SSA 2012 conference summary

Group photo! I’m on the far right of the first floor (not the ground floor)

I attended the Secular Student Alliance’s 2012 annual conference this past weekend. As expected, I had a wonderful time socializing and networking with many people who create the ‘juggernaut of secular awesome’ that was often referred to throughout the conference. While I won’t include everyone I spoke with here, I’ll mention some highlights of my conference experience and add pictures where I can. Enjoy this somewhat disorganized post.

Almost everyone at the conference — staff, speakers, attendees, and panelists — I approached was very accessible, willing to talk, pleasant, and interesting. Almost everyone had a story to tell and a unique background whether they were high school students, college students, group advisers new to the movement, leaders of organizations, or attorneys. The Ohio State University mascot couldn’t speak with me, but he was happy to take a picture.

Ohio State University mascot with AHA tote!

I was invited to participate on the ‘Religious Campuses’ panel — moderated by Evan Clark and also including Harrison Hopkins, Andrew Tripp, and Branden King — on Saturday Morning. I had a great time telling my stories of being an atheist student on religious campuses and talking about the rejection of two SSA groups I proposed on the grounds that they, in addition to other concerns, were dubbed contrary to the mission statements of the Catholic schools. The video of the panel should be online soon!

‘Religious Campuses’ panel

Instead of spending most of my time listening to speeches and panel discussions, I socialized and recorded interviews for upcoming episodes of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast. Of the seven people I approached and asked to interview, all seven agreed. Greg Lammers (MO state director for American Atheists) — one person I spoke with — even gave me an atheist air hug!

Gimme that Atheist Air Hug!

Amanda Brown (winner of the individual best award for college students), Dr. Amy Young (winner of the best award for group advisor), Duncan Henderson (high school student who had initiated an atheist group in ninth grade), Herb Silverman (president of the Secular Coalition for America and author of Candidate Without a Prayer), Kelly Damerow (Research and Advocacy Manager for the Secular Coalition for America), and Edwina Rogers (Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America) were very happy to be interviewed. It was a pleasure to interview them! I am really excited to release the episodes.

It was also a pleasure to speak with Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) as we have never met in person although we have spoken online. Annie Laurie Gaylor, at this conference, was the very deserving recipient of the 2012 Freethought Backbone award. We had lunch together at one of the ‘Increasing Diversity: Women’ tables. I was also very excited to see myself in their most recent issue of Freethought Today.

Most recent issue of Freethought Today

The FFRF has worked with me (and continues to do so) concerning numerous church/state violations (see my ‘public activism‘ tab for more details). They’ve been very instrumental in defending the wall of separation of church and state.

Also present, and similarly a pleasure to speak with, was FFRF attorney Andrew Siedel.

with Andrew Siedel

I also met Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, who has featured my work — including what he called ‘the most inoffensive atheist bus ad ever‘ — on his website on numerous occasions. The Christian side hug was appreciated.

with Hemant Mehta

One person I did not expect to see, although I was very happy to see, was Mallorie Nasrallah (pictured below). We had quite the ‘airing of grievances’ concerning the very poor treatment we have received from some bloggers on the Freethought Blogs network and the interactions we have had with Rebecca Watson. Interestingly enough, we were not alone in our sentiments at this conference. Many people throughout the conference approached me and thanked me for challenging Rebecca Watson, rebuking ‘Lousy Canuck,’ and hosting the recent live podcast episode concerning women in the secular community, harassment at conferences, etc.

with Mallorie Nasrallah

Despite all of the talk about how secular/skeptic conferences are unsafe and unwelcoming spaces, the SSA conference — as far as I know — had no complications that went unaddressed. There were, though, three issues I had experience with in some manner which were reported to staff and dealt with. The first issue — which was quite obvious to many attendees — was a non-violent drunken woman who uttered death threats (one of which was “If I had a gun, I’d kill you all!”) near the tabling areas in the Ohio Union building which may or may not have had anything to do with the nature of the conference or the attendees being atheists. Staff dealt with her, security escorted her out, and all was fine.

The second issue was an overflow in the dorm space — which should not have been the case — which included a naked woman sleeping with a man (sexual attention, anyone?). This was reported to staff and dealt with – housekeeping checked on the room following a staff report. The third issue was a student with severe hygiene issues (he probably did not shower, apply deodorant, or change clothes during the conference). I reported this issue and was told that the person was a new attendee and that it was not a huge problem because it was only one person. The biggest problem, though, was the 102 degree weather…although that, of course, could not be dealt with.

Hot weather makes me a very sad panda

After I left the Ohio Union building, I found a religious tract titled ‘Good News/Bad News’ on the vehicle which I traveled in. Coincidence?

Prophecy of Doom!

Overall, the conference was a great time. I hope to be back next year and would recommend the conference to everyone in the secular community. The staff did a tremendous job organizing the conference and was available to address any concerns attendees had. Diversity of ideas, gender, age, and much more was well-represented through the conference. I would, though, like to see more philosophers invited. Perhaps next year?

After the ride home, and completely unrelated to the conference, I discovered that my mother’s cat had four kittens.

box of cute?

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.