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Billings West High students Emily Haskell and Cora Hentschel work on a display photograph showing classmates with signs for an exhibit at the Western Heritage Center.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

The culmination of months of hard work and research came to a head Tuesday for a group of Billings West High students as they began setting up a museum exhibit they created on hate speech and hate crimes in Billings.

About 20 students from Bruce Wendt’s combined American history-English class spent the afternoon at the Western Heritage Center, setting up their exhibit in half of the building’s basement. The exhibit uses a series of hate-related incidents in the early 1990s — including white supremacist activities, the throwing of a brick through a young Jewish boy’s window and Billings’ ensuing stand against hate crimes — that sparked the Not In Our Town movement as a jumping-off point to examine hate crimes in the area.

“When it first started, it was hard to envision,” said Tim Dutton, a junior in the class. “But we’ve put in a lot of work and it’s all coming together really nicely.”

The multimedia project, called Community Storytelling Partnership, is a collaboration between School District 2, the Western Heritage Center, Montana PBS and the Billings Public Library.

It features filmed interviews with about a dozen people who were either involved in the movement that sparked NIOT or were around when it happened or deal with similar modern-day hate issues. The exhibit also has displays, photographs and historical documents that challenge viewers to think about hate in their own lives.

That includes old flyers and posters from hate groups, as well as news clippings spanning decades in Billings.

Students said that when they first started, they weren’t too sure what to do with the project — the guidelines were intentionally vague to let the students explore the assignment — but soon began to refine and shape it.

“The cool thing about this is they’re solving the problems on their own,” said Julie Dial, who helped the class throughout the project and is the Western Heritage Center’s executive director.

While the museum’s basement walls were bare on Tuesday, the students quickly went about changing that, prepping it for mirrors, lights, photos and other parts of the exhibit, including a pair of videos of the interviews.

They spent the day building and painting exhibits, but also had the chance to reflect on what they’d done so far.

“We found some pretty interesting things,” said junior Kody Mayer, whose main task in the project was research.

“I had no idea what it was like in Billings back then,” said Mayer regarding the hate crimes from Billings’ past. “I know we see it today in our lives too, but they aren’t like that. They’re different.”

Dial said the class will continue to put the exhibit together before holding a small gathering and unveiling for the students, their families and others involved in the project at the end of the month.

It will then be publicly unveiled on June 20 and featured prominently for the Not In Our Town national conference, which celebrates 20 years since the Billings events.

Sarah Unsworth, a junior, said she’s enjoyed watching the class come together over the project — whether through discussion, learning or creating the multimedia presentation — and is proud of the end result, whatever that may be.

“I’m still not exactly sure how it’s all going to turn out, but however it’s going to turn out is going to be awesome,” she said.