The Roots of Building a Secular Community Part 1: The Roots

This article is dedicated to Marvin Straus, a true pioneer in the Colorado secular movement, founder of the Boulder Atheists, co-founder of Colorado Coalition of Reasin (COCORE), my first secular mentor, and a good friend.  I also want to recognize Chuck Mowry, founder and first president of the Jefferson Humanists, who heard about my wife Margaret and me and reached out to get us involved with a great organization.

The Roots

If there is one main key to community building within a secular organization that I have learned, it is the "nuts and bolts" of it. The foundation of a group is all in the details. I don’t know everything, so this article is just one opinion based on my own experiences. I have been in the trenches for years doing research on community building by working with local groups and even served a term as president of the Boulder Atheists. The Colorado Coalition of Reason (COCORE), and Humanists of Colorado (HOC), have also been a positive influence on me. I am now active with the Jefferson Humanists, who are doing it right. I have read publications and have even visited churches to learn how they do community building. I want to briefly mention the Secular Hub in Denver which has grown into a great community center and resource for me and many others. The Hub hosts local group’s events and has many of its own events, with good variety for many different interests. It also promotes and collaborates on events with other local groups. It was launched in 2013 by members of Humanists of Colorado and others. This study is really about just one area of secular community building.  It is not about how to start a group, which is a major effort of its own and another topic of discussion. This is about how to build programs and projects within an organization so that it can grow and attract new members by offering exciting, diverse events and activities for different interests. In Part Two, I will show how can be used to help implement community building. Social events are the most popular type of events, and some groups are all about socializing.  However, to really go places, a group should also offer ongoing programs in Activism, Community, Collaboration, Education, Science, and Socializing, or ACCESS, an acronym my wife Margaret and I created. We recently founded a registered nonprofit organization called Secular ACCESS to further educate on this process. Humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, like many others, want to belong to a welcoming, comfortable, and nurturing environment where they can express themselves and listen to others within the safety of their own kind. When someone is ready to look at secularism and find a good group to join, they need to land in a friendly and positive place with different events and activities. There should be one main anchor event each month, such as a monthly meeting with a guest speaker, videos, or a main focus activity that includes food and beverages.  Guest speakers can be found by networking with other groups or by searching national secular websites. Good speakers can also be found through other types of organizations, such as science foundations and nonprofit organizations. The ACLU is a great resource. The group should represent and promote positive and ethical values based on science and reason while always being an outstanding contributor to the outside community. When people first encounter the group, they shouldn’t just see a bunch of people sitting around bashing the Bible. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Bible bashing now and then, but the primary message should be about positive ideas and how to go forward without any religion involved whatsoever. Members of a group also want to be taken care of, so to speak, while attending events.  They want to engage in intellectual conversations and fun activities but will ask,: "Where is the food? Is it cooked right? Who remembered to bring the bottle of wine (and the corkscrew)? Is the overhead projector working? Are there enough chairs? Can I bring the kids, and will there be something for them to do? Will I learn something interesting? How much does it cost?" And so on. Again, it is all about the details. For me, the roots of community building  go back to my younger days of putting on keg parties at the ranch and learning how to grill hamburgers for a hungry crowd. This does not happen all by itself, and you cannot just expect people to handle things on their own without a certain amount of direction. Delegation— giving ownership—of tasks is critical, and although people mean well by wanting to help, sometimes they don’t understand what needs to be done. You must always be grateful and appreciative of people who volunteer to help. Therefore, it is probably not a good idea to criticize someone for slicing vegetables the wrong way. If someone offers to light the charcoal grill and the time comes to start grilling, but that person is still in the middle of a conversation holding the unopened bag of charcoal, it’s time to take action. This brings up the two most difficult obstacles I have encountered so far in my efforts at community building. One is to get others onboard who really want to be involved as a volunteer, actually do the work, and learn what it takes to make things happen. The other most difficult obstacle to overcome is to actually get people to show up at events.  This takes endless patience and perseverance, as it almost always takes a long time for a new program to really get going. Geography is also a limiting factor.  People aren’t willing to travel very far for meetups, except for special events. Schedule regular meetings and events in the group’s main territory base.
So, how do you inspire and motivate people to really want to get involved with the tasks that it takes to get programs and events off the ground?  Check back on Wednesday for Part Two!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3