Richard Acton – Manifesto

by Richard Acton

Policy ideas:

Experience

Before University

Before I came to university I was elected president of the Student Association, (an NUS affiliated Student’s Union), at the sixth form college Farnborough. Farnborough is a big institution with over 3000 students. During this time I Worked with a team of 12 people, we raised several thousand pounds for charity and implemented an idea of mine for Subject reps who feed back to teaching staff about subject specific issues. We also had responsibility for the organisation of events with budgets in the region of £30,000. As a part of this role I was also a member of the board of governors, which included me in the responsibility for the oversight of the college’s ~£17 million budget. I think that my experience at Farnborough will be good preparation for the role of President of the AHS.

At University

Now on to my tenure at UNASH I joined UNASH in my first year and was elected to the committee in my second as the website officer, a position which had not previously existed but which was added at my suggestion. I created our website as well as developing our social media presence. In my third year I was elected president and during this year Martin won the AHS award for most money raised by an individual in non-prophet week, and UNASH played host to a successful 1 day regional convention which also won an AHS national award for best regional convention. We expanded and diversified our activities hosting an ‘Ask an Atheist’ evening, External speakers such as Jonny Scaramanga and a debate with the Islamic Society.

This year I was re-elected president and during this time we have begun extending our links with the local community, hosting a gathering of members from the local Secular society, Skeptics in the pub, and Sunday Assembly groups along with some local humanist celebrants. We created a Facebook group for secular community organisers to help collaboration between local groups. We ran the most successful Non-prophet week in the country in terms of money raised; a total of £1234.50 with Jess Barnes beating Martin’s most money raised by an individual total form last year by raising a total of £620. Our Non-prophet week won the AHS awards for Humanist Event of the Year and Most Money Raised in Non-Prophet Week. We also played host to the marvellous and well attended AHS Training Weekend.

A stand out among the many UNASH events in the last year was the very successful series of Rationality Workshops which addressed a number of topics from formal logic to cognitive biases with the addition of games and activities to help train rationality and de-biasing skills. Much credit is due to my successor at UNASH, Octavian Maxim for the successful implementation of these workshops.

A brief note on future plans; I will be doing a 12 month master’s degree in systems biology at Birkbeck University in London next year. The possibility of running for an AHS position factored into my choice of course, both the structure of afternoon and evening sessions and the location in London should facilitate my ability to balance both AHS work and my studies.

Why am I running?

We live in a secular country with an institutionally religious government, where our head of state is the head of the church and appointed clerics sit the upper house of our parliament. Exerting not only undue and unrepresentative religious influence but perpetuating the gender imbalance in our government.

I am a scientist, not just as a likely future profession, but in the way in which I strive to think. My atheism, secularism and humanism all stem from that same core of rational thinking and weighing of evidence that is used to do science. Our culture is immersed in and dependent on the products of science and technology and yet, those who live in it are all too often ignorant of the culture and principles of science itself. They don’t know what it is, or how it works and they do not realise how profoundly it has affected their lives and the power that this mode of thought has to do still more.

The AHS community is a group of people who value the critical and evidence based way of thinking that underpins scientific culture, and who share the enlightenment principles of openness egalitarianism and compassion. We need a new enlightenment, a revival of these ideas in the public consciousness and the AHS is an organisation capable of contributing to that revival.

Some of the most pathological forms of religion are running rampant in this world and our best chance against them is to educate people with those tools of critical thought and those ideals of the enlightenment which are so corrosive to dogmatism in all of its forms. Students are a key battleground in this war of ideas that is being waged our world. Thus the AHS has a great opportunity reach people and make a difference. I want to be a part of making that difference, I and think that if you vote for me I would be effective in bringing that difference to pass.

Notes

1. Rebranding: Changing the name of the AHS (The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies) to ‘Humanist Students’ is I think necessary if we are to grow in public awareness. As a scientist it goes against my instincts to sacrifice precision of expression but as a rationalist one has to be aware of the impact of labels on cognition and Humanist Students is snappier and more memorable that The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (I copied and pasted that rather than typing it out again that’s how bad it is). It’s a name you can say without an acronym and one you can typeset in a way that is aesthetically pleasing something almost impossible with the current name. The blurb can read ‘Humanist students’ is an organisation that includes and represent the interests of Atheists, Secularists, Humanists, Skeptics, Free-thinkers, Agnostics, Rationalists, hell even Dan Dennet’s Defunct ‘Brights’ so long as we don’t have to put all the labels people want to use in the name. I have complained of the anthropocentrism of the label Humanist in the past and we all have our preferred label but let’s get over it for the sake of effective group action. I have personal experience with name changes, we rebranded the Secular society at our university to the University of Nottingham agnostics, secularists and Humanists society (UNASH). Whilst we made a success of it on reflection I think it was an error from a marketing perspective, by the time you have finished saying the name most people’s eyes have glazed over.

