The Ten Best Things About CFI’s Student Leadership Conference

Last week, the Center for Inquiry hosted their annual Student Leadership Conference, where leaders from secular student organizations from around the country (and Canada) are invited to spend four days listening to talks by some of the best minds in campus organizing. I had the pleasure of attending, and I figured that all of you would like to know what went down, what you missed, and exactly why you should try your hardest to make it next year.

So, without further ado, here is my list of the ten best things about CFICon:


Somehow, they managed to have the exact same face.


1. Zack Kopplin. In case you live under a rock, Zack Kopplin is an educational activist from Louisiana who is fighting a law that promotes creationism in science classes. His was the first speech of the conference, and he talked about how he got involved in activism. He spoke about how, when the Louisiana legislature passed a creationist law, he kept waiting for someone else to speak up and get the law repealed. Eventually, he realized that nobody was going to step forward, and that if he wanted the law repealed, he was going to have to lead the charge himself.

He talked about the pushback he got for his activism. Not just from creationists, but from other proponents of good science who told him that he couldn’t win. That he was just wasting his time, and that he was fighting a losing battle. He, of course, didn’t listen. And now he’s doing good work fighting for science in arguably one of the most conservative states in the country. He said, “We fight for science, not because we can, but because we have to.” Because if you don’t stand up for what’s right, who will?

2. Panel on Islam and Ex-Muslims. This was a panel on Saturday, featuring Alishba Zarmeen, Hassan A. Khalifeh, and Ali A. Rizvi. All are very heavily involved in the Ex-Muslim community, and spoke about the unique challenges that Ex-Muslims face, both in the atheist community, and from other Muslims. Specifically, they noted that many Ex-Muslims have to be extremely cautious about their deconversions. Many out Muslims face threats, intimidation, and violence from their communities. The environment that many Ex-Muslims reside in is still very hostile to the idea of apostasy, and many Ex-Muslims have to be very secretive about their activities to avoid losing friends, or worse.

So what can student groups do to reach out to Ex-Muslims? Well, the important thing to keep in mind is sensitivity and discretion. Don’t pressure Ex-Muslims into joining your group. Instead, perhaps talk with them privately, until they feel comfortable becoming more involved in your organization. Also, you can reach out to Ex-Muslims by going to Muslim events or meetings, and being open about your atheism while there.

It’s important to involve Ex-Muslims, both in student groups and the movement as a whole, because they have unique challenges that we can collectively face. Growing the number of Ex-Muslims in the movement will increase the effectiveness of the movement, as well as give Ex-Muslims a community and the strength to speak out and share their experiences.

3. Nick Cooney. Nick Cooney is a leader in the animal rights movement. He wrote the book Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Changeand he founded The Humane League, the United States’ largest farm animal advocacy organization. His talk was also on Saturday, and it dealt with how best to influence people, change their minds, and convince them to join your cause.

He gave a bunch of stellar examples of strong marketing techniques that are extremely effective in affecting human behavior. For instance, he explained how people are much more likely to behave a certain way if they think that others are doing the same. Putting a sign in a hotel room saying “Most guests reuse their towels” vastly increases the likelihood that guests will reuse their towels. These are very simple techniques that can be used to vastly increase our marketability as campus groups, and as a movement.


He solved that Rubic’s Cube in like five seconds. With one hand.

He also noted that most people connect more with people who are similar to them. The more we can relate to our audience, the  more likely we’ll persuade them that we’re right. This means identifying with mainstream culture and appearance. As activists, we have to dress and act like professionals if we have any hope of succeeding as a long term movement. Other reasons we have for not acting professionally take the backseat to our desire to succeed as a movement.

4. Garrett Thomas is officially the coolest person ever. He’s a magician, but not in the traditional sense. While other magicians may just be tricksters, he views his role as more educational, teaching his audience about the role and power of illusion. Part of his show was advice on dealing charlatans and frauds. He pointed out how there are many ways to do a single trick, so it’s problematic to try and expose the techniques that psychics (for instance) use, because they can always find another method.

He preformed an amazing hour-long show, and absolutely blew our minds about a dozen times before he was done. He made stuff appear out of thin air, disappear again, and then reappear and double in size. He read minds, did the impossible, and wowed us in ways that I can never reproduce in writing. If you want to see his magic for yourself (and you absolutely do), you can check out his website.


Workshoppin’ like a boss.


5. Desiree Schell. Desiree Schell hosted a three-hour workshop on skeptical activism and how to create a successful activist campaign. Her focus was on how to advocate for an issue in the most effective way possible. She identified a few key components of any successful campaign, and how to use those components for your own campaign to make it succeed.

The first thing she brought up was the importance of a specific objective. She said that an objective has to be achievable and measurable. It should also be specific and reachable. Next, identify the target audience. This is important, because the entire campaign needs to be tailored to reach them. After that, work on the message. The message needs to be designed for the audience, to maximize reachiness. Finally, decide what tactics to use. The tactics that best reach a target audience can vary depending on the situation, so it’s important to choose the ones that work the best.

6. The price. With all of the awesome stuff on this list, you might think that the cost of attending CFICon would be in the hundreds of dollars. Well, you’d be wrong. CFI offers a massive discount to members of affiliated student groups, so you can attend the conference, live in dorms minutes away from the conference, get delicious meals every day, and get driven wherever you have to go, all for the low price of $99.

CFI is even willing to give travel grants to those who need it, so if you have trouble affording a plane ticket, CFI will help you out. They’re really committed to making this a conference that everyone can attend, which is wonderful. The low price was actually the deciding factor that convinced me to attend in the first place, and it was completely worth it.


