July 25-28, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference 2013 at the Center For Inquiry’s headquarters in Amherst, New York. But my conference experience started in a Massachusetts airport where I was pacing around during my layover, getting mentally worked up to defend philosophy in my Saturday speech, when I spotted and thought I made eye contact with a bespeckled man with my Patheos colleague James Croft’s distinctive pattern of hair and baldness. But despite having seen James on video countless times and even having held a video conversation with him, I’d never actually been in the room with him before. So I wasn’t certain. And so, erring on the side of caution, I inconspicuously seated myself next to him as he pounded away intensely on an e-mail. After maybe fifteen minutes, he looked up and saw me and as I saw his eyes narrow a second, trying to figure it out, I reached out my hand to shake his. And he started insisting incredulously I could not have been there the whole time. And then we had a plane ride to talk ethics, philosophy dissertations, the atheist movement, and career plans.
Though I’ve only met her twice before, at CONvergence both last year and this, seeing Debbie Goddard again was like reconnecting with the oldest of friends. And though I only met her at CONvergence earlier last month, Desiree Schell and I had pretty quickly figured out we should be great friends and so we spent the weekend at CFI doing just that. And I could go on and on like this, just talking about how much fun it was to get time to build burgeoning friendships and make new ones. Suffice it to say, it was a whole weekend of getting to know fantastic, passionate people. And I hit it off so well with the entire CFI staff, and they were so incredibly warm to me that I felt very much at home, adopted by them even. I left feeling like this was an organization I could be really happy working with in whatever capacities might come about in the future. I seriously wanted to take a few people back to New York to be my new best friends. In the meantime I’m settling for promises to get together from at least a few when they’re in town.
The conference program was truly outstanding. I was blown away by how focused on tangible techniques the majority of the conference was. Speaker after speaker gave nuts and bolts discussions covering a wide range of the details involved in running successful groups. This conference was decidedly not just about rallying enthusiasm or discussing abstract ideas. This was about providing the practical training that leaders and activists need. And the students themselves played a major part in educating each other, giving a number of talks rooted in experience.
And really, I can’t say enough about how impressive and passionate and inspiring the students were. It made me feel really hopeful for the future of our movement to see that people of their caliber and with their values and sensibilities and priorities are in the pipeline to be the movement’s leaders. I was so charged up by talking to them until 4 in the morning each night that I was almost never tired for the conference days running on just 4 hours sleep.
I won’t go listing everyone’s names because then inevitably people I loved meeting but don’t have room to mention are going to feel left out, but if you were there at the Student Leadership Conference this year and we interacted and you’re reading this, feel free to reach out for whatever you need in the future that I can help with and I’ll do my best. Even PM me just to say hi. That would be awesome.
And if you are a secular student leader or a faculty member looking to help with your school’s CFI affiliated group and didn’t make it to this year’s conference, you seriously should prioritize making it to next year’s conference. If your group is not yet affiliated with CFI, reach out to them. They’re an amazing group of people and a fantastic resource. If your school doesn’t yet have a secular group, start one and plug into CFI’s international community of secularists.