I have known August Brunsman, Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), for at least 13 years through my Humanist group in Columbus Ohio. I got to watch from the front row as SSA hatched and grew into the premium secular student group in the United States it is today. SSA, as a group, has little drama and they seem to do things right. I conducted an e-mail interview with August asking a range of questions from when his first act of religious dissent was, what is a major issue facing secular students today, and his feelings on the current and sometimes fiery debate over sexism in secular groups.
August graduated Phi Beta Kappa from The Ohio State University in 2001. While at OSU he co-founded Students for Freethought at the Ohio State University. He has also volunteered over the years for Camp Quest, serves as Secretary for the board of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio and served as Secretary for the board of the Secular Coalition for America. August is a registered humanist celebrant and performs nontheistic weddings, naming ceremonies, and memorial services.
Secular Left (SL): Back in the day you were involved in a project to sell inked stamps to mark over “In God We Trust” on the currency – the name of the project escapes me at the moment. Was that the first public religious dissent you were involved with? If not what was the first.
August Brunsman (AB): godoffmoney.com It’s still live, although I put basically no effort into it anymore.
godoffmoney.com was not my first act of religious dissent. I helped to get Students For Freethought @ Ohio State off the ground before I helped to start godoffmoney.com.
Also, I never really saw godoffmoney.com as an act of religious dissent. It was about separation of church and state and the majority of people who support separation of church and state are religious.
My first act of public religious dissent was a short play I wrote in high school. Well, “play” is likely overstating it. It was a sketch, really. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes long. It was a transcript with commentary of a phone call a friend of mine had made to a local Christian talk radio show. The host made all sorts of weird, blatant errors. The play had three actors… one playing my friend, one the host, and one a narrator who deconstructed what the host was doing.
It got put on as part of a show a class of mine was doing. We had two presentations of the show and my sketch was cut from the second run because of its content. I was disappointed, but didn’t really know how to fight back at the time.
SL: Here is the obligatory history question. When was the SSA created and was there something going on at the time that made you feel the group needed to exist? If so what was it?
AB: The students and recent students who founded the Secular Student Alliance felt that the fledgling student segment of the secular movement was too important to not have an independent umbrella organization. We wanted donors who liked the idea of the secular student movement to have a place where they could give their money knowing that it would help the movement as a whole and be well spent.
There also used to be a lot of fighting about what label to use: atheist, humanist, naturalist, and a zillion others. We wanted to be as general as possible, so we picked secular. I think being a big tent on the labels proved to be a very good move.
SL: Do you think that picking the general label of “Secular” as a compromise from the competing points of view was just about inclusiveness? Or was it a way to hide the participation of nontheists? Do you think the group would be where it is today had it been called “Non-theist Student Alliance”?
AB: The choice of the word “secular” for our name was 100% about inclusiveness and not at all an attempt to hide the participation of nontheists. I’ve never actually thought of it that way before or had anyone tell me that they thought the word “secular” hid nontheists. I don’t see “secular students” as students who are in support of secular government, I see “secular students” as students who are themselves secular— that is, students who are concerned with the worldly, and not the other-worldly.
We have something called our Minimum Standards that describe what kinds of groups should affiliate with us. The first prong of the standards is “naturalistic”. We’ve had those standards from the beginning.
SL: What are the primary goals of the SSA?
AB: I want every high school and college student to know that they can opt-out of the beliefs of the cultural mainstream (i.e. it’s okay to be an atheist). I also want those students to be excellent at making rational decisions on their own and in groups.
SL: How big do you want SSA to be?
AB: There are about 24,000 high schools in the U.S., and about 7,000 post-secondary schools. Getting a group at every one of them seems like a reasonable goal for the time being.
SL: You’ve been Executive Director since the SSA started. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in those years? What is your favorite memory?
AB: I’m the SSA’s THIRD Executive Director. I was involved as a board member before I became Executive Director.
