AHA! – Amping-up the American Humanist Association Annual Conference

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • http://www.secularweddings-az.com Susan Sackett

    Some good suggestions here! I will pass along to the AHA conference planners. There are a few things that you’ve suggested that actually did take place.

    Re: Call to Action — people were encouraged to put humanism into action by signing up and working with the Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans’ lower 9th ward on Sunday, right after the conference.

    There is a survey people can take online, where they can voice their opinions and give critiques of the conference: http://conference.americanhumanist.org/survey/

    The Board has discussed childcare and will be implementing this at future conferences.

    If you want to do a presentation at next year’s conference, simply email Maggie Ardiente or Roy Speckhardt or even David Niose and let them know your proposal. Email addresses are on the AHA website: http://www.americanhumanist.org.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    Susan Sackett
    Executive Committee (secretary)
    AHA Board of Directors

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Thanks for the link to the survey Susan – I will add it to my post and post it on Facebook! I went to the service project in the Lower 9th, and it was the best thing I went to in the conference. But sadly we had less than 20 people! I think finding ways to incorporate more service work as part of the conference, and engaging more people in such work, would be a great idea.

  • andyn

    I thought the AHA conference was great and inspiring – as always. Last year, there was a lot younger crowd attending, but this was probably due to its proximity to college students in Boston. I had a blast. And Shelley Segel was doing some singing. I wouldn’t judge all AHA conferences by only attending one. This may not be economical to you overseas, but still…I wouldn’t rush to judgment on such a small sample size. After all, I go every year and always have fun.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      This is my third in a row, and I made many of the same suggestions after my first one. I think one challenge is that many people have actually never been to a truly stunning conference, and so don’t have a good basis for comparison. I’d say to you, go to Creating Change one year and then compare it in terms of diversity and excitement.

  • Jim Farmelant

    I have gone only to one AHA conference, and that was last year’s, which I went to because it was practically in my backyard. I remember comparing it with the New Humanism Conference that Greg Epstein organized five years ago. I remember that Greg’s conference had a couple of glitches that annoyed me slightly, but I chalked them to the fact that Greg had never organized of that scale before. The, when I went to last year’s AHA conference, I observed at least as many glitches there too, that were at least as annoying. But unlike Greg, the AHA has presumably been putting on these events for nearly sixty years.

    Concerning the issues you discussed above, I think that part of the problem is that the AHA is used to serving and appealing towards a very narrow demographic, which is basically older white college-educated males of at least upper-middle class origins. Until recently, many observers thought that organized humanism was dying in America precisely because the membership of most humanist organizations seemed weighted to the over-65 set. The emergence of movements like the New Atheism and the growth of student freethought groups has, I think, shown that humanism has a lot appeal to younger people, including people outside the rather narrow demographic that organizations like the AHA have traditionally appealled to. However, organizations like the AHA don’t necessarily seem geared up to take advantage of this development.