The Course of Reason

5 things I took away from the CFI Student Leadership Conference

July 8, 2011

Rose St. Clair from the College of Wiliam & Mary enlightens us with her experience at this year's Student Leadership Conference.

This post originally appears on Rose's personal blog She for Inquiry.

During the last weekend of June I was fortunate enough to attend the 2011 Center for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference where I met with like-minded individuals from campuses across the country (and even some from Canada!) to discuss issues of activism, humanism, interfaith, online outreach, etc.

When I first arrived in Amherst for the conference, I was buzzing with excitement for what was to come… and justifiably so! We each received a small notebook in which I scribbled over 30 pages of notes throughout the weekend. I jotted down all sorts of things from ideas for events to inspirational quotes to doodles of the speakers.

After reading through my notebook multiple times, I realized just how much I took away from the conference. I could probably write an entire dissertation on the matter but decided that a top 5 list would do the trick, so here goes…

1. Ideas

Stef McGraw, Cory Derringer, and Aaron Friel of the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers

Stef McGraw, Cory Derringer, and Aaron Friel of the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers

One of the first things on the agenda for Friday was a session titled, “Reports from the Field” during which the conference attendees had the opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about what their groups had been up to. I wrote down ideas for fundraisers, campus promotion, social events, and activist events including Sunday brunches, freshmen-only events, bus ads, zombie movie nights, book clubs, and many more.

But that wasn’t the only time I found myself scheming the upcoming school year. Many of the student speakers personalized their presentations with events their groups had done, and more often than not we would discuss events during mealtimes and other social downtime.

2. Friends

Student leaders at the Niagara Falls

Student leaders at the Niagara Falls

The budding friendships started on Thursday when a group of us climbed into a van to go see the Niagara Falls. We had hours of free time and plenty to talk about, from popular Youtube videos to personal stories about how we came to be freethinkers. We even had the opportunity to bond over flooded roads and jokes about Moses.

After heading back to headquarters, I got the chance to meet more people as they started to arrive but the real bonding started Thursday night after everyone had checked into the dorms. Pizza, drinks, and loud conversation crowded the lounges and hallways of the dorms. I found myself staying up past 4AM each night simply because I couldn’t bring myself to leave the company of so many intelligent and extraordinary people.

Every meal I found myself meeting and talking with new people, and every night I engaged in new conversations; we developed inside jokes and argued for hours but parted amicably before bed. The Facebook friend requests are still coming in and I have more people messaging me than ever before.

3. Definition

James Croft of the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard

I consider myself an intelligent person. I attend a prestigious university and I read Tolstoy. So when I say that the clarity with which words and concepts were defined during this conference dumbfounded me, that’s saying something.

It all started when Judy Johnson, PhD, psychology professor and author of the book What’s So Wrong With Being Absolutely Right gave a presentation on dogmatism and dogmatic thinking. She outlined a clear theory of dogmatism that inspired me to purchase her book.

 

Ed Clint of the Illini Secular Student Alliance

Then Ed Clint of the Illini Secular Student Alliance presented on interfaith where he convinced me of the concept of “Big I Interfaith” (organizations that, at large, do not wish to include or understand atheists, humanists, secularists, etc.) and “little i interfaith” (service with religious organizations without sacrificing our ideals and criticism of religious belief) and swayed me to his definition and position. He was then one of the participants on a panel about interfaith, during which the panel seemed to reach a consensus concerning the definition (though there was disagreement regarding whether nonbelievers should be involved in interfaith).

Follow that up with Harvard’s own James Croft's presentation on (and call to) humanism (which was later added to by a fantastic presentation by John Shook, Director of Education at the Center for Inquiry, who also touched on naturalism, seemingly channeling the spirit of Carl Sagan) and a very educational presentation by Dan Kahan, JD, on the persistent cultural polarization seen in science communication, and I figured it all out.

With my newfound knowledge, I am now able to clearly define myself and my stance on particular issues. I am an atheist. I am a secular humanist. I do not support “Big I Interfaith” but do support “little i interfaith”. I can be dogmatic but am not a dogmatic person. I trust scientific experts despite my own cultural predispositions. Sounds simple, right? My new grasp of these words and concepts makes it a less painful and complicated feat to accomplish.

4. Direction

 

Michael De Dora, Director of the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy

When I had the chance to meet with Michael De Dora, the Director of the CFI Office of Public Policy, I took the bold route and said, “I’m Rose St. Clair and I’m the future you.” I explained to him that I have every intention of taking his job, which he seemingly regarded with the humor and tone I had in mind (or did I?). Prior to this conference and his presentation, I had only briefly flirted with the idea of studying public policy and making a career out of it. But the passion and fervor I feel towards the issues involved in this line of work (separation of church and state, women’s rights, scientific integrity, etc.) makes it hard to stay away.

But the direction that I attained from this conference was not merely personal; as a student leader representing my campus group, I knew from the beginning that the purpose of this conference was to acquire the skills and ideas necessary to perpetuate my group for years to come. While I’m not going to say I learned everything required for such a task, this conference provided me with the tools to start the process. Between the presentations and just chatting with other student leaders, I got a representation of what works and what doesn’t, what the best ways to organize events are, and how to ensure that my group reaches its maximum potential on campus as well as online.

I have already rewritten our constitution, formatted everything over to Google Docs, and begun constructing a timeline for the academic year that has important dates, events, and other information on it (I have Dren Asselmeier, CFI On Campus coordinator, to thank for that).

5. Hope

 

Conference attendees, speakers, and staff

Sometimes it’s easy to go through life thinking you’re alone, thinking no one understands what you’re going through, and that it’s more simple to be that way. Then sometimes you are given the opportunity to realize that you aren’t alone, that there are people who understand, and that it’s more exhilarating to live this way. This conference was that opportunity for many people.

Take Damon “Screw you, 4chan” Fowler for example. Here’s an intelligent high school student that stuck up for what’s right in his local community and faced extreme persecution for it. His own mother kicked him out of his house, and it seemed as if the only support he could find was online via Facebook and Reddit. Then Damon got the opportunity to attend the CFI conference. He posted a Facebook status after the last day of the conference that said:

"For the first time, I felt like I belonged. Didn’t have to hide what I was thinking or hold my tongue lest someone get asshurt over something I said. Thanks to everyone at CFI. I really look up to all of you guys."

Damon is not the only one who left the conference feeling this way, as most of us found a new home, a new community, and a new hope for what’s to come.

 

Lauren Becker, Vice President of Outreach at CFI

CFI was not trying to hide that the message they wanted to communicate during the conference was hope, as evidenced by Lauren Becker, Vice President of Outreach at CFI, and her heartwarming final address. She quoted author Jennifer Michael Hecht who said, “What becomes clear is that it is not enough to come out of the closet; you have to also leave the house.”

By attending the conference, by joining our campus groups, and by being open about our beliefs, we are able to “leave the house” and spread our message. Personally, I am inspired by the people and the ideas that I encountered during this conference; I do see a better future that reflects the ideals of science, reason, and secular values.

Photo credit to Ed Beck, Education Department assistant at CFI, and Rose St. Clair

 

About the Author: Rose St. Clair

Rose St. Clair's photo
Rose St. Clair grew up in Blacksburg, VA. She is a junior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, studying psychology and public policy. She is the President of the W&M Freethought Alliance: Students for Science and Secularism and an active atheist. She runs her own secular blog: sheforinquiry.com/

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