As I may have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been the president of the University of Chicago’s affiliate of the national Secular Student Alliance for two years. It all started when, as a first year, I found out about this new group, comprised of maybe 8 people, who got together and talked about atheism. I loved it. I was in my Dawkensian stage, when religion was stupid and I was brilliant for having figured it out. The group was fun, lively and argumentative. At the end of that year, I decided I wanted to be more involved, so I ran for secretary, and won. The same year, I became president of the Jewish social justice student group Jewish Action, so I was really thrust into the steep end of the learning curve of how student groups are run. But I still loved it, so when the president that year stepped down, I ran for president. That was an incredibly hard year. I had professional and social difficulties with some peers in the group, membership dwindled as the year went on, our events’ occasional successes seemed to be a matter of luck more than planning, and I just didn’t know how to make things better. Nonetheless, that year I ran my first ever Carl Sagan Day, Darwin Day and Ask an Atheist Day. We had a game night. We had some good meetings. The club persevered.
At that point, I was exhausted. I thought I was done. Someone else could take on the totally thankless job of planning meetings week after week, delegating to exec knowing I would have to do it all myself anyway and coordinating large scale events that would get a crowd looking only for free food. But then, for reasons still not totally known to me, I ran again. I still wanted to be part of the effort for what I thought was an important cause. I wanted to give my efforts to where I still thought they could do some good.
And without claiming that last year was a failure, since it absolutely was not and had many good moments, this year has been so much better. We (with DePaul and Northwestern) had another Sagan Day, bigger and better than ever. Our membership has grown, we’ve had successful social events, our meetings are bigger and more fun, our events are better, and I have a great deal of hope for the future.
On this long and taxing way, I’ve learned a few things about running a Secular Alliance group, and I’d like to share them. (I’m sure a lot of them would translate to other student groups as well.)
What I’ve Learned as President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago
- Not everyone who isn’t talking in meetings is bored or uncomfortable. They may just like to listen or want to learn. That said, it’s totally fine to ask them privately if there’s anything you can do to make meetings more comfortable for them. Just make sure to believe them if they say no.
- Intellectual meeting topics are fine (we’ve talked about transhumanism, vegetarianism, death, bias, Islamophobia, ethical obligations of politicians and more), but when leading a discussion, ask questions that allow people to share stories from their lives. We’re not all West Wing characters; we can’t list statistics at the drop of a hat. But even the most abstract ideas make for good conversation if people can connect it back to their experiences and share them with others. The idea is to care what people think and where they’re coming from, not about the conclusions the group may reach.
- Intersperse the nonintellectual meetings! Maybe I’m the only group leader to have trouble with this, but I thought that at UChicago, I didn’t dare have nonintellectual meetings. Turns out, all college students like meetings where you just hang out and meet each other, Funny Youtube Video meetings, Creationist Bingo, egg drops off an enormous chapel, and the like.
- On the same note, not all meetings have to be atheist/agnostics/secular-related. We’re a community! We like talking about all bunches of things! Mix it up!
- On the other hand, don’t be afraid to do the atheism 101 stuff. There’s a reason we all are in the club. Talking about it is a good thing, in moderation. Why don’t we believe in god? Does religion do more harm than good? Totally reasonable questions.
- It’s ok for things not to work out. Planned a movie night and three people showed up? Great! That’s three people who are going to have a good evening because of you. You’ll figure out how you can improve publicity and get a bigger turnout next time. (I’m very much still working on this one). One meeting was kind of awkward? Oh well! It’ll be better next time. You’ll try something different, and see whether that works. None of us are experts at this.
- Follow-up to that: everyone is not judging you all the time. Your members aren’t looking for ways to think badly of you or waiting for you to fail. They’re just looking for your leadership, and they will forgive when things go wrong.
- Delegate and demand! Execs should be helpful. If they’re going to be in a position of leadership, it’s ok to demand that they step up and actually be helpful. They should contribute to meetings, give ideas for events and speakers, be delegated to and follow through on responsibilities, and not shirk their duties to you and the organization. Those are acceptable things to demand from them. It’s sometimes better to have no exec than a bad one.
- But also, have a big exec! People with named responsibilities are far more likely to follow through on them, as well as show up to meetings and contribute. As long as they’re not making your job harder, there are very few downsides to a lot of exec members. More people to do work, more burden sharing, more fun exec meetings, and more opportunities for first and second years to get involved, making transitions easier and more secure.
- The end of a club isn’t a failure. Just as a relationship’s success should be measured not by whether or not it ends but what it gave to the participants, a club was worthwhile if it improved the lives of the people in it, not only if it lasts forever. Any president of a student group should be proud of themselves for leading a group for whatever length of time, if they sincerely worked to give a tangible benefit to those in the group. It’s hard work.
- And on that note, this is hard work. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to be overwhelmed. It’s ok to be frustrated or mad or annoyed or sad. The work is exhausting and thankless, and you should be proud of yourself. It’s ok to make one meeting just a hangout if you don’t have the energy, or delegate an entire event to other people. And it’s definitely ok to ask for help. That’s what all other group leaders around the country are here for. And by the way, that’s what the Secular Student Alliance is there for. Which is why they could really use your donation! Any small amount you have helps!
Group leaders or group members, what did I miss? Add in comments or on twitter!