The biggest change was moving from no paid staff to paid staff. In 2003, with a grant from the Institute for Humanist Studies, we hired our first paid campus organizer. He started a lot of the things that we still use today: Group Starting Packets, the twice annual audit of all of our groups, our Group Running Guide. Moving from an all volunteer shop to one with just one paid employee was huge. It set us on the road from being a bunch of students and recent students with great ideas, to an organization that actually got things done.
I think my favorite memory is pretty much always the most recent conference we’ve put on. They get better and better every year and I can’t recommend them enough to secular activists of any age. You will be inspired to get more involved. You can always get the latest info on our conferences at http://www.secularstudents.org/conference
SL: If you had to start SSA today in 2013 what would you do differently?
AB: I would have move as quickly as possible to get a staff member hired. There are some awesome all-volunteer organizations, but by and large, having paid staff members is the simplest thing you can do to professionalize an organization.
SL: SSA has had some great people working for it such as JT Eberhard, Ashley Paramore, and Dave Muscato. What do think is the key in getting quality people to work for and with the SSA? Is cultivating secular leaders something that takes work or does it just happen? Any secrets you want to share?
AB: The core strength of SSA is the people who work and volunteer for it. It’s the most important thing we’ve got going for us.
My informal motto about being a good manager is “hire good people; get out of their way.” I think allowing employees as much autonomy as they can handle is really valuable to getting talented people to work for your organization. The thing that the motto doesn’t capture, but is really important, is that you have to support your people. You have to make sure they have the direction and resources they need to be productive. But recognizing them as the creative, passionate human beings they are really goes a long way to making people give the all for an organization.
SL: For most of the SSA’s existence it has helped develop student groups on college campuses. SSA also assists in developing groups at the High School level. Is it harder to develop a secular student group in a High school then at a college?
AB: Organizing at high schools is not easy. The fact that students do it at all is really inspiring to me.
The most obvious obstacle is that high school students just have far less control over their time and resources than do college students. But another serious obstacle is that at about a quarter of the schools where students try to start groups, the administrators try to stop them. Frequently the administrators will say that the club is too controversial and is therefore inappropriate for the learning environment. We’ve even had one administrator say that he thought the SSA group would be a hate group! Most of the time it’s simply that the educators don’t really understand the goals and aims of the group. Usually a short set of correspondence with our High School Specialist, Andy Cheadle, is all it takes to get things moving. But sometimes administrations are more obstinate and require us to send a letter from a lawyer to them. So far that’s as far as it has needed to go. The Equal Access Act explicitly states that schools which have any extracurricular meetings and receive federal funding (i.e. all public schools) must be viewpoint neutral about student groups.
We have never had to take anyone to court, but sometimes the period between when the administration starts pushing back until they have come around is long enough for the would-be student leaders to lose interest.
All of those difficulties aside, since we rolled out the High School program in the beginning of 2011, we’ve gone from 12 high school groups to over forty. This is still a fairly new program, but I could see a day when the high school groups out number the college groups.
SL: Do you think SSA might want to try to develop secular student groups at the elementary or middle school level in the future? Why or why not.
AB: Come back to me after we have a thousand high school groups and then we’ll talk. I want to keep us focused.
SL: I’ve known you since your days with Students for Freethought at the Ohio State University. What led you into a group leadership role and was that something you always wanted to do or did you stumble into it?
AB: Ever since I discovered a copy of the Humanist in the Upper Arlington Public Library in 1989, I’ve been passionate about talking with people about atheism and humanism.
In my senior year of high school, a friend of mine who was a freshman at OSU took me to a meeting of an OSU group called Prometheus. They were the campus atheist group at the time. Frank Zindler was the speaker and I had a wonderful time. I was heading to OSU in the fall and I couldn’t wait to be part of this group. Sadly, all of the leaders graduated over the summer and there was no Prometheus by the time I got to OSU.
