Guest opinion: Billings' stand against hate still inspires communities after 20 years

2014-06-18T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Billings' stand against hate still inspires communities after 20 yearsBy PATRICE O’NEILL The Billings Gazette
June 18, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Why are we coming to Billings? Because the story of your town is helping to change the world!

A shining light will be reflected on Billings this week when hundreds of influential leaders from around the country convene to share strategies for building safe, inclusive communities for everyone. The Not In Our Town movement was prompted by the heroic actions of people in Billings 20 years ago. The change you made in your town has had reverberations across the country and around the world.

The Not In Our Town PBS film about the people of Billings standing with their neighbors against intolerance was broadcast on PBS in 1995. It was the year of the Oklahoma City Bombing, and people across our country experienced an urgent reminder of what hate looked like in its most horrific form.

Hundreds of communities across the country held town halls, faith based, school and workplace screenings of the Not In Our Town film, followed by discussions of how to stop hate in their own cities.

More remarkably, many of these screenings sparked ongoing groups that took on the Not In Our Town name, and turned the actions of people in Billings into a model for fighting intolerance, engaging community and teaching their children how to stand up to bigotry and bullying.

Many of these leaders will be traveling to Billings for the Not In Our Town National Gathering to see the town that helped inspire them to create change.

Here are a few examples of how the film has been used in moments of crisis. These events remind us of what’s at stake, and of how your stand gave others the inspiration and courage to move forward.

 When the KKK announced a march on Pittsburgh in 1997 local community organizers, joined by the local newspaper rented the local theater downtown and held a march from a local park to the theater to screen the Not In Our Town film and affirm their stand against hate.

 When Matthew Shepard lay dying in the hospital in 1998, an LGBT student group at University of Wyoming in Laramie organized a screening of Not In Our Town.

 In 1999, three synagogues were torched in one night in Sacramento, Calif., city and community leaders, and the Sacramento Bee newspaper distributed a full page Chai symbol, the Hebrew symbol representing the word “life”, and they were displayed in windows across the city. Ten thousand people then gathered at the civic center for a unity event to support the Jewish community. Sacramento City Council member Jimmy Yee said the actions were inspired by the “Billings playbook.”

 The film and story of Billings has spread to communities around the world. Despondent over the violence that erupted on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa where immigrants were being brutally attacked, a group of teachers working with Facing History and Ourselves in the region sponsored a screening of Not In Our Town to help pull people together. Not In Our Town screenings became part of the curriculum for Cape Town High School students.

 In 2007, Project Kesher a group of Jewish women in Russia and Ukraine, committed to building civil society launched a Not In our Town effort in their communities. Thirteen towns across the region held events. The Crimean city of Simferopol spent years building an active anti-hate response network between the Jewish, Muslim, Christian community and civic leaders.

 This Spring, a NIOT leader from Charleston, W.V., traveled to Banska Brastrica in Slovakia to launch a Not In Our Town campaign in the region. Local residents requested his support, and the use of the Not In Our Town film to respond to the recent election of an avowed neo-Nazi as the regional governor.

As these stories show, your town’s stand against hate has spread in ways that we may never be able to document or measure, but your story has had a powerful positive influence in times of great division.

There is a cycle to stereotypes, intolerance and bigotry that can lead to hate and violence. We learned from your actions in Billings many years ago that no matter who the target is, when people stand together, the swirling path to hate can be stopped in its tracks. Thank you for standing firm, and thank you for your leadership to our country, to our world. We will be proud to join you and learn what you will do next.

Patrice O’Neill is a filmmaker and CEO of the Oakland-based nonprofit strategic media company The Working Group and leader of Not In Our Town. Her film “Not In Our Town,” began as a half-hour PBS special and turned into a dynamic movement that thrives in communities around the world.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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