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Do Better Challenge: Ian Cromwell and Boys 4 Real

Hey friends! Last week I kicked off my official Do Better Challenge where I asked you all to rise above the negativity we are often bombarded with, and do something good for your community.

I started of the challenge with some very simple instructions, just say something nice to someone. A lot of you rose to that challenge and some went far beyond.

I got a lot of really great feed back from readers. One such reader who went way beyond what was asked last week with a random act of kindness, was Donnie.
Donnie writes:

Comment: Surly Amy Challenge: Continuing atheist Christmas where I buy $200 to $300 dollars of Caps (NHL Washington Capitals) souvenirs for the young kids in Section 427, I bought 2 Slapshot dolls (team mascot) for the 2 young girls, with their dads, sitting behind me. It’s simple: leave this world better than you found it, and as Spiderman’s uncle said, paraphrased, “with great privilege comes great responsibility.

Obviously the majority of us can not afford to buy random gifts for kids but a lot of us can afford to donate some of our time.

And that brings me to this week’s challenge.

This week I want you to simply start looking around for ways that you can help out in your community. Look for charities and groups that are doing community service that you might be able to help in some way, and then TALK ABOUT THEM. Even if you can not join up or donate money, mention the groups that are doing good stuff. Tweet about them. Write in to Skepchick about them. Post about them on your Facebook wall. Tell people around the water cooler that you think these projects are great. You would be surprised at how much just mentioning a charity organization can help get people off their couches and helping. If nothing else, it raises awareness.

Over the next few weeks I will be mentioning organizations that I find, that I think are doing great stuff. I will be featuring people who are rising to the challenge and actually getting involved with those projects so that you can be aware of them.

On that note, I bring you an interview with someone doing just that!

Ian Cromwell
(a.k.a. Crommunist) is a scientist, writer, speaker, and musician, whose interests include understanding social justice (particularly religion, gender, and race) as a natural topic for skeptical inquiry and examination. He is most often found on Twitter (@Crommunist) and at his website (crommunist.com). Ian lives in Vancouver, Canada.

This is a painting I did of Ian for this post:

Ian Painting 2sm

1. Do you self-identify with the the term atheist, skeptic or something else? And how long have you been a part of a religion-free lifestyle?
I first embraced the label ‘atheist’ in about 2008. I have written, in some detail, about what that process looked like for me at my blog but the brief summary is that I was raised Roman Catholic, and began to seriously question my faith in my teen years. I wrestled for a long time with the contradictions inherent in theistic belief for many years, looking to a variety of sources for answers. Eventually the specific list of dogmatic things that I actually believed dwindled until even a god was off the list. I began reading books and blogs written by atheists and fully embraced the label when I was ~24 years old. As far as ‘skeptic’ goes, I embraced the label shortly after adopting ‘atheist’, but I’ve always been a skeptic and was encouraged to think critically by my father from a very young age. I still use those terms, but with caveats. ‘Atheist’ is something you are. ‘Skeptic’ is something you do.

2. What are, in your opinion, some of the best benefits to living without religion or superstition?
I think that abandoning religion forces you, if you are a conscientious person, to provide justification for the things you believe. That being said, there are a lot of atheists (myself included) who have a lot of arbitrary beliefs that we don’t necessarily question.The biggest advantage, regardless of your affinity for self-examination, is that ‘just so’ religious claims immediately lose their persuasive power. Moral condemnations, calls to action, empirical pronouncements, anything that is cloaked in “because YahwAlladdha said so” language is wasted on the atheist. Insofar as those kinds of claims are pervasive in many cultures, atheists are immune from that particular kind of persuasion, and I think that’s valuable. At the same time, I can sympathize with those former theists who lament the comfort of the “goddidit” explanation in times of suffering, although I do not share their perspective.

3. This “Do Better Challenge” is focused on self-identified secular people who are rising up to the challenges of making a better world and helping those in need. You are currently involved in volunteer project called “Boys 4 Real.” Can you tell us a bit about the project and why you decided you wanted to donate your time and energy to help?

