Chapter Profile: Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix
by Eric Nguyen
Formed in 1970, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix has come a long way. Starting as a small group of like-minded people meeting for breakfast and discussion, the group has expanded to over 200 members in an addition to a community center. The community center, the first one owned by a humanist group in the country, opened in December 2010 with a Winter Solstice party, where they raised money through live and silent auctions. What the HSGP shows is that not only can a small grassroots organization grow into something much more visible with the right amount of passion and hard work, it shows us that indeed the greater humanist movement is gaining momentum.
I spoke with HSGP’s new president, Shelley Newman, who took over the reins from Susan Sackett (also an AHA board member) after a decade of leadership.
HNN: How long has the group been in existence? How did it form?
Newman: The group was formed in 1970 to fill a need for a non-theistic alternative for Sunday mornings. It began with a handful of people who met in a downtown Phoenix coffee shop for breakfast. By the 1990s, the group had moved to several different venues, eventually settling into the (now defunct) Safari Hotel in Scottsdale. By then, the group had grown to about 25 members. As HSGP continued to expand, we moved from venue to venue, each time outgrowing our meeting rooms.
HNN: What kind of programs do you offer to members?
Newman: HSGP is an educational organization rooted in the values of Humanism. Our centerpiece is the Speaker’s Program providing twice monthly expert talks on topics in the arts and sciences. This is a no-fees program open to the public as well as our members. The HSGP Book Club began in 2004, meets monthly, and continues to grow in number of participants. Now that we have moved into our own building, members have begun discussion groups – one focuses on a topic chosen by the group, and the other on films. There are plans to re-ignite and add to our Humanism curriculum as an opportunity to educate members and others about the history and values of Humanism, and reinforce our own understanding.
HNN: What events have you planned for this year?
Newman: We hosted a Darwin Day Fish Feast on February 12 to honor Charles Darwin. This was a delicious and fun way for 70 of our members and guests to get acquainted and relax with a group of like-minded people. We have several other events planned including a wine tasting, a pool party, and our combined annual auction and Winter Solstice event. And, for an evening of fun, we offer a series of Game Nights where people get together just to play games and chill out.
HNN: Which event are you looking forward to the most?
Newman: Personally, I look forward to anytime I get a chance to spend time with my fellow Humanists. I can openly express viewpoints based on reason and evidence, and can expect to hear some well-reasoned disagreement leading to an enlightening discussion. Plus, they are big-hearted, friendly, fun people.
HNN: You’re involved with Tumbleweed (a local youth development center) and will have a team at the Tillman Foundation’s annual run. What type of outreach, volunteer, or philanthropic activities have HSGP been involved in? What type of similar activities will HSGP be involved in this year?
Newman: We are mainly an educational organization that occasionally does nice things. Outreach will become more defined as we become familiar with our new neighborhood. Before Tumbleweed, we supported HomeBase Youth Services (another charity for homeless youth) for years with donations, plus for three years one of our members conducted poetry classes for the young people at HomeBase. This is the first year for the Pat Tillman Run and if all goes well, this may become one of our annual events. We occasionally collect for disaster relief - Katrina, Haiti, etc. We hope to do some volunteer work for Save the Family since they are two blocks from our new building, and many of the apartments around us are theirs - providing transitional housing for families in need.
HNN: What makes your group different from other groups?
Newman: We are the first Chapter to own our meeting place. We have a large membership of 240 and growing, and we have over 550 people on our emailing list to receive meeting notifications. We have a long history – we literally spent forty years wandering in the desert, from restaurant to restaurant - before we found a home. These factors provide an excellent opportunity for HSGP to become a cornerstone group to educate and prepare the Humanists in our community to be capable advocates for freethought.
HNN: In what ways has having a community center helped your chapter?
Newman: Ownership has its privileges. We can use our Humanist Community Center whenever we wish, and if our guest speaker runs over schedule, there’s nobody trying to throw us out of the meeting room! The members are very excited about having a comfortable place to call their own, where they can hold small discussion groups, host a birthday party, or just sit and read in our Robert G. Ingersoll Library.
HNN: In what ways is having a community center a challenge?
Newman: As any homeowner knows, maintaining a building is a constant drain on the pocketbook and our volunteer labor. For example, the roof began leaking just two days before our first meeting in the new building – the first time most of our members and our special guests would be seeing our new Humanist Community Center. Talk about adding stress to an already tense time!
HNN: Where do you see your Chapter in five years?
Newman: We will have outgrown our building; will be 100 members stronger; and will have earned a positive reputation for our curricular programs that teach Humanism, critical thinking, and how to effectively communicate our worldview to others. We will have diversified our age demographics by adding 20 and 30-somethings who will no doubt energize our organization and enlarge its purpose.
HNN: Where do you see the Humanist movement in five years?
Newman: Larger. Recent polls, including the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, show a growth in secularism across the United States. In HSGP’s neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona, data from a few years’ ago shows that over 50% in our zip code state no religious affiliation, and that’s in the heart of a very conservative area. HSGP has completed our Humanist Community Center at just the right moment to be a beacon of support for those seeking a non-theistic place where they can learn, relax and discuss current events with a diverse group of like-minded people.
Learn more about the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix at www.hsgp.org.
Eric Nguyen is the field coordinator for the American Humanist Association.