Project Oz

NIOS Highlights School Efforts During Campus Conference

Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal-Not In Our School outlined recent efforts to create a safer, more inclusive scholastic environment during Monday's Culturally Responsive Campus Community conference at Illinois State University.

Forty-two high school and college students -- including Normal West Community High School senior Anniah Watson and Normal Community High School senior Aishwayra Shekara, as well as faculty members attended the afternoon session in ISU's Old Main Room. College participants were primarily social work and education majors; Jessica Jackson, a Normal West Project Oz specialist who has sponsored NIOS along with Normal West social studies teacher John Bierbaum, reviewed racism, homophobia, and other concerns as well as ongoing anti-bullying/anti-bigotry initiatives at West.

NIOT/NIOS presenters highlighted a number of recent activities aimed at fostering inclusivity in area schools, including:

Operation Beautiful, a website that offered NIOS students at Normal Community the inspiration to write positive messages on post it notes and put one on each student's locker for them to find when they arrived at school the next morning.

In Their Words,  NIOS students at Normal West shared negative experiences such as name calling and teacher-ignored issues and their impact via a video shared with faculty.

Basketball game fundraiser. NIOS students raised funds to support a local mental health agency by holding a staff vs students  game at Normal West. At the admission table, individuals were asked to sign a NIOT pledge card

Pledge card drives. Both high schools have conducted additional pledge card drives.

School NIOS banners designed by the NIOT Marketing Committee. School districts have purchased them for each NIOT partner schools. In addition, posters that mirror the banners are available and being displayed in NIOS partner classrooms.

Culture Showcase. NIOS students at Normal West who organized a talent/sharing of culture show at Normal West H.S. in May 2016.

Culture Fair. NIOS students at Normal Community organized a fair during lunch time that featured foods, dress, and facts from various cultures.

Identifying safe people and places to talk. As students reveal issues at their schools (particularly the high school), they need to know who they can trust to share things that are happening to them. NIOT/NIOS is assisting in helping students identify those individuals.

The theme for this week's CCRC conference, Poking the Bear: Uniting to Challenge Systems of Oppression, focused on aspects of the community that continue to adversely affect some of the groups within it.

Kelley: A Safe Place For All in an Unsafe World

The Rev. Kelley Becker

Bloomington First Christian Church

While attending the NIOT 20th anniversary celebration Tuesday night, I shared with a friend that I was thinking about the community events I have been part of in the last two days and how they are all connected. My friend reminded me that writing about these experiences might be a great way to process them. So, here are some thoughts as I initially process the last couple of days.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

The Rev. John Libert and Imam Abu Emad were among Twin Cities spiritual leaders who dedicated Tuesday's NIOTBN 20th anniversary celebration.

On Monday night, I attended the 2016 LGBTQ Spirituality Forum, sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition. It was a moving experience to hear ministry colleagues speak words of welcome to members of the LGBTQ community gathered there. The faith communities represented were First Christian Church, New Covenant Community Church, Hope Church, Unitarian Universalist, Moses Montefiore Temple, and Illinois Wesleyan’s Evelyn Chapel. These communities have stated publicly that they are safe, welcoming, inclusive places for members of the LGBTQ community…and all of God’s people.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

A block off the Old Courthouse square, The Bistro -- a social center of activity for the Twin Cities' LGBT community -- offers a message of strength in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

One of the questions asked of the panel was, “Are there other faith communities in Bloomington-Normal that are welcoming of the LGBTQ community and if so, who are they?” That question opened the door for a conversation about the differences between welcoming people to attend versus welcoming people to be who they were created to be by participating fully in the life of the faith community. The Reverend Elyse Nelson Winger from IWU challenged us, as clergy, to encourage our colleagues to publicly support and fully welcome everyone, specifically the LGBTQ community. She said, “Now is the time…actually, it has been time for a long while, but now is really the time.” She is right. It is time. If you represent God, welcome and embrace all of God’s people. Now.

