Sensational: It’s the Secular Student Alliance!
You see them as you walk down the halls at any high school in America – fliers for Christian groups abound. “Come to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes!” “Join the Before-School Prayer Group!”
It’s enough to make a secular teacher feel a little bit ill.
If we look at the percentages of people in this country who identify as non-religious, it’s safe to assume that we have students in our schools who feel the same way. The question is: what can we do about it?
According to Andy Cheadle-Ford, the High School Specialist for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), one way to allow students to feel a part of their school is to help them start a SSA chapter in their own school. There are currently 384 SSA affiliates, spread between high schools and colleges.
The SSA provides specific resources on their website that can help teachers start an SSA chapter. Once the chapter is started, the SSA provides “everything from support, advice, resources … and one-to-one contact with administrations to assist teachers, advisers, and others working with secular students”, says Cheadle-Ford. It seems as though SSA advisers are really never alone.
That’s a good thing, because from time to time, secular student groups receive backlash from administrators as they try to start their group. Although most issues come from simple misunderstandings, others are a bit more difficult to handle.
Cheadle-Ford recalls one situation with a school in Indiana. From the beginning of their application for a club, the principal started to harass them. “The principal was worried that there would be a great deal of backlash at the idea of a secular student group on campus”, he explains. “She told the students that if they garnered too much attention and support or ever talked to the media that she would immediately shut down all extracurricular clubs just to make sure that the SSA couldn’t form there.”
After several months of working with the students, Cheadle-Ford sent a letter to the administration, offering himself as a resource. He also made it clear that he and the SSA weren’t going to back down, and that the SSA group would be allowed to be heard in the school. Although he never heard back from the administration, Cheadle-Ford says that, “the students reported that the issues they were facing dropped off very quickly after that”.
If you are a secular teacher, and you know that you have students who are interested in having a secular organization on campus, take a look at the SSA. They are the epitome of the word ‘helpful’ when it comes to our unique situation.
In addition to helping with chapters at schools, they also provide invigorating conferences. What goes on at conferences? Everything. Cheadle-Ford couldn’t stop talking about them. One pictures a veritable cornucopia of activities and eclectic people. He gushes that,”First and foremost, we provide the best grassroots activist training in America for secular student leaders. This includes hands-on workshops (new this year!), great talks from some of the best organizers and activists in the movement, and the chance to meet and network with secular student activists from all around the nation.”
But Cheadle-Ford didn’t stop there. He continued that, “The Annual Conference also serves a community/social utility as well. Not only does it allows student leaders to network, but also to form friendships, challenge their ideas, and make lasting bonds and memories that will strengthen their connection with the movement for years to come. By attending the conference, students have the opportunity to learn about and talk to other organizations who may be tabling at the event or who send representatives. Finally, it gives the students the chance to talk to some “big name” speakers they might not otherwise have the chance to meet or interact with face-to-face.”
Besides starting a chapter and meeting cool people at their conference, the SSA also can offer advice, but they’re quick to mention that they let each chapter take its own unique shape. There are no “cookie-cutter” SSA chapters. In fact, when asked what kind of students participate in SSA chapters, Cheadle-Ford said that, “There are no typical members of an SSA group. Secular students come from all walks of life. The same can be said of our supporters and donors, who also come from almost every background imaginable. Each of them, no matter their background, is an integral and important part of our mission, from the largest donors, to the volunteers who work on data entry, to the student who wears an SSA button on their backpack. They’re all important and they all help to extend our message, values, and goals in ways we can’t even measure.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to spearhead my very own SSA chapter where I teach. What about you? It’s time to let the general public see us and know that we’re a lot more organized than they think we are. Go secular people!