SSA Week: It’s Awesome!

As most of you hopefully know, it’s SSA Week!

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Why is SSA Week so important? Ed Brayton has the best lowdown, in my opinion:

First, because of their incredible success and growth. The public schools have long been home to thousands and thousands of Christian student groups, from Bible clubs to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, providing friendship and community to their members. Secular students need that kind of community even more given the generally hostile attitude toward atheists, agnostics and humanists. It can feel pretty lonely being non-Christian in this society, especially as a teenager.

SSA is building the next generation of leaders for this movement. I speak to SSA clubs regularly and I am always encouraged to see so many bright and engaged young people. I see people like Jessica, Harrison Hopkins, Miri Mogilevsky, Kate Donovan, Ellen Lundgren, Monica Harmsen, Hassan Kalifeh, Gordon Maples and many others as being groomed for future leadership positions and I am greatly encouraged. I hope you are too.

I’m not even offended that Ed didn’t mention me by name. Harrumph, etc.

Seriously, though, the SSA is a phenomenal organization, and the great people who work there and at CFI on Campus, especially Lyz Liddell, Sarah Moglia, and Debbie Goddard, have been huge influences on me over the past four years and have enabled me to learn how to be a good activist and organizer. Without them, my time as President of DAFT would have been much less fun.

Speaking of which, my time as El Presidente is rapidly coming to an end. Given what the job market is like, I have no idea what my future in the secular movement looks like; I’d love to get a job in it and work there, but whether that happens or not is up in the air. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep supporting the SSA, and CFI, because I owe them massively for making my life more fun and more meaningful, and there are far too many students and activists across the country to name who can say the same.

In which we play with puppies...

Last year, Chana and I played with puppies for SSA Week. It was the best.

I’m not sure if I can blogathon for SSA Week like I did last year, because blogging time is a thing I have so very little of any more, but definitely make sure to check out all the other things that other writers are doing for the week. And, if you can, please throw a few bucks their way. They’ll put it to good use!

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Real World Activism At Its Finest

A few weeks ago, I attended the inaugural iteration of the SkepTech conference, put on by a bunch of really awesome people up in Minneapolis. While I mostly went because I wanted to see old friends from far-flung places, and meet new ones (including that lovable scamp Jason Thibeault), I was also on a panel with JT Eberhard, Brianne Bilyeu, Miri Mogilevsky, and Olivia James on activism. You can see it below:

There’s a lot more to be said about activism as an enterprise than we managed to get to. Me, I’m definitely the most radically-minded of the people on that panel; as readers of mine will know, I don’t exactly hold much “typical” activism, like American Atheists billboards, in very high regard. But, rather than wax social justicey on what I think activism should be, I want to share this campaign from the Crunk Feminist Collective [emphasis mine]:

There are some places where people are warned never to go, known for violence, drug traffic, and poverty.  For those who have not grown up in these environments we are taught to fear and/or condemn people who live there.  This is not true of everyone.  There are some s/heroes who “see the faces at the bottom of the well,” and offer a rope AND a bucket of food and water.  Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC) is the rescue organization where prevention is key and care is unconditional.  This week the CFC will spotlight AHRC because they need our support to keep their doors open.

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Atlanta Harm Reduction offers the only consistent syringe exchange program in the southeast region.  According to Mona Phillips, a founding member, their early advocacy work began with people living with HIV/AIDS.  During direct action campaigns to raise awareness about Atlantans needing access to affordable pharmaceutical drugs in 1996 they started seeing syringes on the ground.  Recognizing this marker to mean resurgence in heroin use they literally followed the syringes and the word on the street to English Avenue and set up shop there.

AHR has been in English Avenue since 1998 providing: FREE HIV testing, counseling, and connection with additional resources; FREE meals and hot showers a few days a week; FREE access computers and internet; FREE clothes closet access; FREE counseling for people with addictions; FREE Hepatitis A and B vaccines; FREE drug paraphernalia to stop the spread of AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C; FREE condoms and counseling for sex workers everyday. The syringe exchange program, assumed to target people who use recreational drugs only, is also important for people with diabetes to inject insulin as well as transgender people for hormone injections.

Where others choose to avoid the basic needs of so many people in this area because they don’t approve of their choices…Atlanta Harm Reduction rushed in.

In my mind, AHRC is an example of the absolute best kind of activism. People are volunteering their time to help those for whom there is no other help, working to empower the people with the least amount of power in our society. It’s not some blue-chip non-profit empire with flashy commercials and feel-good messages, but an actual sustained campaign to do good by providing direct assistance to those who need it most.

This is the kind of thing there needs to be more of. If you can, please shoot them a few dollars by going to their website, or if you live in or around Atlanta, volunteer with their program. It’s the things like this that make the biggest difference.

I’m Going to SkepTech!

In a continuing effort to get my brain back on track, I’ve just returned from an awesome week or so away, where I saw a ton of friends old and new, had some truly fascinating and invigorating conversations, and drank a bit of beer. By a bit, I mean a lot.

I also was completely beguiled by Boston. I just don’t understand how it operates. It’s got no reason to how it is laid out. And all the trains are from the 1940s. I was half expecting to be asked whether I wanted to buy bonds for the war effort. But I had fun, nonetheless.

