Twenty years after the first Not In Our Town National Gathering took place in Bloomington to fight hate and intolerance, members say there is is an even greater need today for the organization's grass roots, community-building efforts.
NIOT member Mike Matejka said the recent presidential race and the rash of police killings of African Americans have created tensions within many communities.
Matejka said when Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump came to Bloomington last March, Not In Our Town held a silent vigil trying to maintain a civil attitude towards each other.
"People can disagree on many different things. But I think one of the gifts of this community, maybe its our Midwestern values, is mutual respect," said Matejka. "How can we enhance and build a climate where I want to listen to you and understand or go a little deeper?"
Matejka said people can sometimes make remarks or have viewpoints without ever realizing there is another human being that could be hurt in the process.
The goal of the first Not In Our Town Gathering was to exchange strategies for fighting intolerance, develop new models for Not In Our Town initiatives, and build communication structures to broaden and strengthen the network.
The Gathering was also an opportunity to celebrate and report on ten years of Not In Our Town activity. Since the movement began in Billings, Montana and spread across the nation with the PBS documentary, citizens around the country have used the Billings model to respond to hate crime in their own communities. The Gathering gave the leaders in these communities a chance to meet and learn about each other's work. It also enabled the group to address the new challenges that anti-hate organizers are facing right now - including the problems of anti-immigrant violence, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab violence, and hatred towards the LGBTQ community.
McLean County Museum of History's Director of Marketing and Community Relations Jeff Woodard said celebrating 20 years is historic for the organization because of everything they have been able to accomplish.
"We're living in a time right now where everybody is just loud. They are trying to talk over each other and get their point across," said Woodard. "These individuals and volunteers that work with them have been working quietly for the last 20 years to make Bloomington a better place to live."
Willie and Charles Halbert were two of the original members that helped organize some of the NIOT events in the Twin Cities. Willie said it is important to get youth involved in the organization in order to spread the message for years to come. Halbert said NIOT has had several panels where students from local schools would come talk and share their personal experiences. She said students went back to their high schools and learned from their classmates.
"When they came back and we debriefed they said: 'Wow, we are guilty of some of the very same things and discriminatory practices that we didn't even think about words or things that we said.' It changed their lives to really be more sensitive and be more understanding of each other," said Halbert.
Halbert said Not In Our Town wants the whole community to come to the 20th anniversary event to embrace a safe and inclusive community for all.
The celebration on June 28 will have performances by youth groups, sharing by NIOT founders, a short commemorative march and booths from local organizations. The event will be held in the 200 block of North Main Street in Downtown Bloomington.