The Secular Student Alliance's 2011 Best Group Awards
By: Leslie A. Zukor
Congratulations to the winners of this year's Best Group Awards. The Secular Student Alliance chose the following awardees among a number of deserving applicants. Each year, we witness more outstanding work done by our affiliates, as clubs mature and grow and serve their campuses with a diverse array of programming. This year's winners excelled at working together with other groups, as they promoted secularism and freethought. Many of these awards weren't easy decisions, and we encourage affiliates to continue orchestrating awesome events and to apply again next year. Below is a list of 2011 winners and details of their accomplishments.
Best High School Affiliate
Rutherford High School Secular Student Alliance
In its first year of existence, the Rutherford SSA has been very visible, having been featured in a New York Times in an article about the national Secular Student Alliance. Furthermore, the club's President had a letter published in the local paper. Also, club members have created community by going as a group to school football games and forming a team for Rutherford High's Frisbee tournament, all the while proudly wearing their freethinking t-shirts. In addition, the Rutherford SSA has raised awareness by going on the school announcements to promote both Banned Books Week and Darwin Day. In addition to raising awareness of secular issues, the group has also undertaken service projects that benefited the Catholic Charities and a local homeless shelter. For all its accomplishments, the national Secular Student Alliance is proud to award the Rutherford SSA with its Best High School Affiliate award.
Best College Affiliate
The Illini Secular Student Alliance at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
This year, the ISSA has featured diverse programming, including organizing a number of lectures and excelling at promoting freethought, church-state separation, and secular values. The club sponsored Michael Shermer's presentation, "Why People Believe Weird Things," to a crowd of over 400. In addition to educating the community, the Illini Secular Student Alliance took on an activist project unprecedented among college clubs; the group put on its own billboard campaign. Asking if onlookers could be good without god, the ads featured secular benefactors such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Even if many were in disagreement with the message, in the end, the ISSA garnered a significant amount of publicity. In addition to educational and activist events, the group embarked on a weeklong service trip to Florida, sending ten members to work with Habitat for Humanity to make the community a better place for both the secular and religious. Combine these events with hosting pub and movie nights and creating great relationships with other campus groups, and the Illini Secular Student Alliance is very deserving of the SSA's Collegiate Affiliate of the Year award.
Kansas University Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics
KU SOMA has put together a number of outstanding activist events. Among these include setting up Ask an Atheist tables several times a semester to help dispel common misconceptions about nonbelievers. However, the KU group's biggest achievement was its spearheading ReasonFest, a two day event that showcased five speakers, including a debate on the existence of god featuring Dan Barker. This debate attracted a crowd of over 500 people, many of whom had never attended a SOMA event before. Unlike Ask an Atheist tables, which were marketed only on Kansas's campus, ReasonFest was an activist endeavor that garnered people from across the Midwestern United States. It was even featured on the front page of KU's student newspaper, as well as on a local TV station, the Lawrence-Journal World, and the Topeka Capital-Journal. For the club's outstanding activism, SOMA merits the SSA's Best Activism award.
University of South Carolina Pastafarians
Always donating to the club, Dr. Barry Markovsky has been an excellent advisor to the Pastafarians. Winning USC's Advisor of the Year for the 2009-10 school year, this professor teaches a class entitled, "Sociology of the Paranormal," which debunks specious pseudoscience. In addition to teaching, Dr. Markovsky has been a visible presence in club activities. In his fourth year of advising the group, Markovsky spoke eloquently on the Pastafarians' Ask-An-Atheist panel, which impressed club President-elect Kelley Freeman. Freeman explained that it "was awesome, because he didn't have to put himself out there like that." Markovsky's activism reaches beyond the walls of the USC campus, as he has spoken at the SSA's Regional Leadership Summit about why people believe in the paranormal and to a local "science cafÃ©" as to why some believe in ghosts. According to Freeman, in addition to being an outspoken skeptic, Dr. Markovsky is "an awesome advisor and [a] genuinely nice guy." For all of these reasons, the USC Pastafarians are a compelling choice for the SSA's Advisor of the Year award.
Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud University
The SSA at St. Cloud has gone to great lengths to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all, including believers. After meetings, which garner fifteen to twenty attendees, students play games such as Apples 2 Apples. As a result of this bonding experience, there has been great community-building between the SSA affiliate and Cru, the university's largest Christian group. In addition to meetings and games, the SSA at St. Cloud also has movie nights and monthly events, which lead to bonding among members, as well as fruitful discussions about secular issues. For example, Jen McCreight's talk, "God's Lady Problem," allowed club members to talk openly about issues of gender imbalance in the service of better group dynamics, in addition to leading to more active collaboration with the campus's Women's Center. As well as working with Cru and the Women's Center, the SSA at St. Cloud has also created a space for open dialogue about LGBT issues. The end result of the club's great community is the willingness of others to be more accepting of nontheists. According to club leadership, "We strongly believe that many students within the faith communities are amenable to embracing the secular perspective, and by becoming an amicable part of the dialogue in the community, we are able to create a safe environment for anyone to express their views." For the group's outstanding social ambiance, the national Secular Student Alliance presents its 2011 Best Community award to the St. Cloud SSA.
Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin - Madison
The AHA at the University of Wisconsin - Madison did an outstanding job of collaborating with other organizations, both on campus and in the wider world. In October of 2010, the club worked together with campus group, Badger Catholic, to co-sponsor a debate on the existence of god between Dan Barker and Dinesh D'Souza. Because of superior cooperation between the AHA and the largest Christian group on campus, the event was a smashing success, filling a 1,400 seat auditorium. Later that November, two members of AHA collaborated with a statewide Catholic radio station to produce a series of podcasts on secular issues. In February of 2011, AHA collaborated with several citywide freethought groups to form MadCOR, the Madison Area Coalition of Reason. During the second semester, the club worked together with a number of campus clubs to host Ted Cox on gay-to-straight conversion therapy, in addition to sponsoring an interfaith panel, "Gender, Sex, and Marriage. Perhaps most notably, in May of 2011, AHA worked with the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religious, among other groups, to submit a proposal in response to President Obama's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. For all of the group's efforts, the SSA is proud to award Best Cooperation to the AHA at Wisconsin-Madison.
University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers
UNIFI has embarked on a number of educational events on topics such as science and religious criticism and history. Among these are a Know Your Arguments series, which teaches the community about common justifications for creationism, the Noah's Ark Story, and how to talk to people who disagree with people's secular convictions. Such events have been very successful over the years, as they educate freethinkers about previously unfamiliar viewpoints. For as successful as the Know Your Arguments series has been, the University of Northern Iowa club has been most well-known for its signature Darwin Week. Winning campus-wide awards two years in a row, the weeklong events in conjunction with Darwin's birthday were a huge success. In total, 1,500 seats were filled, with a theme for each day, including topics as diverse as evolution, sexuality, and critical thought. This year, UNIFI broke records for attendance, volunteer hours, funds raised, and the sheer number of events in the week. We are excited to award our Best Educator award to the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers.
Skeptics and Atheists Network at East Tennessee State University
The Skeptics and Atheists Network at ETSU embarked on a fabulous fundraiser that ended up raising a considerable amount of money for a great cause.After hearing about the destruction in Japan, the organization decided to hold a benefit concert to aid the humanitarian efforts in Japan. Dubbed Japanapalooza, the two-day concert was a smashing success, raising $1,050 for the victims of the tragedy. Such efforts included involving the music community, which built and donated a custom guitar. Working with the Japanese Cultural Society, which handled the donations, the Skeptics and Atheists Network raised money by cooperating with groups that normally wouldn't work together. Among these organizations were the ETSU's Campus Crusade for Christ, the campus chapter of the Reformed University Fellowship, the Vegans and Vegetarians of the Tri-Cities, and Students for a Free Society, among others. According to club President, Perry Winters, "Through the event, we succeeded…in providing the community with a better understanding of atheists as compassionate, friendly, community-involved people despite negative stereotypes." In short, because of its collaborative efforts in raising $1,050 for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Atheists and Skeptics Network at ETSU is deserving of the SSA's Best Service Project award.
Leslie A. Zukor is a committed freethought activist, serving as the Secretary of the Secular Student Alliance Board of Directors. She also founded the Reed Secular Alliance and spearheads the Freethought Books Project, which gives atheist, humanist, and freethinking literature to inmates across the United States. In her free time, Leslie enjoys photography and watching baseball on MLB.tv. As career goals, Zukor hopes to pursue journalism and documentary photography.