Episode 32: Secular Student Alliance: The Cool People on Campus with Kevin Bolling
In this episode we talk to Kevin Bolling, the executive director of the Secular Student Alliance, which is the only national organization dedicated to atheist, humanist, and other non-theist students. We discuss what the SSA is and does, its efforts to protect real religious freedom on campuses across the country, and what SSA is looking forward to in the future.
00:58 We Are Secular Students
12:44 Real Religious Freedom on Campus
20:51 What does the future hold
Kevin Bolling is the executive director of the Secular Student Alliance. He has served in that position since 2017. Kevin brings with him 20 years of nonprofit leadership experience. His career has included over 10 years of student association management and on-campus program development from Los Angeles to Boston.
Voice Over 0:02
This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values by a humanist. Here’s your host, Douglas Berger.
Doug Berger 0:11
In this episode, we talked to Kevin Bolling, the executive director of the Secular Student Alliance, which is the only national organization dedicated to atheist humanist and other non theist students. We discuss what the SSA is and does, and its efforts to protect real religious freedom on campuses across the country. And what the SSA is looking forward to in the future.
Voice Over 0:37
Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, Building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.
Doug Berger 0:58
With us today is Kevin Bolling. He’s the Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance. He served in that position since 2017. Kevin brings with him 20 years of nonprofit leadership experience, his career has included over 10 years of student association management, and on campus program development, from Los Angeles to Boston. Thank you for being with us today. Kevin,
Kevin Bolling 1:20
really happy to be here.
Doug Berger 1:23
So what is the Secular Student Alliance? And what does it do?
Kevin Bolling 1:28
Sure, the Secular Student Alliance, we are an educational, nonprofit and really focused within the secular, secular community. So we’re one of the 19 organizations that are part of the Secular Coalition for America. And we really do focus on students, so students in middle schools, high schools and colleges, and we provide really a place for them to form their own organizations on their specific campuses, to really sort of hone their non religious, however they define it identity. And then really, you know, to do programs on campus, and really sort of live out there secular activism. So we have this year with COVID. And those sorts of things has been a little different, obviously. But we typically have over 300 chapters all across the United States, most of those are in college universities, although we we continue to see an increased number of interest in high schools, and even in middle schools now.
Doug Berger 2:27
And what kind of services does the SSA national office provide local chapters,
Kevin Bolling 2:34
we really act as I think, a big resource for the students. And you feel a lot of times students are like, Oh, I feel like I’m the only one on campus who’s an atheist. And oftentimes, you know, in Google searches, or those sorts of things, they find us and realize there’s this whole community out there that is like them. And there are lots of people like them, students like them. And so we really try to hook them up. So we, you know, we can provide areas to hook them up with other people, either school if there’s already a chapter there, or we help them start a chapter. And so we really look at providing lots of free services for the students. So free tabling supplies and information and resources on how to start a chapter on their campus. We have staff who work with them individually, like, what are your goals? What do you want to accomplish? Why is this important to you? Okay, let’s go from there. And so the, the chapters there, because their own student organizations on the individual campuses, are really there to meet the needs of that population of students. And so you can imagine a chapter in, you know, in North Dakota, is going to be very different than a chapter in Los Angeles just as far as what the needs are for the students, the number of people what their focus is going to be. So and then we provide a bunch of services. So when they’re out Tabeling, we provide publicity and tabling supplies so that they can really spread the word as much as possible, once that they’re on campus, raise that awareness about non religious students, and just normalize it. We also do grants and have lots of guides for them on activities and programs they can do on their campuses. Again, we want them to form a community and a family and have friendship. We also want them to impact and affects the larger campus, and we are normalizing non religion. And so we also, were just actually releasing our scholarship recipients. So every summer, we do have a scholarship and we’re announced those in the fall with and we have a very nice that we have lots of local groups who partner with us, and hosting scholarships for secular activism. So that’s available on our website to read about those students and fantastic student leaders. We do a secular spring break. So oftentimes, you hear about, you know, Christian groups going on spring break, we actually do that. And we’ve done disaster recovery. So we’ve been to Puerto Rico where hurricane the hurricane came on shore and just devastated Puerto Rico. We were rebuilding roofs for a week, we are on great Abaco island where Hurricane Dorian just devastated that island. And so we’re looking this year to actually go into Louisiana where the hurricane came ashore and doing some work there. We have a summer conference. So we always say it’s the largest gathering of secular students anywhere in the United States. So every summer campus hosts that we have student leaders from all across the country come together, so a variety of resources for students individually on chapters, as well as leadership development and those sorts of things. Now,