It’s a really serious face for a guy who opened his talk with Star Trek.


7. James Croft. So, first I want to say that James Croft is the coolest person ever. I know I already said that about Garrett Thomas, but I’m changing my mind. Secondly, his workshop on Friday was absolutely phenomenal. He talked about the art of narrative and crafting stories. First, he noted how the atheist movement is particularly enamored with facts and figures, but what really sells is story and emotion. As a movement, we have to focus more on personal narrative than on statistics.

Next, he focused on what makes up a good story. He identified three parts: the Story of Self, the Story of Us, and the Story of Now. The Story of Self is about your personal journey: why are you here, right now, talking about this issue? The Story of Us is about relating your personal experiences and the issue to your audience: why should they care about this issue? Lastly, the Story of Now is about action. It’s a personal call for the audience to do something to help solve the issue.

He gave several examples of great speeches that illustrate these components. One of the most powerful was a speech that he gave at Harvard a few years ago. In it, he calls on other students to contribute a video for the It Gets Better Project. I strongly encourage you to watch it here, and I would also like to state, for the record, that I didn’t cry once. Not even a little bit.

8. Joe Nickell. If you haven’t heard of Joe Nickell, you really should. He’s the Senior Research Fellow for CSI, and associate dean of Center for Inquiry. He’s a paranormal investigator, author, and all-around awesome person. While he didn’t speak at this year’s CFICon, I, along with a few of my friends, got the chance to speak with him in his office.

That was one of the highlights of my time at the conference. I stood in his office, surrounded by bookshelves that reached to the ceiling, filled with historical artifacts, beautiful trinkets, and rare and expensive items. Joe Nickell spoke to us for about half an hour, as he told us about his past, his career, and some of his experiences investigating the paranormal. I was sad when it was over, and I would gladly talk to him again. If you ever have the chance to hold a conversation with Joe Nickell, consider yourself lucky.


There’s no joke here, Sikivu Hutchinson is just awesome.


9. Sikivu Hutchinson. Sikivu Hutchinson spent an hour talking about systemic racism in America, and gave example after example of how People of Color (PoC), especially young PoC, are routinely oppressed, mistreated, and marginalized by society. She spoke about how many inner-city schools are designed to send minority students to prison, and funnel them into a life of crime and poverty. She mentioned that black students don’t commit crimes at greater rates than white students, but are far more likely to go to jail. Further, inner-city schools are poorly equipped to give black students an education that will allow them to compete with white students in college and in the workplace.

She then focused on how the freethought movement needs to concentrate on race issues. She said that the freethought movement has been poor at dealing with these issues, and that we need to tackle them if we want to become more diverse and effective. If the freethought movement doesn’t focus on issues of race and racism, then it won’t be relevant to young PoC. She also spoke against the desire to “help” PoC, instead preferring to focus on ally-building and amplifying the voices of PoC to advocate on their own behalf.

10. Opportunities for activism. During the four days of CFICon, there were plenty of examples of easy steps that people could take to further some of the goals of the atheist movement. Here are a few:

Michael De Dora is the director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy, the part of CFI that lobbies the government, among other things. During his talk on Thursday, he mentioned that supporters could help by watching sites like and to monitor problematic legislation in their home states. Also, you should pay attention to action alerts from OPP, and possibly take action when OPP asks you to.

Susan Gerbic spoke about how to improve the image of organized skepticism on the internet. She runs a group of Wikipedia editors, who maintain and improve dozens of articles about prominent atheists and skeptics, as well as several articles of interest to the community. If you’re interested in helping out, you can go here for more information. She also manages the group Skeptic Action, which sends out daily tweets detailing short, basic actions you can take on the internet to affect the image of websites dealing with pseudoscience. You can find more information here.

In addition to giving an awesome talk, Sikivu Hutchinson also mentioned several projects that seek to tackle race issues that all of you should support. There’s a lot, so I’m just going to hit you with them, rapid-fire: The Transformative Justice Law Project, Radical Women, Chicago Books to Women in Prison, Freethought Books, Youth Justice Coalition. Give your moneys to some or all of these amazing groups.

Many events are coordinated among several campus atheist groups, so if you’re in one of these groups, you may want to do some or all of these events, to raise the profile of both your group and the event itself: Talk Like a Pirate Day, Sep. 19; Banned Books Week, Sep. 22-28; Blasphemy Day, Sep. 30; Secular Service Day, Oct. 3; Carl Sagan Day, Nov. 9; Darwin Day, Feb. 12.

11. “But you said there were only ten things!” Yeah, well, I lied. It’s my list, okay? Anyway, no list about this conference would be complete without mentioning the amazing work of CFI’s Outreach Team. This five-person group planned, organized, and hosted an absolutely fantastic conference. They put in a tremendous amount of work, including putting up with my crap for five days, to bring us a fun, information-packed conference that made everyone in the room a better student leader.

So, thank you. Thanks to Harrison Hopkins, Monica Harmsen, Cody Hashman, Sarah Kaiser, and Debbie Goddard, the coolest person ever. And I mean it this time. Thanks to all of you, and I can’t wait to come back next year!

Previous post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 8.1

Next post

Awesome Sauce Music Friday! I've Got Cred but Honestly, I Shouldn't Need It Edition



Avery is a 23 year old recent college graduate, and when he's not busy wishing he didn't major in physics, he enjoys go, juggling, and music.
You can find him on his blog, Google+, or on Twitter as @PhysicallyAvery.

No Comment

Leave a reply