Monday, 10 December 2012

The First AHS Southern Regional Convention

The AHS' first ever southern regional conference was run last Saturday, hosted by the Southampton Atheist Society. Ever fearful of weekend bus schedules, I brought Greta (my bike) with me to navigate Southampton's post-war tarmac and concrete defiance up to the Highfield campus in the leafy suburbs.

It was quite a small event, with only member of Southampton Atheist Society able to make the event in the end, but good fun and worthwhile nonetheless. The day began with Jess V and Matt P giving a talk on how to run Reason Weeks, quickly covering pretty much everything from inviting speakers down to organising catering. I was up next to trial my new workshop on Risk Assessment. Everyone was prepared for the worst, with a title like that, but it turned out to be good fun with a great deal of interaction. After lunch David Allen Green gave a talk on campaigns, chastising those whose campaigns limit themselves to protest and talking about his work on the Paul Chambers "Twitter Joke Trial". Rounding off the day was Jonathan Pearce who deconstructed the Nativity Story, exposing its historical inaccuracies and how the story we're familiar with from school plays is a hodgepodge of the conflicting accounts of Matthew and Luke.

Rocking PowerPoint . . . Like a Boss

I was pretty pleased with how my workshop went. I started by examining the reasons for taking risks and making sure that the goals are always clear and well communicated. For a student society these might include getting attention for the society, growing membership and having fun! We then looked at risk management in three exercises which would demonstrate risk identification, analysis and mitigation. 

Splitting the people in the audience into two teams, I asked them to imagine a really risky event that they'd enjoy putting on. Team A came up with a "book burning" event where religious and atheist texts would be burnt onto CDs and handed out for free, whilst Team B suggested an exhibition of "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event which would be accompanied by a debate.

In the second exercise the teams identified four key risks in each other's events and rated them by probability of occurrence and the impact on the event were they to occur. These risks ranged from technical problems and preventing accidents to more unusual ones. Common to both were concerns about how the motivation for what they were doing could be misrepresented by unsympathetic groups and even violence towards the event organisers or attendees. Violence is unlikely, but not impossible, as demonstrated earlier this year when a student threatened members of Queen Mary ASH at an event about Sharia Law.

In the final task each team came up with mitigation strategies for risks associated with their events and we had good discussions about what you should do to counter bad publicity and violent individuals. Having a statement prepared outlining the reason for your event and your motivations is always a good idea, for example. If violence is threatened at an event then it should always be suspended or cancelled until adequate security can be provided by the student union or university.

Of the two, perhaps the most difficulty would be with the "Mohammed in Atheist Art" event, given Student Unions tend to err on the side of causing no offence rather than defending free expression, most recently demonstrated in the case of a Pineapple named Mohammed at Reading University. This said, the overriding message of the workshop was that we should not avoid doing something simply because there are some risks attached - most often the risk is worth taking and it gives a great sense of achievement to leave a society bigger and better than when you joined it.

Big thanks to Southampton Atheists and the AHS Exec for organising this event. Jenny B was in Edinburgh for the Scottish AHS conference on the same day as I was in Southampton, so hopefully these will both inspire more regional events in future!

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