It is Secular Students Week this week — which means I get to share an interview with one of the students and I share with you that they’re fundraising! The SSA is trying to get 500 donations by the end of June 17 to unlock a $20,000 challenge grant — the great thing about this goal is that it’s about how many people give, not about how much they give, meaning that everyone can have a big impact regardless of how much they can give.
I was a member of the SSA as a PhD student, it’s responsible for my meeting many amazing activists, including my fiancé, and I am now on the board of the organization to help it meet its goal of being more social justice oriented.
If you’re looking to understand the work that SSA is doing on the ground and how it’s helping students, one of the Secular Student Alliance’s scholarship winners from last year, Kendall Lovely, took some time to talk about the scholarship, her activism, and the SSA. It’s an interesting read whether you’re interested in donating or not, and I’m particularly excited about the way Kendall is dedicated to both secularism and feminism in her activism. Close to my heart!
Why did you apply for a scholarship from the Secular Student Alliance?
I was looking for outside sources of funding, just enough to get through graduate school applications, and I thought that I could make a case for my activism through the SSA scholarship. I don’t often come across scholarships out there specific to the sort of organizations that I’m involved with as a secular person and a feminist, so I decided to give this one a try.
How has getting an SSA Scholarship helped you with your activism?
The scholarship helped fund my GRE exam and graduate school applications. I got into three out of the four Master’s programs that I applied to (I wasn’t expecting much from Oxford anyway), and will be continuing my education at Brandeis University starting this Fall, working on an M.A. in Comparative Humanities! I hope to continue advocating for secularism in the meantime, and perhaps even through some future scholarly work. Receiving this scholarship was a major help to preparing for my future goals, and with the lessened stress of affording those applications, I was able to work on several things last year with my student organizations!
Tell us about some of the work you’ve been doing since receiving the scholarship.
I ended up taking over my on-campus feminist group, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, as president shortly after receiving my scholarship, and I very thankfully received a lot of help with that group from members of my campus’s SSA, when not participating in SSA activities directly. Last Fall, UNM’s SSA and FMLA worked together for a voter engagement drive! Voter turnout for our age demographic was still lacking with last November’s midterm elections, but we did get several people registered through our tabling at that time. The FMLA then quickly fronted a response, through letters to the school newspaper and tabling, to support our Women’s Resource Center, which was receiving attacks from the religiously backed anti-Choice group on campus for promoting safe, consensual sex.
In the Spring semester, I went to the state legislator to speak out against a couple of abortion restriction laws being proposed in the state’s legislative session. These bills included a “religious exemption” clause, in which medical personnel, including pharmacists, would be able to refuse treatment to patients involving the termination of a pregnancy, if that violated their religious beliefs. Both of these bills came about from not only national anti-choice groups like Operation Rescue, but also from support from Catholic bishops in the state. Along with other concerns, the issue of separation of church and state was one of the main components in my testimony against these bills in the NM House hearing committee. Luckily, both bills were tabled in the NM Senate.
After the legislative session, I continued with events on campus for both student organizations, focusing mainly on Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in April) for the FMLA, still with a lot of help from fellow SSA members! The SSA at UNM continued to work on promoting secularism and positive atheism on campus through events like hosting a birthday gathering for Darwin on Darwin Day (with cake!) and tabling for open discussion on Ask an Atheist Day.
Why is it important for groups like the SSA to exist?
On the one hand, it’s great for students to have organizations like this amidst the numerous religious groups that probably pander to them on their campuses. This offers an alternative to those for students who just want to gather for non-religious purposes, where freethinking discussion can occur. The SSA can help students get involved with issues of separation of church and state when they arise in their community/on-campus as well.
What advice do you have for students involved with SSA?
Activism doesn’t necessarily have to involve participating in legislative sessions or facing down religious hate groups directly in the streets. It can be as simple as maintaining a presence on campus, where open discussion and diverse ideas are welcome for expression. Just regular meetings and tabling for secular holidays, the more serious like Ask an Atheist Day or the purely fun things like Talk Like a Pirate Day, are important to promoting secularism. It shows that secular people are out there and that presence can both help people contribute to your group (maybe realize that there are such groups in the first place) and show others that secularism doesn’t make for horrible, amoral or immoral people.
Other than scholarships, what about the SSA do you like/find useful/appealing?
I’ve already touched on some of this above, but I think that it’s a great representational organization, allowing for students to meet up with others on the basis of free thought and to even participate in community activism! Just starting college, during my freshman orientation, I found the number of religious groups (specifically Christian) trying to recruit new members a bit unsettling. So when I realized that there was such a group as the SSA on my campus (selling FSM cupcakes when I first found them!), I was both glad and relieved that there was an alternative to all of those! I really appreciated having the opportunity to meet up with people who had similar sentiments about secularism, atheism even, and I’m sure there are plenty of students who come from much more religious backgrounds than I did who would especially feel the need to express themselves through membership in such a group.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Once again, thank you to the SSA for selecting me for this scholarship. The SSA is an excellent organization for students to get involved with in campuses all over, so I hope that it can have a positive effect on as many students as possible. Good luck to anyone else working to keep their campus groups active around the U.S!
If you’re impressed at all by the amazing work students are able to do with the SSA’s help, consider supporting them, and if not, join me in celebrating the activism of Kendall Lovely!