Young Voices From B/N Want to Shape Gun Debate

Ryan Denham


Ellie Diggins and her friends can’t drive a car. They can’t vote. They’re not even in high school yet. But they want to influence the public debate over gun violence.

Diggins is an eighth-grader at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal. Along with friends Ari Whitlock, Courtney Sims, and Maddie Beirne, they’re planning a school walkout demonstration March 14 as part of a nationwide movement sparked by the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. They were inspired in part by the young Florida survivors who’ve lobbied publicly for stricter gun control.

Beirne said she moved to act after seeing the names and ages of those killed in Florida. Many of them were 14, just like her.

“I’m just kind of watching and wondering if my school is going to be the next one that’s going to be shot up or terrorized in some way,” Beirne said. “And I feel like I shouldn’t be afraid of that. I feel like I should be worried more about my next social studies quiz or what high school is going to be like next year, as opposed to whether or not I’m going to die when I walk into (school).”

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14, the four friends and other students say they will walk out of class, then out the front door at Kingsley. They’ll hold signs during a mostly silent protest (so they’re not disruptive) focused on more gun control.

They want to see universal background checks, a full ban on bump stocks and assault weapons, and additional measures to stop those with mental illness from buying weapons, said Whitlock. They also hope to attract the attention of state lawmakers like state Rep. Dan Brady and Sen. Jason Barickman, who’ve visited their school before.

“We’ll be high schoolers next year, and after that we’ll be adults, and we’ll be voting,” said Diggins, who created an online RSVP for the event. “And right now we can’t hold office. But we want to change things that people in office can change.”

Sims said she wants to make a difference, regardless of her age, noting the impact the Florida survivors have had on the public debate around guns.

“I personally think it’s quite inspiring to see kids as young as we are stand up for themselves and try to make a difference in the world,” Sims said.

Whitlock agreed. During an interview with GLT, Whitlock name-dropped several court rulings and laws that she says gives the students precedent to act.

“I feel that the youngest generation can always make the most change. We’re taking control of our futures. Just because we’re not old enough to vote yet doesn’t mean we have no say,” Whitlock said. 

Ellie Diggins’ mom, Aleda, said she was very proud of what her daughter was doing.

She said they’ve talked about what happens if she’s disciplined for organizing the walkout. (Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said last week that peaceful protesters who are not disruptive will not be disciplined, calling it a learning opportunity.)

“She has decided it’s worth it. And I back her on it,” Aleda Diggins said.

Demonstrations are expected at both Unit 5 high schools as well as Bloomington High School on March 14. Another rally on gun control is planned for March 24.

Bloomington Transgender Soldier 'No Burden'

Judith Valente


Bloomington resident Jordan Becker joined the Army National Guard in 2008 as Jordan Elizabeth Becker, a woman. In 2014, he dropped Elizabeth from his name, began hormone therapy and underwent surgery to become a man.

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter last week that he wants to ban transgender men and women from serving in the military. Pentagon officials said they don’t plan to make any immediate changes. Becker is determined to remain a soldier.

When he first enlisted, transgender individuals were not allowed to serve openly. When the Obama administration changed that rule, Becker says he was ecstatic. He promptly re-enlisted, this time in the Army Reserves.

There is no reason transgender individuals cannot serve effectively, Becker said.

“When I hear people say transgender troops are physically and emotionally unfit, that just blows my mind,” he said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. His full interview will air Monday.

"I would personally love for him to stand in front of me and tell me I am a burden to the military."

The 26-year-old reservist said he received dozens of supportive messages within minutes of the president’s announcement.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support I received after Trump tweeted that. But it’s also extremely disheartening because I know for myself, I’ve worked so hard to get my gender changed so I can conform to male standards of the military. I know that thousands of other transgender troops have worked so hard to get where we are today,” he said.

In a 2016 report, the Rand Corp. estimated between 2,000 and 11,000 of the nation’s 1.3 million active duty troops are transgender. Becker maintains the number may be as high as 15,000. Transgender individuals experience an extreme dissatisfaction with their gender of birth, a condition known medically as “gender dysphoria.”

