Friday, 13 July 2012

AHS AGM 2012

Yes, I know what it looks a bit like too
It seems a little strange to be the one orchestrating an event designed to replace you with someone else, but that’s just what Jenny and I were up to last weekend in Birmingham! The AHS AGM is the primary democratic event for the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and saw the election of a new executive team. We had been planning the event for months with our hosts, the University of Birmingham Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society and it was with a mixture of pride at our achievements and sadness at the end of our tenure that we began the AGM.

Friday began early, rallying the troops for an assault on Sainsburies to get all the refreshments and luncheon items we would need for the weekend.  We were also on the lookout for useful toys and items for the following day’s “atheist olympics” but I couldn’t justify budgeting for the awesome orange squirrel we found. Laden down, we called in support from more UBASHers who came to help out despite the rain which was to become a defining feature of the weekend! At Liam H’s house we set up a sandwich factory, dividing people into spreaders, choppers and assemblers, whilst others become delegate-pack stuffers in preparation for student atheists, humanists and secularists from all over the UK descending on Birmingham.

Jenny got a scare from Liam’s dinosaur 

Dinner was at the Red Lion Pub in Birmingham’s Jewellery quarter, where everyone got to know each other and check out the loot we’d given them. After dinner, we were shocked awake by Sully O’Sullivan and Rick Molland in “Kill Your God”. In their acerbic and no-holds barred routine which has been banned in Swansea, they tackled the bĂȘte noires of atheists, amongst them Stephen Green (from Christian Voice), Ken Ham (creationist) and the Pope. The show climaxes with a stunt so dangerous, Rick has to don overalls and safety glasses, but I will leave the details out just in case you decide to see them some day! Many didn’t know quite how to react when the show ended, whilst others loved its unmitigated wit and energy. I would highly recommend them to any atheist, humanist or secularist group.

In the morning, Jenny and I got up early to make sure everything ran smoothly. We enjoyed our breakfast at the hostel which was simple, but satisfying in surroundings which had an urban-art theme. The number of Banksy’s on the wall made me feel like this was a little piece of Bristol in the heart of Birmingham!

The first full day’s proceedings began with Jenny reeling off our achievements for the year. It struck me that the overarching theme was “resources” - we had done very well at giving our members access to money by arranging grants and prizes; renewing and updating the guides and speakers directories and finding legal aid for LSE Atheist, Secular and Humanist Society when they found themselves locked in a battle with their unsympathetic student union. The rest of us then reported: Press Officer Gareth told us about his experience interviewing Alom Shaha; Head of Membership Jess enthused about how our membership had increased from 34 to 42 this year; I added the story of how Andrew W nearly lost all  the crisps and Treasurer Ben informed us that he wasn’t entirely sure about the AHS’ financial situation at all!

Presiding over the proceedings

Societies reported on their achievements this year and aspirations for the future. Highlights were Dawkins’ visits to Oxford and Bristol, Sheffield’s experiences with extremist speakers and Leicester’s eggings for Non-Prophet Week! Oxford also reported on their attendance at the Survivor’s Voice march in Italy, representing and supporting victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and made a strong case for them being future beneficiaries of the AHS’ Non-Prophet Week.

Motions and debate followed with Motion to Mandate Putting the AHS Website Source Code on GitHub. Thomas G presented the motion with half the room nodding vigorously whilst the other didn’t know quite what was going on. There was a debate with plenty of discussion of “public and private repo” but ultimately the motion fell.

I presented Motion to Mandate the Funding of a Sabbatical President and was subjected to an intense grilling by the caucus! It was clear that there was broad agreement that the status quo where the AHS was run entirely by volunteers was unsustainable, but not everyone agreed that a sabbatical president was the answer. There were concerns that it might upset the balance of power between the exec, but most importantly it couldn’t realistically be achieved until March 2014, which was far too late. Alternatives were suggested including a part-time exec or staff member and summer internships. Given the importance of this issue, I was advised to withdraw my motion and resubmit it later.

