An Interview with Kaeleigh Pontif — President, Yuba Community College SSA

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background — geography, culture, language, religion/irreligion, and education?

Kaeleigh Pontif: I was born and raised in Houma, Louisiana. As you can imagine, growing up in the southern bible belt has a certain set of challenges. The south takes cultural preservation very seriously, despite how archaic some of the traditions may be. For the first 16 years of my life I practiced as a Jehovah’s Witness. Growing up, bible study always came before school work. We attended the kingdom hall two or three times a week, and frequently preached door to door. I graduated from H.L. Bourgeois High School in 2011, and moved to Marysville, California in 2013. I will graduate from Yuba College this December, and plan to attend Sacramento State University in the spring of 2018 where I will study environmental science.

Jacobsen: What is the personal background in secularism for you? What were some seminal developmental events and realizations in personal life regarding it?

Pontif: There were many times in my religious upbringing where I attempted to ask questions to those teaching me. I was always told I was concerned about the wrong things, or that I simply had to pray on it. Between the ages of 15–18, there were many arguments with my family concerning my religious position. I began to feel like the Jehovah’s Witness religion had practices that I simply did not agree with or wish to participate in. It became harder to get me to attend. I so badly wanted to find the right religion since I had doubts about my own, I joined numerous Christian clubs at my high school in hopes of finding the right path. As I’m sure it has begun for many atheists, at some point you realize things just don’t make sense. With all the cruelty and suffering in the world, I could no longer believe in an all knowing and loving god. I also noticed the hypocrisy among many of the religious, and numerous biblical contradictions. I denounced religion and deism altogether and stopped attending church. I felt depressed due to the lack of community that I once had with church and family. I started to pay attention and learn about all of the atrocities committed in the name of god and religion, and wanted nothing to do with doctrine. In Houma, where I spent the majority of my life, I knew of no such meetup groups where people discussed philosophy, religion, humanism, etc. I felt like that area had no opportunities for me, be it personal or professional, so I decided to move to California. After a couple months of living in Marysville, I did a quick google search for atheist groups in the area and found the group Sac FANS on meetup.com. Within this group, there was an atheist book club which I attended regularly, Sunday Assembly, a secular congregation, opportunities to do volunteer work in the secular community, and so much more. I met some of the best people I know through this group and have had many rewarding experiences because of it.

Jacobsen: You are the president of the Yuba Community College SSA. What tasks and responsibilities come with the position? Why do you pursue this line of volunteering?

Pontif: That’s right, I am the president of the Yuba College Secular Student Alliance, I founded the group in January 2017. Because this is the first semester we’ve existed at Yuba, I’ve had a little more responsibility than one typically would. I organize and preside over meetings, activities, and events, maintain our web presence, book speakers, coordinate volunteer and service work, and other fun outings for the group. I choose to pursue this line of volunteering because I find it to be extremely necessary. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize how participating in certain religious practices and beliefs can be harmful to others. One’s religious beliefs might cause them to vote in favour of anti LGBTQ rights, against reproductive healthcare, against certain environmental policies, etc. When I start to tell people about the SSA, the first question I usually get is, “What does secular mean?”. Because young adults are oblivious to the most fundamental word concerning our government, is just a reminder that I have lots of work ahead of me.

Jacobsen: What personal fulfillment comes from it?

Pontif: In the short amount of time that I have been an officer with the SSA, I have had several rewarding experiences and the opportunity to meet some truly amazing people. Our group has had some great discussions about women’s rights, indoctrination, secularism in the government, etc. All of these discussions left attendees with a better understanding of the topic and a desire to do something about the issues. Because I recognize the injustice reflected by certain religious practices, I feel that I have a responsibility to shed light on them and do something about it. When I lobby for secular values, volunteer at outreach events, I get a huge sense of fulfilment in knowing that I served my community in a way that benefits everyone. I believe that when I do better, we do better.

Jacobsen: What are some of the more valuable tips for campus secularist activism?

Pontif: Great question, I’m still picking up on a few tips myself. So far, I’ve learned that the most useful form for secular activism is simply talking to people. When I learn that a student is intimidated by the word secular, despite knowing what it means, I’m able to open up a conversation and help them better understand how everyone benefits from secularism, not only nonbelievers. As long as people are scared to initiate conversations regarding secularism, it will always be a taboo. I encourage others to discuss religion and humanism on campus and generate those discussions that can lead people in the more enlightened direction. I often remind people that we were not here to condemn religion, but rather discuss it and its effects on social structures like government and education.

