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Student Voice Interview - University of Minnesota


This article originally appeared as part of the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

Senior Campus Organizer interviews Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists at the University of Minnesota. Replies were written by Andy Buttler and Wendy Lyman, 2/3 of the executive board.

CASH ca. 2006
Members of CASH after one of their successful campus events, a debate on the separation of church and state.

Your group is extremely strong and impressive. Can you give our readers a little background on CASH's history and a little insight into what makes you such secular student giants?

CASH (Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists at the University of Minnesota) was founded in 1991 as the University of Minnesota Atheists and Unbelievers. Since then, we've gone through a couple name changes and a relocation as they renovated the student union, but now we're back in our old digs and stronger than ever. Our e-mail newsletter has grown steadily over the years and we use it as a measure of the number of people with a genuine interest in our activities. Right now we have 1002 subscribers, although only 68 of them are regular members of the group.

First and foremost, we credit our success to our location at a large university within a big, progressive urban center. The University of Minnesota is a big school and we're the only freethought game on campus. As the oldest secular student group in the U.S., we've built up a great intellectual resource pool; there's a lot of collective wisdom in our past officers, advisors, faculty partners, and so forth. The U. has a Student Activities Office that is well-run and very supportive of campus groups. Another big factor has been the student fees process. Our school assesses a fee to all students and some of it goes to support campus groups. To qualify, there's a pretty involved application process and a few presentations and hearings. We first received this funding a couple years ago and it amounts to about 10 cents per student, but multiplied by the entire campus, it's a substantial resource pool. And of course, we have committed, motivated, talented, super-hard-working officers.

CASH officially has educational non-profit 501(c)(3) status. What are the benefits of such status?

Well, we don't have it quite yet. It's in the works. 501(c)(3) status makes contributions to CASH tax-deductible. That is, if Joe Blow makes $30,000 a year and wants to give us $1,000, then the IRS will treat him as if he really only made $29,000 to begin with (assuming he itemizes his return). Since a lot of older freethinkers with deep pockets tend to itemize, this can be a big incentive for large contributions.

If the SSA handed your group a check for $10,000, what projects would be at the top of your Dream Projects list?

We'd get Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion has been huge, and it's probably done more to raise our profile than just about anything else. I even saw someone (not a CASH member) with the book tucked under her arm in the lunch line last week. We've made contact with his publicity team but any such plans are tentative at best right now because of his busy schedule. Other big speakers we've considered (if we only had the money…) are Sam Harris, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, and James Randi.

Aside from speakers, we're planning a little campus-wide guerrilla theater. This spring a few of us will don full pirate regalia, grab a stack of Flying Spaghetti Monster propaganda, and spread the good word. The more money we have, the more eyepatches, bandanas, and swords we can afford, and the more copies of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster we can order.

And of course, we can always use more t-shirts, pizza, CASH propaganda, bigger and glossier posters, and so forth. We have visions dancing in our heads of a fully fledged, well-oiled publicity machine that will hand out non-tracts to compete with those of the theists.

Do you have any pearls of wisdom to share with our other affiliates that may be struggling with things such as recruitment, retention, and meeting ideas?

Above all, stay positive! Focus on building a community rather than bashing religion. Potential members want to know they are identifying with a group that stands for something, not just defines itself based on what it is not. Many new members we've spoken with say they come from small conservative towns and really appreciate the opportunity to meet other freethinkers.

Recruitment -

  • Elect officers who are personable, friendly, and outgoing. This will help potential members feel more welcome and less like outsiders. Officers must make special efforts to "schmooze" with new potential members and get to know them personally. ("What's your major?" etc.) New people who come in and get the impression that your group is a "good ol' boys club" will walk right back out.
  • CASH has a "welcoming committee" that meets new people at the door, greets them, and hands them group information.
  • Never forget that recruitment is ongoing-it doesn't stop after the first meeting.
  • If your school allows it, get a contact table and staff it with friendly, knowledgeable people-and lots of secular propaganda! Be sure to have a general brochure about the group specifically.
  • If your budget allows, plan a social meeting with free pizza in the beginning, and advertise this fact loudly.
  • Write editorials to the campus newspaper, especially ones that are relevant to upcoming events. Watch the opinions page for people writing in about secular issues and contribute to the discussion. Be sure to spread your group name and meeting information.