Doug Berger 5:36
do you just mainly organize chapters on college campuses? Or do you also do the high schools,
Kevin Bolling 5:42
our main, the main area where we have chapters is in college. And so students have had a chance to, you know, they’re they’ve left home, they’re a bit on their own, they’re experiencing other people, they’re realizing what they were taught is not necessarily what a lot of other people believe. And so it’s also a crucial time, just student development theory, where students start to question what they were growing up with and start forming their own morals and values. So as you can imagine, that’s an integral time for us to be there and be supportive and involved, and to help them with that. But we as I mentioned, we are finding more and more high school students who are interested, and even starting in middle schools, and clearly with that there’s a degree of parental involvement that needs to be there to make that a bit more successful. But we continue to see that growing, and we have resources for them as well. We have a 15 week semester guide for high schools and middle school students on things that they can do. And it’s different videos and readings and discussions and those sorts of things were for their meetings. So we write a lot of resources. But yeah, the primary focus is in college universities. And still 80% of our students come from religious households. So a lot of our students this is their first time being with people who are, you know, in mass with people or non religious?
Doug Berger 7:09
And have you found it harder to organize chapters in colleges or in high schools, I would think in high schools, it’d be a lot harder.
Kevin Bolling 7:19
I high schools it is. And again, it’s there’s a different process of starting student organizations in high schools, which sometimes can take a year. And again, having that parental support is important. And so if if we have parents who are accepting or non religious, then clearly that’s a lot easier, and the student has a lot of support. But again, the vast majority of our students come from religious households, and even in college aren’t, you know, out as non religious to their families or communities. So that’s why we see a lot of of what we’re doing happening in college and universities.
Doug Berger 8:01
And besides having meetings and some other campus activities, what else do chapters do to represent free thought on campus?
Kevin Bolling 8:11
It’s really open to them to a variety of things that they want to do a lot of our student organizations, we host a variety national programming, ask an atheist day, Darwin days, Carl Sagan day different days community service, so they can participate in all of those things on their individual campuses. They will do community service projects, either, you know, as a group themselves or with other groups on campus. They typically will sponsor a little bit, you know, as programs on their campus with faculty and staff, you know, lectures, discussions, debates, they do a lot of interfaith work, our chapter in Missouri actually used to host the interfaith panel on campus, they weren’t invited at the beginning. So they just said, Fine, we’re going to host it. And they invited everybody, they like our perspective needs to be heard. So that same year, they actually went wound up winning or earning campus organization of the year for all that they were doing. So super active on campus and doing those sorts of things. So it’s really whatever whatever they want to do, but we you know, we focus on education, service, and, and then sort of social activities as well, as well as activism.
Doug Berger 9:23
And about how many chapters are there currently, in the organization?
Kevin Bolling 9:28
We’re just coming out of the pandemic right now. So we’re about 200 chapters. So typically, that’s a bit larger. We expect in next winter and spring semester, that will get rolling again and getting those chapters back up to you know, to having, you know, several 100 across the United States
Doug Berger 9:48
And do they are there more Are they more prevalent in the Bible Belt or in the northeast, or is there a particular area that has them?
Kevin Bolling 9:58
Yeah, we We do find a little bit in areas where there’s where there’s a larger concentration of majority religion. So the South, the Midwest, Utah. So we, you know, we find a large component of students who are seeking out other people like them, and ways to sort of live out their secular activism. So that’s a bit of a draw. And in those veins, but we have, you know, we have chapters in New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago and big cities as well. So a lot of times a little bit of the program that they’re doing is different just based on the needs of what the students are.
Doug Berger 9:59
When I interviewed August Brunsman, the first SSA Executive Director last fall, he likened to SSA chapters to organizing people at a bus stop, because chapters can turn over so much when the leadership graduates, do you agree that that can be a struggle baked into the concept of the SSA?