Jacobsen: What have been some historic violations of the principles behind secularism on campus? What have been some successes to combat these violations?

Pontif: Personally, I haven’t experienced any major violations of secular principles on campus however, there have been a couple of minor issues Last year I had a professor who spent valuable class time preaching the Mormon religion. I’m fully aware of academic freedom and a professor’s right to teach the class as he/she sees fit however, this was without a doubt a violation of those privileges. On more than one occasion I kindly asked him to discuss this matter before or after class time with anyone who may be interested. Despite my attempts, he continued to preach about flying serpents, Jesus Christ visiting the Americas, evidence of the earth being 6,000 years old, and so on. I decided to contact an associate at the California Community College Chancellors Office to assist me with a formal complaint to the dean. Although he continued preaching the following semester, I knew I had an obligation to speak up for secular values like the separation of church and state. Because many academics feel like they can utilize a public classroom to impose their religious beliefs on others, this is an ongoing issue, and I can only hope that students defend themselves and their rights.

Jacobsen: What are the main areas of need regarding secularists on campus?

Pontif: I feel like secularists are needed on campus to erase the stigma that we are not or cannot be kind, caring, contributing members of society. Student groups like SSA, are a way to reach out to students who may have questions about religion or non-belief. Many campuses have Christian or Muslim clubs and we need secular clubs to remind people that we are a diverse nation. Many secular groups like to show people that we do good for goodness’ sake, not in hopes of being rewarded or in fear of being punished.

Jacobsen: What is your main concern for secularism on campus moving forward for the next few months, even years?

Pontif: I suppose my biggest concern is student involvement. Yuba Community College is rather small and is located in a rural area, so we didn’t expect to rally or anything. Many students are focused on their studies and don’t make much time for extracurricular activities. I’d like students to know that they can focus on school work and still advocate for secular values. If we don’t do it, who will?

Jacobsen: What are the current biggest threats to secularism on campus?

Pontif: Frankly, I don’t see many threats to secularism on campus. I think if you have students who are willing to gather around the cause, you’re good to go! There can be some push-back from administrators or other students, but legally you have the right to make your voice heard. Groups might deal with their posters being defaced or something of that nature, but I think that makes what we do even more necessary.

Jacobsen: What are perennial threats to secularism on campus?

Pontif: As long as people are ignorant to what secularism is, there may always be threats against the movement. The current political landscape is trying to impose barriers for secularists, but I think we will ultimately prevail.

Jacobsen: What are the main social and political activist, and educational, initiatives on campus for secularists?

Pontif: All students should get involved with social, political, or educational activism. I think it is very important for people to learn about the resources available to better their overall experience. Other means of secular activism have led me to become involved with the SSA. I know that having these groups on campus can open many doors for student involvement, not just on campus, but in the community as well.

Jacobsen: What are the main events and topics of group discussions for the alliance on campus?

Pontif: Our weekly meetings are centered around discussion topics such as, women and religion, indoctrination, and LGBTQ rights. Throughout the semester we managed to get two phenomenal guest speakers to come out. In January, we hosted Mandisa Thomas, president and founder of Black Nonbelievers Inc,. She spoke about religion in the black community and certain issues associated with that such aas slave mentality, and socioeconomic setbacks. In May, we were honored to have president of California Freethought Day, David Diskin, speak to us about better understanding atheism and its history.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved and maintain the secular student alliance ties on campus?

Pontif: First, you have to make your group known and let people know that such a group even exists. To do so, I would suggest frequently putting flyers around campus letting people know when are where the meetings are held. At the end of the semester, many people told me they would’ve loved to join our group, but hadn’t heard of it. Communicating with your school’s club organizing office can help with promotion and web presence. Do something fun with your group, have a pizza party and feature a debate or movie. Engage in an activity with another club on campus, participate in a campus cleanup or fundraising event. Another way to maintain ties on campus, is to have an interfaith activity or event.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Pontif: Being a positive force in the community allowed me to channel my passion for humanism into real life actions, rather than into prayers that never get answered. Don’t just sit back in frustration of all the absurdity and inequality in the world, do something about it!

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Kaeleigh.