Dynamic debate pointing!

Lunch turned out to be more business than pleasure, speaking to some of the caucus and coming up with an alternative with the help of the board. The best solution seemed to be to hire a permanent staff member similar to student unions or Liberal Youth who would be accountable to the elected executive. The final job specification would be agreed in active consultation with the caucus and the package including beefed-up travel expenses for the executive would come in at £60K over two years. After robust debate the motion was carried. Though both a sabbatical president and staff member have their advantages and disadvantages, I think we made the right choice for now whilst a full sabbatical executive team remains a longer term goal.

Votes for the new executive team began with the Presidential election. In an unusual twist, one of the candidates was not there in person, but had submitted her manifesto so was allowed to run in absentia. Jess V won the vote, however, and is has therefore ousted Jenny as President! If my year with Jenny could be characterised as about “resources”, Jess gave us a peek at the year ahead focusing on joint-actions and campaigns as well as officer training.

Emiko K won the vote for secretary, impressing all with her ability to raise money through research proposals and clearly motivated by her experience of evangelical religion during her time in the US! The vote for treasurer was quite tight between Adam G and Matthew P, both of them having extensive experience running societies. Adam was, perhaps, more charismatic, whereas Matthew presented more ideas and strategies. The caucus went for ideas in the end, electing Matthew.

The old and new executive teams

After the excitement of elections the group split with Norm R taking a group for “Finance and Fundraising” whilst Jenny and I lead the “Drink and Think” workshop. Sadly, the “atheist olympics” we had organised to follow had to be cancelled because of the rain - so we scuttled off to the pub instead!

On Sunday morning, most people got to enjoy The Secret Life of Brian, “Running Big Events” with Richy T and “Campaigning for Change” with Dani Beckett (and her bigot tree!). Meanwhile the new and old execs were in an intensive handover session trying to cram a year of experience into 3 hours. I think we succeeded, despite having nothing printed out, argh! In any case, Jess has a really strong sense of what she wants to achieve with this year, so I’m sure the new exec will do an excellent job.

After lunch, we had a bit of a panic when Rupert Sutton from Student Rights hadn’t shown up, but he did eventually, having got lost on campus so we dived straight into his workshop. Just to make things slightly more surreal, medieval reenactors were having a fight outside the room we were in, the noises of anachronistic warfare hanging in the air during Rupert’s presentation on “Extremism in Universities”! A debate ensued on the best way to tackle extremist speakers - whether banning them was productive or whether we should engage them. Opinions from the floor covered the whole spectrum from those who would ban all extremist speakers to those who would ban none.

I have described my own views in detail here and with a broader brush here (though the latter uses “censure” when I meant “censor”, grr). Student Rights advocates for “balanced platforms” because extreme speakers seldom succeed against reasoned opposition and Rupert offered the interesting suggestion that atheist societies should balance their own talks in order to put pressure on religious groups to balance theirs. I would, perhaps, modify the emphasis of this slightly such that we encourage atheist and religious societies to hold more debates and joint events.

Introducing Stephen Law

Stephen Law ended proceedings with his Evil God Challenge - can you prove that his Evil God is any more absurd than a Good God? This was a very entertaining presentation and an interesting take on the classic problem of suffering - especially Dave, the man who believes that dogs are Venusian spies!

That’s it folks! The old exec are gone and a new generation take up the reins. Jenny and I have had an exciting time advancing the cause of atheist, humanist and secularist students this year and I’m sure the organisation will continue its upward trajectory under its new leadership!

Photos by Krypto
Ninja Edit:

The 60K fundraising task we've mandated is quite daunting, but a serendipitous solution presented itself at Birmingham New Street:


  1. "I added the story of how Andrew W nearly lost all the crisps"


  2. This blog is like wikileaks, Krypto. I expose all the scandals.