Roughly one busy year after community leaders and residents gathered at Illinois Wesleyan University's Ames Library to reinvigorate the 18-year-old Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal, NIOT:B/N returned to the library Saturday morning to forge new bonds in fighting local bigotry, bullying, and discrimination.
During a three-hour strategic planning meeting, Twin Cities officials, educators, and representatives of diverse Bloomington-Normal cultural communities hit the whiteboards to brainstorm ways to expand NIOT:B/N partnerships to help underserved constituencies and improve education and communications particularly among those who currently are not "engaged" out of a lack of awareness of local inequities or "discomfort" with discussion of race or culture.
As part of NIOT:B/N's strategy of "inoculation" -- the spread of social awareness on a person-to-person, group-to-group basis -- organization leader Phani Aytam appealed to Saturday's participants to reach out to additional community leaders about NIOT:B/N's mission.
"Is there one person you can talk to?" Aytam suggested.
NIOT:B/N's Art Taylor characterized the Twin Cities culturally as a richly diverse "community of a lot of dots," faced with the daunting challenge of "the connection of those dots." NIOT can serve as "the resource or brokerage for connecting the dots in our community" -- essentially a "one-stop shop" for specific groups seeking to reach the community at large.
Participants underlined the difficulties of bridging the Cities' cultural and economic divides. Meeting facilitator Gina Palmer acknowledged the tendency toward "self-segregation" among individual racial, religious, or social clusters, whether out of discomfort with or fear of offending or creating cultural misperceptions among other groups. Thus, cultural observances and festivals often become "preaching to the choir" rather than opportunities for multicultural education, according to Myra Gordon, who represented Bloomington's Moses Montefiore Temple. Gordon applauded the recent NIOT:B/N-sponsored vigil for the Charleston, S.C. church shooting victims, but suggested individual churches and groups could sponsor various general interest events as a way of introducing participants to other cultures.
Youth was a key focus both in raising early awareness but also as a way of reaching adults and, perhaps, changing the racial or cultural tone of the family dinner table. Unit 5 School District Superintendent Mark Daniel cited estimates that one hour per week of adult mentoring for a student significantly increases classroom participation and reduces disciplinary needs, while Bloomington Human Relations Commission member Rhonda Smith also emphasized the importance of student/student mentoring, arguing "their peers are who they are going to listen to."
Students are taking a hand in reducing school discrimination and bullying, through Not In Our School pledge efforts or the Bloomington-Normal Student Union organization studying possible strategies for leveling the playing field such as later school class times, standardized student testing, or dress codes that help set aside socioeconomic disparities.
McLean County YWCA head Dontae Latson recalled his first tour of Bloomington's west side, where he concluded the divide between east side and west side "wasn't just about race -- it was about class." Often, "capitalism itself is rooted in unfair practices," Latson said. NIOT:B/N's Mike Matejka, a former Bloomington alderman, noted that while the area has enjoyed a relatively low unemployment rate, minorities, ex-offenders, and others may see a far different perspective.
"You may be employed, but you may be stringing together a couple of jobs," Matejka maintained. Illinois Wesleyan University Center for Human Rights and Social Justice Director Irving Epstein held that "once you have a (criminal) record, you are screwed."
Building community awareness of racial, socioeconomic, or cultural divides amid media downsizing, bustle, and bias is a key challenge, Saturday's participants argued. Cultural communities can help ensure awareness and transparency by securing "a fixed and permanent place for their voice" via weekly print columns or radio segments, Epstein said. Participants meanwhile stressed increased reliance social media and other alternative information sources for community insights.