Tuesday, 21 August 2012

10 Things I Learnt as AHS Secretary

I have been extremely privileged to be involved in atheism, humanism and secularism at many levels including talks and discussions organiser and Treasurer for the University of Bristol AASS and going on to become the South-West Regional Development Officer, Head of Membership and finally elected as Secretary of the AHS last year. I thought I’d take the opportunity to jot down some of my thoughts about what I’d learnt through the process which has been an excellent and very different experience to my day-work as a PhD research student.

Being the AHS Secretary is more than just wearing loud, primary coloured t-shirts

1. Have a strong sense of your aims, objectives and mission

The AHS has a vision statement and aims set down in its constitution. Its aims are:

to build, support and represent atheist, humanist and secular student societies, facilitate communication between them, and encourage joint actions and ensure that their members have opportunities to be part of the wider national and international movement.
Your time and resources are always limited. The best way to check whether to do something or not is to ask “does this help achieve the aims of the AHS?” If it doesn’t, don’t do it! If this all sounds a bit dogmatic to you, don’t forget that the AHS’ constitution, aims and objectives can be changed at an AGM or EGM - there’s no religion which allows that!

We worked hard to use the resources available to us to the maximal extent and to make sure that we expanded them where possible. This was best embodied in our series of grants and prizes which we organised to ensure that societies got the help they needed to put on big events. Similarly, we formalised the travel grants scheme to help people get to our Convention and AGM who might not have been able to otherwise. As student fees go up yet again, anxiety about money issues is going to make it even harder to provide these sorts of opportunities to students and  financial assistance will become ever more essential to keep joint-actions alive.

2. People are awesome

I have been fortunate to have worked alongside some awesome people, including Jess V whose calm determination has taken her all the way to AHS President and Press Officer Gareth whose newsletters have been consistently interesting and entertaining and occasionally baffling. The people at the British Humanist Association have been amazing too, helping us with our initiatives and giving us their advice as professional activists.

Any successful organisation needs motivated people and it's essential to identify what motivates each individual so that enthusiasm can be maintained. When organising volunteers, identify early on who is able to reliably give their time, especially when assigning mission-critical tasks, because long-term planning requires commitment. As Secretary, I kept the minutes of meetings and we soon learnt that if we wanted stuff done then we had to assign tasks to individuals so we could follow-up on it. Vague desires do not translate into action if noone bears individual responsibility for getting it done!

3. Be professional

It’s important to treat those from outside organisations courteously and transparently. Discussing the achievements of others is interesting and will inform how you achieve your own aims, but never be afraid to get down to business and seek outcome which is mutually beneficial. All activists are looking to advance their organisation’s objectives so you have to work out what’s going to give you the biggest impact.

I remember that first lunch Jenny, Dom and I had with the National Secular Society (NSS) last year and their (welcome) surprise that we were ready to discuss ideas for collaboration. Out of that lunch came free student group membership of the NSS and, further down the line, the NSS funding the Student Secularist Award. The NSS received exposure to students and we got a pledge of money for student societies so we were very happy with that.

4. Be proactive not reactive

Sounds like marketing guff, right? All it means is that If you want to instigate change, it’s important that you lead and drive the agenda rather than simply being subject to it.

One place we painfully learnt this was our campaign on unstunned meat. We had carried out some excellent research into the availability and labelling of un-stunned meat in universities and made the raw data available to member societies.  We wanted societies to base their own campaigns around what we had found out and to campaign for an end to this form of religious privilege. We did not, however, make a strong enough case for why it was an important campaign nor did we build a campaign strategy with the goals we wanted to achieve. We submitted our report to the government and tried to publicise our research in response to (inaccurate) news that the government was considering bringing in domestic labelling for meat describing the method of slaughter used to kill the animal it was from. This is, perhaps, an issue for campaigning on in future and ensuring that religious privilege cannot be used to justify unethical slaughter practices.

By contrast, Non-Prophet Week was a success. Atheist students from across the UK and Ireland collaborated to raise over £2700 for charity. From the beginning we made sure that we were in contact with member societies to encourage them to take part and to advocate for this joint-action. We suggested that members might want to support BBC Children in Need because that fell at the same time as Non-Prophet Week, but we didn’t allow it to dominate the central principle of godless giving!

5. Public speaking is fun!

I have always been aware that I like giving talks - I have to do them quite a bit as a PhD student to present my work. Being in the AHS has given me the opportunity to widen the types of speaking opportunities available to me beyond the purely academic. I have given comedy talks about agnosticism and the super-olympics at Questival, lead workshops at AHS events and gave a talk on blasphemy at Southampton University. I like all these formats, with comedy being a good test of what you can come up with off-the-cuff whilst more serious topics need to be backed-up with evidence and research which appeals to my sensibilities as a researcher!