I’m back in Chicago now for a whole three days before I take off this weekend for what promises to be a truly awesome conference up in Minneapolis called SkepTech. Here are a few things about it, from the organizers:

1) What is SkepTech?

SkepTech is a mix of two words “Skepticism” (A disposition of systematic doubt) and “Technology” (The practical application of knowledge). In other words, our conference is all about the relationship between critical thinking and innovation.

2) What makes this conference important?

This conference is led by two campus skeptical groups – Campus Atheists Skeptics and Humanists at the University of Minnesota (CASH), and the Secular Student Alliance Afilliate at St. Cloud State University (SSA@SCSU). As skeptics, we see systematic doubt as an essential tool in improving our world.

There are plenty of conferences out there that demonstrate new technology. There are plenty of conferences out there that go after superstition and dogma. Our conference is different in that our desire is focused. Above all else we want to promote fact checking as an essential tool for scientific, technological, and humanitarian progress.

3) What are the goals for this conference?

To give our community a unique look at the role of critical thinking in the sciences
To explore new ways of using technology to overcome social problems
To teach people how to use the internet to challenge ideas effectively
To have ridiculous amounts of fun.

In addition to featuring lots of fabulous speakers like Greta Christina, Brianne Bilyeu, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, and Jesse Galef, I’ll be on a panel on Sunday with JT, Brianne, and Miri Mogilevsky on Internet vs. Real World Activism. Its prompt is this:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

If you know me or have been reading this blog, you know this is a thing that I have Lots Of Feelings about. So, it should be a very interesting discussion.

I hope to see you there, and look out for  a return to normal-ish service here by next week.

The Women’s Leadership Project Review of 2012

Doctor Sikivu Hutchinson, the activist, scholar, author of what I believe to be the most important atheist book written to date, and huge inspiration to me, is amongst other things the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist mentoring program for middle and high school aged women in South Los Angeles. I wrote about them a few months ago in my piece on the activism of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and how I believe atheist activism can and should focus its attentions more on issues pertaining to more than just separation of church and state.

They recently posted a recap of their work in 2012, and what they have to report is inspiring:

  • WLP Wash Prep & GHS developed and facilitated Days of Dialogue, HIV/AIDS, reproductive justice, sexual assault awareness, AB540, media literacy and voter awareness presentations
  • WLP Wash Prep students registered new voters at Wash Prep and Duke Ellington HS
  • WLP launched Wash Prep’s Gay/Straight Alliance
  • WLP students and alum developed and presented at the HRC’s annual Youth Media Education Conference
  • WLP alum joined with community partners Black Women for Wellness and FUEL to conduct four college panels at Wash Prep, GHS and Cal State Dominguez Hills
  • WLP Wash Prep president Jamion Allen spoke before the LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] Human Relations Commission on bullying and harassment
  • WLP Wash Prep sponsored Chicano student movement activist and change agent Paula Crisostomo for Women’s History Month & the Women of Color Speaker Series
  • WLP GHS member Karly Jeter (class of ’13) won a full four year Posse Foundation Scholarship to the College of William & Mary in D.C.
  • WLP Wash Prep member Victory Yates (class of ’13) was a finalist for a Posse Foundation Scholarship to Grinnell College
  • WLP GHS president Miani Giron (class of ’12) won full scholarships from the Posse Foundation and the Horatio Alger Foundation
  • WLP GHS seniors & alum Lizeth Soria, Janeth Silva, Imani Moses, Brenda Briones, Mayra Burunda, Clay Wesley (class of ’10), Miani Giron, Jimena Villa and Ronmely Andrade received community leadership “First in the Family” scholarships from the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable and the Wells Fargo Foundation
  • Mayra Borunda (class of ’10) made the President’s List at CSU Long Beach during her first semester with a GPA of 3.8 and is currently on the Dean’s List with a GPA of a 3.67.
  • Brenda Briones (class of ’12) got a 4.0 during her first college semester.
The students themselves had a lot to say about how their involvement with the WLP has affected them [emphasis mine]:

“In my home and in my community I have always understood that a higher education is not as important as having kids and staying home to clean and cook like a “real woman/ wife” does.

I think of Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) as the light in the darkness. As a senior at Gardena, I had no hope or desire to go to college before WLP. I used to think it would be impossible for me to attend college because I’m undocumented.”

– Liz Soria

“I never really questioned how the media portrays women of color. So, having WLP teach us how to observe and analyze the media helped me understand why young girls feel pressured to have ‘that long hair,’ ‘those blue eyes’—even if they are contacts, and “that nice body.” Aside from learning how to recognize these issues, we also did a lot of work to fight things that like sexual harassment. I know some people may say, ‘oh, just ignore it,’ but it’s not ok to ignore sexual harassment because by staying quiet, you begin to normalize it.”

– Imani Moses, Class of ’11

In my opinion, the WLP is doing absolutely incredible work, and we as a community of secularists should be bringing more attention to them. This is the kind of activism that our movement should be looking to invest in; fixing the education system using these kind of methods, using skepticism and rationality to help kids who probably never had anyone invested in their successes before care about them and help them learn. When a population realizes just how the world works, as an entrenched system of intersecting inequalities kept in place through convention and apathy, we can really shake things up.