Becker's Journey

GLT News first brought you the story of Becker’s journey from female to male in 2015 as part of a series on transgender individuals living in the Twin Cities. Becker says he always wanted to be a soldier. Last May, he received an Achievement Award from his unit for his work as military policeman in the Reserves.

He maintains his transgender status doesn’t affect his ability to serve effectively as a soldier, physically or mentally.

Emotionally, “I think it increases my ability, just with all the adversity I deal with generally for being transgender. Being transgender has made me mentally and emotionally tough,” he said.

As to his physical capabilities, “There is not a single thing I can’t do. In fact, I can do things better than before. I can do more push-ups and have more endurance. I obviously want people to see me as a male, so in the military I conform to the male standards, especially the fitness standards. That requires shorter run times as a male and more push-ups,” Becker said.

Additionally,  he said, “I can shoot a weapon better than I did before. I not saying that’s because of hormones. A lot of it is emotional and mental. I am more at peace with myself because I am who I always thought I should be.”

Becker is a professional fitness trainer and currently works at a school for at-risk youth. He is a burly man with ample biceps, a buzz haircut and trim mustache. He said before his transition from female to male was complete, he endured many embarrassing and difficult moments. He still had to sleep in the female barracks, use female bathrooms and occasionally shower in close proximately with women.

Now that his surgeries are complete and he has been on hormone treatments for three years, few in his unit besides his immediate superiors and human resource officials even know he began life as a female, he said.

“The unit I’m in now is phenomenal. They have done nothing but work with me and for me,” Becker said.

But transgender people still face many misconceptions and struggle to win acceptance.

In proposing the ban, the president said he believes it is too costly for the military to cover surgeries and medical treatments for transgender troops. Becker called that assertion “an excuse.”

“Everyone’s journey is different. Not every single soldier is going to have all the surgeries,” Becker said.

“Some people only stay on hormones and opt to have no surgeries. Some people have all the surgeries to make themselves feel better and conform to the body they feel they should be in, but not every soldier is going to have all the surgeries.”

He said he paid for his own breast reduction and genital surgery out of pocket and through private insurance. His hormone medication, he said, costs “$15 dollars a month. That’s it.”

Although transgender individuals have made extensive progress legally and socially especially in the few years, Becker said they still face many misconceptions.

“There is a soldier in my unit that for a high school project did a project on on transgender people. She told me if I would have known you were transgender beforehand I probably would not have wanted to be your friend.”

He said he believes the embattled president, under investigation for Russian meddling over the election and facing questions about potential financial conflicts and his ability to govern, is trying to cater to his conservative base.

“Donald Trump hasn’t don’t a lot of things he promised the people and to me this is him, trying to say, ‘Hey I am doing something.’ Donald Trump never served. He avoided the draft  in military. I would personally love for him to stand in front of me and tell me I am a burden to the military,” Becker said.

Disorganizer United for Black Lives Matter Fundraiser

Jon Norton


"Whenever I call it a jazz band I do air quotes. 'Jazz.'" said Disorganizer mandolin player Stefen Robinson, gesturing with the index and middle fingers of both hands over his head.


"Because I don't even know what that means anymore," continued Robinson. "Are you talking about Miles Davis? Are you talking about Wayne Shorter? Are you talking about Kneebody?

We're all influenced by jazz, and the other three dudes, (bass player) Ryan Nolan, (drummer) Michael Carlson and (saxophonist) Travis Thacker are influenced by jazz," said Robinson.

Robinson was self-deprecating while describing the group's serendipitous origins. He and Thacker connected at Carl's Pro Band Center in Bloomington and eventually brought in Nolan to play bass during jam sessions.

"It got to the point where very quickly I said 'I'm a terrible drummer ... do you know a drummer?'" laughed Robinson. "That's how I met Michael.  They called in Michael. At first it was two drummers, I was playing drums, Michael's playing drums, and then it just became kind of stupid. So I said 'I play electric mandolin.' I'm actually way better at that than drums."

That self-awareness extends to the rest of the group. It's a trait that has them playing an April 15 fundraiser at The Bistro in Bloomington for Black Lives Matter BloNo. Robinson, who teaches social studies, sociology, and history at Normal Community High School, says the group is intentionally anti-racist.