Retention -

  • Include a healthy mix of diverse topics in order to provide something for everyone. Our formula is about half social and half educational events (lectures, panels, debates, etc.)
  • Be sure to highly structure your meetings so people know what they're coming for, and that they'll actually get it. Don't allow opportunity for the meeting to digress into chaos which will turn off members and scare them away for good.
  • Along those same lines, if you plan a more informal meeting, discussion topic, or the like, make sure it is structured and moderated. We've found that less structured meetings tend to turn into conversations monopolized by two or three really gregarious people, and others get shut out. Avoid this at all costs.
  • At the same time, at each meeting there should be opportunities for interaction and social time between members. We've found most members come for socializing and meeting other freethinkers as opposed to just learning about science. CASH has a tradition of unofficially going out for food after most of our meetings and this has helped our core membership develop strong friendships, which in turn helps with retention.
  • Be highly responsive to what your membership is interested in seeing. Allow opportunities for involvement in planning activities, include regular polls, questionnaires, and keep reminding them that you want their input. Actively encourage and promote involvement of regular members in officer affairs. People like control.
  • Focus on women! The secular movement in general has a huge problem with recruiting and retaining women, perhaps owing in large part to male overrepresentation among freethinkers. We've found that if female membership drops below a certain "critical mass," then no women will come at all. (Nobody wants to be the only one-there seems to be a literal "point of no return.") Officers should prioritize their "schmoozing" efforts to target women-it is especially helpful to have female officers so as not to create any impressions.
  • Also, along these lines, we conducted a large questionnaire of our membership and we think we may have found one of the forces responsible for this effect. Men tend to come to meet potential dating partners and women do not. So, as the ratio of women declines, there are fewer available for the guys to hit on, and it gets worse and worse, thus driving more women away…in effect, a negative feedback loop (as biologists like Andy would call it).
  • We notice some members are more shy and introverted, and attend alone. These members are at risk for leaving, so we've come up with the idea of creating a "buddy system" of sorts. We haven't implemented it yet, but we think something like this will encourage people who would otherwise not come because they don't want to walk alone, don't want to keep attending alone, etc.

Meeting ideas -

  • Free pizza social nights
  • Work with faculty to present on their research/expertise relevant to freethinkers. This is best for low budget groups.
  • Perusal of Secular Worldviews panel night where a representative from each sub-group within Freethought can talk about the philosophy
  • The usual - politics, evolution, physics, philosophy, biblical errors
  • Topics that address social issues such as women's rights, sexuality, science in public schools. Social issue events generate a lot of discussion and attendance
  • Co-sponsor with other groups as much as possible. This brings in attendance well.
  • Don't get stuck on religion-bashing events. Provide freethinkers with useful things they can take away from meetings on how to live their lives, such as topics on secular ethics and identity.
  • Keep polling your membership for their ideas!

What have your interactions been like with the religious groups on your campus (looking at the U. Minn. site it seems there are quite a few)?

They've been overwhelming positive. Maybe it's just "Minnesota Nice," but we have always placed a premium on respectful, collegial dialogue and we enjoy good relations with nearly all of them. We have a contact table in our student union next to Maranatha, a conservative Christian group. It's sparked some lively (and always respectful) conversations. We co-sponsor debates and panels with religious groups several times a year. Examples from the past few years have included debates on the existence of God and the effects of religion on society, a panel on the effects of religion on women, and our perusal of secular worldviews (we had a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist represented). This year, we have two more debates in the works, on church-state separation and the divinity of Jesus, both of which will be co-sponsored with religious groups. We've also hosted (and will host again this year) the Garrison-Martineau Project, which promotes facilitated, respectful dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. We've found believers of all stripes that like to participate in that, from liberal and conservative Christians alike, to Muslims, Jews, and Hindus.

Do you have plans to hold another conference this year? If so, what does CASH have in store?

Based on the outcomes of conferences in previous years, we've made the informed decision not to have a conference this year. Conferences in the past had well planned activities to offer, but because of timing they were not well attended. This was a great shame. When conference events occur at the end of a semester, students and faculty do not attend due to the pressure of final exams and school projects. When events are during the week, they do not attend because it not a normal meeting time that they have reserved for CASH meetings. These times are usually filled with studying, working and other night classes; and for those conflicts, they don't have much choice. Based on these observations, we have decided it is a much better use of meeting ideas, speakers' time, and financial resources to move activities to regular meeting times. This is a better justification of the planning and resources available because it is better received by members who have already planned their Thursday nights to be devoted to CASH. Also, we have found that weekend times are bad as well. Commuters are not willing to drive in for events; students have weekend jobs, or travel out of town. We find that sticking to one main weekly night is best for turnout. Since turnout is what we're primarily interested in, we design our activities with those things in mind.

There is an oft cited 'age gap' in secular activism (there are students and people with grey hair, but few in between). Do your alumni stay active in the movement, and if so, how can we work to ensure that these former group leaders are future donors and prominent presences in humanism?

Unfortunately, this year we have seen a large drop in former core members attending CASH meetings. We've been struggling to explain this phenomenon. We believe that it may be due to the success we've had in attracting new people, and ironically, older members feel out of place and stop attending.

One thing we've noticed is the practice of organizations like the SSA courting outgoing campus group officers for their officer positions. Our advisor and former treasurer, Joe Foley, is currently serving as treasurer for the Secular Coalition for America and as an SSA board member. This seems like the best way to at least retain the innermost activist core of the secular student movement.

We always make sure to invite people to renew their memberships every year, even after graduation. We encourage non-student membership in CASH. Keep reminding people of non-student membership options. Otherwise people will assume they won't be welcome.

This article originally appeared as part of the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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