By Darrin Johnson
My name is Darrin Johnson. I am an Atheist. I am also African-American. Over the last four years, I have made an effort to become more familiar with the various communities of non-believers. My latest attempt at this endeavor was to attend the Southwest Secular Student Conference, which was held September 25th through the 27th, 2015 at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
Going into the Southwest Secular Student Conference (SWSS), I had only attended one secular-focused conference before: the Moving Social Justice conference (MSJ), which was organized primarily by a coalition of Black Secular groups from across the country. As a Black Atheist with a mind for social justice, the MSJ was exactly the kind of meeting of minds I had been looking for. And so, when I was recommended as a speaker for the SWSS by none other than prominent Social Justice activist and fellow Black Atheist-Humanist Sikivu Hutchinson, and was subsequently told by organizer Dan Pemberton that he did indeed intend to fulfill the conference’s title of being social justice focused, I jumped at the chance.
One of the aspects of the Secular community that is well-documented is the need for diversity. MSJ, being my first secular conference, definitely had this. One of the things I was looking to see at a conference that was aimed at the general Secular community was how diverse it would be in comparison. I was not expecting MSJ’s level of diversity, but I was still anxious to see how it would compare to the general lack of diversity I’ve seen in the Secular community.
Another aspect of the conference I was looking forward to seeing was how my message of support for Black Lives Matter and my talk about how secularism naturally leads to activism would be accepted. In my experience dealing with some members of non-believer groups online, a lot of my social justice advocacy and criticism of “New Atheism” and it’s being led by old, white men has been met with a lot of hostility. The mini-documentary I created, (Non-Believers of Color, which can be seen on my Youtube channel at the DarrinJohnsonNews channel), has had a lot of supportive commentary, but it has also attracted comments such as “race talk has no place in Atheism” and accusations of “race-baiting” and such. Most of those comments you won’t find in the comments section of the video, as I generally remove comments that I find pointless and not actual constructive criticism. Would I experience similar pushback at the SWSS?
The conference was three days long, but I was only able to attend for one day (the 26th). However, I spent all of that day not just doing my own obligations of giving a talk about secularism and activism, moderating a Black Lives Matter panel, and participating in a panel about grief in the secular community, but also listening to other speakers, networking, and learning about community organizing in how-to workshops.
I should take this chance to say that Dan Pemberton and his team of organizers definitely worked hard on this conference and did a great job of organizing even while experiencing multiple technical difficulties. I felt that they went out of their way to accommodate myself, the other speakers and the attendees as best as they could, and this level of management was very much appreciated. It showed that they cared. By the way, there is no disrespect intended by not naming Dan’s team members by name, but there were so many new people that I met that I’m having a hard time separating the names of the organizers and the non-organizers.
Was the conference diverse? More so than I was honestly expecting, but still overall predominately white. There was certainly diversity among the viewpoints of the attendees, as there were some people from different ethnic and racial communities as well as great representation from the LGBT community (and I very much regret not seeing any of the panels involving the LGBT community and secularism, as they happened on the days I didn’t attend). I have to give credit where it’s due, as Dan certainly made the effort to have the conference be as diverse as possible. I saw that some people he had invited to participate were not able to make it.
How was my message received? I am very happy to say that it was very well received. No one approached me with any negative comments, and in fact I experienced a lot of support from many of the attendees. It honestly helped to reinvigorate my drive for social justice, especially under the lens of secularism. I received great questions, no one tried to speak for me, there was no incident of “whitesplaining”, and I experienced none of the defensiveness that I often experience online. It was refreshing.
Best of all were the new people I met. I finally had the chance to meet Greta Christina, who I had heard a lot about and have read a lot of work from. She was great to talk to and I hope I can work with her in some capacity in the near future. I met Mashariki Lawson and Bakari Chavanu, who are part of the Black Humanists and Nonbelievers of Sacramento, a group that I didn’t know existed before I had met them. I am now looking forward to visiting them in Sacramento as well as possibly attending next year’s Secular Social Justice conference (the spiritual sequel to last year’s Moving Social Justice conference) with them. I met Roz Crosby-Hargrove, a Black Secular woman (I think she describes herself as agnostic) who is actually somewhat local to me. I could go on, but there were too many new people to mention.
I loved how I had the attention of my audience during my talk and the amount of feedback I received from it. The Black Lives Matter panel was not monolithic, as not all members of the panel agreed on the subject and the effectiveness of the movement. It made for a surprisingly back-and-forth dialogue which I was proud to have been able to moderate.
Then there was the grief panel that I was a member of. It was so deep that it had panel members and audience members in tears. It involved speaking of the taboo that is seeking therapy for emotional distress, how to deal with grief with truth rather than lying to make someone temporarily feel better, and even a panel member admitting, right there on stage, that they were living with a terminal illness. It was a very emotionally moving dialogue.
On a closing note, I also got to talk about how the passing of my mother was one of the catalysts for both my Atheism as well as my social justice activism. It was therapeutic to get to talk with an audience at length about this aspect of myself. I hope to get to do so more in the future.
I definitely hope to attend if this conference is held next year, even though I’m sorry to hear that Dan Pemberton is no longer involved with the organizing aspect of the Secular Student Alliance. I wish him nothing but good experiences in his future endeavors.
Next will be January’s Secular Social Justice Conference. Until then, there is always more social justice to be involved with. Onward and upward!