Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Returned: Alive and Well

I am back and finally recovered from the Secular Student Alliance's 2011 Conference. It was a whirlwind time, but a wonderful, informative, funny, and enlightening experience.  Even with this being my third consecutive year attending, I am still learning new things; the mark of a top notch conference.  I also came up with an idea for a possible presentation based on some absolutely terrible fliers I saw.  I need to contact JT and Liz about it.

Not all of the talks really stood out to me, or really made a significant impact other than "Oh, ok, that makes sense."  So I'll just be noting the significant ones to me.  There were TONS of presentations given this weekend, and there were also breakout sessions (as well as a mild personal crisis) that prevented me from attending all the talks.  These were the ones of note:

Jamila Bey

Before this conference, I had no idea who Jamila Bey was.  Now, I think I have found a new personal hero.  Apparently her original talk was inadvertently stolen by Hemant Mehta, so she had to wing it while up on the podium.  If the talk she gave was her "winging it," I really want to see her with a preconstructed talk.  Her talk covered a whole variety of issues and meandered a great deal; but it worked.  Everything she talked about, from journalism, to activism, to religious terrorism, to being a black woman in the atheist movement, to how "the KKK got some things right" (which was hilarious).  She talked about closets are only good for clothes and their accessories; not people.  That we should be out, and we should be proud (hence her KKK comment).  Her passion inspired me greatly, and her humor left my sides hurting from laughter.

Maria Walters: Grassroots Activism

This talk was really informative as to how to go about performing activism with your group, as well as improving any activism your groups is already doing.  All of her information was very well laid out, and I took a LOT of notes to bring back to my groups.  Keeping in mind the goals and scale of work your group is working with is vital to successful activism.

Ed Clint: New Atheist Interfaith

I loved, loved, loved this presentation.  The last time the SSA broached the interfaith discussion, it was with a panel that really didn't represent the wide range of ideas within the movement.  There was also a good deal of "sit down and shut up if you want to work with religious groups" from Chris Stedman.  So Ed's talk was a nice breath of fresh air with it's new philosophy to working with religious groups: It doesn't matter whether you are a firebrand or diplomatic group- it is the desire to have the conversation which is important.  He presented several examples of his group, ISSA, participating in some very confrontational events and still making friends with religious groups.

Perhaps his most striking example was his group's participation in Draw Muhammad Day.  When the event occurred, many were against it, saying it would close off any and all talks between secular groups and Muslim Student Associations (MSA).  Well, Ed showed that the opposite is what happened.  The event happened, the MSA were not happy, and Ed followed up with them, which started a dialogue.  That dialogue eventually lead to their two groups having game nights.  He showed that causing offense is not the primary goal; starting a dialogue is.

Hemant Mehta: Critical Thinking in Public Education

I found this talk to be very pertinent to me in particular due to my desire to go into higher education.  It was also very common sense oriented.  Knowing and being related to public school teachers, I know quite well the predominant feelings K-12 teachers have with the current standardized test model of education in our country.  Hemant illustrated quite well that one of the primary problems with it is that the tests encourage "plug and chug" teaching, rather than teaching kids to reason through things and to be creative in their thinking.  With our current system, kids are more likely to be taught what to think, when we should be teaching them how to think.  This principle can be applied to pretty much every subject (he focused on math because he's a math teacher).  Catering the instruction to what the students are interested in will engage them and encourage them to want to figure things out.  A wonderful and inspiring talk for a future educator.

Jen McCreight: Diversity in the Movement

This is one talk that has been rehashed many many many times at many different conferences, but it is still one that has to be done because there are still people who don't get it.  She very clearly (and with heavy use of LOLcats) laid out why diversity is important and how to encourage diversity within our groups.  She also brought up something that I've noticed has been lacking from many diversity talks, and I've had to explain to my (predominantly white male) group, which is that there are certain buzz-words that will shut people down.  She used words that applied to women (because those are the ones she is most familiar with), such as "hysterical" and "overemotional" and "unreasonable"; words that have traditionally been used to shut women up when they have something to say.  Being conscientious of one's language can make our groups friendly and welcoming, a safe place to land for those leaving religion.

Greta Christina: Why Arguing Religion Isn't Futile

I always enjoy hearing Greta speak.  She is captivating, informative, entertaining, and an all around awesome person.  She debuted a new talk on why arguing religion isn't a useless pastime, and how arguments against it, over time, can and often does lead to a person leaving religion.  I would do a recap of her talk, but she was kind enough to post her outline to her website, so you can go there to check it out.
Overall, I had a wonderful time. I had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, network, and get lots of awesome hugs from JT. I also had the fun of drinking with some awesome people, including Dave Silverman of American Atheists (and Dan Sprockett and I got to drill him about their terrible billboards earlier this year). My dress was a hit, and my shoes tore up my feet, but I still had a fantastic time. I wish I had the time/money to attend the Midwest Humanist conference in Iowa in a couple weeks, but alas it will be right before training for fall semester, and I will need the rest.

Also, the conference inspired me to finally give in to something I've been holding out on for some time. That's right, I finally have a twitter. *Sigh*. Anyway, go, follow me if you should feel so inclined. I have design work and a more serious post to work on


  1. Loved getting hugs from you. :) Can't wait to see you again!

    And yes, wish you were going to be in Omaha as well.


  2. I pretty much agree with your assessment.

  3. Thanks for this! I was sad not to be able to make it to the conference and was looking for a good, simple summary and evaluation of some of the top speeches, and this fits the bill perfectly! I particularly wish I had seen Greta Christina's new talk.

    I do feel I should speak up for my colleague Chris Stedman to say that he has never said, and does not believe, that atheists should "sit down and shut up if [they] want to work with religious groups". This is not an accurate or fair summary of his position which, while different to many in the movement, is not as simplistic and self-abnegating as this makes it sound.