Chapter Spotlight: The Legacy of the Magnificent Eight

Attendees watch a talk at the 2022 Gulf Coast Secular Assembley, co-hosted by Humanists of West Florida

This is the story of a small group of people who acted on their vision. It illustrates the progress, success, and unpredictability associated with transmuting ideas into concrete action. The article features some of the endeavors of the Humanists of West Florida (HWF) spanning its ten-year history. Highlights include how we recently used two AHA grants in two years to advance Humanism in the Deep South.

In the beginning, a handful of humans came to be known as our Magnificent Eight. When, in 2012, an executive, a cabinetist, and a website expert met with a flight attendant and an activist. They discovered that despite their diverse lifestyles they had a common philosophy of life: humanism. Two metal stampers and a military medical doctor complete the list of founding members of HWF. They applied for and were granted Charter Chapter status by the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 2013. A local corporation, active in renewable energy, provided the seed money. The Magnificent Eight and those that followed have created a colorful history.

HWF attributes its success to dedicated members and a hierarchy that easily provides for expansion. The chapter is led by a Board of Directors (BOD) where each director serves a two-year term. The terms are staggered to offer continuity, thus three of the six members stand for reelection every year.  The chapter has three committees and twelve categorized teams, which are shown organization chart below. This structure enables members to focus upon their individual special interests as they work both within the organization and for the benefit of the greater community.

Today, HWF, located in Pensacola, Florida, serves a tri-state region along the Gulf Coast. The chapter has over 250 Facebook (FB) members and friends in more than a dozen private groups, including one for the board and one for each team to conduct affairs securely. Access the HWF public FB page or find us at our website, where you will see a listing of our various social media sites and other useful information. Meetings are held monthly and there is a social event most months. Gulf Coast Freethinkers, a local group of secularists, often join in our social activities. Weekly, HWF distributes bags of non-perishable food to homeless and hungry people. The chapter publicizes using donated sponsorship time on a local public radio station.

In the early days, the group was small. Eager to participate in a community development project, the Civics and Government (CG) team, started with a highway cleanup plan. Abandoned after a year, they learned that success rests in pursuing activities that match their abilities. The elderly members were unable to tolerate intense weather conditions. The Homeless and Hungry (HH) team offered an alternative project, food distribution. Distributions were held at least annually from 2014 through 2018. During that 5-year period, HWF put over twenty-five tons of food directly into the hands of hungry families in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Food was obtained at a discount from a local food bank using money from corporate donors. Members supplied the labor. Food-insecure families exist in every corner of the land; the authors are certain that groups interested in providing this kind of support will easily find the people who need it.

Not every effort by HWF to promote humanism has yielded a positive outcome. The Civics and Government (CG) team gained public attention when, in 2015, they challenged the presence of a cross on a monument at Bayview Park in Pensacola. The monument resides at a public park where tax dollars pay for maintenance and repair of the it. HWF viewed this as a violation of separation of church and state. We won in district court, and then won on appeal. However, a later Supreme Court ruling overturned that decision. HWF did not anticipate the public scrutiny nor its backlash. Some members became disillusioned and left the chapter.

Fortunately, by 2018, membership was on the rise again. When COVID started, a concerned board offered live-streamed assemblies in an effort to maintain cohesiveness. Overall the outcome was favorable. Our inability to consistently attract quality public speakers, however, continues to plague the chapter. In the meantime, HWF draws from the talents of members who present on a variety of topics related to the AHA’s Ten Commitments.

HWF supports Satoshi Forest, a homeless camp established by one of our members. In 2015, the HH team built raised garden beds enabling residents to grow food for their consumption. In 2019 and 2020, HWF helped rescue the camp when government officials attempted to shut it down for noncompliance. We installed fire extinguishers using grant funds and we planted tree barriers. Ground was dug by a local firm who donated their service. Another company donated the trees. Media covered this event. Simultaneously, the Learning and Sharing (LS) team sponsored a local chapter of Navigators USA, a secular-alternative scouting group, in nearby Gulf Breeze, FL. This project ended when the Navigators USA chapter disbanded in 2018.

As long as injustice exists, there will be humans in need. When HWF became aware of an urgent need for shoes and socks for homeless members of our community, the HH team acted. In 2018, the group launched an immediate Shoe Drive to benefit Alfred-Washburn Homeless Day Center, Pensacola’s largest and only comprehensive center for unsheltered adults. Six dozen pairs of shoes were collected in six days. The Shoe Drive is now in its sixth year. HWF gained media attention during COVID when a local high school pitched in. That year, two pickup-truckloads of shoes, socks, and winter clothing were provided. HWF honored the school with a recognition plaque. Several HWF teams partner to ensure success each year.

Membership noticed that Little Free Libraries were popular in economically prosperous neighborhoods, while less wealthy communities had nearly none. In 2020 and onward, the LS team built five libraries and placed them in underserved areas. HWF developed partnerships to finance building costs. Each library is assigned a steward who checks and stocks it regularly. HWF plans to add five libraries over the next two years.

The Survival Snacks Program, a function of the HH team, was implemented in 2021 to help homeless and hungry locals by providing individual bags of non-perishable food for consumption on the weekend when public feedings are essentially non-existent. HWF partners with Food Not Bombs and other community groups each Friday evening. In 2022, we registered this program with GO Humanity becoming one of their busiest teams. In the inaugural year, 2021, HWF benefited from a $2,500 AHA grant to expand this event from monthly to weekly. Currently 5,000 bags of food are offered annually at a cost of $7,500. HWF receives partial funding from ‘GO Humanity’. HWF budgeted $2,000 for the 2023 term, which leaves a shortfall. The Budget and Fundraising team is actively seeking additional funding and in-kind donations. Our recipe for success rests in our willingness to collaborate, diligent pursuit of funding, and the dedication of a core crew who shows up rain or shine.

Desiring to build bridges within the state, in 2022, the Events and Meetings team looked to Humanists of Tallahassee (HOT) located 200 miles east of us. HWF and HOT leadership agreed to host a Gulf Coast Secular Assembly (GCSA) in historic DeFuniak Springs, FL, a location roughly midway between the chapters. Our inaugural assembly was sponsored, in part, by the AHA. On June 25, 2022, fifty-two attendees, including a few from nearby states, were inspired by a warm welcome from the AHA’s Executive Director. The three noteworthy speakers, Seràh Blain, Debbie Goddard, and Noah Lugeons were engaging and informative. Lunch and a panel discussion completed the day-long seminar. Participants stated they enjoyed the fellowship and plan to attend in the future. Many of their suggestions for improvement are being incorporated into the planning of GCSA 2024.

Today, Humanists of West Florida, standing upon the foundation laid by The Magnificent Eight, most of whom are still active, proudly stands for humanism in our corner of the world. We hope you find encouragement in our story and are driven to develop a story of your own.