"Not just, as I describe in my sociology class as passively anti-racist, but actively anti-racist in any context we can," said Robinson. "to try work toward a just society without the racial stratification that we see."

Black Lives Matter. The name itself repels many, especially, but not exclusively, non-blacks.  When I mentioned to Robinson that a local blogger recently questioned "don't white people know that Black Lives Matter hates white people?," for once he paused. "I am intimately involved with the people working with Black Lives Matter. None of them hate white people." chuckled Robinson.

Some believe the term implies that white lives or police lives don't matter. Many respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter."

"I have to have conversations with my students about this, often," said Robinson. "I wear my Black Lives Matter shift to school. Weekly. I do it so we can have these conversations. I'm not doing it to promote a specific agenda I have outside of school, but to raise conversations so students can have these dialogs."

Disorganizer is inspired by some of the free-jazz players from back in the day, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. Some of the same players composing music in reaction to or inspired by events in the 1950's and 60's that Black Lives Matter and others are shining a light on today. Robinson said he has used some of that music in his classroom, but said that today kids react more favorably to politically charged hip-hop. But he credits Coleman for the melody on "It shoots, It Hits," one of the four songs on their recently released untitled EP.

"That title comes from the 'Zen and the art of Archery,' this really famous book in the Zen world. It's this concept that this guy was studying archery and couldn't get it right. And his teacher was trying to get him to the point where he didn't think he was shooting the arrow. I wanted to compose this song where it built in a way where the tension keeps increasing. And then like this guy holding the bow, all of a sudden, the arrow just shoots. The guy doesn't ever let the arrow go, it just shoots. And that's the right moment to end the song." said Robinson.


Putting Out The Welcome Sign

Mel Lunny


Despite the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric we have all witnessed in recent times, there are always a handful of citizens fighting to make their communities more welcoming. 

One such citizen is Matthew Bucher, a pastor at Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisburg, VA, who shared a message with his congregation in response to negative comments made by politicians with regards to immigrants.  It read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” and appeared in Spanish, English, and Arabic on a simple sign in front of his church.  After a positive response to the sign from the local community, smaller yard signs were created and quickly sold out.

When calls for the signs started to come from other communities, the church posted the design online,  and also offered other language options to adapt the sign based on each local community. 

Today, the signs can be found in communities around the United States and Canada, including Bloomington-Normal—Thanks to Pamela and Herb Eaton, who saw the signs in Harrisonburg, VA while visiting their daughter.  They decided to bring the welcoming message to their own community, so after returning to their home near downtown Bloomington, they ordered 100 signs to be printed locally.

Pamela told WGLT, "I think it's important that when people come into older neighborhoods, especially like where I live in Dimmitt's Grove, they realize just because you may have a foreign last name or speak a different language, you in fact are welcome and we're glad you're our neighbor.” 

Signs cost $10, which allows for a small profit to be donated to the Western Avenue Community Center and the Dimmit’s Grove Neighborhood Association.  If you’d like to order a sign to display locally, call Pamela Eaton at 309-829-3424.

There is also a Facebook page for those interested in purchasing or printing signs in other communities.

Twin Citians United in Face of Nationwide Violence


Residents came together from the community to remember the recent  victims of violence and racism throughout the country on Monday night, as Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Rev. Frank McSwain led the gathering in the rallying call, “United, we stand; divided, we fall.”

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Moses Montefiore Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe and Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla chat with Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner prior to the vigil.

Leaders from five area religious denominations came together at Bloomington First Christian Church for what is becoming a hallmark of Bloomington-Normal’s Not In Our Town efforts -- a bringing together of all faiths and even those questioning their faith. The prayer service included a reading of names, a lighting of candles, and a moment of silence for victims and the families of shooting victims in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana.

"If we don't start living together as people, I promise we are already dead as a community," McSwain warned.

The vigil included chanting, or a Sholka (Song) to bring in light by local Hindu Priest Divaspathi Bhat. Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla of the Bloomington mosque Masjid Ibrahim provided a meditation on light and the service included a later reference to the Martin Luther King quote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can drive out darkness," while Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of the Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington issued a call to action which could be different for each person -- "We can't just stand here after this night. Think about what you can do to make a difference in people's lives."

