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As the Not in Our Town gathering wrapped up in the ballroom at the Northern Hotel in Billings on Sunday, members of the youth contingent, Not in Our School, presented posters recapping what they had learned Saturday during their working groups.

“Our school has a lot of issues,” said Joseph Sears, a recent graduate and member of the Oak Ridge High School group, from Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Sears, and the other two founding members of their chapter of Not in Our School, Zachary Davis and Toni Sheetz, who will be seniors this fall, said they boiled down what they see in the halls of their school to three main subjects — racism, peer pressure and religion.

They observed racism between students being perpetuated through name-calling based on ethnicity. Students who act differently around others as they struggle for acceptance bow to that pressure, perpetuating negative stereotypes.

“The solution is don’t be a follower, be a leader,” Sears said.

Problems surrounding religion, they say, stem from a general nonacceptance of some sexual orientations among the religious student population. That leads to ostracism. “The problem,” he said, is “using the religion that is supposed to be loving and accepting, is putting people down.”

The Tennessee group is still in its infancy and was launched right before summer break this year, Davis said. “It’s us three and someone else who joined and our guidance counselor.”

But after learning more during their training this weekend, they believe they have the tools they need to get out there and get more people to join the club.

“We’re getting there,” Sheetz said. “We’re going to target incoming freshmen.”

They believe that by getting a strong base of young students, they can make a difference at their school.

“If you get them when they’re young, they can influence people,” Sears added.

The youthful faces at the conference were a positive sign for Eran Thompson, chairman of the Billings NIOT chapter.

“It’s an amazing group,” he said. “They know so much more than I knew when I was their age.”

A total of 216 people attended the conference from 46 different communities, and the takeaway has been very positive for Thompson, who has been working to get the conference together for the last five years.

“The amount of passion and love in this room has been great,” he said.

He hopes that the conference energizes attendees and gets them motivated to tackle new issues in their communities. In Billings, the group is focused on getting influential officials on board with their movement, he said. “For us it’s necessary to redouble our efforts to get our leaders involved.”

Watching people come together and learn new strategies to combat bigotry and hatred in their communities got the attention of Theresa Sparks, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” Sparks said as attendees danced to a song during a scheduled break. “Everyone here was strangers 72 hours ago.”

After facilitating a discussion with attendees about what they learned, she was hopeful that the conference would continue pushing the NIOT agenda forward.

Keeping the conversation of how to fight bullying and prejudice in big and small communities is very important, she said. “I think this conference can be the kickoff for future action.”

Sparks, a transgender female whose activism was sparked after experiencing discrimination, said she did not experience any ill will in the Magic City.

“Anytime any of us have gone out in Billings, we’ve been welcomed,” she said. “I think Billings can be proud that they’re leading the nation.”



Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.