Kevin Bolling 10:58
I think that’s a struggle for any student organization. So, you know, SSA isn’t immune to that by by any stretch of the imagination, and sort of digging into our own data, we realized that, you know, clearly, your one is super important. So when a student reaches out to us and says, Hey, I want to start a chapter, our response needs to be almost immediate with them. And so when they’re interested and energized, about really moving forward with them, and doing that as as quickly as we possible. And so we oftentimes can get them, get the student organization, meeting all of our criteria within a week, and most of the time, active on their campus, within two weeks, sometimes there’s a meeting that they have to do with durations for the policies, and that may come a little bit later. But we our goal is two weeks and getting them up and active. And we find the most success of that then first year, clear that that first year of transition is important, you know, from one year to the other. So we really reach out and do some extra work with the students. Year three tends to be when the vast majority people graduate. And so that’s our huge leadership transition. And so we know that that’s about that year, we’re working with the leadership all the time on transition, and who are the next leadership. So by doing all those things, we help reduce that which is good. And so you know, each step along the way increases the longevity of the organization, the impact that it has, not only for the students, but the campus and the local community.
Voice Over 12:30
For more information about the topics in this episode, including links used, please visit the episode page at class city humanist dot show.
Doug Berger 12:44
Now sometimes the motivation for forming these chapters on campus is to address any bigotry coming from the majority religions that they may have experienced on campus. Do you happen to have any examples of, of people free thought students having issues with the majority religions.
Kevin Bolling 13:07
More and more our chapters are have some interesting and fun and collaborative partnerships with religious organizations, which is nice. So we, we had actually one group at Clarion University, who there was more the conservative Christian students and groups were ripping down paperwork and you know, their pliers and writing stuff, they would chalk on the sidewalks and they’d write rather nasty things next to it. And we’re just really sort of harassing our students. So our students actually went to the campus, the student government and and made an official complaint. The Christian group came in and said, No, they’re the ones that are actually harassing us, which was not true. The interesting thing is, that clearing group had a great relationship with crew Campus Crusade for Christ, who came in and were witnessed for our students going no, the SSA or the cool, guys, they’re good. Other Christians that are not. So we there are, there are situations like that we see things that are happening on campuses, I would say by far, we see that we we were seeing a decrease in that. And I think sort of lately there’s been, you know, and really sort of building up in the Trump years. This permission to vocally chastise and harass people. So we did see where religious students would come in, you know, not only our organizations, but LGBT groups come in and try to disrupt the group, just get physically coming in the meeting rooms and those sorts of things, which is just annoying. So we’ve had things where we’ve had programs and you know, Christian students have tried to stop that. But I would say for the most part that’s becoming less and less as as, as more and more students become non religious. But American Atheists did. They’ve did their secular survey. And with that they did a youth component. So there’s an entire youth report with American Atheists that we co launch with them. It’s available on their website. And it actually talks about the increased discrimination, even with the growing number of students becoming non religious. And this generation could be a tipping point where it’s majority non religious, rather than majority religious. But they’re facing increased harassment and rejection, harassment from campus and even employment, those are things and rejection from family and community. So unfortunately, that’s, that’s not going in the right direction hole is, you know, as a holistic country. But fortunately, we have our students being organized and I think the support that they have, and if there is a problem with administration FFRF is always right there with a lawyer to give them a call, which is fantastic. So we we’ve been fairly good, but clearly we have there are continued to be problems across campus.
Doug Berger 16:07
The SSA has participated in some religious freedom lawsuits over the years. The most recent one was suing the Department of Education over the Trump administration rule that would exempt religious student groups from colleges non discrimination rules. In August, the Department of Education signaled it would rescind the rule. Has that happened yet? And do you expect it to happen soon?
Kevin Bolling 16:33
It hasn’t yet happened yet. And they were examining the the ability to to rescind, do do we think that’s going to be rescinded? Yes. And it hasn’t happened yet. We’re working with clearly American Atheist and American United Separation of state and church. So they are great advocates for us and moving that forward and keeping an eye on that, I would suspect that that would be resolved fairly soon.
Doug Berger 17:02
The non discrimination rules for student groups can be found on most college campuses. It comes from federal law that apply to programs and activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. If someone who professes to believe in a God, who is maybe an evangelical Christian, would they be accepted for membership in an SSA chapter?
