How far we've come...
1995: It was a sign of the times -- changing times for the Twin Cities. But the original story began in 1992 in Billings, Montana, where a series of hate crimes against Jewish, African-American, and Native American families brought the community together under the slogan Not In Our Town. The community, rather than be intimidated, rallied: The local newspaper printed a full-page Jewish menorah, and more than 14,000 families displayed it in their own windows all over town. The Billings community came together in a before unimagined way. PBS documented this event with a half-hour documentary, Not In Our Town, shown nationally in December 1995.
The video was previewed in Bloomington-Normal, and the Bloomington Police Department began using the video as a training tool. And Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal would soon take root.
1996: In the wake of the African-American church burnings in the South, the Bloomington-Normal community responded, asking the question: “What Can We Do?” A Not In Our Town – No Racism march from the Old Courthouse to Mount Pisgah Baptist Church and accompanying rally drew a large and diverse turnout. Hundreds signed No Racism pledge cards as part of a new Not In Our Town tradition; Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart stepped up police patrols around local African-American churches to prevent any such occurrence here. A volunteer group from the Twin Cities traveled to Mississippi to help rebuild a damaged church. “Today, each one of us has the chance to stand up and be counted,” Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal leader Marc Miller maintained.
City vehicles and residents put stickers with the Not In Our Town symbol on their vehicles and doors. Eventually, Bloomington, and then Normal, unveiled road signs with the Not In Our Town message at the community’s entrances. Subsequent marches and panel discussions continued to raise awareness. A second PBS video, Not In Our Town II, featured Bloomington-Normal’s efforts. By 1997, the national Utne Reader hailed Bloomington as the country’s “most enlightened” community for its Not In Our Town efforts and assistance in Mississippi.
2000: When East Peoria racist Matt Hale came to town with his white supremacist message, Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal countered with an alternative diversity fair and potluck in downtown Bloomington. When the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church came to town with anti-gay messages in 2004 (Westboro protestors disrupted Orlando victims’ funerals last week), Not In Our Town was there in force. The group had established a tradition of peaceful opposition to bigotry, and in 2001, the YWCA joined Not In Our Town to sponsor a major anti-racism rally featuring multicultural entertainment and Mount Pisgah Baptist Church’s Rev. David Brown reciting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” "So many times we are caught up in our own world, beliefs and experiences, and if we are not careful we can find ourselves discriminating against others just because they are different from us,” NIOTBN Willie Holton Halbert warned in 2009. “Not In Our Town (NIOT) is about respect for yourself and others. NIOT just reminds us that our differences are what make us all beautiful, and not standing up for that right is not an option.”
2002: After initial resistance in 1996, Bloomington expanded its human relations ordinance to include gays, lesbians, and transgender people “to protect the rights of all its citizens to have equal opportunity in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, and financing,” moved in part by Not In Our Town’s efforts. During an “In Our Town” forum after the failed 1996 vote, Advocacy Council for Human Rights and LGBT community member Peggy Burton argued “differences shouldn’t be seen as a threat.” In late fall 2002, the Bloomington City Council approved language based on the City of Chicago’s Human Relations Ordinance and redefining discrimination as an attempt "to make a difference in treatment, or favor any person because of race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, or physical of mental disability unrelated to ability.”
2006: Marking its 10th anniversary, Bloomington-Normal hosted the first National Gathering of Not In Our Town communities. An ongoing effort was an annual voluntary outreach in area schools: High school students were asked to sign “no discrimination” pledges while primary school students signed “no bullying” pledges. Mike Williams, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said NIOTBN had made a strong effort for a young organization. "Racism still exists in the community but that's not to say the campaign has failed," Williams said. "Not In Our Town is still in its infancy. Personally, I can see them fighting 100 years from now because racism will continue in some form. . . .It's showing children how to recognize racism, how to counter it and in the end how to eradicate it. It's reaching to that next generation and stopping racism before it gets a foothold where it can grow."
2014: Twin Cities Not In Our Town representatives attended the National Gathering in Billings, Montana, and returned re-invigorated with enthusiasm and new ideas, as well as the conviction that Not In Our Town awareness was vital to establishing and maintaining Bloomington-Normal as a safe, inclusive community. Patrice O'Neil, executive director of NIOT, had visited Bloomington in the spring of 2014 to launch the viewing of their latest film, "The Waking of Oak Creek." In the months following the viewing there were several discussions regarding Bloomington's participation in the event. NIOTBN was asked to be a part of the program as one of five cities being featured, and leaders Suresh Krishna, Dontae Latson, and Camille Taylor offered a presentation on local successes.