I was called in at short notice to argue the case against religion in education for Bristol AASS’ Reason Week and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the debate. Discussion about this topic within our local group made me well aware of the issues and a frantic call to the BHA’s Faith Schools and Education Campaigns Officer bolstered this with the latest statistics and news. Participating in public debates, researching and giving talks will boost your knowledge and confidence as well as raising awareness of secular and humanist perspectives generally so I would recommend you challenge yourself to do it.

6. Let your manifesto guide your decisions

Being elected to a position with on the basis of your manifesto gives you a mandate to carry out the actions you have proposed even though you may not be able to fulfil all of them in full. One thing I was keen to keen to address in my own manifesto was how the diversity of student groups could be improved, having observed that my own society was largely made up of white and male members and hearing, anecdotally, that this was true of other groups too.

My own discipline of engineering is similarly gender-skewed and research has been commissioned into how to tackle this and, importantly, money has been allocated to make it happen. One thing that is not emphasised enough was pointed out in this report: “Take into consideration that women are by no means a homogenous group. Thus, heterogeneous actions are required in order to reach as many women as possible. Stereotyping, drawing upon traditional images of women and femininity, is a bad strategy.” The marketing people behind the hilariously misjudged Science: It’s a Girl Thing video would have been wise to heed this advice!

Our diversity strategy manifested itself in two ways. Firstly, in event planning meetings we wanted to get the best people and put effort into ensuring that our invitations list included non-white-males so  we weren’t artificially restricting ourselves to the “usual suspects” who speak at humanist / skeptic events. Secondly we made sure that the women in our leadership were visible and could provide role-models - never hard with someone as instantly recognisable as Jenny!

We were partially successful with Iszi Lawrence, Anne Marie Waters, Dani Beckett, Alom Shaha and Chloë Clifford-Frith appearing at AHS events this year with calendar conflicts preventing us from getting everyone we wanted. Certainly, it is encouraging that two of the three new AHS executive are women and that the Questival attendees gender divide was 50-50. However, there is always room for improvement and there is some way to go in ensuring that more non-white people feel that humanist events are for them too.

7. Investigate and address conflict

When conflicts occur it is important to ascertain the facts and find out the root causes of disagreement in order to solve the problem. In February there was a blasphemy row over depictions of Mohammed between the UCL and LSE societies and their respective student unions. This brought up a lot of questions including “why were student unions investigating our members for harassment?” “Why is the LSE group being accused of breaching their union’s safe-space policy?” I learnt a lot about harassment and the law from this experience, and the AHS brought together the affected societies to discuss what had been happening and we helped find legal assistance for the LSE society.

I covered these issues in my talk to the Southampton Atheists here during their reason week. A number of Muslim students attended and spoke about some of their concerns about allowing cartoons of Mohammed and it was good to have an opportunity to address some of their worries directly. Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of the discussion about safe-space comes from NUS fora, highlighting the need for atheist students to be involved at these “interfaith” events to positively engage whilst safeguarding the rights of atheist students at the same time.

8. Use the phone or Skype

Communications technology is brilliant stuff, but I’m a communications engineer so you would expect me to say that! There are a myriad of options available to us these days with e-mail, Google docs and social networking making collaboration easy even when people live hundreds, even thousands of miles from each other. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was Nicola J who continued to be involved in the coordination and organisation of last year’s Non-Prophet Week despite travelling through Africa for a time!

With this multiplicity of options, it’s very easy to get overly attached to your “favourite” method of communication, be it e-mail, Facebook or even the empty wasteland that is Google+. The most important thing to bear in mind is to use the appropriate technology - sometimes a phone call or a Skype call can save a tedious, lengthy e-mail exchange or take the heat out of a severe disagreement or misunderstanding because it’s harder to de-personalise a voice than text on a screen. Indeed, editing a collaborative Google doc whilst discussing it with someone on Skype and Instant Messaging them interesting research links is the pinnacle of communications technology nerdery and I wait with baited breath until the day we finally get 3D, hard-light avatars!

9. Always keep the bigger picture in mind

Make sure you step back and keep an overview of strategy and big events. All aspects of an event have to be managed for it to be successful including budget, operations, equipment, venue hire, speakers / facilitators, volunteers, publicity and communication. It’s very easy to get too bogged down in particular aspects and we suffered from this when organising the AHS Convention this year, getting most things right, but dropping the ball when it came to confirming speakers, publicising the event and communicating the schedule to attendees.

We learnt a lot from this experience and for the AGM and Questival we created overview documents outlining all the areas we needed to cover and set ourselves milestones so that we could monitor progress. As a result these events were very well attended and perhaps the biggest (and oddest) compliment we got for the AGM was from Matthew P who commented that “I knew what to expect from the event and it fulfilled those expectations”.