Kevin Bolling 17:24
We have a lot of members in SSA who are religious. So we have religious students, we have students who are like, I’m not sure. And then we clearly have, you know, your humanists and your firebrand atheists. So we have the spectrum. And part of our policies with the student organizations is, is we believe in diversity and inclusion. So if a religious student was became a member and wanted to run for office, that is fine. They might not be voted in from the other students. But that’s part of the process as any student who wants to run wouldn’t be voted in. But we do believe in inclusion. And I, you know, going back the last two, I think what the lawsuit, I think one of the important points is to make is, we don’t believe any student organization should be allowed to discriminate. So but student organizations can, if they don’t receive, unfortunately, if they didn’t receive student funds, you, you can say Not everyone can be a member, but then you also forfeit your right to have student funds. So the money that everyone contributes in so that we can the students can do things on campus. So this is Christian students asking to be able to discriminate, you know, against non religious people, against minority religions and against LGBT people, and get public funds. And so we think that discrimination part is is wrong, we really think that, you know, getting public funds part is just completely wrong. So, and that’s, I think, why we went to get, you know, American atheism and American United went in and are doing this lawsuit.
Doug Berger 19:07
Yeah, I really do. I think it’s important and, and some people would make that argument that well, SSA wouldn’t accept a believer, but I know in our in my humanist groups, we’ve always had people that were nominally believers, and we never discriminated against them. And I think it shows how inclusive our way of life our philosophy really is.
Kevin Bolling 19:32
Definitely, and, and part of it’s an interesting thing, a lot of the religious students are members of our group, because they can have conversations about religion, that they can’t with their religious group. So what our students typically tend to be super knowledgeable about religion, religions in general, um, so they’re all and all about having a conversation about it. But to express doubt, or even though let’s just talk about some of these basic principles and do they hold weight or or not, or, you know is what so and so said, Representative how we believe is a group that oftentimes isn’t a welcome place to have in a religious community or a church or even in a student group. So that the fact that we provide a welcoming and safe place for religious students to talk about their own religion, I think is great.
Voice Over 20:24
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Doug Berger 20:51
The Secular Student Alliance recently passed 20 years of existence, what do you see happening in the near future? Or even later? What what do you have any like big plans or, or things coming up? Or
Kevin Bolling 21:05
Our board of directors, we were actually going to be right when COVID started, we were about to start the project of our strategic plan. We we turned sort of not you know, 180, and did a COVID year plan, like, Okay, this is what these are our assumptions about what’s going to happen this sort of next year now. 18, now 19 months. And so we’re actually beginning that process again, but we’re really looking at one, you know, how are we meeting the needs of the students on campus as they continue to grow and change? How are we meeting those needs to to be responsive and to be, you know, proactive, and really meeting the needs of the changing environment? When, as I sort of mentioned before, we have, you know, almost 50% of students now are non religious. So what does that mean, we still focus on, you know, are a big part of the people we’re students are interested us is that smaller segment that identifies is as atheist or humanist or, you know, agnostic. So I think we’re gonna be really looking at what are we doing with that larger components? Who are I don’t know, or I’m just non religious, or I’m a none, and helping them build community and identity there. You know, I think they’re clearly part of our family just does don’t have a bit of that identification. So how do we do that, and then really looking at sort of outside partnerships, we are fortunate to have a great family within the second community and other organizations that we work all the time with and have great partnerships in I think one of our big things is looking at there are lots of students who probably believe in the separation of church and state very much the way we do and religious freedom and the way we do who aren’t allied within that, that that this community. So how are we reaching out to them, and providing resources and education and skills to them, which I think will really take our organization and, and a really sort of big and new sort of direction.
Doug Berger 23:11
Now, I noticed in reading your, the mission statement for the group, the last part of it set a course for lifelong activism. What does that entail? What would somebody a student, get in learning how to how to become like a lifelong activist?