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

Imam Abu Emad and Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church Senior Past Frank McSwain join in a gesture of solidarity.

First Christian Senior Pastor Jim Warren, the father of a large multicultural family, said he's tired of holding vigils and rallies. "I'm tired of us saying we are going to do something and then we don't." He suggested, "reach out to those who are different from us.  Build a community of compassion."

“We really need to see each other as human beings,” said Mike Matejka from Not In Our Town . “That’s people in the community, that’s people of diverse background, that’s our law enforcement. There is so much tension in our nation right now, this is an opportunity to come together in our diversity and say we’re all human, we all support each other, we need each other to heal .”

“It is really beginning to seem that way, that we can’t find civil ways to discourse,” added Anne Libert, and retired teacher from Unit 5 and Not In Our Town volunteer.  “We seem to want to attack the other and blame the other, no matter who the other is.”

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said he was heartened by the turn out at First Christian Church and the standing ovation given officers there, but he said the people who need to hear the call for unity, empathy, and tolerance were likely not there to hear it. The challenge, he says, is reaching that group. Heffner is interviewed in an upcoming Twin Cities Stories blog article, along with local NAACP head Quincy Cummings.

Bill Kellett of Normal said he came because he needed reassurance that something like the police shootings in Dallas, Texas, would not happen here. “I know our town is different and I can’t see that happening here,” he said. “Yet, I’m glad that we have people in this community who care enough that show that we won’t tolerate that kind of hatred here.”

Sam Ridgway of Bloomington said people need events like this where they could gather peacefully.

“I want to be around people who are committed to making this area a better place,” he said. “I am thankful that we are a smaller community and can have something like this in a church, rather  than downtown near a courthouse where it’s in an open area and you are a little scared.”

Janet Merriman of Bloomington argued “people are putting their lives on the line just by going out and protesting, but here, we are letting people know that we see what’s going on in the world and we aren’t going to let it happen here.”

“Brothers and sisters, whatever they are.  Black, white, tall, short, rich, poor. They are brothers,” said Imam Abu Emad AL-Talla.

“To claim light in darkness, to remember the lives and potential that have been lost as a result of violence against our brothers and sisters,” NIOTBN Faith and Outreach Chairman and First Christian Associate Minister Kelly Becker of First Community Christian Church maintained. “And to look forward to a different future for our neighborhoods, our community and our nation.”

Local Muslim, Jewish Leaders Decry Orlando Violence

Twin Cities Muslim and Jewish leaders joined in condemning last weekend’s mass murders at an Orlando night club frequented by LGBT individuals and cautioned against blaming the Islamic religion for the actions of a few.

In a letter to the Prairie Pride Coalition, the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal this week repudiated the Orlando shootings:

“The entire Muslim community of Bloomington-Normal, including Masjid Ibrahim and Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal, condemns the gruesome and barbaric attack in Orlando and we offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” it stated. “We join our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence and terror.”

Meanwhile, talking with WGLT Radio, the Islamic Center’s Sheheryar Muftee maintained attacks like the mass shooting at the Pulse night club might be less likely to happen here. Muftee held local Muslims are a tight-knit community that rejects violence, and “all of us know each other pretty well.”

“If people are not attending the mosque, we check on them,” he related. “We have contacts with the joint terrorism task force of the FBI and local law enforcement, so I think it's very, very unlikely something like this could happen, but no one can definitely say."

Muftee said leaders at Bloomington-Normal's three mosques often preach against the use of violence. "The three mosques are very proactive in preaching against hate of any kind, preaching against strong views on religion. We have lots of programs for kids and youth and we try to show them positive things in their religion and keep them away from minority hate groups that are out there," he said.

Muftee said ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as the San Bernardino and Orlando attackers, "call themselves Muslim but they are not practicing Muslims. They are taking the name of Islam and dragging it through the mud."

He called the phrase "radical Islamic terrorist" an unfair characterization ofthe vast majority of the world's 1.1 billion Muslims.