After returning from Billings, NIOTBN “2.0” was basically born. After a community-wide meeting, the Twin Cities Not In Our Town Steering Committee reconfigured to promote education, awareness, and understanding, and set a goal of being one of the first communities to achieve national Not In Our Town certification as a Gold Star Community dedicated to the principles of fighting hatred, addressing bullying, and creating a safe, inclusive community. NIOTBN 2.0 “relaunched” in December 2014 with a Season4Reason campaign and a new, more personalized mission.
2015: With NIOTBN 2.0 up, the renewed organization faced one of the most daunting social issues of the decade – the growing divide between the police and socioeconomically stressed communities. The Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown was still raw in the public psyche, and Mayor Tari Renner had assured Twin Citians that Bloomington Sgt. Ed Shumaker's 2013 statement that an African-American stabbing victim should "bleed to death" following an altercation at a local restaurant is "not what we're about." Local leaders and the police were seeking a way to prevent a Ferguson-style incident from occurring in the Twin Cities. NIOTBN’s answer, in cooperation with the NAACP and others, was “Breaking Barriers,” a community forum on Bloomington’s west side featuring the chiefs of McLean County and campus police agencies answering residents’ questions and concerns. "Education is key. If you know why they do things or if you disagree with why they do some things, you can head off some problems ahead of time," said John Elliott, Bloomington NAACP president and NIOTBN steering committee member. Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner acknowledged "some things will come up yes, but it's how you handle them." Following the forum, Heffner ramped up minority recruitment efforts, and local police participated in Coffee/Ice Cream With A Cop meets and training exercises to show citizens how street-side encounters are handled.
2015: The McLean County Unit 5 school district board in April passed a historic, student-presented anti-bullying resolution pledging “to stand up against bullying and intolerance and actively work to make our campus free from discrimination and hatred. We also resolve to promote safety, inclusion, and acceptance, joining thousands of others to say with one voice, ‘Not In Our School.’” NIOTBN along with enthusiastic local educators and administrators had recognized the damage bigotry and bullying inflict on students and the learning process, as well as the impact of social media, public body-shaming, and cyberbullying in amplifying potential trauma and injury. NIOTBN-sponsored, student-driven Not In Our School programs began to proliferate in District 87/Unit 5 junior highs and high schools, and more recently, elementary classrooms. Unit 5’s Nancy Braun sees a far more positive environment today especially for developmentally challenged and other special needs students, thanks to “the level of inclusion, starting as early as elementary schools,” and Twin City school officials are focused on the needs and rights of LGBT students.
In December, NIOTBN’s Education Subcommittee with the Regional Office of Education #17 offered a safer schools workshop to foster student leaders and new alliances between students, teachers, and administrators. NIOS helped germinate the seed of engagement, leadership, and empathy sown back in 1995, when a panel of local teens, including the daughter of a future NIOTBN leader, conducted a Bloomington forum on racism sponsored Coalition for Diversity and Reconciliation.
2016: Dylann Roof opened fire in a historic black church, in Charleston, South Carolina the night of June 17, 2015, killing nine people, including a pastor, during a prayer meeting. Roof, was arrested in North Carolina and extradited to South Carolina June 18, 2015 for what authorities deemed a hate crime. Roof had created a website, thelastrhodesian, where he posted a racist manuscript and photographs of himself wearing a jacket with flags of two former apartheid African nations, displaying his Glock .45-caliber pistol, and holding a confederate flag. Roof claimed the desire to ignite a race war by shooting the congregants who’d invited him to worship with him.
The nation responded to Roof’s act of racial hatred not with calls for retaliation or violence, but with horror, prayer, mourning, and reflection. On the evening of June 21, Twin Citians black and white, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner and Police Chief Brendan Heffner joined Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal and leaders of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church top commemorate the victims, question the causes of bigotry and hate, and join hands and voices in an effort at understanding and reconciliation. Mt. Pisgah Pastor Frank L. McSwain argued the need for community wide unity and understanding to ensure mankind's survival "as a race.” "You don't have to shoot somebody to kill them," McSwain said, urging the group to "go beyond the limitations of your own humanity" and both resist the social "status quo" and "learn to love somebody."
The months since have proven to be a test of America’s resolve toward progress in human rights and inclusivity. The Charlestown murders spurred a largely successful campaign to remove the Confederate flag from Southern government buildings, but a rural Kentucky county official defied the Supreme Court and refused to allow her agency to issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples. Presidential campaign rhetoric caused concerns within the Mexican and Muslim-American communities. When on Dec. 2 a California couple killed 14 and injured 22 in what was deemed a terrorist-inspired mass shooting in San Bernardino, anti-Islamic sentiments flared, and NIOTBN and its freshman Interfaith Committee united community leaders and Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu Twin Citians for a downtown Bloomington vigil seeking community wide understanding. In June 2016, when 29-year-old Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub that served largely LGBT patrons, NIOTBN participated with Prairie Pride Coalition in an another downtown vigil to help another community face down bigotry.