This summer I attended two secular student leadership conferences… the Centre for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference and the Secular Student Alliance Leadership Conference. I’ve attended both in the past but this was the first year I attended both in the same summer. Was one better than the other? Maybe…
Centre for Inquiry:
CFI conference group picture
Let’s be honest, I have a very soft spot in my heart for CFI. Back in 2007 it was my first secular conference and my first time ever really hanging out with a group of atheists. I had a lot of fun with it. You can tell from my glowing post-conference review that I became enamoured almost immediately. Now, after just surpassing our third year anniversary, CFI is my longest committed relationship. This was my third CFI student leadership conference and I have to say, at least they’re being consistent…
Consistency can go either way. When I go to a CFI student leadership conference, I know what I’m walking into. A toast about why we’re here, talks on how to start a group, raise money and get media attention, ice cream socials, oddly selected catered food and “quite nights” at the dorms. But consistency can start to fall a little bit flat, too. The same talks by the same people, with the same (albeit delicious) ice cream, the same quite nights in the dorms and the same oddly selected catered food (I’m not complaining, it just seems so random!). It is up for debate about whether or not CFI should change the format, the speakers and the way the conference is run. I, personally, have been advocating for four things in particular:
- Shorter talks: Hour and a half long talks about how to get media attention are not effective anymore. You are talking to the generation of technology and immediacy… our attention spans doesn’t generally last for that long. Fast paced talks with short breaks in between keep the atmosphere fresh! Yeah, you have to come up with a few extra speakers – but if you have a bad one, it’s okay! They won’t talk for that long! Plus, I think we like to hear what other people are doing, so it’s really not a bad thing to have a group go up there and talk about a really unique event they put on or have someone like JT Eberhard rant for a bit…we’ll listen, and we’ll love it.
- More “social” time: CFI starts at something like 9 am and ends at like 9 pm… This leaves 12 hours to hang out, shower and sleep. There is a lunch break in the middle and a couple shorter breaks in between but everything is on such a tight schedule that it is hard to really talk to more than 5 or 6 people. Social time doesn’t have to be letting us all lose on the big-bad-town of Buffalo. Debbie asked me to do a seminar on leadership. This is a seminar that I’ve lead like a million times… but there was one key thing I did really differently at this conference – I put people into groups with people they didn’t know and had them talk to each other. Some people may have thought I didn’t teach them much about leadership (because I didn’t, really) but what I did was made them all meet some new people and tried to have them learn from one another. The people who got my point really appreciated it. So group sessions can be social time!
- Splitting the students up: We’re starting to have a pretty big split between the different students that show up. ½ are new ½ are old. The older ones who have been to 3 or 4 conferences should be learning new things (like how to better use their communities or more advanced stuff), we should be building on our knowledge. I think it could be a good idea to do an experienced leader’s session while the new guys learn how to run effective meetings.
- Networking with the community: I love the Toronto community members… but I wonder how many other students know their community CFI groups as well as I do. Canada is a bit different than the states because our community leaders are usually student leaders as well, and this creates fruitful interactions between the campuses and the CFIs. This is something that should be happening all over North America.
CFI does a lot of things right. They have a do a big onetime payment and provide everything, give a structured atmosphere and are extremely professional. I think what is missing from the CFI conference is the interjection of student youthfullyness (yep). Feeling like we’re all part of some larger group is much more important than knowing how Justin Trottier (for the fourth year in a row) got into the Globe and Mail. Once we know we’re part of a larger group we start to share ideas and these things just start to come out.
Secular Student Alliance:
SSA conference group picture
The SSA takes a much different approach that I, personally, think is more effective *for students*. They’re one big benefit is that they’re not running two conference at the same time. So they don’t have to worry about a totally different group of older/professional people while trying to entertain the difficult 20-year-olds.
- They TED-talk-it: 20 minutes and it is all said-and-done. It works *so* well. Sometimes it seems like the talks are over WAY too quickly! But then there is time to talk to the speakers later, so it’s okay. And if the speaker is total crap, it’s okay because by the time you realize just how crappy they are there is only 15 minutes left in their time! But then they give the better speakers more time later on, which again works really well. I am a big fan of how they do this.
- Social time: They only had one brainstorming session (and I slept through it) but that was okay because they give you some ridiculously large amount of time for lunch and dinner and they release you out onto the town to go and do it. Again, this works brilliantly. I went to eat/hang out with people that I probably wouldn’t under other circumstances simply because they were going somewhere for lunch that I wanted to go too. So then you’re sitting there and you have well over an hour to talk to this new group of people and you really get to know them. SSA also facilitates a pub night at a restaurant like place that is all ages. Again, a great way to have some fun, hang out and really connect with your fellow secularists. AND their talks start at like 10 am… nice.
- Splitting the students up: It’s not really necessary with their format, but this should statement should also be indicative of have much I’ve learned at SSA conferences… which is close to nothing. Not quite nothing, but close to it. To be fair the first one I went to I had already been running groups for 3 years and the second one I was already running entire an entire freethought charity… so maybe other people learned stuff. But I didn’t.
- Networking with the community: There is no community to network with. SSA is purely student oriented which has its downfalls, the major one being where to go after graduation. With CFI it is a natural progression into a key volunteer role with CFI but with SSA there isn’t really this same transition. They had a talk about getting involved with the community, but it’s not as easy as it would be with a CFI connected community group.
So was one better than the other? I had more fun at the SSA conference. I felt more structured at the CFI conference. I met more people at the SSA conference. I learned more at the CFI conference. I think next year for the CFI conference my $100 might be better spent in funding a new student leader’s conference fee and letting them go. But I think the SSA conference is worth every penny spent just for the social interactions and happy-fun-times… so screw off new kid, I’m going back. But I’m not breaking up with CFI… let’s have an open relationship…
NEXT CONFERENCE ON THE LIST: SKEPTICON!!! (Possibly Atheist Alliance International in Montreal or the humanist one in LA…but DEFINITELY skepticon)