Muftee believes the Orlando attack was a hate crime directed at gays rather than a politically motivated act of terror. He said he also believes shooter Omar Mateen, who was killed by police, suffered from severe mental illness that was influenced by jihadist propaganda.

He said homosexuals would be welcome to join Muslims in prayer at the Islamic Center.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe of Bloomington’s Moses Montefiore Congregation admonished against targeting the Muslim community as “scapegoats” for the Orlando shootings or other acts committed by extremists.   

“There are more good Jews and more good Muslims and good Christians that we do know about,” Dubowe argued. “We tend to be drawn to those individuals who claim that they represent us. We are all God’s children, and I was pleased to see what the Muslim community wrote – it was a very powerful statement, and it really said a lot about the Bloomington-Normal community.”

Dubowe participated in a December vigil with local Christian and Islamic leaders in response to concerns about growing Islamophobia. Rather than pointing cultural fingers, she believes Americans should focus after tragedies such as the Pulse killings on “what we should do,” whether it’s re-examining enforcement of gun regulations, fostering mental health resources, or generating dialogue on broader social attitudes.

As Dubowe along with spiritual leaders nationwide mourn the Orlando victims, emphasized that her temple embraces the LGBT communities and that while some within those communities may feel pressure to suppress their gender identity at church,  “our ‘closets’ are WIDE open.” Because of the Holocaust, earlier Russian pogroms against the Jews, and other assaults on her own community, Dubowe sees strong Jewish empathy with communities that also have been “pushed down.”

Moses Montefiore is a Reform Jewish congregation, “the most liberal of the whole Jewish community,” Dubowe notes. She stresses the need for the church to reach out to all those “on the fringes of society,” including LGBT individuals and those with disabilities, and the temple is working to connect with African-American members of the Jewish community.

“We have been very supportive in recognizing the LGBT members of our community,” the rabbi stressed. “We recognize that each one of us is a child of God – no one less than others. We’ve always wanted to create a safer space for them – not only in God’s eyes, but in our eyes. Everyone has the right to celebrate their life, their love, and who they are. Moses Montefiore Congregation welcomes all.”

Recently, the Reform National Federation Temple Youth movement issued what Dubowe deemed a “very powerful statement” recognizing that transgendered and other members of the LGBT community merit full rights and respect, and the federation is offering transgender training to help members better serve that community.

New Route Theater Offers Weekend LGBT Play Festival

New Route Theater is presenting a festival of LGBTQ plays tonight and this weekend. Theater Director Don Shandrow and program Curator Duane Boutte join Charlie Schlenker to talk about Voices of Pride.

Shandrow says this festival of four plays follows on the heels of the Black Voices Matter festival in February.

Voices of Pride will be presented in staged readings tonight and Saturday (April 23) at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at First Christian Church, 401 West Jefferson St. in Bloomington. Tickets will be available at the door for a suggested donation of $10, and the shows are open to the public.

WGLT's Investigation of Race and The Law Spotlighted

WGLT's award-winning pre-Ferguson investigation of Twin Cities racial issues was again in the spotlight this week, in a featured spread by the Washington-based communications website Current.

In a story also featuring Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal leader Camille Taylor and photography from a recent police-community gathering, Current's Henry Scheider relates how the Illinois State University-owned station began reporting for its five-part Police and Race series in August 2014, spurred by an Illinois-mandated study of traffic stops that indicated that people of color were being stopped and searched significantly more often than white drivers.

The study also revealed that canine searches were ordered more often during traffic stops involving people of color, though white drivers were more frequently found with illegal drugs or weapons. WGLT's coverage drew local interest, "and then the situation in Ferguson brought that to everyone’s attention nationally,” Bruce Bergethon, WGLT’s general manager, told Schneider.

WGLT’s four-person newsroom sought "a balanced picture” of the relationship between police and minorities in the community, according to Bergethon. Over the next four months, WGLT reviewed recordings of police interactions with minorities, examined court records and interviewed public officials, scholars and residents of Bloomington-Normal.

The resulting series, which aired last December, received two National Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

For the complete story, visit Current at http://current.org/?p=146973.