2. Making AHS Societies effective campaigns organisations: Campaigning skills will be useful to individual societies for effecting change in their local environments, be it changes to Students union policies or issues in the local community. I would like to make maximum use of in house AHS expertise in society committee training but also to bring in outside expertise when it has the potential to be useful for example The Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) is a charitable foundation devoted to training people to be effective campaigners.

3. 16-19 education sector engagement: My sixth form college had a Christian union but not an AHS type society, I was too busy with the Student association (an NUS affiliated students union) to found one so me and a friend just hijacked the debating union to argue with the Christians. There are a lot of people in the

16-19 sector who fall into the AHS category and there are a lot of schools and colleges out there that have student societies why don’t we try and make some of them AHS societies. Having a good presence in the 16-19 sector has at least three strategic advantages: one it provides continuity, people in their school AHS groups who will know of and join their Uni AHS group. Second people from schools go to a variety of different Unis if they had a society at their school and there is not one at their Uni they might be more inclined to start one. Thirdly we engage the >50% of people who continue on to something other than Uni – maybe refer them to young humanists after they leave school. The AHS has recently acquired the asset of 1 day a week of paid staff time from the BHA, Blakeley Nixon the BHA’s Groups, Sections and Regions coordinator will be working with the AHS. Examining the feasibility of expanding in the 16-19 sector particularly with respect to the legal aspects of working with under 18s may be one of the many good way to utilise this important new AHS asset.

4. Halal and Kosher food issues: Caitlin Greenwood, AHS campaigns officer wrote an excellent article on this issue in the AHS newsletter of 01/03/2015 entitled: ‘What’s halal the fuss about?’ http://ahsstudents.org.uk/newsletter/this-week-in-ahs-news-2 Further to the issue of poor labelling there is the issue of Stunned vs un-stunned halal meat. Furthermore this may afford an interesting opportunity to work with Jewish and Islamic societies, a project with broadly agreed upon goals may act as an icebreaker and open them up to further interactions with AHS groups.

5. Student’s Union Free speech protections: Perhaps follow up on some of the issues observed in the Spiked Free speech university rankings project: http://www.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings. By the sounds of it our new government has some interesting plans which may require engagement in national campaigns efforts on free expression issues.

6. Standard Operating procedures (SOPs). maintaining consistency of operation is as I am sure many of you know hard in student run operations with high turn-over rates SOPs are a way to remedy this by conveying a culture of best decision making practice to future occupants of the roles. An example of where this principle can be applied might be establishing some criteria for assessment of a bid for hosting the society training weekend, has this society hosted a national AHS event in the last academic year? If yes they will be excluded from the selection procedure unless there is no viable alternative? Bids will be further assessed on quality of transport links to proposed location, cost, and other metrics of bid quality. Criteria, bids and justification of choice by the executive to be made available. The new AHS calendar whereby the AGM takes place in March on the second day of the convention in London, with an extended hand over period for the new executive who take office in July followed by officer training in august. Means that there will no longer need to be a biding process for the AGM but just for the societies training weekend.

7. Under the current structure all 13 regional development officers (RDOs) report to the membership officer who ‘line manages’ them. Adam Carnall the current membership officer has expressed concerns over the effectiveness of this arrangement and suggested changes to the way regional development is managed. Changes to the regional organisation of the AHS along the lines of the approach pioneered by Benjamin David of pairing up successful/established societies with new and growing ones to support their development are already underway. Successful engagement and communication both between individual societies and between the AHS executive and societies is essential for the AHS to function

well so optimising the organisation to facilitate these interactions would be of high priority to me.

If you want to as it were ‘see me in action’ this is a video of me in a debate, the motion was: Theism Provides the Best Basis for the Rationality of the Universe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVPW2S2sP64

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