Friday, October 9, 2015

SSA Development: A Closer Look At Diversity

Many organizations and movements struggle with inclusivity, at some point. But secular organizations, in particular the national affiliate SSA, are having a uniquely difficult time catching up. While on an individual basis members and faculty and staff may be ethical, prepared for meetings, and generally respectful, there are a variety of privilege oversights which occur. Why do they occur? Well, currently, over 82% of those who identify as atheist or agnostic are white, and of that percentage, 56% identify as male (which is 8% higher than the general public). Which makes one wonder, how has this discrepancy prevailed?

While it may be simple to conclude, “Well, of course it must be lack of access to higher education for under-represented groups!” such a statement isn’t necessarily accurate. According to a Pew Research Center report conducted a couple years ago, the groups with the highest rating of “HS Grad or Less” were Black Protestants (50% of respondents) and Hispanic Catholics (71%). Across all other groups, the ratios were roughly the same, or at least, their variance wasn’t statistically significant. Only those who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic (instead of unaffiliated or nothing in particular) had the lowest population for that category - at 26%. The percentage of those who identify as atheist or agnostic as well as Black is 3%; Hispanic 6%; and Asian 4%; but the percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Asian unaffiliated and nothing in particular individuals is actually close to or above the general public percentile (the rate expected to be found in a given population).

What this indicates is educational status is not a predictor for religiosity, and neither is race. At least, insofar as this survey demographic goes. There could be a generational gap we are not able to factor in at the moment, but regardless the data is fairly straightforward when we're considering current student affairs.

These trends indicate that people in leadership of secular organizations are failing to address the needs of people of color and provide due representation. While it is getting better, take a look at the SSA Staff and Board. Of course, people can be all forms of different - gender, orientation, class, political leaning, neurodiversity, and disability are all elements that should be evaluated - but the majority also happen to be white.

This is just one example, but SSA does stand to improve on past mistakes and could benefit from developing resources that critically examine these disconnects.

SSA groups have a variety of options, but they mostly entail being conscientious and beginning a dialogue. Actions and dictions of those privileged by race, gender, orientation, ability, and class (etc) often on occasion have the unintended consequence of marginalizing people who want to be active in secular spaces. In my time with ISSA, I’ve dealt with a bit of misogyny and ableism, trans slurs, general outbursts, and questionable practices in addition to desperately-needing-revision application forms. Not even strictly within our RSO have I encountered tall and scary walls. In the community as a whole, it can be a quagmire of misconceptions and lapses in realism. In the past six months I've witnessed considerable growth and an impetus to take responsibility and make amends, collectively, so I don't fear the future: I expect the future to start now.

Everyone transgresses. But everyone can do better. We can make this happen by loudly and directly taking control of the conversation. Derail it when you have to. Sometimes this means telling the white hetero cis male privilege cheerleader in the front row to sit down. Criticism engenders trust, and it is not an attack, even if they may feel that it is.

My internship training, peer guidance, and the wonderfully nuanced education I’ve been so lucky to receive have helped me to draft a few recommendations to SSA chapters broadly (but this is practical for any RSO), in the hopes that we all learn how to eradicate and/or address issues before they snowball:

  1. Look over your officer applications and paperwork. Are you using appropriate terminology? If you ever have any doubts but want feedback, use sentences like, “How can we be more welcoming?” and “How can we be more representative?”
  2. When hosting meetings and events, do not assume what someone’s pronouns are. Until you receive verification or have a chance to ask privately; ask what their name is, and if the context doesn’t allow, make tentative use of: they, their, theirs.
  3. Post flyers in common areas of foot traffic, yes, but also consider hanging them in cultural houses, resource centers, and commercial ventures (with consent).
  4. Seek co-hosting opportunities with other RSOs, especially when a talk is intersectional. Example: If your speaker is a known secular humanist and queer feminist, reach out to LGBTQIA2P+ organizations.
  5. Be compassionate, but do not tolerate instances of bigotry from members or officers. Begin a system of documentation and schedule mediation if necessary. Designing a formal complaint template may assist in the process. (Note: this should be reserved for significant problems, not a failing to agree on a debated subject). You may add these mandates to your constitution and/or bylaws.
  6. Advocate and adopt transparency in all your dealings. The honesty will aid in preventing hurt feelings during discussions. Aside from that, understand that as an organization you should provide brief and clear explanations for any actions members find troubling, unexpected, or dubious.
  7. Hyperlink an anonymous suggestions box in email correspondences (or use paper if that’s more your thing). Websites like are immensely user-friendly. Conducting an open forum, wherein members and others can come speak about whatever might be upsetting them about the culture at large or what they would like to see accomplished is also a good route to take. Make sure the officer core is not insular.
  8. Participate in interfaith, human rights campaigns, and workshops in the area. Stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter and other movements. Your absence as a group may not be evidence of complicity, but it does drastically reduce your ability to effectively work with new people who are educated in other arenas of thought and activism.
  9. Make sure that your meeting location is accessible for all, whether it be a matter of building accommodations or the content. By accessibility, I also mean: proof your presentations to avoid microaggressions and factual errors.
  10. Develop a system in which you move away from using hierarchical language; as in, create roles for officers that accurately represent what they can do such that no one has more power in executive decision making than another, and do not hold officers to completing tasks that are not part of their core obligations.

And as always, Hail Satan.

Disclaimer: Only race categories used by Pew Research Center were used as part of documenting social changes in this blog. They should not be taken to be all encompassing of ethnic identities. Also, please note that "Hispanic" refers to individuals who speak Spanish in the United States. These individuals may have varying descents. Latinx is used to denote a person who is from a Latin American country.