Try to accurately and realistically evaluate how things went. What did attendees learn? What skills and concepts were particularly valuable? Was the campus atmosphere positively changed? Have a debriefing call with the training organization to go over this.
  • If the training and the planning for it have created bonds between groups, on or off-campus, run with it! This may well be the beginning of something bigger, such as future events, a political coalition, or a yearly training series.

One of the best resources to find out what works and what doesn't is you - our student leaders! If you've employed a strategy that worked well, let us know about it so other groups can also use that idea. If you've learned a lesson of caution about something we suggest, point out the pitfalls! Email us at organizer@secularstudents.org with your stories and experiences!

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