A national conference slated for next weekend is putting the focus back on what happened in Billings 20 years ago.
The Not in Our Town national leadership gathering, titled “Shine a Light Together,” will bring people from around the country to Billings for three days of talks, meetings and events, beginning on Friday. An evening of films, with a panel discussion, on Saturday will be open to the public.
In 1993, hate turned to love as people united against those who lashed out at minorities in Billings. The final straw was a paving stone tossed through a young Jewish boy’s window that had been decorated for Hanukkah.
The symbol of a menorah represented the response to a number of incidents that happened in 1993. The city’s response to the escalating situation was a spark that inspired other cities to stand up in similar ways, said Chuck Tooley, former Billings mayor who was part of the original response to all that happened two decades ago.
“I think a lot of that came as a result of the way we responded to protect our neighbors who were different from us,” said Tooley, who is one of the organizers of the national conference. “I think it’s important we keep that same spirit.”
A documentary about Billings’ response led to the formation of the national organization of Not in Our Town (NIOT) that put the spotlight on similar responses elsewhere. In Leith, N.D., residents banded together to stop a racist takeover.
In Bowling Green, Ohio, campus and community members united in response to racist incidents. In Oak Creek, Wis., after deadly hate shootings at a Sikh temple, the community surrounded their neighbors with support.
The national conference will launch an initiative called NIOT Gold Star Cities, which will recognize communities whose residents collaborate for a safe, inclusive future. The program certifies towns that take steps to prevent hate, intolerance and bullying and to promote diverse participation in civic life.
The conference also will honor the stand that Billings’ residents took throughout 1993 when white supremacist organizations targeted minorities.
The conference, set for the Northern Hotel, begins on Friday with Ron Davis, director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
A reception Friday evening at the Western Heritage Center will include the opening of a special 20-year anniversary exhibit done by West High students.
Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to attend the reception. Award-winning filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, executive director of Not in Our Town, will also take part in the weekend.
Saturday will feature keynotes, breakout groups and panel discussions. That night, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Babcock Theatre, the public is invited to a free screening of the original “Not in Our Town” documentary and to the not-yet-released 2014 film by the national organization called “Marshalltown.”
Also that evening, some key community leaders who helped organize the 1993 efforts will be part of a panel discussion. The panel will include former Billings Police Chief Wayne Inman, state Rep. Margie MacDonald, Uri Barnea, Dr. Brian Schnitzer and others, with Tooley moderating.
Sunday wraps up with a half day of presentations from communities that have faced hate, a solution-sharing forum, and a workshop for local leaders in schools, law enforcement, business, the arts and faith groups.
To encourage local residents to attend, people from the Billings area may attend at a discount, Tooley said.
Organizers also are offering four scholarships for teachers and students for a pre-conference event Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rocky Mountain College.
Tooley, who did a TED Talk earlier this year, spoke about the courage that the people of Billings showed in 1993, when they stood up to hate. He thinks that community response helped the people of Billings solidify into a potent force and gain a vision for the city.
“We worked together, and I think a big driver of all that was the spirit of the people, how we felt about ourselves,” he said. “If we could fight that amorphous evil and prevail against it, we could accomplish many other things, too.”
It all came down to coming together, he said.
“We learned that we could do a lot together as a community if we worked together,” he said.