Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Secular Student Alliance conference was freaking awesome

The title is my tl;dr.

The SSA annual conference is something I look forward to every year. It's by far my favorite atheist gathering, for a number of reasons. One, it's for my demographic - students. Even though I'm an ancient grad student, I'm still among peers, which makes networking and socializing fun and stress-free. Two, the programming is consistently superb, and I always leave motivated to run my local groups and save the world from religion.

But first, my only complaint about the conference, which has nothing to do with the conference itself. The Revolution Books people drove everyone fucking crazy. I wish I could say they were simply annoying, but they were borderline stalker-like with their evangelical communism. They wouldn't take no for an answer when you said you didn't want to talk about radical communism (race specific autonomous regions? Businesses picking 20% of the politicians? Okkaaaay). Some people got stuck with them for hours when they followed you to student lunches and social events, they frequently interrupted private conversations, followed you down hallways, and even harassed one speaker all the way into the bathroom. Dozens and dozens of people complained to me how uncomfortable the Revolution Books people made them feel, and I hope they don't return next year.


The talks are slowly being uploaded to YouTube, and I plan on sharing some of my favorites. Until then, I'll list some of my top ten favorite parts of the conference. I'll surely forgot some, since my schedule got left behind in Columbus since it was being passed around the SSA board meeting to show off my doodle of some of the staff:
1. Jessica Ahlquist. It's indisputable that she gets the #1 slot, even if she may think she's not deserving (her modesty is one of her many endearing qualities). Jessica is a (soon to be) junior in high school who spent the last year fighting an illegal prayer banner in her school, and now spends her time encouraging other high school students to join her. Jessica's talk was moving, inspiring, and down right fabulous. I think she got something like four standing ovations, and she deserved every one of them. One of my favorite comments from her was the realization that "grown ups" don't always do the right thing, and even high schoolers can fight for what's right. I'll have more to say when I share her video.

2. The social events. I ended up going out four nights in a row, which means I pretty much didn't sleep the whole conference. But it also means I met a lot of awesome people and had a lot of awesome conversations. I make new friends every year at SSA. The downside to this is that every year I come back, I have more and more people I want to see, so I feel like I don't get to spend enough time with any of them! Alas.

3. Waxing JT's legs.
(Photo by Ellen Lundgren)

I love his facial expression as I pull the strip off. Mwahaaha.

4. Dave Silverman's talk on the first night really set the tone for the whole conference. I didn't necessarily agree 100%, but it was certainly motivating. The main message: We can win this fight, and we are winning it. Sometimes I need that reminder when I see all the hateful crap still being done in the name of religion in this world. It was also great finally meeting Dave in person, since we've been working together on the Reason Rally for a couple of months now.

He also knows how to pander to his audience, because every slide of his talk featured one of his rage faces:
(Photo by Ellen Lundgren)

5. Jamila Bey. Everything about her. Sometimes I meet a person and I instantly think "Why the hell did it take me so long to meet you? I command you to be my best friend right now." That's exactly how I feel about Jamila. She was amazing to chat with, and her talk was wonderful, especially considering Hemant had basically stolen her whole talk during his own, forcing Jamila to wing the whole thing.

6. Greta Christina debuted a new talk on why arguing religion is worthwhile, and it was delightful like always. It's summarize it, but she already posted an outline at her blog.

7. Hemant's talk on critical thinking in math education was wonderful. He succinctly summarized why people like me grew up hating math, and how we should be teaching math to children. I'll definitely post the video when it goes up. I wish Hemant had been my math teacher in high school!

8. Katie Hartman's talk on fundraising was practical and supported with psychological research. She's also a natural speaker. I now have a bunch of tips for the next time I'm doing a fundraiser on my blog or for my campus group. Also, Katie definitely wins the Prettiest Powerpoint Presentation award, which isn't surprising since she designed the lovely Skepticon and Reason Rally websites.

9. The terrifying baby cake Ashley made for Hemant.
(Photo by Ellen Lundgren)

10. ...The wacky adventures of Ryan getting shot with a bb-gun. I know it's horrible, but the story has already reached legendary status. And his write up is hilarious.

Sometimes I couldn't get my ass down to a talk, and I missed some awesome stuff. Apparently Kelley Freeman dedicated a whole slide of lolcats to me. I also missed Ed Clint's talk on "Transfaith" - an alternative to Interfaith work - that was apparently mindblowingly amazing because everyone couldn't stop talking about it. I'll have to watch the videos when they go online.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who said kind things about my talk on diversity. I know the topic is getting stale for some, so I'm glad that it seemed so effective for many of you. So, thank you!

And other than, I had so much fun. I'm sad that it may be another year before I see many of you. Time to go into post-conference withdrawal...

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