Bolling previously worked as the Director of Philanthropy for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. In an interview for this site, I asked him about his vision for the SSA’s future, the parallels between the atheist and LGBTQ movements, and what he learned from the outgoing director.
What drew you to this position? Were you familiar with the SSA beforehand?
While in college, I was very involved in student activities: the University program board, new student orientation, resident assistant, and involved regionally and nationally in National Association of Campus Activities. After college, I received my Masters in Education in Student Personnel Services from the University of South Carolina, Columbia — specifically to work at colleges and universities with student programs, student organizations, and student leadership. I worked for 15 years in higher education with student organizations, Greek life, campus programming and leadership development.
I love working with students and in the exciting and youthful college environment. I know how important an accepting, supportive learning environment is for students to have a positive educational experience. With the prevalence of religious student organizations on campuses, organizations like the Secular Student Alliance help students find a supportive community and provide students with an organized outlet to make a difference on their campuses.
It’s important for me to know that every day I make a difference in someone’s life and I’m doing some good in the world. With the current political climate and the blurring of lines between religion and politics, the role of the Secular Student Alliance to support atheist, humanist, and freethinking students is even more important. So is developing secular students to become secular activists and future leaders of this country.
What are some of your short- and long-terms goals for the SSA?
We just held our annual student leadership conference and, from all of the feedback and comments, it was a definite success. One short-term goal finished.
The other short-term goal is our Listening Tour. Over the summer and in the fall, when school starts, I’m making it my mission to hear from as many different voices as possible. I’ve already started meeting with some leaders of secular organizations; those have been very informative. I’ll be meeting with more leaders, including some beyond the traditional secular movement, over the next few months. In the fall I’m hitting the road to talk with as many of the SSA campus groups as possible. Since I wasn’t part of an SSA chapter during my own college days, I’m excited to see one in action.
Longer term goals include expanding and increasing the number of schools with active SSA chapters. We will work with faculty advisors to help with continuity and longevity of student organizations. We will work with student affairs professionals and national organizations to increase the awareness of the needs of secular students to help change the entire campus climate. We will work with interfaith organizations so non-theism is included as an acceptable and viable option alongside religious options on campuses. We are going to offer students more opportunities to get involved in political, social, and advocacy programming and leadership development to create future leaders and activists for the movement and society in general.
What would you like to see atheist students do in the next several years?
In talking directly with many students, I know what they are going through on their campuses: feeling like they are the only person, being harassed by other students, being rejected by their families, and even receiving death threats. I also know the amazing things they are doing in their communities.
For some campuses, I would like to see the organization become firmly established on the campus and become a support network for each other. We had a student at our leadership conference this weekend who did not want to leave Columbus. After having an amazing time at SSA Con with other students, she didn’t want to go back to the repressive environment at home.
I would like to see the student organizations be active and positive forces on their campuses advocating for social justice and equality. I would like to see students getting involved in politics, becoming leaders in the secular community, and becoming active in progressive causes.
What’s your own religious background, and is there a particular religious/non-religious label you use to describe yourself?
I grew up in a very Catholic family. I remember that my grandparents went to church every day. My mother was heavily involved: liturgy committee, teaching Sunday school, even baking communion bread. I was an altar boy for years.
My mother always taught my brother and me that the sermons were stories to help remind us that we should be good and help other people.
In college is when I began my journey away from the church. A few years later, by the time I came out as gay, I realized the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the Church, its messaging, and its treatment of people. Being involved in civil rights work for the gay and lesbian community, I was often the victim of so much hate from “religious” people.
I am not sure really when I stopped believing in God. I don’t think there was a specific moment for me when it became a realization and I was not really aware of the secular or atheist movement or community at that time. I don’t believe in a god, so I am an atheist. I believe in the separation of the church and state, so I have secular beliefs. I believe that what I do in my life should help other people and make my community a better place, so I strongly identify with humanists.
What are the struggles you see within our movement? What steps would you take to address them?
I am new to the movement, so I recognize at this point that I have a limited amount of information and knowledge. I have more to learn about the specifics and nuances. That is one of the reasons why I’m embarking on the Listening Tour. I will be going to conferences, talking with leaders in the movement, and visiting campuses to continue talking with students. I want to hear directly from those involved, from those who’ve been affected. I want to hear their ideas on how we can improve our movement, and how the SSA can support those individuals or groups that still feel unwelcome. It’s striking to me that, like coming out as gay, the coming-out experience for an atheist can invoke hatred, bullying, and abuse. It’s sad to see that within our movement, that there are some that continue that disgusting behavior.
Beyond just listening, there are actions the Secular Student Alliance is going to take. I would like to see the movement more inclusive of women and people of color. The SSA will be on the forefront of having conversations about racial equality, gender equality, reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, and advocating for change within the movement. As a white man, it is important for me to recognize my privilege and use it to help change the dialogue.
I would like to see more collaboration within the movement and outside of the movement. I am going to work to collaborate with other organizations on projects and initiatives that benefit both organizations and the students. I am going to work on collaborations with progressive organizations to develop allies and expand the relationships to further social justice.
Did August Brunsman give you any advice as you stepped into the role he occupied for 16 years?
August has been wonderful in getting me up to speed on the organization, the history of the movement, and the politics of the movement. August and the SSA staff have built an amazing foundation, and I think he is really excited to see where the organization goes from here. I appreciate everything that August has done for students, the SSA, and for me as the new executive director.
August’s advice is always “Go, be amazing, and do good.”
You most recently worked as the Director of Philanthropy for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Do you see a parallel between the LGBTQ and atheist movements? Either way, what can we learn from the LGBTQ movement?
I have been involved in the LGBTQ movement for many years. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles is an amazing, talented group, but also a strong civil rights and advocacy organization. Most people don’t even know about the youth outreach programs in middle and high schools, the youth correctional system, and small towns across the country — impacting well over 100,000 young people. During my tenure, GMCLA also assisted with the foundation of the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, the only trans chorus with a trans artistic director.
Strong parallels definitely exist between the LGBTQ and secular movements. At the leadership conference this past weekend, Kayley Whalen spoke about LGBTQ issues and how they relate to the secular movement. Several years ago, Greta Christina spoke to our conference about what the secular movement can learn from the LGBTQ movement.
For me, both movements share the dynamic where people have to “come out.” Visibility and people living open lives are important to normalizing the issue within our society and increasing acceptance by other people based on personal experience. They also have many of the same opponents. The religious community, and the far-right political movement, have been some of the main opponents of the LGBTQ and secular movements. The more “progressive” religious community has, slowly, started to accept the LGBTQ community, but we haven’t seen the same acceptance for non-believers.
Another parallel is that both movements have struggled with the fire-branders versus the diplomats. Movements need a variety of people with different viewpoints and tactics. The fire-branders push the boundaries of what is acceptable in general society, often offending many people and catching the most press. They make it easier for the diplomats to work with other organizations, or even the other side, to make progress toward greater understanding and equality — what was not acceptable before now is acceptable. Once the conversation or social perception begins to change, the lawyers and politicians can work to challenge and write laws to ensure rights and civil liberties. I am not sure that we like to admit it, but progress happens much quicker when all of these tactics work together.
Nicole Niebler, one of our student leaders, presented a discussion on the importance of Friendly Freethinkers and Fire-Branders at this year’s conference.
Internal arguments and infighting have also bogged down both movements. While preserving the identity of sub-sections within the movement, adopting progressive language, and setting priorities are highly important, allowing those to halt progress is not effective. Let’s recognize and respect the differences we have within the movement and keep the big picture in focus, which allows the movement to be far more effective in moving forward.