Monday, August 15, 2011

Secular Student Alliance Conference 2011!!!!

On the final weekend of July, Ben Luther, Dini Williams, Joseph Rasch and myself had the utmost pleasure of attending the 2011Secular Student Alliance national conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was on Friday morning that we embarked on our 7- hour journey from the comfort of our homes in Johnson City. I actually thought I would sleep for the vast majority of the trip, considering the intense amount of excitement and anticipation that had given me a rather difficult time falling asleep the night before. However, this would not be the case.

We passed through Kentucky, which was entertaining in the way that you might think blindfolding a wolverine and shoving it down your trousers would seem a good idea. Fortunately for us, Dini just so happened to have The Book of Mormon: The Musical on CD and thus commenced the hilarity and hijinks of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It was almost annoyingly catchy with songs like “Two by Two” and “Hasa Jeeba Eebowai.” It definitely did the job of keeping us thoroughly entertained, as we couldn’t resist singing along in hilarity. Here and there, as we journeyed, we contemplated existence and reminisced over past experiences.

Once we arrived in Columbus, it took us a bit of time to figure the approximate location of our destination. Whether you choose to entertain the idea, “How many atheists does it take to find an engineering building?” or just merely imagine herding cats, it can go on the record that the map of Ohio State was very difficult to interpret. Many of the roads and buildings were unnamed, thus adding a wedge in our ability to quite figure out where in Hell we were going (no pun intended). On the bright side, while being a rather hot day in Columbus, we did get a good tour of the entire campus. The university was actually very nice and had many exquisite places of recreation, such as a pondthat was surrounded by very beautiful landscaping. It made me think of students studying by the waters on a pleasant, sunny day. Eventually, we arrived at the Hitchcock Building and found a vast number of conference attendees and speakers mingling outside of the auditorium where we would enjoy seeing Hemant Mehta being presented with a pie resembling the typical diet of an atheist: babies!!! Oh the blasphemy…

Later that same evening, Annie Callicotte would presentideas on networking, followed by David Silverman, giving his “rally the troops” speech. We would also have the privilege of listening to Jamila Bey’s speech, motivating others to not deny who you are, but to be proud of it. The presentations would end with an awesome jam session with Dan Barker, Lyz Liddell and the ever so infamous JT Eberhard.

We were quite starving by the end of the first night, so we made our way to the first thing any good atheist would conceive: pizza! Apparently, great minds think alike, for we were to be joined by a large group also attending the conference. Our poor waiter was the only one serving tables at this time of night. Hopefully, he went home with a rather nice tip.

Friday was quite a tiresome journey, so it would be a somewhat early night for us. Saturday morning, however, we were primed and ready to go. We put on our best outfits and prepped ourselves for a highly motivating day of presentations on numerous topics from organizing events and fundraisers, to reaching out to other groups and networking. Since there were normally two presentations going on at one given time, we decided to split up and take notes, so we would be able to fully utilize our time at the conference. After a pleasant lunch at Jimmy John’s, we would return to the main conference auditorium and listen to Hemant discuss teaching critical thinking skills and the shortcomings of standardized testing in our school systems. We also got to hear firsthand Amanda Knief’s accounts of lobbying as an atheist. It was surprising considering that she had actually had the privilege of speaking with President Obama anddiscussed strategies regarding contacting government representatives.

More presentations would ensue in the downstairs lecture halls, discussing sustainability, tabling and becoming a media pirate (minus the scurvy). This would be a short stint of lectures. Before we knew it, we were returning to the conference auditorium to listen to Dan Barker discuss his former years as a Christian songwriter and preacher. I thoroughly enjoyed his lecture in particular because I could relate to it, coming from a religious background myself and having previous experience in ministry. I had always thought of myself as a late bloomer to the atheist movement but I had nothing on Dan Barker, considering he had spent decades in ministry work before denouncing his faith. Professor Tony Pinn gave a very interesting perspective on reaching out to minorities. It was highly enjoyable listening to his rant regarding his utmost love for Tupac. Apparently he knows something I don’t…

Afterward, group photos would ensue followed by dinner. When we returned, it was time for the awards and honors ceremony, where we would be presented with the Best Service Award for our fundraising and networking efforts during Japanapalooza. However, that would not be the highlight of the night. We would have the privilege of sharing the podium with so many inspiring people! Listening to the accounts of other groups and individuals pushing forth and persevering was fantastic, especially some of the high school individuals such as Zack Kopplin, who is currently fighting the recent creationism law inappropriately named the Louisiana Science Education Act and who made an absolute fool out of presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann who supports the act. Not only obtaining the support of many national science communities and organizations, Zack also mustered up the support of over 40 Nobel Laureates, a number that disproves Bachmann’s claim that she could match it (hint, the number of Nobel Laureates Bachmann has supporting her is the same number of unicorn sightings over the past decade… none).

Then there was little Jessica Ahlquist, who despite being harassed, not only by other students at her school but also by adults that you would think would act in a mature and professional manner, has entered in a legal suit against her high school that despite warning from the ACLU has refused to remove a religious banner from their gymnasium entitled “School Prayer.” Jessica’s story was incredible and nothing short of inspiring and motivating, a testimony of true perseverance and all the more reason why organizations such as ours are critical for future generations to come.

On top of getting to hear Jessica’s firsthand account of the situation, we would get to hear great speeches by writer Greta Christina and the notorious PZ Myers. Greta would speak to us on how debating religion was actually fruitful while Myers would preach the good word of godless, fierce science!

It was then time to commence the celebrating and shenanigans at Buffalo Wild Wings. It was there I would have the privilege of sharing a few beers with PZ Myers and many others while discussing topics such as funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, preserving the environment and the necessity of reaching the stars. Also, another little hint: If you want to buy PZ a drink, buy him a Guinness!

Sunday was a sobering day (in more ways than one). We would enjoy a few more presentations in the lecture rooms and finally begin saying our farewells and departing on our journey back to Johnson City. On a lighter note, we would enjoy experiencing the absurd hilarity of comedian Patton Oswalt on the way back from Ohio, and once again indulging in moments of storytelling with brief intervals of incapacitation (all but the driver of course). All in all, the experience we had at the national conference was one that will keep us moving into the fall and spring term with optimism and determination. After witnessing the feats of others, and recollecting on our own experiences, a cause like ours is unstoppable. With each day comes a promise of tomorrow and a brighter (once again, no pun intended) future for others, a future of compassion, reason and logic. Here’s to the Secular Student Alliance!