In 2009 PZ Myers led a zerg of the creationist museum to kick off the Secular Student Alliance‘s Annual Leadership Conference. Jen McCreight attended the conference that year and provided a picture of the attendees.
The next year I attended as a student leader from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster at Missouri State University. Lyz had asked me to give a talk about the growing phenomenon that Skepticon was becoming as well as our group’s unorthodox style of activism. It was the second major talk of my life.
Jen was there as a speaker that year. I remember sweating at the thought of just trying not to look like I was outrageously out of my league being on the same stage as Jen. It was also at that conference that I first met Greta Christina. I read her blog daily and my father was a huge fan. I recall shooting the breeze with Greta and thinking I couldn’t wait to call my dad and tell him about it.
Here is a picture of the crowd from that year.
It had certainly grown from 2009.
Six months after this picture was taken, in Jan. 2011, I was hired as the high school organizer for the SSA. That summer we had to switch locations for the SSA conference since it had grown too large for the rooms we had used the previous few years. The attendance that year looked like this.
It was that summer I met then-16 year-old Jessica Ahlquist, who was a year into her famous lawsuit. I was becoming a sought-after speaker at that point and was seeing a real spike on popularity as a blogger. It had all happened so quickly that I still very much felt like a student, even though I also felt like I was growing up.
This last weekend was our 2012 conference. Lots of new spaces. Lots of students giving their first big talks. Even more students who have started new conferences on their campuses based on the model we conceived with Skepticon.
Jessica was back as well.
She’s 17 now and her lawsuit is over – she won. She is no longer the teen thrust into an impossible situation and flying by the seat of her pants. She carries herself differently than last year. Last year when I met her at the AHA national convention and at the SSA conference she seemed in awe of everything, but this year she was in command. Her hands were no longer nervously clasped at all times. A year of experience as a non-stop activist makes a difference. She’s still as modest and down-to-earth as ever, but she was more confident, more comfortable.
It’s easy to think of something as large as the atheist movement as static, unchanging. As a student, you think it’s an arena built by your heroes in which you’re lucky enough to just get to play. It doesn’t occur to you until later, after you’ve done things you never thought you’d be able to do, that you realize this is still a work in progress that could never be finished in the lifetimes of the legends who came before you. Eventually you are forced into the conclusion that young people, including yourself, are not only still building it but are even adding improvements.
It’s a strange feeling after growing into a pro activist over the years, largely thanks to the SSA and their annual conference. It’s a mix of gratitude and not wanting to admit anything has changed, even as you’ve watched everything change. Now, from 2012, it’s a sense of pride as I see students like Jessica growing and changing as well as watching other students take those first steps. Some gave their first big talks. I wonder where it will take them in two years.
Here they were this weekend at a new location, having outgrown last year’s venue again.
We’ve already been forced to start looking at new, bigger venues for 2013 as we will surely outgrow this one by then. How many will be in this picture next year? The year after that? A decade, now that we’ve hit the turning point?
Let there be no doubts: this is the future. We are winning in no other generation like we are winning in this one. These are the people who are going to change atheism over the next decade. You couldn’t pay me enough to get me away from this job. I cannot put a price on the pride that comes with helping these students to reach their potential as activists and watching young atheism explode.
I wanted to show you these because I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the work I do. And, if you’ve ever donated anything to the SSA, you should be proud too. You contributed to this. You helped get one of these students to this conference. You helped a group run a conference.
We can’t all do the ground work with student activism, but we can send them the means to do it (and to do it better). We can all invest in the future, and I know many of you already have. I hope seeing these images reminds you of just how dear an investment you’ve made, as well as the monumental returns you’re seeing on it.
Thank you from me and from them.