Parting Words from the Secular Student Alliance’s Longtime Executive Director

Over the weekend, at the Secular Student Alliance’s annual convention, its longtime executive director, August Brunsman, officially stepped down from the role after 16 years on the job.

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I’ve already written about what he’s meant to me personally — I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without his guidance — but I wanted to share the remarks he made at the convention and shared via email to SSA members. It’s a testament to how much he accomplished and what he helped set into motion:

Back in 2000 I was one of eight students and recent students who felt there needed to be an independent support network for atheist, agnostic, and humanist groups on high school and college campuses.

I became Executive Director after the first two volunteer executive directors burned out in the first year. I myself was a volunteer ED from spring of 2001 through the fall of 2004. In October 2004, I finally joined the payroll.

I remember having a conversation with another board member after the second ED resigned. I remember her saying that if I didn’t step up, that the Secular Student Alliance would die. She was also very emphatic in pointing out that she, and everyone else on the board, would totally understand if I didn’t want to step up.

I’ve thought a lot about my choice to say yes to being the SSA’s executive director. I’m fairly sure that I’m going to continue to have new insights about it for the rest of my life, which is a positive way of saying that I don’t think I fully understand my choice. More than anything else at the time though, becoming the ED of SSA seemed like a way to be useful.

And it’s been an interesting sixteen years. I have spent many an awkward flight with folks who innocently enough asked me “what do you do?” and didn’t know that they were actually asking a total stranger with whom they would be trapped for perhaps the next several hours “what’s your religion?”

After a while I just decided it was best to lead with the weirdness of the situation and tell people that I was a professional atheist. It almost always gets a good laugh which diffuses any tension and makes things seem a lot better when you explain that, no really, you support a network of hundreds of atheist, agnostic, and humanist groups on high school and college campuses.

Another big factor that went into my choice to say yes to being the SSA’s ED was my own privilege. I had just finished school debt free thanks to my grandparents. If I’d needed to be making student loan payments, I don’t think I could have supported myself on the constellation of part-time jobs and consulting gigs that I pulled together to make ends meet. Further, if I’d have an ailing parent, a child, or a sibling who needed my support, I couldn’t have done it.

I think it’s easy to watch someone start an organization or otherwise accomplish amazing things and assume that they were obviously smarter or harder working or otherwise more virtuous. I think a lot of the time they just had some extra money at some point.

That is especially scary given how many students are taking on so much more debt to go to school these days. Not only are people buying houses and starting families later because of their college debt, but I also think we’re missing out on all kinds of incredible organizations and that our society is suffering because of all of the people who are toiling away to pay back debt rather than devoting those cycles to making our society better.

So, okay, I had some privilege and I used it to push a thing forward. But why this thing? Why the Secular Student Alliance?

One of the first tasks I had as a new ED was to run our second conference. It was here at Ohio State, and I think about 80 people came. Our keynote was by Babu Gogineni, the then executive director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. I’m paraphrasing, but I remember his plea that our movement should not be not be some petty cult, vying for more members, but instead we should be the harbingers of freedom.

And harbingering for freedom sounds glamorous. I was excited by this idea. But it also made me think of Daniel Dennett’s book Elbow Room; of which the subtitle is The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. And just as Dennett argues that there are elements of popular conceptions of free will that aren’t actually desirable, I think there are a lot of popular kinds of freedom that aren’t worth wanting. I would much rather the freedom that comes from not having debt after getting a college education than the Marlboro Man freedom to give myself cancer.

If not harbingers of freedom then, I would like secular students, that’s you, to recognized yourselves as citizens privileged enough to spend at least some of your days learning rather than toiling. And I would further ask that you embrace and engage your fellow citizens. Cast off the temptations to mobilize your base rather than engaging those around you: teasing out the full depths of their intellect but also giving back all of yours.

Whether or not you are a professional atheist, being authentic will probably mean spending some time in conversation wishing badly that the person sitting next to you had exercised just a touch more skepticism when someone told them that Darwin converted on his deathbed. Perhaps not enough to fail to believe it, but at least enough to not repeat it. Or, for that matter, that they had thought more carefully about the actual implications of that story… that our lives are rich and complex, that brilliant people sometimes make mistakes, that it’s quite rare that anyone does their best thinking of their deathbed anyhow, and that there are plenty of hell fearing believers in evolution, and that doesn’t make evolution any less plausible. You will wish some people had prepared better for your conversations. Just accept that now. There will probably be people who will wish you’d prepared better, too. Think forward to the people that each of you might talk with next, and imagine how thankful they might be for your having decided to engage with, and thus prepare, the person before them.