Boys 4 Real is a program sponsored by the YWCA that puts high-school students, university students, and professional people in a room with 12 year-old boys. Over the course of 8 weeks, we discuss topics like values, masculinity, media representation, and other important subjects. There is also a community service element to the program. I have enjoyed working with young people for a while, and had missed doing so when I moved to Vancouver. The Boys 4 Real program fit my busy schedule, and gave me the opportunity to get kids thinking critically and skeptically about important social topics. One of the topics I focus on at my blog is the harm that demanding adherence to tightly-policed stereotypical roles causes. While most everyone understands that feminist thought looks critically at the way these stereotypes adversely affect women (e.g., women as caregivers rather than leader, women as submissive and lacking agency, women being unsuited for certain fields and roles), it is important to recognize that these roles have adverse effects on men as well (e.g., men as uncaring and assertive, men as dominant and hyper-competent, men being suited for only a specific slate of fields/roles). These stereotypes fall apart under even casual scrutiny, and it’s very valuable to begin that scrutiny process early as people learn to socialize. That is part of the philosophy of Boys 4 Real, and it’s one that agrees very strongly with my own personal beliefs.

4. Have you encountered any difficulties or roadblocks while volunteering?
Most of the ‘roadblocks’ were in my own head. I had a high level of anxiety about working with young people, as I have no formal training as an educator or authority figure. It was a challenge for me, but one that was very rewarding. It turns out I’m pretty great with kids, so that’s good to know.

5. What is your favorite or most fulfilling reward from this particular project?
It’s hard for me to pick a single favourite part. Really, the whole process has been an unvarnished joy. I’ve had great groups of kids, dedicated fellow volunteers, and all the support I could ever want from the YWCA staff. Getting to see these young men grapple honestly and diligently with issues of respect, tolerance, and acceptance, and how those apply to personal relationships has been very rewarding. It’s also been great having some of my stereotypes about children tested. It’s a well-worn cliché, but I really do think I’m learning as much from the students as they are from me. Possibly more.

6. Can people get involved in the project you are working on or can you recommend other ways to help out the community?
The YWCA here in Vancouver is always looking for volunteers, particularly men. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to look into whether or not an opportunity like this exists in their community. If there isn’t, and it’s not possible to start one, even just having these conversations with the children in your life would be really valuable. These things aren’t taught in schools, and we often pick up the wrong lessons from the media if left to our own devices. One critical thinker can inspire dozens more, and kids love trying to see things from all angles.

7. What advice would you give to someone who maybe hasn’t ever volunteered but wants to try to do some good in the world?
Two things I would say are “start small” and “think selfishly”. By “start small”, I mean that volunteering doesn’t have to be visiting an old folks’ home or ladeling at a soup kitchen. It can be something as basic as lending assistance to a neighbour or promoting a cause. If you’re new, it’s easy to get overwhelmed – that’s less likely to happen when you start with small, achievable things. I realize it’s somewhat counter-intuitive to “think selfishly” about volunteer work, but the truth is that many of the problems in the world are too big to be tackled by a single person. If you start out trying to “change things” and “help people”, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment when things don’t change and people aren’t helped by the actions of a lone do-gooder. Focus instead on the value that you get from volunteering – the feeling of accomplishment, of connection to your community, of contributing to the kind of world you want to live in. Those feelings will stay with you across many different volunteering roles, even if you can’t see the outcomes right away. Once you recognize that, as a member of society, the betterment of the communities you live in also benefits you, you’re less likely to feel as though your efforts are futile.

you can make a difference

Thanks so much for all the work you do and for taking the time to be interviewed and for the wonderful advice on how to get involved, Ian! A big high five from us here at Skepchick! Keep up the great work!

Now… who will be next to rise up to the challenge?

Painting of Ian Cromwell © Amy Davis Roth

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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One Comment

  1. Hi.

    Just wanted to say that I am once again going to be helping to install a set for a show at the local community theatre. I have been involved in community theatre, in some capacity or another, for about 10 years now at different venues, doing different things. Currently, I am part of the standing crew that builds the sets, many of them quite challenging.

    Anyway, that’s what I do. I know it isn’t anything that makes a difference, but it’s something that I can do without the anxiety demon coming to kick my ass.

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