The bigger picture also involves positioning how the AHS sees itself internationally. Jenny and I had the great opportunity to attend the IHEYO European Working Group and it was fascinating to see how humanist youth was organised across the rest of Europe, the main differences being that they didn’t restrict themselves to students only and some of them got state funding. Across the pond there’s the SSA which has raised an outrageous amount of money in donations this year so there’s plenty of inspiration for the AHS and its members.

10. The AHS is important!

The AHS is about connecting member societies knowing that they can have more of an impact together and it has grown from its 8 founding societies in 2008 to a current total of 42. Sharing ideas, resources and promoting new societies can help non-religious worldviews reach more people and provide friendly spaces to do godless things! I will certainly continue to attend godless events because I have met some brilliant, intelligent and passionate people through them that I might not have met otherwise. There is a lot of potential for future growth with many more universities to establish societies at, more opportunities for joint actions and campaigns to promote so best of luck to the new executive!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Questival 2012 Review

Questival was fantastic this year with around 30 young adult atheist, humanists and secularists taking to the fields of Stratford-upon-Avon Racecourse for a weekend of fun and scepticism! It is unique amongst the AHS' events being purely about letting off some steam with likeminded people from across the UK and the rest of the world (we had Dan R-M from Norway this year!)

Questival began last Friday with everyone arriving whilst we cooked up delicious veggie chilli and wraps for dinner. We also made the camping favourite "chocolate in bananas in tin-foil" which looked like sci-fi dildos. Space wangs duly consumed, we went into the scheduled “spontaneous fun" time, playing some not-quite-twister followed by a moonlit walk around the perimeter of the racecourse, along overgrown river paths and past abandoned railway lines.

Rational vs. Irrational: Who will win?
Photo: Nicola J

The next morning we lept out of bed to make a glorious breakfast of bacon, sausages, veggie sausages, mushrooms, eggs and beans. This was to fuel us during the morning's photo challenge which was huge fun and very silly. I was in "Team Secretary" containing the AHS' last 3 Secretaries, Nicola J, Emiko K and me as well as Raby W and Tom G. We had to rush around Stratford-upon-Avon to different locations and pose to illustrate different ideas like "correlation does not equal causation" and "socially awkward sceptic"! This culminated in a big group photo of everyone acting out Shakespearean scenes in front of the RSC theatre before heading off for lunch was at a Jimmy Spices Buffet where the napkins were entertainingly shaped like Papal mitres.

Alom Shaha spoke about his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook and read from the chapter about love, discussing romantic love and the difference and similarities it had to religious love and belief. He argued that they were similarly irrational, aesthetic and personal, yet most definitely real. Humanist philosophies must, therefore, not just be correct but a more satisfying and attractive alternative to belief too. I am inherently sympathetic to this, because there are non-religious philosophies which are a lot more positive than the stereotype of the miserable, nihilistic atheist. However, as Julian Baggini discussed in a recent New Humanist piece it does not really make sense to talk about rational philosophies in terms of being optimistic or pessimistic, rather a stoic realism. Baggini quotes Sam Harris "Hope and fear are completely natural responses to uncertainty. But they are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope. Easier said than done, of course. But it is possible. And being without hope is by no means synonymous with despair. Rather, it is tranquillity." To go back to Alom's analogy with romantic love, if religion is the unbelievably enhanced sycophant in the room, then humanism is the sexy librarian with a lust for knowledge who wants to get to know you and as much of the rest of life, the universe and everything as time will allow!

James and Liz from the Pod Delusion introduced themselves and invited contributions to The Pod Delusion LIVE just before the break during which those of us who had volunteered to talk ferociously scribbled down some notes. The talks were all excellent: Dan P talked about teaching kids to code; Livia S enlightened us about the latest advances in optics; Caitlin G railed against laws governing human remains which harmed science whilst benefited bogus druids; Ben K spoke about the latest advances in cancer treatment and Helen G explained how feminist and non-feminist pole-dancing differed and how some forms can be oppressive whilst others are liberating. I disturbed the seriousness with a polemic on why we should replace the Olympics and Paralympics with the Super-Olympics consisting of an egalitarian Amateur Olympics (participants chosen by ballot like Jury Service, no technology or, err, clothes) and an Anything Goes Olympics where drugs and cybernetics are actively encouraged! Hopefully these will be online soon to enjoy again.