As you go out and engage, I have three requests for you. I ask that you be Critical, I ask that you be Nurturing, and I ask that you be Practical.

The critic is often criticized. We’ve probably all heard the Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I encourage you to get into the arena, and get some dust and sweat and blood on your face as you are critical of ideas that don’t make sense to you. I want you all to dare greatly in your inquiry and know the victory of useful criticism, and the defeat of being wrong about others being wrong.

I also want you to dare just as greatly in your willingness to nurture others. That means younger leaders in your group of course. It too means people you meet who think Darwin converted on his deathbed. It further means so many people that, although it might be impossible to believe now, are going to look up to you and are going to want to know how you accomplished what you did. It means not only being nurturing the very people whose ideas you are critical of, but also nurturing people to be critical of your ideas.

Lastly, as you go forth and harbange freedom, above all else, I implore you to be practical. Look for what works. Be open to things you didn’t think would work. Nurture your own curiosity about what might work. Be critical of your preconceptions about what does work.

I cannot draw my time at the Secular Student Alliance to an end without rolling the credits. Don’t worry, I am quite sure that I would forget quite a few people if I tried to list everyone. And the only name any of you are exciting about hearing anyhow is your own. Which is fine, but I don’t know all of your names. So I’m not going to name names.

Back in school a speaker at an awards ceremony told us “excellence requires others.” I have found that to be true over and over again. Be it my grandparents, or parents, or the folks who started the SSA group at Ohio State that’s still around today, or the amazing staffers and consultants that I’ve learned so much from over the years, or the people who have been willing to nurture me, or help me be more critical of my own ideas, or help me weave them all together in a practical way, I cannot tell you enough how important all the people I’ve learned from have been. Aggressively seek out mentors. Fanatically learn from both those to whom you report and those you report to.

I had a mentor along the way who asked me often if Martin Luther King Jr. would have felt welcome at the events of our campus groups. And this question gets at an important idea. Why does it matter if someone professes a belief in a god or gods if they fight for justice here and do so with incredible ferocity and efficacy? So MLK was a Baptist. His family had their own particular version of Baptism, but he split from their church because he was focused on social justice. Nonetheless, he seems to have believed in God. Would he feel welcome at a Secular Student Alliance meeting…? Would he have felt like he could be an insider? The answer seems like it might be no; because he was a theist.

What is it about skepticism about supernatural claims that is so important?

There are a lot of different possible answers to this:

That the powerful often do their work by manipulating language itself, so we need co-conspirators who we can understand.

That we need serious compatriots who are willing to face with bravery their responsibility for putting meaning to their own lives without abdicating that responsibility to forces beyond comprehension.

That it is most useful to tackle moral questions with people who share some of our assumptions.

That while there may be many careful thinkers who allow some supernaturalism into their world view, they take special care to find and we don’t have the time to find them all.

I don’t know that any one of those reasons is enough and I have heard a lot of different answers from a lot of different secular folk over the years. I want to tell you to get comfortable with your answer to this question. And if you do get comfortable with your answer, let me know what it is. Maybe I can talk you out of it.

Some of you know that I’ve performed humanist wedding services since 2004. I’ve done maybe 40 or 50 ceremonies over the years. I want to leave you with a modified version of part of my ceremony. Although I magically become an agent of the state when I sign wedding licenses, the state of Ohio hasn’t granted me the power to make you all married to each other. So instead of blessing your marriages, I’ll bless your groups.

May your groups be places of happiness for all who enter them, and places where the old and the young are renewed in each others’ company, places for growing, places for music, places for laughter. And when shadows and darkness fall within their spaces, may they still be places of hope and strength for all who enter them, especially for those who may be entrusted to your care. May no person be alien to your compassion. May your larger family be the family of all humankind. And may those who are nearest to you and dearest to you constantly be enriched by the beauty and the bounty of your love for each other.

Thank you, SSA.

Several current and former SSA board members (*waves*), staffers, and allies also make cameos in this video August was shown during a live taping of Dogma Debate.

(I don’t sing.)

If you haven’t seen it, you can check out my interview with the new Executive Director here. For now, though, what a way to drop the mic. If you’d like to show your appreciation, consider making a contribution to the SSA.

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