Following that event, on Tuesday I participated in Beyond the Rainbow: Build Your Strength as an Ally for LGBTQ Youth training event, sponsored by Project Oz. Gathered there were teachers, social workers, crisis team members, and even a few ministers. We heard stories of people who have been deeply hurt because they have been designated the “other” by pockets of our community, one pocket being some faith communities. We learned new language, new ways to listen, and new ways to be allies to the young people in the LGBTQ community.

I was struck again by the importance of Elyse’s words. After hearing, again, the damage religion and other aspects of our culture are doing to the young people of the LGBTQ community and being reminded, again, of my own privilege, I am more committed than ever to leading in ways that breathe life and hope into my brothers and sisters of all faith traditions, gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, and abilities. When we, as leaders, are silent, we send a powerful message of apathy and exclusion. When we exclude anyone from our community, the community is less than it could be. We are better when we include and welcome. God created diversity on purpose. It is time we fully embrace this gift from God.

Finally, I had the privilege of welcoming my colleagues from Moses Montefiore Temple, the United Church of Christ, Masjid Ibrahim mosque and the Hindu Temple as they blessed the NIOT anniversary event last night. I was moved, first of all, that they said, “Yes,” when I asked them to participate in this event. And second, their words of welcome and community resonated deep in my soul. I thought to myself…we all want the same things. We want to experience sacredness in our community, and in each other, every day. We all want a place to belong…a place of safety.

And then Tuesday night, after a long day, I learned of the act of terrorism in Istanbul. I remembered anew that the glimmers of hope I have experienced in our community the last couple of days need to be more than glimmers. They need to be sparks that ignite a passion for justice and peace, not just in Bloomington-Normal, but all over the world.

Friends, the world is not as it was intended to be. We must continue our work toward wholeness in a world that is, in many places and ways, so broken. Let us do this work together, healing the pieces one heart at a time. Shalom.

Project Oz Program Focuses on LGBT Youth

Build your strength as an ally for LGBT youth through a new program sponsored by Project Oz. 

Beyond the Rainbow, Tuesday, June 28, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Illinois State University Alumni Center at 1101 North Main Street, Normal, will focus on current research and trends, terminology, and definitions associated with LGBT youth, and discuss ways to create a culture of inclusion in the workplace and community.   

This training is relevant for anyone who wants to support LGBT youth, including school personnel, human service agencies, university staff, health care providers, and corporate employees. It is presented by Bonn Wade, LCSW.

Wade holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and has worked in Chicago- and Miami-based social service agencies for the last 19 years.  Bonn joined Chicago House as the Director of the TransLife Center in 2012, is an appointee on Cyndi Lauper’s Forty To None Project, and serves on the boards of The LYTE Collective and Task Force & Community Social Services.  Bonn’s co-trainer, Monica James, has 20-plus years’ experience as a community organizer, and is currently a board member at the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois.

For questions, email or call 309-827-0377.

Operation Beautiful Offers Affirmation to NCHS Students

Normal Community High School students Thursday found something different in the school's hallways -- positive affirmation, courtesy of an NCHS' Not In Our School project Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal (NIOTBN) Education Subcommittee Chairman Camille Taylor deemed "seed planting."

"This afternoon, Not in Our School put compliments on about 2000 lockers at Normal Community!" student Aishwarya Shekara recounted. "But it wasn't just NIOS students from NCHS who helped.

"(Normal Community West High School Project Oz coordinator) Jessica Jackson and students from Normal West's NIOS and Hype club came to Normal Community after school to help us accomplish this task! Working together was so much fun, and though the rivalry between both schools is strong, it was put aside for friendship. Students from Culture Club and Future Business Leaders of America took part as well, and we finished around 4. I expected us to take three hours, but we did it in one! All of our clubs worked in unity today and it was beautiful to watch! Thank you all so much for your time and support. I can honestly say that I am blessed to go to Normal Community. Thank you for everything!"

Shekara is the daughter of Illinois State University arts instructor Archana Shekara, a member of the NIOTBN Steering Committee.