Token Skeptic Transcript – Lyz Liddell Of The Secular Student Alliance

I’m taking a break until early April due to studying – I’ll be posting now and then, with podcast and important updates.

Thanks everyone and don’t forget if you’re a university student to sign up to hear Lyz Liddell at the  Student Leadership Conference 2012, on Friday, 13th April, 12-4pm. 

The following interview is taken from Token Skeptic Episode One Hundred and Nine – On FreeThinking Students.

Lyz Liddell is the Director of Campus Organizing for the Secular Student Alliance, coordinating the campus organizing team to deliver the SSA’s services and resources to affiliate groups and individual students. She leads development of new resources and helps build relationships with other organizations to promote acceptance of secular students. She volunteers with her local off-campus organization, the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and is a member of the Challenge the Gap advisory board for Foundation Beyond Belief.

Kylie Sturgess: How did you first get involved with the SSA? Was it something you began or would have liked to have been involved in when you were studying at college?

Lyz Lidell: The Secular Student Alliance has been around a little bit longer than I was; I was not one of the founding members. When I was in college, the SSA had about 35 to 40 groups across the United States and I was at a very small school. So, it was not something I was aware of in undergrad. I found out about the SSA in graduate school, and actually met the executive director, August Brunsman then; we were both at the Ohio State University. Shortly after that, I had an opportunity to volunteer as an editor for our electronic newsletter.

So, that’s something I did for probably about three years, and learned more and more about the organization, got more and more involved. Then, when a campus organizing position opened up in 2008, I was able to step in and take that position. From there, I went to being the senior campus organizer to being the director of campus organizing, as our staff has grown. So, it’s been an exciting road!

Kylie: I can imagine. So, what does the director of campus organizing for the Secular Student Alliance involve? 

Lyz: My job, actually, involves a lot of directing, at this point. I have a team of five campus organizers right now, and more and more of my work anymore is helping work with them to be able to administer and send out the services that we supply to our student groups.

We have a lot of different services. Some of the most popular ones are the speakers that we offer through our speakers’ bureau, where we will help connect a student group with a speaker in their area, or sometimes a bigger name speaker and help provide them with logistical help making that happen, discounts on honorariums, help getting the funding to make that event happen.

Then, we have project grants for other types of events. We offer hands on help through our campus organizers, so if you have a question or you’re struggling with a problem on your campus, there’s someone who you can email or call and get one to one trained campus organizing help to help overcome this challenge.

And then, this sounds a little surprising, and it’s surprising to me every time I see the data that shows it. But our most popular resource right now is what we call our tabling supplies service, where a student group can contact us and say, “We’re holding a table out on the quad, can we get some materials to hand out?”

So, we send out some of our brochures, brochures from other national and international organizations, stickers, pens, that sort of thing. It’s tremendously popular. Over two thirds of our affiliates use this resource. And it is, by something like 250 percent, our most popular resource that we offer. So, that’s been, and it’s new, so it’s been very fun.

Kylie: I guess it’s also waving a flag and demonstrating you’re not alone by saying, Look, there’s groups out there, it’s not just us with one table in the quad!

Lyz: Absolutely! Another resource that we actually have that doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but is actually very important, is our group running guide.
This is a seventy-page manual that we’ve created over the course of the last decade, using experience from dozens of group leaders with years and years of experience doing this to provide the best of the best of walk throughs and advice and knowledge on everything from getting a group started to planning events to planning leadership transitions when you start looking at graduation and moving on.
Sort of the entire life cycle of an organization in one book. We send this out to all of our affiliates, so that any leader has this manual that they can go to as a resource.

Kylie: You mentioned helping people with struggles and problems that they might face. How difficult can it get out there for students?

Lyz: It can get pretty ugly. It’s, there’s actually a pretty big range. The United States is just really big, we have a lot of people, and there’s a big cultural diversity just from one area of the country to another. And so, for some students, it’s not a big deal. If you’re in New York City, nobody really cares.

However, we are supporting a student right now named Jessica Ahlquist, and she just won a court case in Cranston, Rhode Island, which is within a two hour drive of New York. And she won her court case to have a prayer banner removed from her public school. We have a first amendment right that says, public schools cannot endorse a specific religion, and so, the judges ruled that this school, with their denominational prayer, could not have that posted in the public school.

Hopefully, one of the things that we really, really want to be able to do as we grow at the Secular Student Alliance, and we help secular students become a more recognized invisible demographic, is to make this not happen anymore. To get to the point where the society at general recognizes that non‑theists and atheists and are here and we’re a part of the culture and the fabric of the society as much as everybody else, and that you don’t have to send us death threats. And that we’re not here to hurt anybody, that we’re just standing up for the rights that we’re all promised in the way our country is set up.

Kylie: What happens if you are a staff member at a college? Any advice out there for supporters who don’t happen to be students but happen to share the same goals and ideals and values?

Lyz: Absolutely. Staff are really a very valuable part of a student movement, as strange as that sounds. We like to say in our office that organizing students is sort of like organizing at a bus stop. You’re always getting people coming and going as students come into school and they transfer out or they graduate, or they leave and they take a job for a while. So, there’s a lot of leadership turnover, there’s a lot of membership turnover.

What a staff member can do is provide a sense of continuity and a sense of institutional memory for that group, so that when the leaders graduate, there’s somebody there who’s been involved, who knows what the group is about and how it runs and how to work with the campus that can help work with the next generation of leaders to make sure that that continuity is there and that that knowledge is not lost.

Another big thing that staff and administrators and educators can do is sort of provide a link between the students and the university. So, if the university is giving some push back to a student group, or trying to give them the runaround, a faculty advisor can step in and say, “Hey, look, this is happening to these students, this isn’t fair, let’s get it taken care of.”

Or they can go on behalf of the students to, say, a multicultural center or an interfaith center and advocate on behalf of the students for more inclusivity, for better representation of secular students’ world views and things like that.

Last but not least, there’s a great opportunity for a staff member or an educator, if there is not a group at your school or college yet, you can start one. And there’s almost always students, even at the smallest colleges and high schools, there are non‑theistic students. They may not be out, and they may think they’re alone, but they’re always there. A staff member can start a group and often with less resistance than a student can and provide that safe space for students to come together.

Hear the full interview over at the Token Skeptic.

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