The PANTAGRAPH/December 7
by Maria Nagle
BLOOMINGTON — Against the backdrop of the deaths of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., and now New York City, and accompanying nationwide protests, Bloomington-Normal's "Not In Our Town" is sponsoring a new anti-hate initiative.
More than 100 political, community and educational leaders have been invited to show their support in fighting hatred and discrimination at an awareness-building event from 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at the YWCA McLean County, 1201 N. Hershey Road, Bloomington.
"Not In Our Town has always had a step in place for residents to show their support — the pledge card," said local NIOT member Marc Miller.
NIOT will unveil a newly-redesigned pledge card at a ceremonial signing of the first cards by community leaders to set an example for other residents, Miller said.
"Not In Our Town is a national movement that began right here in Bloomington," said Mayor Tari Renner. "I am honored to do whatever I can to help promote this cause so that people understand the best part of humanity and avoid our worst instincts."
A PBS "Not In Our Town" documentary, which explored how Billings, Mont., responded to a series of hate crimes, inspired the 1995 formation of an organization with the same name in Bloomington, making it the first city in the country to adopt the NIOT anti-hate, anti-discrimination program.
Anyone who wants to come out and sign a pledge card Tuesday is welcome.
The latest campaign also includes placing NIOT's anti-hate, anti-discrimination message on electronic billboards, including one along Veterans Parkway at Lincoln Avenue, and posters on Connect Transit buses.
"One of our goals is to make this a safe, inclusive community," said Miller. "I don't see how anybody could say they don't agree with that principle."
While the event was planned seven to eight months ago, its goal to create a safe, inclusive community is all the more critical in light of what has happened in Ferguson, organizers said.
"We're blessed that nothing terrible has happened in Bloomington-Normal. Our goal is to make sure that is always true." Miller said. "We take pride in being proactive rather than reactive."
He also hopes the local anti-hate campaign will be a catalyst for community dialogue and spur renewed interest in the pioneering local movement whose profile has diminished in recent years.
"Inoculation against hate is getting people to talk about what's wrong and help make it right," said Miller. "When we don't talk about things it festers."
Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and Assistant Chief Gary Sutherland plan to attend the ceremonial signing event.
"It's important for our residents to know that we are vested in communicating with the public so that we can all live in a safe community ... where we talk to each other and not at each other," Heffner said.
He and Sutherland attended a recent NIOT summit at the University of Illinois-Chicago to learn about developing civil rights issues and other related matters, Heffner said.
The organization is hoping to sponsor public discussions this spring between local law enforcement agencies and residents "to build mutual respect in that process," said Mike Matejka, who has been a Bloomington-Normal NIOT member from its inception.
"We can talk about what goes on in Ferguson. We can talk about what goes on with our police and what happens in our schools," said Matejka, Great Plains Laborers District Council's governmental affairs director. "And we can do it in a way that is respectful and hopefully builds understanding."
"I think the joy of Bloominton-Normal is we don't have events like Ferguson going on," Miller said. "It doesn't mean we don't have problems. It does mean we want to make this community a great place."