The Leadership Conference: Why You Need to be There
June 5, 2011Reflections on the Leadership Conference and how it helped make the Illini Secular Student Alliance a success.
It's a happy and arduous nostalgia, my effort to pin down the single best aspect of CFI's summer leadership conference (SLC). For the benefit of student leaders wondering if they should make the trek to Amherst, I will try to do justice to a highlight reel of my SLC 2010 experiences.
The first thing I noticed was the singular atmosphere. The SLC '10 was a heady concentration of creative, brilliant, and well-disposed members of the "reality-based" community. SLC was attended by student leaders, regional CFI directors and staffers, and prominent CFI guests and orators. Everyone seemed to be thoughtful, sincere and dedicated to the noble causes that the center champions. It would have been intimidating, were it not for the inevitable camaraderie, general high-spiritedness, and infectious enthusiasm. The perennial (minor) complaint among attendees of insufficient time to socialize comes in spite of the many shared meals, parties and tavern outings. There was plenty of time, but it will never seem enough. Also, if you have never been at such a gather of student leaders like yourself (as I hadn't up to then), it's indescribably heartening. Merely knowing and meeting others who are doing what you do, struggling as you do, makes what sometimes seems a lonely and Sisyphean effort tenable.
The SLC was also a joy because of the professionalism of its organizers and support staff. Their attention to detail and apparent tirelessness kept things running efficiently. The schedule was well adhered-to and allowed plenty of time for each of the speakers and sessions. There was always transportation available any time it was necessary. Probably the best thing to be said is that most people would not notice these things consciously. Things simply went so smoothly you'd not have occasion for pause of compunction. SLC '10's charming and delightful MC Lauren Becker was a ray of sunshine greeting us each morning.
The speakers provided an essential mix of didactic, laudatory, and reflective presentations. That is, those meant to impart useful information, to highlight successes on the secular front, and to apply some skepticism to our movement itself. Student leaders like JT Eberhard and Matthew LaClair as well as CFI staff such as Ed Beck and Debbie Goddard tackled some of the more challenging problems facing student groups including how to manage large events and working with the local community. I often found myself furiously scribbling notes. There were also workshop/brainstorm type sessions on such topics which allowed everyone to participate in the genesis of great ideas, but more on that in a bit. I particularly enjoyed LaClair's talk, a recounting of his real-world success story: getting a Texas school board creationist to relent on points of Christian-born textbook butchery.
The "big gun" speakers were inspiring and insightful, as well. Robert M. Price's distinctive brand of Biblical scholarship was both devastating and technical; Academic and withering. Chris Mooney brought keen psychological insights helping us to understand "why truth loses". The most controversial address (and for an assemblage of the hellbound, this is saying something) came from Heidi Anderson who commented on perceived sexism within the secular community. She was warmly received, if by warm you mean the heat from countless torches an unhappy mob may hold aloft. Nonetheless, much pertinent dialog ensued.
One had the opportunity not just to hear great speakers, but to meet them and pose a question or two as most of them were in the CFI ambiance all weekend. This is the final luxury the SLC grants, which I will speak about. The friends, acquaintances, and contacts to be made are a value beyond reckoning. The students I met who weren't speakers at the conference were every bit as helpful and informative as those who were. I met student leaders like me from all over the country: Stef McGraw of Iowa (UNIFI), Conrad Hudson from Kansas (SOMA), and (for the first time) JT Eberhard who was then still at Missouri State University, and quite a few more. I asked them about their groups and how they handled the problems that stymied my own. Do you put more stock in social outreach or activism? How does your university and community react to your group? etc.., The answers to my questions opened conceptual doors for me and made me re-imagine what my own group might be able to accomplish.
SLC '10 made a huge liar out of me. I had campaigned for the presidency of my group (ISSA, the Illini Secular Student Alliance) under the sincere premise of maintaining the status quo. This sounded fine, since my group had had a perfectly terrific year. But I had said that having no exposure to other groups or the wider secular community. After the summer, I was infused with inspiration and good ideas. I introduced sweeping changes to my group. I changed the name, doubled and retooled the officership, upped the frequency of nearly all activities, resolved to produce and strengthen ties to extra-campus groups (like sister campus atheists groups and CFI), and took on larger goals than ever before. ISSA became more organized and media savvy. We renovated our blog, put out a dozen or more press release/Op-Eds and got very substantial TV/newspaper attention for the first time. We just plain did more, did it bigger, and had more fun.
One of ISSA's great successes of the past year was our "Good without God" bus ad campaign. It championed the humanitarianism of the world's biggest philanthropists, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet- and reminded of their godlessness. The idea for doing this sort of campaign with a philanthropy spin came straight out of a brainstorming session at SLC '10. There can be no question that it's just one of many to come out of the conference which made such a successful year for ISSA and many other student groups around the country.