None of them was born yet when it happened, but a group of West High students will play an important role in the celebration of a historic stand against hate crimes in Billings 20 years ago.
The students in Bruce Wendt’s combined English and American history class will create videos and other displays as part of the Community Storytelling Partnership. The project will tell stories about Not In Our Town — Billings’ successful efforts to stand up to hate crimes and white supremacist activities. The students will also explore modern-day parallels from the view of today’s youth.
Their work will be featured in a centerpiece exhibit at the Western Heritage Center, including during the Not In Our Town National Leadership Gathering, which is expected to bring more than 300 people to Billings on June 20-22.
The project is a collaboration among the heritage center, Billings Public Schools, Montana PBS and the Billings Public Library.
“The important thing is that you do something,” Julie Dial, the heritage center’s executive director, told the class. “Even if it’s not perfect, you can adjust. What we’re going to do, as a group, is look at the past, present and future of hate speech. This is going to be much bigger than any of us in the room.”
In late 1993 and 1994, a wave of hate crimes and white supremacist activities spurred the Billings community to stand up against intolerance. The citywide movement drew involvement from people across the community, law enforcement and the local government. One of the incidents involved a cinder block being thrown through a young boy’s bedroom window, which had a menorah in it. That gained national attention that included marches. As many as 10,000 Billings residents put paper menorahs in their windows as a show of support.
The incidents and Billings’ response spurred the Not In
Our Town movement, which is now a California-based national nonprofit that focuses on combating hate and intolerance at a grass-roots level.
Helping educate people
The students began meeting twice a week in late January to learn about the assignment and the Not In Our Town events from those who experienced them. They also got a crash course in journalism practices to apply to their projects.
“Twenty years ago might be ancient history for these folks,” Wendt said, pointing to his class. “Your task is to pick their brains about issues and people you want to talk to. Are there other issues that are influencing how you perceive each other? This is going to be your springboard.”
Many of the students had only vague knowledge of the Not In Our Town events.
“You said that this is something that went national, that it turned into a big deal,” 17-year-old Brendon Blain asked at an early meeting at the Western Heritage Center. “Why is this the first time a lot of us are hearing about this?”
Those are exactly the kinds of questions organizers want the students to ask.
“That’s a good question,” Dial responded. “And that’s something we want you to explore. Why is this important? It’s about how this stuff translates to you.”
With the help of media professionals from print, television and radio, the 30 or so students zeroed in on more than a dozen projects and topics, including thoughts from the Jewish community, modern hate speech and how the media has covered such events then and now.
Madeline Quarles, 16, grew up with the Schnitzer family, whose window was broken by the thrown brick.
She also grew up hearing about Not In Our Town and has volunteered to work with the Schnitzers for the project. She said she’s happy the issue is being addressed in school because she still hears words like “Jew” used in a derogatory way.
“I hope that this will help educate people more,” she said. “I think it’s good that these things are being discussed.”
Most or all of the student productions will be researched, filmed and presented as broadcast journalism pieces. That means their crash course included lessons on ethics, finding a good story, identifying sources, interviewing and proper filming technique.
Chris Seifert, Montana PBS’ director of education services, led many of those lessons. At each one, the students got a little more involved, a little bit looser and a little more comfortable with the nature of the assignment.
“This was about race,” she said of the Not In Our Town events. “But there’s a lot of things this could be about now. What is the big issue or issues that’s dividing people?”
By the time she and Montana PBS producer Ben Skularek held a camera operation course at the library, the students eagerly went through the motions.
They huddled up together behind a camera to watch Seifert interview one of their classmates before rotating from operating a camera to interviewing subjects to being interviewed to get a feel for the interview process.
“They will treat you like professionals,” Seifert said of people the students will interview. “The key is you guys have to treat yourselves like professionals.”
All sides of the story
Once the students finish their training at the end of February, they’ll have more than two months to complete their projects. On May 16, the Western Heritage Center will hold a reception for the students, their families and others where the finished projects will be unveiled.
Each one will use face-to-face interviews to share the stories and issues as chosen by the students.
Blain decided early on that he wanted to look at the story from a different angle, focusing on the hate groups and their motivations. He’s hoping to interview past or current members, but also will rely on information and interviews from other students’ projects.
“It’s going to take a lot of collaboration,” he said. “Cross-communication is going to be very important.”
Some students volunteered for research roles, while others will focus more on learning to operate the cameras. From there they formed small teams to work on the project.
Blain said that, while the overall effort is interesting, he isn’t sure what kind of impact it’ll have but is optimistic that the end product will bring something new to the table.
“I’d never heard of it before this,” he said. “Hopefully, like it’s doing for me, we’ll educate students or other people about these things.”