In 1997, the Council for Secular Humanism had a conference in Covington, Kentucky which I drove down to with a friend. The Council had just started something they called the Campus Freethought Alliance. They had gathered leaders of campus atheist groups together. I met several of those leaders from around the country there and decided that I wanted to create a student group at Ohio State. After that, I was hooked.
SL: What is the biggest issue that secular students have to deal with today?
AB: I think we have a long way to go for secular Americans in general to reach full civic equality. Of the 535 members of congress, none are openly identified as a nontheist (I had my hopes up about Kyrsten Sinema, but she’s recently backed away from her identity as a nontheist). I want young atheists and humanists to not see their lack of religion as an impediment to full participation in civic life. That needs to change.
Although the secular movement is partly a civil rights movement, I think we’re more than that. We’re not just some petty cult scrambling for more members. We have some really important ideas. I think the work of secular students won’t be done until we see science, reason, compassion, critical thinking, and secularism in government celebrated as the cornerstones of civilization that they are. The struggle for political equality and the struggle to encourage society to celebrate these values are both important.
SL: What importance does the SSA give to the separation of church and state?
AB: The separation of church and state does the incredibly important job of structuring political discourse in such a way that arguments about how we should run the state must be rationally supported by evidence.
Throughout the Islamic world, you see states being held back by how much religious discourse has been able to pollute civic discourse. In religion, there’s no higher authority beyond how firmly you’re willing to stick to your belief. With secular discourse, you can construct tests to see which ideas are the best.
A great deal of western Europe has state churches, but they are mostly completely subservient to the state and its secular interests. I have to admit I’m far more comfortable with this outcome than the outcome in places like Saudi Arabia, but I can’t help wondering if western Europe got lucky and that their state churches could have just as easily won the day. Separation of church and state builds a firewall between public policy and religious authority.
SL: SSA has been included on amicus briefs in the John Freshwater case before the Ohio State Supreme Court and the Edith Windsor DOMA case argued on March 27th before the US Supreme Court. Those are two important cases. Other freethought groups seem to file lawsuits every other day and some secular people complain those groups are wasting time on trivial violations of church and state. Do you think secular groups who file these lawsuits cause more trouble for secular people or is it important to challenge all violations no matter how trivial it seems to protect the 1st amendment?
AB: While I think there is value for standing up for your rights whenever they are denied to you, I do think the movement needs to be very careful to avoid bad legal precedent (especially in the federal court system). The federal courts are not stacked in our favor at the moment.
That said, I would rather that we have a habit in the movement of fighting back when we’re wronged rather than waiting. One strategy would be to focus our litigation at the state level (where widespread precedent is much harder to create with a bad ruling) until the federal system swings back in our favor. Meanwhile, we need to always be loudly raising our voices whenever religion is getting privileged. Privilege is usually invisible to the people that have it. Most of the adults who came into their positions of authority using their privilege are unlikely to reject it, but their children are another story.
SL: I’m sure you are aware of the ongoing internal rancor over social justice and diversity in the freethought community. Being a leader of a freethought group and having a history in leadership do you think this dispute will end and/or what do you want to see happen to try to end this fighting? Do you think it has had (or will have) an effect on the momentum of the freethought movement?
AB: Still to this day I am shocked to meet any adult who doesn’t call him or herself a feminist. I really think it’s a shame that every secularist doesn’t also identify as a feminist. The evidence of the civil inequality of women in our society is ubiquitous.
I’m not happy that we have to go through this struggle, one of the things that so attracted me to the idea of humanism was its view of women as political equals of men. However, I’m glad that we are having this struggle because apparently we need it — badly at that. As messy and sometimes very nasty as it is, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Thanks to August for taking the time to speak to me. The Secular Student Alliance is one of the most important secular groups we have in the country and like all non-profits could use as much support as possible. If you want to support the work of the SSA then visit their page and donate.
In 2013, SSA will be having two conferences. One will be in Columbus and one will be in Las Vegas. Click on the image below for more information on the event: