The Course of Reason

Reflections on the CFI Leadership Conference

July 1, 2010

CFI intern Ben Isserlis reflects on the recent CFI Student Leadership Conference.

It’s over, and I’ve slept.

From Wednesday afternoon when Ed Beck and I purchased 540 cans of soda while a few early-bird students arrived, to Monday morning when the last stragglers departed as I was passed out from exhaustion in bed, the Center for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference 2010 was the most exciting, active, better-half-of-a week I’ve ever had, by virtue of being non-stop and totally awesome. Before I get into the particulars, I’d like to get into some of the raw data to impress upon you the size of this undertaking.

A closet full of soda.

As I already mentioned, we purchased 540 cans of Wegmans brand soda, distributed as 45 boxes of 12 cans apiece. I estimate that I brewed 10 gallons of coffee, served 400 pounds of food (not including drinks), and was awake and (net-)working for 100 hours in a five day period.1

The fun began on Wednesday evening, when two students and two branch leaders got in a day early. After that it was uptime from the word go. On Thursday the majority of the attendees of the conference arrived, and hung out around the building until the conference started with a toast by Ron Lindsay.

Students conversing before the conference.

The next three days included presentations by such figures as CFI Board Chairman Richard Schroeder, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism Tom Flynn, and noted Professor of Theology Robert Price, among many others, and student presenters including JT Eberhard, Katie Kish, and myself. Talks ranged from the goals and future of the movement to the composition and tone of what we’re saying and who is saying it, to the methods by which we can ensure our beliefs always correspond to the evidence.

I will leave the finer details of the academic portions of the conference to those who had the time to attend them, as I was myself occupied with logistics for many of the daylight hours. I instead had the opportunity to work behind the scenes, and meet and dialogue with many more student and branch leaders than I think I otherwise would have. From those conversations, it’s readily apparent to me that this is a group of people who are going to Do Big Things, and many of them already have.

It seems to me as though there are two major issues at the forefront of the minds of the student movement. The first largely parallels the accomodationist/confrontationalist debate of the greater movement, but was framed as the difference between student groups which are eager to debate and argue and spread freethought and naturalism, and those which are content to hold social functions and create a positive image of atheists on their campus and in their communities by working with religious student groups to the benefit of everyone involved.

The second issue is that of diversity in the movement. As Heidi Anderson brought up in her talk on Thursday night, the movement is rather overrepresented—publicly and at conferences—by middle-aged white males. Following Heidi’s talk, there was a great deal of discussion on tone and strategy in getting new members from different backgrounds involved in the movement. Consider that there were twice as many male student attendees as females at the conference.

Attendees listen to the opening toast.

There is no easy way to quantify the impact that the conference will have on the upcoming year. I know from discussions during and after that it really meant something to everyone involved. I observed multiple people filling notebooks with jottings of ideas, plans, and contact info for new friends. If there is one clear, outstanding success of the Student Leadership Conference, it is the invariable ability it has to build a supporting, welcoming, inclusive community out of a group of people from across the continent, many of whom have never met before. If in the next year we can fully utilize the resources and strengths of this community, we’ll achieve much more than any of us could individually as disparate, unconnected club leaders. Big Things I tell you, Big Things.

Socializing.

Guess where you’ll find me at the end of the month.

 

1Consider error bars of +/- 20%, and really only one significant digit.

Other cool facts:

  • 15% of student attendees identified as vegetarian.
  • 13% were from Canada.
  • There were twice as many student group leaders as branch leaders.
  • I handed out 34 business cards.
 

Comments:

#1 Roy Natian (Guest) on Monday July 19, 2010 at 12:43am

Man, I remember when I was an intern and had to keep buying so many drinks from Wegman's. Back then we had only styrofoam coolers for the drinks and they'd crack and leak on the floor. I'm so glad we use plastic ice chests now.

I remember spending almost no time in the sessions to listen to the speakers. I'd be going back and forth making sure everything was moving along smoothly. I loved every moment of it. The sleep deprivation was great! I remember clocking in about 110 hours during that week. It was epic.

There were a lot more female leaders that year (2008) than the previous years. This year continued with that trend. I'm really glad for that. The movement is getting more diverse (albeit slowly) and I have noticed much more maturity.

#2 Casey Geyer on Friday July 30, 2010 at 2:39pm

I drank like half of those sodas.

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