Building a Conference: A Recap of SASHAcon14
April 21, 2014
It's been a month since SASHAcon and I'm still in awe of this wonderful thing that we somehow managed to pull off. Last summer I wasn't sure our idea would ever come to fruition, and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.
I'd never been to an atheist convention. At the time I was just the events coordinator. I hadn't applied for funding or initiated contact with anybody particularly famous; I didn't even know who most of them were.
Our PR Director Chantelle Moghadam chose most of our speakers (we're lucky that she had connections with many of them). I'm friends with the chair of the anthropology department, so that made it easy to secure speakers from there. In short, we were fortunate enough to have a pretty easy time filling up our conference slots. Before you start contacting speakers, decide if you want a conference theme, or if you want a general good-for-everybody event. But you really just have to ask nicely—speakers tend to be pretty cool people.
None of the officers really had any helpful experiences, so we stumbled along a winding, bumpy road. I took on more responsibility as the positions of treasurer and president fell into my lap, eventually ending up in charge of airline, hotel, and shuttle booking.
I wish I knew how far in advance you had to plan for this sort of thing, especially if you're applying for funding. To any students out there: START EARLY. And don't leave anything until the end; it's not a final project, you can't just pull an all-nighter to finish it. Look into all your funding options, write down all your deadlines, and get it all done early. Start with your university club funding, inquire about SSA or CFI grants, and ask for donations.
You want to secure your funding (which means you need your speakers confirmed and tentative hotel/flight prices) months in advance so you don't end up a nervous wreck by conference time.
But despite the time I spent glaring at hotel websites and nearly crying when flight plans needed to be changed (again), that short weekend was absolutely worth it.
On Friday afternoon our speakers started arriving; the talks began Saturday morning, and I was blown away when the venue lobby was packed with around 80 people.
Matt Dillahunty started us off with humorous anecdotes about speaking convincingly to religious people.
He handed things off to Dr. Napoleon Chagnon who taught us about shamanism in the Yanomamö culture.
After a lunch break we came back to Dr. Mary Muscato who led an interactive discussion about how religion works with medical care, with stories ranging from patients who are simply comforted by their god, to those who refuse treatment because of their faith.
The afternoon continued with Dr. Libby Cowgill and her presentation combining her experiences of a backlash against teaching evolution with some science basics that any of the audience could understand and use.
Up next was Hemant Mehta, with a friendly reminder to check our sources before spreading information. Besides preventing the growth of inaccuracy and harm in the news and to a reputation, delving deeper into the facts can often give us an even more interesting story!
Dave Muscato closed the day with the argument that "slacktivism" doesn't really exist and we ought to instead look at how much of an activist we personally want to be.
Speakers joined convention-goers Saturday evening at the historic Heidelberg restaurant in downtown Columbia for a dinner that stretched long into the night. That's where the fun really happens, when you can sit down with these "celebrities" as people, share jokes and opinions with them, and maybe steal a fry from their plate.
Sunday morning found us at Café Berlin for breakfast, another must for anybody passing through the city.
For the second day of the conference, we were in a larger auditorium, which we one day hope to fill to capacity. Dr. Mark Flinn started the day by showing us what is physiologically necessary for faith in the brain.
Greta Christina then encouraged those of us who can to come out of our atheist closets, to pave the way and make it safer for others to do so.
After pizza and magic tricks courtesy of Dillahunty, Maryam Namazie showed us how effectively our bodies can be used as a tool of reform, and shared her experience with becoming comfortable as a nude protester.
Faisal Saeed al Mutar closed out the conference by talking about how he skyrocketed from a refugee to one of the youngest prolific activists in the movement.
And just like that, it was over. No delayed flights, no missing speakers, no lost luggage: relief.
But I was already missing what that weekend had given me. Meeting new people, seeing old friends, and speaking as equals with leaders of this community—that's what it's all about. It's frightening and exhilarating and amazingly empowering to see your little plans grow into something that excites and educates and connects. Try it sometime.
(Photo credits go to Rory Pfeifer and Mark Schierbecker, MU SASHA members who volunteered to photograph.)
About the Author: Katie HuddlestonsmithKatie Huddlestonsmith is a junior at the University of Missouri dual majoring in Biology and Psychology. She joined MU SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) in her sophomore year and quickly wanted to become more involved, becoming the events coordinator within a semester. She is currently also the group's treasurer and president. She enjoys reading and long walks on the beach, except for when the sand gets stuck under your toenails...have we said too much?
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