August Brunsman is the Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) and we were lucky enough to speak with him this week.
RDF: Young people are more likely to be atheist than any other group, so it sounds like you are on the forefront of the secular movement! What is the Secular Student Alliance?
August Brunsman: The Secular Student Alliance is aimed at normalizing the secular identity and spreading secular values among high school and college students. The vast majority of what we do right now has to with supporting the network of several hundred atheists, agnostics and humanists in high schools and college campuses.
RDF: Is a big component of that simply social?
August Brunsman: Yeah, that's absolutely part of what we do. It's a big deal to be able to have social space where it's okay to be out about who you are and your doubts. We actually think of the activities of our affiliate groups in four different focus areas: community, advocacy, service, and education… A lot of our groups participated in the Light the Night walks to raise money for leukemia… One of our groups, the University of Illinois SSA had a "Good Friday Night" booth on Good Friday, where they handed out condoms and raised awareness about the negative effects of the Catholic church's stance on condoms in Africa. It's a light-hearted way to engage on campus about one harm that religion causes and promote a safe sex message at the same time. Several of our groups have done a Graveyard of the Gods. On the campus quad they make tombstones for gods that are no longer worshipped. And they have a table where they hand out literature. The idea is to be really eye catching but to raise the idea that, "Okay, you believe in this god, but a lot of other people [in ancient times] believed in their god really seriously. So you should have a good answer for what makes your god different from all these other gods that are no longer worshipped."
RDF: What else do SSA members do?
August Brunsman: Something that got started on college campuses was "Ask an Atheist Day"… It's the third Thursday of every April. All you do is set up a table on your campus and put up a big sign saying "Ask an Atheist". The point is that we are not trying to convert people, the point is just to get people familiar with atheists. It's spread from one campus to another campus, over and over. And there is the Fiction for Fiction Campaign, which a few of our groups do. They set up the table again on the quad or in the student union, and they have a bunch of science fiction and fantasy novels. You can come in and trade your Bible or Koran or whatever you've got for a copy of Ender's Game… the idea is that they are all fictional tales, and you can trade one for another.
RDF: You have remarkable coverage, with nearly four hundred groups. What's your next project?
August Brunsman: One of them is we're going to be hiring a Rapid Response Organizer, and this person's job will be to help out students, probably mostly high school students, who are standing up for their rights, be that their right to form a student alliance group at their school, or their right to not be compelled to participate in school prayer, or the right to not have a banner of praising God in their schools or photos of Jesus or something like that. Or to be exposed to inaccurate information about sex education. This rapid response organizer will be able to go out to schools in the country where students are standing up for their rights and let students know that we support them, and in addition, let administrators know that they really should embrace the diversity of their student body. There are going to be more and more secular students—that's the way the demographic are headed. It is the responsibility of educators to treat their secular students just like they would other students. Also, in addition to being the right thing to do, it's the law. Hopefully we can get things resolved without doing sending stern letters from lawyers. We're excited to be able to do that.
RDF: It takes a lot of courage for a teenager to stand up against their school. What do you tell them?
August Brunsman: I very much want to say to all the high schoolers who are thinking about starting a group, especially if they get pushback from the administration: if you are in a public high school, the Equal Access Act protects your right to set up a secular student alliance group at your school. So don't take no for an answer, and please contact us. You can get in touch with us through our website, SecularStudents.org. We have a high school specialist right now. His name is Andy Cheadle-Ford. He would be delighted to work with any high schoolers. He works with high schoolers who start groups and are getting pushback from their administrations all the time. We have a legal partnership with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, so if it does come to your needing a letter from a lawyer, we can absolutely go there, very easily. We do it all the time.
RDF: You're encouraging educators to get "trained" and then listed on a big website of people who respect secularism. How does that work?
August Brunsman: It's something we call The Secular Safe Zone. It's an analog to the GLBT Safe Zone. Essentially people, educators, administrators or whoever can go to SecularSafeZone.org and can sign up to get our training, and can become a secular safe zone ally. You do not have to be an atheist, you can just want to support secular students. And then we can send you a sign to hang up in your classroom so that you can let secular students know that you are a safe person to talk to about your doubts and your possible secular identity. Even if you're not in a place where you can start a group right now… we want to be able to help people like that too. Secular Safe Zone is still very much in its beginning, but we've had some really interesting things happen with it. We had a funeral home director sign up to let his customers know that if they didn't want have god in their funeral that that was okay… and we've also had some Girl Scout troop leaders sign up.
RDF: Wow, that's great. Is there like a logo to look for?
August Brunsman: Yep, there is. Go to SecularSafeZone.org to take a look.
RDF: Thank you for speaking with us. Is there anything else you wanted to touch on?
August Brunsman: The big thing we were to promote right now is our annual conference, which has two locations this summer. The Phoenix event is at Arizona State University June 20-22, 2014. The Columbus is at the Ohio State University, July 11-13, at www.secularstudents.org/2014con.
For more on the Secular Student Alliance, see www.secularstudents.org.