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Apr 25 2014

“Mission Creep”: Easier Than It Sounds

Greta Christina has been writing a great series taking apart the argument that atheist groups working on social justice causes is “mission creep”. I suggest reading the whole series:

If you don’t want to read them all, you should at least take this message away:

I don’t know how much more clearly to say this: IT IS BROKEN. It is badly broken. Many marginalized people already feel very alienated from organized atheism because their/our issues get ignored, dismissed, trivialized, and worse. As I’ve said more than once in these conversations: The status quo is not neutral. Doing nothing is doing something. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is not a neutral act – it is contributing to the problem.

This needs to be understood and emphasized. When you raise objections to including social justice in the activities (and operations) of your group, this is what you need to weigh those objections against. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about this idea that it’s hard to bring social justice activities into an established community group, and I want to talk about it from my perspective as the associate president of one of the largest atheist community groups in the U.S.

This isn’t as hard as you think it is.

If you’re part of an atheist community group in the U.S., your group is probably listed on Meetup.com. If your group’s activities aren’t listed there, you need to fix that. I’m fully in agreement with David Niose, past president of both the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association, that Meetup.com has been one of the most important factors in the growth of organized atheism in the past few years. The service makes it incredibly easy for people to find you and your events.

The only community groups that may not want to use Meetup.com are campus student groups that aren’t interested in having members from the surrounding community attend their events. Student groups, however, have even more resources for incorporating social justice in their activities. If you’re part of one of these student groups, you should watch this video from Gordon Maples and Kelley Freeman of the Secular Student Alliance. Even better, arrange a group viewing and brainstorm afterward about how your group can best put the information to use.

Meetup.com logo: a sticker name badge with "meetup" in the name space.If you’re not a student group, however, you want to not only have a Meetup group, you want to have frequent activities–and different kinds of activities–on your page. Not everyone wants to attend lectures. Not everyone wants to join a book club. Not everyone wants to attend “in the pub” events. Not everyone wants to talk about parenting. Not everyone wants to knit or play games or eat out or watch movies with a bunch of other atheists. Not everyone wants to talk about the problems of religion.

On the other hand, some people want to do each of those things. Nor is it difficult to offer each of them. All you need is someone willing to run the meetup on a regular basis. Here’s the best part: This person does not need to be part of your group’s leadership. As long as they’re responsible, minimally organized, and interested in the topic, you can add “special interest” meetups with next to no cost to your board. You still need to be willing to hear and resolve complaints if an event is run poorly, but that’s rare in our experience.

Voila! You have one more hook to get people interested in your organization. Some large portion of them will never become members of anything but your Meetup group, though offering them membership in that community is valuable in itself for members of a marginalized group. Also, you gain a way to contact them when you want to push, say, some political action.

A smaller number of them will convert to members of your organization. If you charge for membership, this has obvious benefits. Even if you don’t, however, having these people identify as members of your group is useful. To them, it provides a stronger sense of belonging. To your organization, they become people you can truthfully say you represent when you’re talking to the press or to lawmakers.

Those people who organize your meetups? If they do well, give them more opportunities to put their skills to work for your organization. Recruit them as committee members or board members. Call on them when you need dedicated volunteers. Call on them when you need to make sure your big events are more inclusive. And always, always recognize them for the contributions they make to your organization.

Right now, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, so Meetup.com is a great tool, but what does it have to do with social justice?” Everything.

When you’re already adding activities for your group that are based on the interests of your individual members, it requires going only the tiniest step further to tell people that social justice is a legitimate interest for inclusion. When you already periodically tell people in your group that they can schedule an event to get a group together to attend a lecture, it takes just a few more words to tell them protests are good too. When you tell people it’s great to start a recurring monthly event for gaming, it takes next to no more work to tell them they can set one up for serving meals at a shelter or community kitchen. When you tell members they can put their humanist or UU group’s events on your calendar for cross-promotion, you can have them share their reproductive justice or anti-poverty group’s events too. It is just as easy to provide a listing for black atheists or LGBT atheists who meet regularly as it is to provide a listing for godless crafters, and it’s just as easy to say you’re open to doing so.

None of those things are difficult. None of them require that you do any more work. They only require that you tell your Meetup members directly and explicitly that you’re open to events of this kind. Well, by extension, they also require that you be open to events of this kind, but let’s just take that as a given for the purposes of this post, shall we?

From there, Meetup.com does what it’s been doing for you already if you’ve been using it well. It tells people in your area that you exist. It tells them that you have activities they’re interest in. Then it gives them the opportunity to offer more based on their additional interests. Then it tells more people you have activities they’re interested in.

It’s the best kind of positive feedback loop you can have, and it’s really, incredibly easy if you’re already doing what it takes to make your community group healthy. If you’re not already doing that, then fixing that problem may be hard. Adding social justice activity along the way will still be simple, though. So why not get started?

You don’t need to take my word for all this either. See what successful organizers have to say about keeping your group fresh and encouraging members to create service events. For more on using Meetup.com well, see the Tips and Advice section of their blog.

1 comment

  1. 1
    Catherine C.

    New commenter here.

    Another advantage of Meetup.com is that it will probably increase the diversity of the people you reach, particularly if you choose some topic areas outside of strictly atheism. I work with a small social dance group – we put the group on Meetup and have doubled our numbers and also got people who I would never thought would be interested. Well worth the time and effort!

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