Kevin Bolling 23:31
And I think one of the things we’ll often hear from students is, you know, I’m an atheist, I believe in God. Great. That tells me so little about you. So it’s one minute component about you. So our thing is, okay, you’ve got you’re on this planet, you’re, you’ve got one life, what are you going to do with it? How are you going to make the world a better place for you and for others, before you go, and so we really look at doing sort of leadership developments. And again, you know, a quarter of our program is really focused on activism. So, if we haven’t, you know, students going to state capitals and testify against, you know, religious quote, unquote, freedom, it’s really religious discrimination acts or anti LGBT acts or those sorts of things. That’s part of activism. If they’re going in lobbying, you know, their, their, their representatives in Washington, that’s activism. If they’re doing programs to elevate and, you know, normalize atheism, on campus, that’s activism. They’re also passionate about a variety of other topics. So LGBT rights, women’s reproductive health, environmentalism, climate change, racial justice, you know, whatever they’re interested in, we want them to know part of being on this planet and being a good person is is making this world a better place before you go and so that means you need to create change in a positive direction. So we want to encourage that as much as we can. So and as part of our, you know, our secular spring break our scholarships, our conference are all huge components of just reinforcing that message is, in addition to what we’re doing, you know, on campus with them throughout the year. Yeah, that
Doug Berger 25:16
sounds great. That’s exactly, that’s the kind of group that I would probably be a part of, excuse me, that would probably be a group I’d be a part of, if I was still in college. I kind of
Kevin Bolling 25:30
I think more and more, we’re seeing younger people are wanting activities, or wanting experiences. So if you’re doing, you know, a beach cleanup, or a river cleanup, that’s our students have organized, those are two things, you know, they collected food for the homeless and pet adoption, and you know, they’re doing stuff and then you know, and again, we had a group in I, I think it was Missouri off the top my head when there was the drag queen story hours in public libraries. And one of the groups is protesting, they were like, This is This is nuts. And so we sent them a huge banner. And they were part of a public march to the library in support of that. So they’re getting, you know, getting out there being visible, not only as secular atheists, separation of church people, but also as whatever else they’re passionate about.
Doug Berger 26:23
If there is a student listening to this episode, who was interested in starting an SSA chapter at their school, what would they need to do first,
Kevin Bolling 26:35
the easiest thing to do is go to our website, and they can click on the Starting a chapter. So that brings them to a quick little form, they fill out, so we’ve got just a tad bit of information on them. And within 24 hours, one of our campus organizers reach out to them. So that’s the it’s the I think, easiest way, or they just gonna send us an email at SSA@secularstudents.org. And again, we can hook them up, we do have a map on our website, so that students can go and look to see if there’s a chapter at their school already or near them. And really, you know, if there are students, at one campus, we will work do our best to sort of link them up, as we’re aware of those sorts of things. But yeah, and our staff is there to sort of help them through the entire process, we’ve got tons of free resources for them. So we try to make that as quick and easy for the students as possible.
Doug Berger 27:27
All right, and as we close this interview, was there anything else that you wanted to promote, or the that you wanted our listeners to know about the SSA, maybe reiterate a point that you made earlier?
Kevin Bolling 27:41
Sure, I think one thing we are, we’re just in the process of launching our scholarship recipients. So please, you know, please go to our website and just look at the students, you will be very comforted by the next generation of activists that are coming up, and what they’re doing, I used to think that I was super busy, because I was super involved when I was in college. And I look at what some of the students are doing. And I was like you’ve started your own nonprofit while at college?, and I was just what they’re doing is amazing. So if you really want to uplift, and you know, just to, you know, really positively of what the future is, check, just check that out. And I think you know, and if there are local groups out there, we are constantly looking, you know, inviting local groups to sponsor certain scholarships, one, you help identify secular students, non religious students in your area, and just energizing that as a great way to support other students. And again, I think for anyone who, who is interested in supporting students in general, you could please go to our websites, secularstudents.org and donate. So that’s always a way to help us, you know, help students and the next generation of the the secular community.
Doug Berger 28:53
All right, Kevin. Well, I again, I really thank you for your time. I really love the SSA and like I said, I would be a member if I was still in college, because I did I’ve I’ve liked it for 20 years now. I’ve liked that group. They’re really doing some good things and I appreciate your time today.
Kevin Bolling 29:13
I appreciate you it’s always it’s always great to talk with other people in the in the movement.
Voice Over 29:19
Thank you for listening. For information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at class city humanist dot show. Plus city human humanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie, and is supported in part by a grant by the American Humanist Association. The AHA can be reached at americanhumanist.org SHoWLE can be reached at humanistswle.org. Glass City Humanist is hosted, written and produced by Douglas Berger He is solely responsible for the content our theme music is Glass City Jam composed using the ampify studio See you next time
[Transcript is machine created and approximate to what was recorded]
[Transcript also available for offline reading HERE]
Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley
The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio
This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.