Ghost cruise conjurer looks deep into Jenny's soul (it's OK, she doesn't have one)
Photo: Krypto

The evening wound down to the Magical Boat Cruise where we were greeted by a man in full mystical-wear including shiny waistcoat, tidy goatee and a selection of pentagram adornments. He was quite serious at first, but soon got the feel for his audience when we laughed at inappropriate places and quickly increased the level of humour with the skill of an eminent showman. Floating along the canals of Stratford-upon-Avon we were treated to tall tales of ghosts, witches and murder as well as magic, conjuring, mind-reading and escapology thrown in for good measure!

On the way back we stopped off to buy drinks and headed along the dark river path from the town towards our campsite. Agata S spotted a gloworm which she picked up to show us which was really cool because I didn't know they lived in the UK. At first it looked quite small, two glowing rings of light, but shining a torch on it soon showed it to be quite a large mini-beast, a good inch long and wriggling about! We headed to some picnic tables by the river so we could chat and dance and sing into the night without disturbing the other campers. Damian B and Jo F brought sparklers which were fun, Chloë C-F lead some impromptu singing whilst Ben K wore his sunglasses at night.

At breakfast the next day I was nursing a bit of a sore head after the night's frivolities and rose to find some of the more diligent volunteers already cooking. Emiko K had earlier challenged me to a fight to the death if we won the photo challenge and had to decide who got which book and remarked that she was confident in my current state. I claimed I fought better hungover but I think she saw through my bluster!

Our worship leaders - may you too be touched by his noodley appendage!
Photo: Krypto

Breakfast dispatched, we all fetched our colanders and got ready for our morning service at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nicola J and I welcomed the attendees in with chocolate and muffins (evangelical smile, "have you been to our church before?", "have you travelled far today?") whilst Chloë C-F provided music on her melodica. Jenny B, Nicola J and Chloë C-F were resplendent in their piratical gear in front of the colander-clad throng and led us through this most unusual of services. There were testimonials, pasta-based reworkings of popular tunes and even a healing! I think my favourite part was the tale of the lactose-intolerant mouse who stole a miracle - a sobering story indeed.

Nicola and I refereed the Atheist Olympics, a contest to find the best atheist. The first game was "Blind Faith" where teams competed against each other to guide one of their blindfolded team-mates through a maze whilst accomplishing tasks at different points. This was very silly, though some confusion was caused when both blindfolded people went out of bounds at the same time near the end and had to go back to the start! The second game was "The Hippogriff is a magnificent beast", a game of debating and rhetoric as each team elected one person to argue for their existence of a randomly chosen mythical creature whilst rubbishing the existence of their competitors' at the same time. The grand final was between Caitlin G, who was advocating that intelligent alien life had visited the earth, and Dan F who said that was nonsense, but that the moon landings had been faked instead. Caitlin G eventually won the contest and a (damp) medal, no doubt helped by the tinfoil hat keeping the government out of her brain.

Jonny Scaramanga tells us about growing up as a Christian fundamentalist
Photo: Krypto

After lunch we had a talk by Jonny Scaramanga (yes, his grandfather went to school with Ian Fleming) who spoke about how he'd grown up as a Christian fundamentalist. He was taught the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) course at school which contained course materials weaving a fundamentalist worldview into every subject including that the aim of socialism was "world domination" and that Nessie is an extant dinosaur! To make things worse, the qualification is recognised by NARIC, a government funded standards organisation, which renewed the suitability of the ICCE (the ACE qualification) for university entrance this year. The methods of teaching seem unnecessarily cruel, requiring students to work through workbooks in cubicles, effectively in isolation, for several hours a day and parents are required by schools to administer corporal punishment for disciplinary offences. Jonny now campaigns against ACE and schools teaching the curriculum and you can read more on his blog.

Lightening the mood, Jonny Berliner ended proceedings with his science songs and geek-poppery. We had songs about physics, evolution and the future and at one point we were waving our hands in the air to a sciency power-ballad. He had loads of great anecdotes about gigs he'd been comissioned for and gave us an exclusive when he sang a song to us about albatrosses (they're not great at flying) that he'd only just written on the train.

And so the weekend ended. It all seemed so quick after nearly a year of planning and preparation and I was sad to leave, but happy to have had a great time and have met the awesome people you always get at AHS events! Questival marks my final event as an AHS exec member and was the perfect way to finish an exhiliarating year. Thanks must go to the organisers Andrew West, Jenny Bartle, Nicola Jackon, (me), Emiko and also the hard-working volunteers Paul Noden, Chloë Clifford-Frith, Ben Krishna, Agata Stachiowiak, Dan Adams and everyone else who chipped in! Thanks also to Jess Vautier and Matthew Power for helping with the organisation even though they couldn't attend in person.

I would be happy to help organise next year's camp, though the big event this time next year will be European Humanists' Youth Days. Maybe Questival could go on holiday to Belgium next year? In any case, I'm already looking forward to Questival 2013 whatever form it takes!