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Celebrating ordinary citizens transforming their communities

"This whole Gathering proves I'm going in the right direction with my life and that I need to continue this work of stopping hate and promoting acceptance all over the world as much as I can. I'll start in my little town and move on."
– Barbara Williams
   Newark, California

The first-ever Not In Our Town National Gathering took place in Bloomington, Illinois, the first city in the nation to adopt a Not In Our Town campaign a decade earlier. This historic conference brought together the leaders of the Not In Our Town movement – a network of ordinary citizens committed to fighting hate and intolerance.

The Gathering drew 120 participants, including mayors, teachers, police officers, state officials and labor organizers, as well students and "ordinary" people who believe in resisting bigotry. The group hailed from 25 communities around the country, and included representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, the American Federation of Teachers, Young People For the American Way, Southern Poverty Law Center, Study Circles Resource Center, the National League of Cities, and the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence.

"I had always wanted to come together with other communities from around the country that adopted Not In Our Town. The stories I heard, they gave me even more fuel to continue to speak out."
– Barbara Adkins
   Bloomington, Illinois

Photo credit: Jackson Hill.
Sharing Stories and Strategies
The goal of this first Not In Our Town National Gathering was to exchange strategies for fighting intolerance, develop new models for Not In Our Town initiatives, and build communication structures to broaden and strengthen the network.

The Gathering was also an opportunity to celebrate and report on ten years of Not In Our Town activity. Since the movement began in Billings, Montana and spread across the nation with the PBS documentary Not In Our Town, citizens around the country have used the Billings model to respond to hate crime in their own communities. The Gathering gave the leaders in these communities a chance to meet and learn about each other's work. It also enabled the group to address the new challenges that anti-hate organizers are facing in the coming decade – including the problems of anti-immigrant violence, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab violence, and hatred toward gays, lesbians and transgender people.

Photo credit: Jackson Hill.
For two days, the group attended workshops and presentations that highlighted the different communities' innovative approaches to fighting hate and intolerance. Sessions addressed not just how to respond to dramatic incidents of hate violence, but also worked to develop proactive strategies that communities can use to prevent violence and respond to everyday acts of racism and other forms of intolerance.

"We have to get out in front of hate crime. We just can't wait until incidents happen and then go in like the fire department. We have to be out there on a daily basis. We have to be working in communities. We have to be doing education."
– Jim Hunt
   President, The National League of Cities

On-the-ground burning issues were addressed in a Live Lab Session: Two communities struggling with white supremacist activity presented their challenges and invited roundtable discussion groups to suggest concrete solutions. A third community, Greenville, South Carolina, then presented their successful strategy, describing how they waged a three-year civic engagement campaign to get local leaders to officially recognize the Martin Luther King holiday in their county.

Film clips and personal storytelling were built into all of the sessions. Although the Gathering focused on practical strategies for fighting hate crimes and intolerance, the emotional impact of the work shared by this group was palpable.

Participants at the Gathering also made plans for the future of the Not In Our Town movement. In a survey and subsequent discussions, 70 percent of attendees expressed interest in doing coordinated national work. Most said they would like to celebrate a national Not In Our Town day in their communities, and requested more Not In Our Town documentaries to use in their work. Virtually all the participants said they would like an online community for Not In Our Town where they could network to share information and ideas. A national advisory council of community leaders from around the country was formed to advise this coordinated national work.

Celebrating How Not In Our Town Began

The Tribute to Billings Dinner at the McLean Country Courthouse and Museum. Photo credit: Jackson Hill.
A highlight of the conference was the Tribute to Billings Dinner, held at the beautiful McLean County Courthouse and Historical Museum. The evening honored the original leaders of the first Not In Our Town story, including former Billings Gazette Editor Gary Svee, Labor Organizer Randy Siemers, former Police Chief Wayne Inman and Margaret MacDonald. Former Billings Mayor Chuck Tooley interviewed key players from Billings about how they overcame violence in their town, and also spoke to the new community leaders like Eran Thompson of Montana People's Action.

"I join with all of you in honoring the people of this great city and all Montanans who celebrate our diversity," wrote Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in a message to the group. "Let us continue to encourage others across the nation to fight discrimination and promote tolerance. I trust you will work hard to develop the organizations and tools that spread the values declared by the people of Billings when they said: 'Not In Our Town.'"

Remembering A Young Leader
The Gathering included a group of 16 young anti-hate activists who formed the Liz Halbert Edwards Youth Contingent. This group was dedicated to the memory Liz Halbert Edwards.

Liz Halbert Edwards with her parents, Willie and Charles, at the first Bloomington Not In Our Town rally in 1995.
Liz became involved in Not In Our Town activities in 1995, when she was a high school student in her hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. She and her parents, Charles and Willie Halbert, helped organize some of the first Not In Our Town events in Bloomington. In 1996, signs at every entrance to the town went up saying "No Racism – Not In Our Town."

Liz didn't stop her anti-hate work when she left high school. When she entered Eastern Illinois University, she started experiencing racism in a way she had never felt in Bloomington. This vibrant African American freshman lit a fire on her campus, and got hundreds of students and community members to a forum to discuss the effects of racism in the town. Liz ran for the Miss Illinois contest, using Not In Our Town as her theme, and carried the work with her when she went on to Loyola Law School. She married, got a job with the Illinois State Attorney's office, and had a baby boy named Charles. She believed strongly that we should bring people together for a National Gathering. In December of 2005, Liz died of complications from a childhood illness, at the age of 28.

In an emotionally stirring session, Liz's parents, Willie and Charles Halbert, shared videos and stories about her life.

Charles and Willie Halbert remember their daughter her daughter, Liz Halbert Edwards. Photo credit: Jackson Hill.
"Our daughter was special to us, but I believe she is no different from any youth that's sitting in this room here," Willie Halbert said. "And to the youth, what I say to you is do everything that you do with that passion, do it with everything that's within your power to make a difference."

The youth delegates took Willie Halbert's challenge seriously, and lead a session about issues of bullying, stereotyping and intolerance in schools, as well as measures that students, teachers and staff can take to make schools safer and more welcoming. Many members of the group plan to initiate and advise Not In Our School efforts and other youth-oriented actions.

Members of the Liz Halbert Edwards Youth Contingent. Photo credit: Jackson Hill.
"I just felt like if Liz can do that, I can't wait to go back to my community and share some of that power and strength", said Katy, one of three youth delegates from Montana. "I think we can create a Not In Our Town group in our school. All these tools we've used, it be fabulous to have something like this in our community. We need it."

"It's not an overstatement to classify it as life-altering. The stories and observations that were shared from around the country were transformed from events specific to particular communities into universal lessons that instructed all of us. Until hate-based violence stops, we all wear the yoke of oppression – whether we're victims, perpetrators or bystanders. Until hate-based violence stops, nobody in America is truly free."
– Jim Hennigan
   Greenville, South Carolina

>> Download the PDF Brochure about the Gathering

>> Download the PDF of the Gathering's Program Book

This gathering was made possible by:
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
State Farm Insurance
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Public Welfare Foundation
Laborers' International Union of North America
Center for Social Media at American University

Additional support from Susan Sandler and Steve Phillips, The Montana Community Foundation, Elliott J. Schaffer Family Endowment Fund, and The Montana Fund for Tolerance.

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