and Camille Taylor
Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Congregation in Bloomington asked people attending a Not In Our Town anti-hate rally Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University to join hands and repeat after her.
"We are not here to protest or rally against any group or individual, but to educate ourselves and our children and become more aware of what is happening around us. After you leave these doors, remember tonight, remember our stories, our cheers, our emotions and friendship, remember that we our one. Together, Let us be compassionate, kind, and respectful towards each other. We must see people for who they truly are and teach our children to take a stand against racism, bigotry and all forms of intolerance. Let us celebrate our diversity together and inspire and honor each other as brothers and sisters. -- Archana Shekara
“We are here. We are your brothers and sisters. We hear you. We believe you,” she said as the crowd of more than 150 people echoed her words. “Hatred and intolerance have no place here. We shall not fear. Love will hold us together as one family of humanity."
The gathering started with a mantra recited by a Hindu priest and the lighting of a candle to symbolize removal of darkness from the community.
Speaker after speaker talked about the need to support each other, to speak out against hatred and bigotry and to work for peace.
The rally took place in IWU's Hansen Student Center where the two dozen flags of other countries that ring the upper level took on special meaning.
“We are all here in solidarity as a community to stop hate together,” said IWU Provost Jonathan Green. “We are gathered here tonight to express love for our neighbors.”
But it was the personal stories of insults and slights, particularly those of high school students from Bloomington District 87 and McLean County Unit 5, that seemed to touch the crowd.
A student whose family is from India told of being asked in a social studies class what caste her family was from.
Another who is Muslim said the day she decided to wear her hijab to school she received "weird looks" or was ignored by people she knew.
A Hispanic student said she was told not to speak Spanish in school — “you're in America now,” they said.
And a student of mixed race related how, when she was only 6 years old, her mother, who is white, came to school for a program and another student asked if she was adopted.
Imam Khalid Herrington of the Islamic Center of McLean County experienced racism growing up in the 1970s with a mother who is white and a father who is black. When he became a Muslim in the mid-1990s, he encountered other bigotry, especially after the 9-11 attacks.
One day, Herrington, whose parents both served in the U.S. military, was told to “Go back to your country,” he said.
“I didn't know whether to laugh or cry,” he recalled.
But amid the stories of rude comments — or worse — there were also stories of feeling welcome in Bloomington-Normal and staying far longer than they ever thought they would.
Archana Shekara, a Not In Our Town member and one of the event's organizers, lived in India for 19 years, but she has lived in Bloomington-Normal for the last 24 years.
“Bloomington-Normal is my town. It's where I live. It's my home,” said Shekara, prompting applause from the crowd.
A number of speakers, representing different races, religions and nationalities took the stage at one point — immigrants and children of immigrants from countries such as France, Brazil, Bangladesh, India and Venezuela.
“This is what Bloomington-Normal looks like,” said Shekara.
The Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard of rural Bloomington warned that hate speech is becoming hate action in parts of America, but she emphasized that hate should not be answered by hate.
“We have to guard against lowering … our behavior to that of the haters,” she said.
Shekara urged people to report instances of hatred.
Her daughter, 17-year-old Aishwarya Shekara, said, “See us as the next generation of leaders who have the power to change our nation, even in these polarized times.”
Baller-Shepard said, "Let's continue to celebrate diversity, not just tolerate it, not just moan about it, but celebrate."
Herrington reminded the crowd: "We are not going to agree all of the time. We can still respect each other all of the time. We can try to understand each other all of the time."
Four of NIOTBN's nine Not In Our School (NIOS) schools also were represented at the rally. An Indian student translated the gathering's Hindi prayer into English, while students from Bloomington Junior High and Bloomington High School read a post-election letter written to them by their teacher assuring them of their safety.
Another BHS student read a prepared statement from the Bloomington District 87 School District affirming its support of all students. A Normal West High School student read a similar statement prepared by the Normal Unit 5 School District.
Other Indian, Muslim, biracial, and Latina students shared personal stories about being stereotyped, feeling singled out, and wanting to be seen as a human being first and foremost. Some of the students were the leaders of NIOS clubs; others were members/students from their schools.
A group of children from BCAI (Breaking Chains Advancing Increase) performed with dances reflecting the Indian culture. Their sponsor, Angelique Racki, is on the steering committee of NIOTBN, as chair of its Arts and Culture Committee.