This Week: Group Starting Edition - Group Direction and Goals
Also check out our description of the SSA's Four Focus Areas
Hey everyone! This week, I'd like to discuss something to keep us all a little more sane: how to set goals and direction for your group. It is one of the most common questions I get from students and with our busy schedules (and most of us work and go to school now), it is absolutely essential that you know how to focus your group's energy onto a few attainable goals. The SSA, in our group running guide, actually has a great frame work laid out to help you decide on and implement your group's goals. So, without further ado, lets check it out.
On page 11 of your group running guide is a list of the SSA's five focus areas. The focus areas are education, activism, cooperation, service, and community. These focus areas represent what the SSA and most of our affiliates use the majority of their time and resources engaging in, but it is by no means exhaustive. They are important because based on your campus and your group's goals, they can help you to narrow down your activities into a more manageable level. But before we start talking about how to do that, let’s talk a little bit about each of the focus areas and some activities that go along with each.
First off is education. Education focuses on a group's efforts to inform their campus and the wider community about our world view, secular values, and the issues facing our community and movement. Anytime you engage someone in a conversation about what it's like to be an atheist student on campus you're (perhaps unknowingly) engaging in education already! I've seen some really great events that focus on education: “Ask an Atheist” tables (a personal favorite), discussion meetings, and presentations on issues affecting our community (like the separation of church and state). Education can be a great way for a new group to engage with their campus in a non-threatening and friendly way as well.
Next is service. Service is important because it takes all those values we just talked about in the education section and puts them to work. We want a heaven on Earth, not one waiting for us (potentially) when we die. What better way to do that than to engage your campus and surrounding community in projects to improve the community for everyone! Service is really one of the most idea-producing focus areas, because almost anything can fall into it. Whether the problem is big (feeding the homeless in your city) or small (cleaning up part of your campus), or anywhere in between, improving your environment not only makes a difference, but it also helps to show people that non-theists are actually ethical, considerate, and caring people. It is also a great camaraderie builder for new groups!
After that we have activism. Activism is the participation of individuals for social change in their communities. Whether that means writing letters to your school's newspaper editor, protesting, marching, handing out literature, tabling, etc., activism can be a lot of work, but is very rewarding. The only drawback is that because of the SSA's 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, you cannot use money from the SSA or the SSA's name in conjunction with the endorsement of a political platform or candidate (yes, religious establishments get away with it...hey, there's something to protest!).
Next we have community. Now, community is my favorite, probably because it has the most to do with food. Building a community of freethinkers is, honestly, one of the big reasons why most of us got into the movement in the first place. Let's face it; the religious groups have very well funded, entrenched, institutionalized, and organized communities. We've all felt lonely being non-religious. However, in recent years, the secular student movement has been turning the tide on this. It's a thing of the past to have to deal with an hour long sermon just to go bowling with your buddies afterward. Having a secular group of friends to hang out with, discuss ideas with, play games, chat with, and rely on, is one of the most important aspects of having a secular group on campus, and fostering/growing that aspect of your group is the major focus of this area.
Finally we have cooperation. Now, I probably don't have to tell you that this focus area is controversial. There are many atheists (both students and within our movement), who believe that cooperation with religious groups, even in events of commonality, is wrong. We do not dictate to our groups whether or not they have to cooperate with other groups. That is absolutely up to you. However, we do encourage cooperation. Not only do religious groups typically have more resources (remember that bus you wanted to rent for that service project?), but they've been around longer and probably know the campus well. They're also human beings you know, so don't be too afraid of them. Despite our beliefs, in the end, we're not so different.
So, now that we've talked about the five focus areas, your head is probably swimming with ideas on what you want to do. Good. Now, pump the breaks. Make sure that you get other member's input on what is and isn't important to them, too. During your next meeting, discuss these five areas, the pros and cons of each, and try to brainstorm some ideas about what you could do in each area. Make sure to keep your goals realistic and reachable. If you're just starting out, having Richard Dawkins to your school on Darwin Day may seem like a great idea (and it's really cool), but it's probably not within the realm of reality (for several reasons). Once you get a general consensus of some ideas, all you have to do is pick out the area(s) that are most important to your group and implement your ideas.
So, for example, lets make up a school called Derp University. Derp U just became an SSA affiliate! During their first organizational meeting, the members of Derp U discuss their ideas and feelings about each of the focus areas. During the discussion, it is decided that the group believes the community and service focus areas are most important (you can choose as many as you feel comfortable handling). Derp U has decided to make its goals for this year then to focus on their community and service areas. As part of these goals, the chair and other members come up with a number of activities (once again, do as many as you feel comfortable with) that help them advance their focus area. So, for service, they decide to make arrangements to adopt a local highway cleanup they will clean every week. For community, they've decided to have weekly meetings and to focus on community-building exercises /topics, such as game nights, movies, discussions, etc.
I hope now you can see how this applies to your group. Go through the focus areas, discuss them, pick one or more, and focus your meetings/activities/projects/etc. on those focus areas. I wish you all the best of luck, and as always, email me with suggestions, tips, ideas, questions, concerns, gripes, complaints, insults, etc.