I recently returned from the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference: an opportunity for the AHA to report-back its successes from the past year and re-energize the movement in preparation for the year to come. This year it was in New Orleans, a special city for me, and I had a great time: these conferences are always great opportunities to hang out with old friends, make new ones, and generally take the pulse of the Humanist movement. I attended a number of interesting sessions and encountered some valuable new ideas. I spent a magical few days exploring New Orleans at night. It was fun.
But I wasn’t excited. I wasn’t truly inspired. I left the conference without feeling that there was a lot of exciting work to be done in the Humanist movement, and with little idea of how I might get involved more fully. Given the rather sparse attendance and the demographics of the attendees, I was even left feeling a little dispirited. So here I want to talk about what can be done to improve the conference. I want to give some concrete ideas as to how the AHA conference next year can generate more excitement around Humanism, so that attendees feel more amped-up. So, to the suggestions!
- Choose a Theme. Most effective conferences have a theme which tells the attendees why they are there, what the organizers hope they will learn from attending. This theme needn’t strictly govern every aspect of the conference – there can be presentations which are only loosely related to the theme, for instance – but every major plenary should in some way advance the theme. For instance, the conference could explore social justice, economic inequality or some other social issue relating to the Humanist worldview. Or it could address an internal movement affair, like “Motivating Humanists” or “Humanism in the 21st Century”. Having a theme helps structure a conference, and can lend it an internal narrative which makes attendees feel like they are progressing during the time spent there. It also helps the event feel significant and self-contained.
- Start with a Bang. I didn’t get a strong sense, from this conference, of when everything actually began. With a day of pre-conference presentations on Thursday, and the morning of Friday given-over to breakout sessions, the State of Humanism plenary came at an odd time in the afternoon of the second full day. Ideally the conference would begin with a large opening plenary which is not competing with any other events, which lays out the conference theme, and sets the stage for the upcoming experience. The bigger and more dramatic the opening can be, the better, and it should be headlined by a major, excellent speaker. For instance, the 2012 Creating Change conference (the annual conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) was opened by Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP, who wowed the crowd with a fantastic speech.
- Use Music and Film. Every major plenary should be using music and film to heighten the emotional impact. It would be great if the AHA requested video clips from affiliated groups which could then be made into a montage of humanist activity from the past year, to be displayed in the opening plenary. With good editing and an upbeat soundtrack this could be super-effective and give more of a sense of movement to this movement! The production values in general could be brought to a higher level through the use of high-resolution images and film in artfully-produced presentations. Everything should be sumptuously designed.
- Diversify Breakout Sessions. Breakout session presenters should be encouraged to diversify their offering. Pretty much everything I attended this year was a lecture. We need more panels, interactive workshops, Pecha Kucha sessions, film showings etc.
- Shorten Session Lengths. Hand-in-hand with the above, we have to recognize that very few people can lecture for 45 minutes and maintain the interest of an audience. Frankly, most sessions could have been cut in half, or presenters could have been required to use 30 minutes maximum to talk, with the rest left over for questions. This would allow a greater diversity of speakers and sessions to be added to the program, too.
- Reach Out to Young Humanists. I was shocked to see so few speakers from the younger side of the secular movement. None of the names who are moving the Secular agenda forward at the student level were present either as speakers or attendees, and I saw very few of the people I often meet at other freethought conventions and conferences around the country. The AHA needs to reach out to younger speakers and promote them, not just to foster future leadership but also to draw in a younger crowd. Honestly, the lack of energized young people was a serious concern – the movement did not look too healthy.
- Childcare. We will not reach most people with young kids if we can’t provide professional childcare at every annual conference. This should be a no-brainer.
- Vet the Speakers. This one will be controversial, but I strongly believe that no one should be giving a speech in a plenary session who is not an excellent public speaker (unless, of course, they are receiving an award). The major plenary sessions are opportunities to excite an inspire a large audience. They are the big-ticket items that people come to see. They are the moments in the program which serve to draw the movement together, and to set the agenda for another year. And they simply must be presented by powerful speakers with conviction and energy.
- Gather Concrete Feedback, and Use It. I am always shocked when there are no formal mechanisms to provide feedback at these conferences. Ideally, each session should provide evaluation forms which would then be collected and collated by the conference organizers and used to determine if sessions have been a success. This would be one good way to determine whether particular session should be offered next year.
- Open Up the Application Process. I have no idea, if I wanted to do a presentation at next year’s conference, who to contact about that, and what process is used to evaluate my application. As far as I’m aware, in the past three years I’ve attended these conferences, I’ve never received information about an open call to AHA members to submit or request particular sessions. How are speakers selected? How are schedules determined? I have no clue. This process would ideally be as transparent as possible to ensure that we are sucking up all the best talent from around the country.
- Call Us to Action. One of the remarkable things about this conference – and all the AHA conferences I’ve attended – was the lack of any explicit call to action. No one asked me to do anything, at any time. The conferences have been a valuable educational experience, and an enjoyable social experience, but movements are about movement. They are about action. And no one at this year’s AHA conference offered any concrete call to act. What can I do to improve the state of Humanism in the USA? What can I sign up for, at the conference, to move our collective agenda forward? What is being asked of me as a member of the AHA to achieve our goals? If the movement’s going to move anywhere, it needs to start calling on its members to act.
So those are my suggestions. If there are others who attended the conference who have more, what are yours?