It’s not too late to help support the Secular Student Alliance here at the close of Secular Students Week. The national emphasis ended yesterday but donations are still being taken as a part of the challenge to reach 500 gifts in order to unlock a $20,000 grant. See the button to donate below if you’re interested.
In the interest of describing what the SSA’s presence means at a school in my region of the country, I pulled aside Stephen Lee, the incoming SSA president at Vanderbilt University, in order to ask him a few questions about the history of the SSA at his school, and what he hopes to see in the coming years. My questions are in bold, and Stephen’s answers follow.
How long has the Secular Student Alliance had a presence at Vanderbilt, and how long have you been a part?
This next year will be my second year to be involved in the SSA at Vanderbilt, although the organization has had a presence on campus since 2010. I will be a junior next year. They’ve grown steadily since their beginning, and the focus and tone of the group have evolved over that time as well. The initial years saw a more confrontational, even anti-theistic approach, with an emphasis on engaging students in debate and tackling heady issues related to ethics and philosophy.
Over time there has been a softening of that edge, with more emphasis on community building and the development of social networks with other area atheists. We feel this fits our regional flavor a bit better than did the former approach, especially given the highly religious nature of our area. Speakers such as Darrel Ray and Hemant Mehta have helped influence the group in that direction, as has our connection with the local Sunday Assembly and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Community support from groups like these have enabled the SSA to grow our numbers and expand our focus. When we brought in our most recent guest speaker we drew around 100 students and community members to the event.
What sorts of things has the SSA group at Vanderbilt done in the past, and what would you like to see them do in the future?
Over the years our group has held debates, interest meetings, and has put out tables on Darwin Day and Ask an Atheist Day. They’ve brought in speakers like the ones mentioned above, and they’ve also had social events like barbecues and cookouts. In fact, it was the social get-togethers that drew in pretty much all of the coming year’s leadership. Realizing that our simple social gatherings without programs or agendas helped us grow as much as anything else, and realizing the value of a more non-confrontational approach, I’d like to see us do that a good bit more in the future.
I’d like to see us bring in many more speakers of the quality and engaging character that we’ve had so far, especially since promoting those events locally seems to bring in more of the surrounding community besides the students who attend. This helps us connect with other interested people who could help support and augment what SSA does in this area. Given Vanderbilt’s well-established medical focus, a panel discussion on bioethics would probably be very engaging as well. One other idea we had was to put on an event called “Baptize an Atheist” in which people can have a chance to dunk an atheist in a dunking booth. That would be another fun way to introduce and identify some of our members to the rest of the student body.
How has SSA helped you personally as well as the other students, and what would you like to see them do more?
The SSA at large has contributed greatly to founding and sustaining our group. Material and financial assistance from the SSA have directly supported many of our events, and thus led to increased awareness of our mission on campus. With each passing year, our group seems to inherit a more ambitious and enthusiastic leadership, and as a result we anticipate making further use of SSA resources in the future, potentially even attending the national conference. Personally, I would love to see the SSA move from an affiliate system to mirror other collegiate groups that more closely engage with and chaperone local chapters. It’s possible that this approach would reduce the possibility of chapters disbanding after their original founders graduate or leave, which is an issue we have faced before ourselves.
Is there anything else you can tell me about the character and goals of the SSA at Vanderbilt?
Many of us have talked about our own intentions and what we’d like to see in our particular chapter. In that vein we’ve come to distinguish between creating a “safe space,” which to some indicates sheltering ourselves from certain kinds of input, versus creating what we call a “brave space.” We’ve grown to frame group dialogue around the notion that, if possible, no genuine comment or question should be taken personally. At the same time we want to emphasize civility, collectivism, and an openness to learning. A brave space is an open place where honest opinions can be shared in a respectful way so that ideas can be challenged and no idea will be disallowed, no matter how unpalatable to the group at first hearing.
Thank you for your time!
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[Image credit: Vanderbilt University]
Stephen Lee is a rising junior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, where he majors in Biomedical Engineering and works as an undergraduate researcher in a genetics lab. He is the incoming President of the Vanderbilt Secular Student Alliance and Vice President and charter member of Vanderbilt iGEM, a synthetic biology research initiative. He hails from New Jersey, where he was raised with two younger brothers, and is unhealthily obsessed with Elon Musk and the New York Mets.